Recently scientists observed the collapse of a star 50 times bigger than our own sun. After exploding into a massive supernova, the star collapsed upon itself and became a black hole whose intense gravity inexorably draws in anything that comes close – even light itself. This is also an apt description of the U.S. banking system. Having already consumed trillions of dollars, the banks – and their satellite entities such as hedge funds – are set to receive billions more under the Treasury’s new Public-Private Investment Partnership, or PPIP.
The PPIP is an elaborate contraption that defies both natural law and common sense. My cynical side makes me suspect that the complexity is no accident. It certainly has the fortuitous side effect of making the PPIP incomprehensible to the average citizen whose money is at stake. Moreover, it was cleverly designed to avoid any need to seek the approval of Congress by using the FDIC has a source of lending capital. A good thing, too, since the people who have to answer to voters are in no mood to give Wall Street another penny.
Like all the previous plans, I believe PPIP will not work, though for a different reason. The core problem is that bank balance sheets are accounting black holes. Until investors know what is there and get some assurance it is all being carried at reasonable prices, the banks cannot be trusted. PPIP allows the banks to decide for themselves which assets they will offer for sale. The worst of the toxic assets will probably stay with the banks, like an inoperable cancer that eventually consumes its host.
There are other reasons to dislike PPIP, too, not least that it will further enrich many of the same people whose hubris and greed created the current crisis. Most importantly, it is totally unnecessary. Here’s what should happen: the FDIC should seize the banks, fire management, mark all the mystery assets down to near-zero prices, wipe out the shareholders and bondholders, and then re-open with fresh capital.
This has not been done because it would be catastrophic for numerous politically powerful groups. It would not be pleasant for anyone; bank bondholders include plenty of insurance companies and pension funds. Yet it is better than any of the alternatives. In fact, I feel sure that something like this is ultimately what will happen anyway. We should stop wasting time and be done with it.