The financial system got to its dangerous perch by betting extravagantly on real estate. When housing prices began plummeting and borrowers stopped making payments, financial institutions found themselves with huge inventories of bad loans. Not simple loans, but complex investments created by pooling millions of mortgages together and then slicing them into pieces. These were the investments that Wall Street bought, sold and borrowed against in cooking up the money it poured into housing.
The trouble is that these investments are so intertwined and complex that no one seems able to figure out what they are worth. So no one has been willing to buy them. This is why banks have been in lockdown mode: with mystery enshrouding both the value of their assets and their future losses, banks have held tight to their remaining dollars, depriving the economy of capital.
Now, the Treasury aims to clear the fog by buying up these investments. But their value is as mysterious as ever.
“There’s a tendency for people to think these are stocks and bonds and you know what the price is,” said Bruce Bartlett, a former White House economist under President Reagan. “The problem is people are operating in a world in which nobody knows what the hell is going on. There’s some naïve assumptions about how this would function.”
If Mr. Paulson pays the market rate — whatever that is — that presumably would not be enough to persuade banks to sell. Otherwise, they would have sold already. For the plan to work, Treasury has to pay a premium.
“It’s a straight subsidy to financial institutions,” said Martin Baily, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You’re essentially giving them money.”
We're going to have to pay top dollar for a lot of junk that no one wants in order to entice the banks to give up the junk that they don't want.