Chillin' out till it needs to be funded
Isn’t the process of restructuring under way in households and at corporations?
They are cutting costs to service the debt. But they haven’t yet done much restructuring. Last year, 2008, was the year of price declines; 2009 and 2010 will be the years of bankruptcies and restructurings. Loans will be written down and assets will be sold. It will be a very difficult time. It is going to surprise a lot of people because many people figure it is bad but still expect, as in all past post-World War II periods, we will come out of it OK. A lot of difficult questions will be asked of policy makers. The government decision-making mechanism is going to be tested, because different people will have different points of view about what should be done.
What are you suggesting?
An example is the Federal Reserve, which has always been an autonomous institution with the freedom to act as it sees fit. Rep. Barney Frank [a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee] is talking about examining the authority of the Federal Reserve, and that raises the specter of the government and Congress trying to run the Federal Reserve. Everybody will be second-guessing everybody else.
So where do things stand in the process of restructuring?
What the Federal Reserve has done and what the Treasury has done, by and large, is to take an existing debt and say they will own it or lend against it. But they haven’t said they are going to write down the debt and cut debt payments each month. There has been little in the way of debt relief yet. Very, very few actual mortgages have been restructured. Very little corporate debt has been restructured.
The Federal Reserve, in particular, has done a number of successful things. The Federal Reserve went out and bought or lent against a lot of the debt. That has had the effect of reducing the risk of that debt defaulting, so that is good in a sense. And because the risk of default has gone down, it has forced the interest rate on the debt to go down, and that is good, too.
However, the reason it hasn’t actually produced increased credit activity is because the debtors are still too indebted and not able to properly service the debt. Only when those debts are actually written down will we get to the point where we will have credit growth. There is a mortgage debt piece that will need to be restructured. There is a giant financial-sector piece — banks and investment banks and whatever is left of the financial sector — that will need to be restructured. There is a corporate piece that will need to be restructured, and then there is a commercial-real-estate piece that will need to be restructured.
Is a restructuring of the banks a starting point?
If you think that restructuring the banks is going to get lending going again and you don’t restructure the other pieces — the mortgage piece, the corporate piece, the real-estate piece — you are wrong, because they need financially sound entities to lend to, and that won’t happen until there are restructurings.
On the issue of the banks, ultimately we need banks because to produce credit we have to have banks. A lot of the banks aren’t going to have money, and yet we can’t just let them go to nothing; we have got to do something.
But the future of banking is going to be very, very different. The regulators have to decide how banks will operate. That means they will have to nationalize some in some form, but they are going to also have to decide who they protect: the bondholders or the depositors?
Nationalization is the most likely outcome?
There will be substantial nationalization of banks. It is going on now and it will continue. But the same question will be asked even after nationalization: What will happen to the pile of bad stuff?
Let’s say we are going to end up with the good-bank/bad-bank concept. The government is going to put a lot of money in — say $100 billion — and going to get all the garbage at a leverage of, let’s say, 10 to 1. They will have a trillion dollars, but a trillion dollars’ worth of garbage. They still aren’t marking it down. Does this give you comfort?
Then we have the remaining banks, many of which will be broke. The government will have to recapitalize them. The government will try to seek private money to go in with them, but I don’t think they are going to come up with a lot of private money, not nearly the amount needed.
To the extent we are going to have nationalized banks, we will still have the question of how those banks behave. Does Congress say what they should do? Does Congress demand they lend to bad borrowers? There is a reason they aren’t lending. So whose money is it, and who is protecting that money?
The biggest issue is that if you look at the borrowers, you don’t want to lend to them. The basic problem is that the borrowers had too much debt when their incomes were higher and their asset values were higher. Now net worths have gone down.