Monday, January 19, 2009

UK Government Adopts Nationalization of Troubled Banks

Bloomberg reports that Gordon Brown has been listening to economists:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government tightened its grip on Britain’s financial system, guaranteeing toxic assets and giving the Bank of England unprecedented power to buy securities. The plan will increase the cost of bailing out the nation’s banks by at least 100 billion pounds ($147 billion), the Treasury said in a statement today. The government raised its stake in Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc to 70 percent and said it would use Northern Rock Plc to spur mortgage lending. “This is aiming to once and for all underpin faith in the banking system,” said Alan Clarke, an economist at BNP Paribas SA in London. “We’re breaking all conventions. The availability of credit is going down and the economic outlook is getting worse, so the government is having to throw more and more at it.” The new measures are the biggest steps by Brown to get banks lending again as Britain slides deeper into a recession that may be the worst since the aftermath of World War II. The government will require aid recipients to sign “specific and quantified” agreements to lend, reflecting Brown’s frustration at the failure of an October rescue to unlock credit markets.

Felix Salmon looks at the troubles at Bank of America and Citigroup and recommends we adopt nationalization:

Citi and BofA aren't suffering from liquidity problems. They have all the liquidity they need, thanks to the Fed. The problem is one of solvency: the equity markets simply don't believe that the banks' assets are worth more than their liabilities. I can't see a solution to this problem short of nationalizing both Citi and BofA, and summarily firing the hapless Vikram Pandit along with the overambitious Ken Lewis.

But it seems that we Americans are heading down a different route, which Paul Krugman doesn’t like:

On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion. So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope that shareholders will be rescued by a government bailout ... Well, the government could simply give Gotham a couple of hundred billion dollars, enough to make it solvent again. But this would, of course, be a huge gift to Gotham’s current shareholders — and it would also encourage excessive risk-taking in the future. Still, the possibility of such a gift is what’s now supporting Gotham’s stock price. A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s: it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders. Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners. The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches. Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach: moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Paul notes the American fear of the word nationalization and our willingness to give the troubled banks a gift by buying toxic assets at a “fair” price that exceeds the market value. In my view, this American way is just sheer insanity. We should watch and learn from the actions of the UK government.

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