Banks in Need of Even More Bailout Money

Even before word came on Tuesday that Citigroup might split into pieces to shore up its finances, an unpleasant message was moving through Congress and President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team: the banks need more taxpayer money.

In all likelihood, a lot more money.

Mr. Obama seems to know it; a week before his swearing-in, he is lobbying Congress to release the other half of the financial industry bailout fund. Democratic leaders in Congress seem to know it, too; they are urging their rank and file to act quickly to release the rescue money. And Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, certainly knows it.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bernanke publicly made the case that one of the most unpopular and most scorned programs in Washington — the $700 billion bailout program — needs to pour hundreds of billions more into the very banks and financial institutions that already received federal money and caused much of the credit crisis in the first place.

The most glaring example that the banking system needs even more help is Citigroup. Though it already has received $45 billion from the Treasury, it is in such dire straits that it is breaking itself into parts.

Like many banks, Citi is finding that its finances keep deteriorating as the economy continues to weaken.

Even some of the bailout program’s harshest critics acknowledge that things most likely would be even worse without it, and that the bailout had accomplished its most important goal, which was to prevent a complete collapse of the financial system.

Since last September, no major banks have failed and the credit markets have thawed somewhat.

But analysts said the problems are still acute, if less apparent on the surface. Banks have received $200 billion in fresh capital from the Treasury since last fall and have borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars more from the Fed. But in the meantime, the economy fell into a severe downturn last fall that is likely to continue until at least this summer.

Industry analysts estimate rising unemployment and business failures will lead to another $500 billion to $750 billion of losses in coming months. That could bring total losses from the credit crisis to $1.5 trillion to $1.8 trillion, twice as high as earlier estimates.

Citigroup is not alone. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and most other big banks all expect enormous losses as millions of consumers default on their mortgages, credit cards and automobile loans. Other losses are expected on loans made to commercial real estate developers, small businesses and for highly leveraged corporate buyout deals.

Mr. Bernanke bluntly warned on Tuesday that the government would probably have to infuse more money into financial institutions in the months ahead.

“More capital injections and guarantees may become necessary to ensure stability and the normalization of credit markets,” Mr. Bernanke said in a speech to the London School of Economics.

Mr. Bernanke, tacitly acknowledging the unpopularity of the bailout program, said the public was “understandably concerned” about pouring hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into financial companies — especially when other industries were getting the cold shoulder.

But, he insisted, there was no escape. “This disparate treatment, unappealing as it is, appears unavoidable,” Mr. Bernanke said. “Our economic system is critically dependent on the free flow of credit.”

Mr. Obama and his economic team have assured Congress that they would use a sizable chunk of the new money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help distressed homeowners refinance mortgages and escape foreclosure. That would be a big shift from the Bush administration, which refused to use TARP for reducing foreclosures.

Lawrence H. Summers, Mr. Obama’s choice to head the White House National Economic Council, assured Democratic lawmakers in writing on Monday that the administration would use some of the money to help reduce foreclosures.

But Mr. Bernanke appears to be warning Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats that most of the remaining $350 billion — and possibly more — has to go to shoring up banks if they are to resume lending at normal levels.

During the first three quarters of 2008, banks were able to raise enough capital to offset more than their hundreds of billions in losses by tapping the giant government bailout fund as well as some early private investors.

But that was only a stopgap.

“The capital raises finally caught up with the losses,” said Michael Zeltkevic, a partner at Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm specializing in the finance industry. “It doesn’t make the situation better, but at least we caught up.”

The new tidal wave of losses stems from the worsening economy and rising unemployment, and analysts say it will take several quarters before it peaks.

Regulators require banks to keep a healthy cushion of capital. But this time around, the banks are struggling to plug their deepening holes. Private investors are scarce. For all but a small group of healthy banks, bankers and analysts say, the government may be the only investor left.

“Most banks are going to be in a defensive posture,” said Christopher Whalen, a managing partner with Institutional Risk Analytics. “You are probably not going to see the industry expand its overall balance sheet until 2010 or 2011.”

Mr. Obama’s economic team is planning a broad overhaul of the program to impose more accountability and more restrictions on executives at companies that receive government money.

Policy makers are also looking at reviving the original idea of TARP — have Treasury buy up unsalable mortgage-backed securities from financial entities.

Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, had dropped the idea, concluding it would be more efficient to inject capital directly into banks by buying preferred shares.

Mr. Bernanke revived the idea, along with several other approaches, in his speech in London. So did Donald L. Kohn, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, in a hearing on Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee. He suggested the Treasury could buy the unwanted securities directly, or set up special banks to buy them.

Some analysts, even those who agree that the government needs to prop up the banking system with more taxpayer money, were skeptical about TARP.

Adam S. Posen, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that the Bush administration had been right to inject capital into banks but wrong in not pushing banks hard enough to fix their problems or accounting.

“The problem isn’t that we’ve wasted money,” Mr. Posen said. “The problem is that we’ve put too few conditions on the banks.”

[Source: By Edmund L. Andrews and Eric Dash, New York Times, Washington, 13Jan09]

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