Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has a problem. On the one hand, he has to act to save the banks if he's going to start credit flowing and get the U.S. economy back on track. On the other hand, doing so makes him and his bosses look bad. Americans are against bailing out the banks by more than 2 to 1 in some polls. Worse, the banks themselves are deeply mistrustful of anything government might force on them. The head of Wells Fargo told Bloomberg on Monday that a key part of Geithner's plan, the so-called stress test, was "asinine." (Read "Can Your Bank Pass the Stress Test?")
So when Geithner rolls out more details of his plan later this week this time on the tricky question of getting toxic assets off the banks' books it will be a dangerous moment for him. Not only will the health of the banks and the economy depend on whether his new program is well received but Geithner's reputation will be on the line as well. Panned after he put out a vague framework on Feb. 10, the new Treasury Secretary has only so many chances to instill confidence. With the new bank plan, he's getting a second chance, but it will be a hard sell.
After the $180 billion AIG bailout initiated last summer, the $700 billion financial-system booster last fall and the $878 billion stimulus package this winter, convincing Americans that their money isn't being wasted is no easy task. Geithner has said the government may put up as much as $1 trillion in loans and guarantees to subsidize the sale of the toxic assets to private investors. Though the government could get back the money if the assets start trading again, many Americans see it going down a sinkhole. Says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman: "There's a narrative out there in the public mind that the government's bailing out banks" in other words, helping rich bankers keep their summer homes. (See pictures of expensive Modernist houses.)
If the perception is proving hard to tackle, the reality is even harder: so far few private investors have shown any interest in tapping the trillion-dollar subsidy to buy toxic assets from the banks. Hedge funds and other players all want to know the terms of the sale before they even think about stepping up to the plate. So far, Geithner and Treasury have provided little detail. "The question of how to price the asset is still on the table, unresolved," says Scott Talbott, a top lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry association.
Among other key questions: What percentage of the purchase price will the government fund? A senior Administration official said as much as 80% of the purchase price could be government money, but the number has not yet been fixed. And who gets to keep the profit, if there is any? Does Uncle Sam let the private player keep it all, or does the government get some? How and when does the private player have to repay the government loan? And what if the toxic asset stays worthless does the private buyer lose his money first, or does the government?
It's not even clear how Geithner would run such a complicated sale. Previously he talked about using an auction or a reverse auction (in which sellers bid prices lower to attract buyers). Now Administration officials say they may just expand a new program run by the Federal Reserve. That program, the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), is designed to spur consumer lending by stimulating sales of securitized consumer loans. The New York Federal Reserve has had to extend the application period because of market qualms, though Talbott says interest is building.
If Geithner provides answers to these questions in his rollout later this week, he may start to turn the corner on public skepticism toward him, the bank plan and the government's recovery efforts. He might even spark a stock-market rally. But the banking industry's hopes are more modest: "As long as he comes out with details on the public-private investment fund, then it's not a miss," says Talbott. If he doesn't, he'll have an even bigger mess on his hands. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee Senator John McCain and others have called for the government to stop messing around and just let the bad banks fail. If Geithner doesn't deliver, they'll surely deliver the same verdict on him.