As the Obama administration prepares its strategy to rescue the nation’s banks by buying or guaranteeing troubled assets on their books, it confronts one central problem: How should they be valued?
Not just billions, but hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.
The Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, is expected to announce details of the new plan within weeks. Administration and Congressional officials say it will give the government flexibility to buy some bad assets and guarantee others in an effort to have a broad impact but still tailor the aid for different institutions.
But getting this right will not be easy. The wild variations on the value of many bad bank assets can be seen by looking at one mortgage-backed bond recently analyzed by a division of Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency.
The financial institution that owns the bond calculates the value at 97 cents on the dollar, or a mere 3 percent loss. But S.& P. estimates it is worth 87 cents, based on the current loan-default rate, and could be worth 53 cents under a bleaker situation that contemplates a doubling of defaults. But even that might be optimistic, because the bond traded recently for just 38 cents on the dollar, reflecting the even gloomier outlook of investors.
The bond analyzed by S.& P. is just one of thousands that the government might buy or guarantee should it go forward with setting up a “bad bank” that would acquire $1 trillion or more of toxic assets from banks.
The idea is that, free from the burden of carrying these bad assets, banks would start lending again and bolster the faltering economy. The bad bank set up by the government would, over time, sell the assets and recover some or most of what it had paid.
While the government is considering several approaches to helping the banks, including more capital injections, buying or insuring toxic assets is likely to be a centerpiece. Determining the right price for these assets is crucial to success. Placing too low a value would force institutions selling and others holding similar investments to register crushing losses that could deplete their capital and make it harder for them to increase lending.
But inflated values would bail out the companies, their shareholders and executives at the expense of taxpayers, who would swallow the losses if the government could not recoup what it had paid.
Some critics of the plan warn that the government should not buy the assets, because banks will try to get too high a price and leave taxpayers holding the bag.
“To date, the banks have stuck their heads in the sand,” said Lynn E. Turner, a former chief accountant for the Securities and Exchange Commission, “and demanded that they be paid the price of good apples for bad apples.”
But many believe that, given the depth of the problem and the fact that it keeps getting worse, the government has little choice.
Finance experts from Wall Street and academia are advising the administration on other options. To sidestep the thorny valuation problem, some have suggested that the bad bank acquire only assets that have already been marked down significantly and guarantee other assets, but officials would have just as difficult a task in determining how much to charge for insuring risky assets.
Economists predict that the cost of the program will most likely exceed the $350 billion remaining in the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program that Congress approved in October.
They say the Obama administration may need upwards of $1 trillion in additional aid for banks — on top of the more than $800 billion the administration is seeking in an economic stimulus measure moving through Congress.
Many in Washington question whether the rescue has achieved its goal of stabilizing the financial markets. A report by the General Accountability Office on Friday concluded that whether the bailout program had been effective might never be known.
“While the package helped avoid a financial collapse, many are frustrated by the results — and rightfully so,” President Obama said in his weekly address on Saturday. “Too often taxpayer dollars have been spent without transparency or accountability. Banks have been extended a hand, but homeowners, students, and small businesses that need loans have been left to fend on their own.”
Mr. Obama and many lawmakers have expressed anger that banks that received the first batch of aid money do not appear to have increased their lending significantly, even as some firms have spent billions on bonuses, corporate jets and other perks. In two weeks the House will hold a hearing to ask chief executives of the eight largest banks about their spending controls.