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01 October 2008

George Soros has more to say about the financial crisis and the bailout plan

Look, I got no idea what the hell is going on with the financial crisis and the bailout plan. All I know is I'm investing heavily in the only commodity which is guaranteed to increase in value no matter what happens: halvah. We got a half-ton of the stuff in the basement, we're sitting pretty.

Meanwhile, another e-mail from my buddy the gazillionaire George Soros. (He also speaks fluent Esperanto.) It is slightly possible he has some insight into this slightly confusing mess. This column first appeared in today's online edition of The Financial Times. Read it, memorize a few phrases and ideas, and the people you talk to for the next few days will think you're smarter than Sarah Palin.

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Recapitalise the banking system

by George Soros

The emergency legislation currently before Congress was ill-conceived - or more accurately, not conceived at all. As Congress tried to improve what Treasury originally requested, an amalgam plan has emerged that consists of Treasury's original Troubled Asset Relief Programme (Tarp) and a quite different capital infusion programme in which the government invests and stabilises weakened banks and profits from the economy's eventual improvement. The capital infusion approach will cost tax payers less in future years, and may even make money for them.

Two weeks ago the Treasury did not have a plan ready - that is why it had to ask for total discretion in spending the money. But the general idea was to bring relief to the banking system by relieving banks of their toxic securities and parking them in a government-owned fund so that they would not be dumped on the market at distressed prices. With the value of their investments stabilised, banks would then be able to raise equity capital.

The idea was fraught with difficulties. The toxic securities in question are not homogenous and in any auction process the sellers are liable to dump the dregs on to the government fund. Moreover, the scheme addresses only one half of the underlying problem - the lack of credit availability. It does very little to enable house owners to meet their mortgage obligations and it does not address the foreclosure problem. With house prices not yet at the bottom, if the government bids up the price of mortgage backed securities, the taxpayers are liable to loose; but if the government does not pay up, the banking system does not experience much relief and cannot attract equity capital from the private sector.

A scheme so heavily favouring Wall Street over Main Street was politically unacceptable. It was tweaked by the Democrats, who hold the upper hand, so that it penalises the financial institutions that seek to take advantage of it. The Republicans did not want to be left behind and imposed a requirement that the tendered securities should be insured against loss at the expense of the tendering institution. The rescue package as it is now constituted is an amalgam of multiple approaches. There is now a real danger that the asset purchase programme will not be fully utilised because of the onerous conditions attached to it.

Nevertheless, a rescue package was desperately needed and, in spite of its shortcomings, it would change the course of events. As late as last Monday, September 22, Treasury secretary Hank Paulson hoped to avoid using taxpayers' money; that is why he allowed Lehman Brothers to fail. Tarp establishes the principle that public funds are needed and if the present programme does not work, other programmes will be instituted. We will have crossed the Rubicon.

Since Tarp was ill-conceived, it is liable to arouse a negative response from America's creditors. They would see it as an attempt to inflate away the debt. The dollar is liable to come under renewed pressure and the government will have to pay more for its debt, especially at the long end. These adverse consequences could be mitigated by using taxpayers' funds more effectively.

Instead of just purchasing troubled assets the bulk of the funds ought to be used to recapitalise the banking system. Funds injected at the equity level are more high-powered than funds used at the balance sheet level by a minimal factor of twelve - effectively giving the government $8,400bn to re-ignite the flow of credit. In practice, the effect would be even greater because the injection of government funds would also attract private capital. The result would be more economic recovery and the chance for taxpayers to profit from the recovery.

This is how it would work. The Treasury secretary would rely on bank examiners rather than delegate implementation of Tarp to Wall Street firms. The bank examiners would establish how much additional equity capital each bank needs in order to be properly capitalised according to existing capital requirements. If managements could not raise equity from the private sector they could turn to Tarp.
Tarp would invest in preference shares with warrants attached. The preference shares would carry a low coupon (say 5 per cent) so that banks would find it profitable to continue lending, but shareholders would pay a heavy price because they would be diluted by the warrants; they would be given the right, however, to subscribe on Tarp's terms. The rights would be tradeable and the secretary of the Treasury would be instructed to set the terms so that the rights would have a positive value.

Private investors, including me, are likely to jump at the opportunity. The recapitalised banks would be allowed to increase their leverage, so they would resume lending. Limits on bank leverage could be imposed later, after the economy has recovered. If the funds were used in this way, the recapitalisation of the banking system could be achieved with less than $500bn of public funds.

A revised emergency legislation could also provide more help to homeowners. It could require the Treasury to provide cheap financing for mortgage securities whose terms have been renegotiated, based on the Treasury's cost of borrowing. Mortgage service companies could be prohibited from charging fees on foreclosures, but they could expect the owners of the securities to provide incentives for renegotiation as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are already doing.

Banks deemed to be insolvent would not be eligible for recapitalization by the capital infusion programme, but would be taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC would be recapitalised by $200bn as a temporary measure. FDIC, in turn could remove the $100,000 limit on insured deposits. A revision of the emergency legislation along these lines would be more equitable, have a better chance of success, and cost taxpayers less in the long run.

The writer is chairman of Soros Fund Management


mankso said...

>George Soros. (He also speaks fluent Esperanto.)

So do I, and also the thousands of people who go to the annual World Esperanto Congresses:
So what is so remarkable about that?! It's more remarkable that so few N. Americans seem to know anything about Esperanto and 'universal bilingualism' [YOUR ethnic language + non-ethnic Esperanto for all].

And by the way - if you keep all that halvah in your basement too long, the sesame seed oil will go rancid on you.

Vleeptron Dude said...

Soros grew up first in Nazi-occupied Hungary, he survived the Nazis, then the Communists took over.

His dad was fluent, a teacher of Esperanto, and the family all spoke Esperanto.

The Communist government gave Soros permission to attend an Esperanto Youth World Congress in London. Soros never went back to Hungary.

He had about 2 pounds in his pocket. I guess 20 years later he was a billionaire, trading in international currencies. Now he's one of the top 5 richest humans on the planet.

I'm fond of Esperanto, but the lingo I'm wild about is LinCos, Lingua Cosmica. That's what all the finer Sentients in the Milky Way speak.

How many fluent speakers show up at Vancouver Esperanto meetings?

Vleeptron Dude said...

The halvah will really go bad?

Damn, maybe we're not really sitting pretty.

Vleeptron Dude said...

do you know much about the Whorf / Sapir Hypothesis? (That spelling probably sucks.) Among other things, it gives a lot of insight into why Esperanto never took off, but Welsh and Irish Gaelic are thriving in modern times; even Yiddish is making a very big comeback. But no synthetic languages really ever find a spontaneous home in the minds of very many people -- particularly in children's heads.