Worst Crisis Since '30s, With No End Yet in Sight
Resolution Trust Scenario
In normal times, capital-starved companies usually can raise money on their own. In the current crisis, a number of big Wall Street firms, including Citigroup, have turned to sovereign wealth funds, the government-controlled pools of money.
But both on Wall Street and in Washington, there is increasing expectation that U.S. taxpayers will either take the bad assets off the hands of financial institutions so they can raise capital, or put taxpayer capital into the companies, as the Treasury has agreed to do with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
One proposal was raised by Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. Rep. Frank is looking at whether to create an analog to the Resolution Trust Corp., which took assets from failed banks and thrifts and found buyers over several years.
"When you have a big loss in the marketplace, there are only three people that can take the loss -- the bondholders, the shareholders and the government," said William Seidman, who led the RTC from 1989 to 1991. "That's the dance we're seeing right now. Are we going to shove this loss into the hands of the taxpayers?"
The RTC seemed controversial and ambitious at the time. Any analog today would be even more complex. The RTC dispensed mostly of commercial real estate. Today's troubled assets are complex debt securities -- many of which include pieces of other instruments, which in turn include pieces of others, many steps removed from the actual mortgages or consumer loans on which they are based. Unraveling these strands will be tedious and getting at the underlying collateral, difficult.
In the early stages of this crisis, regulators saw that their rules didn't fit the rapidly changing financial system they were asked to oversee. Investment banks, at the core of the crisis, weren't as closely monitored by the Securities and Exchange Commission as commercial banks were by their regulators.
The government has a system to close failed banks, created after the Great Depression in part to avoid sudden runs by depositors. Now, runs happen in spheres regulators may not fully understand, such as the repurchase agreement, or repo, market, in which investment banks fund their day-to-day operations. And regulators have no process for handling the failure of an investment bank like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Insurers like AIG aren't even federally regulated.
Regulators have all but promised that more banks will fail in the coming months. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is drawing up a plan to raise the premiums it charges banks so that it can rebuild the fund it uses to back deposits. Examiners are tightening their leash on banks across the country.
One pleasant mystery is why the crisis hasn't hit the economy harder -- at least so far. "This financial crisis hasn't yet translated into fewer...companies starting up, less research and development, less marketing," Ivan Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said Wednesday. "We haven't seen that yet. I'm sure every company is keeping their eyes on it."
At 6.1%, the unemployment rate remains well below the peak of 7.8% in 1992, amid the S&L crisis.
In part, that's because government has reacted aggressively. The Fed's classic mistake that led to the Great Depression was that it tightened monetary policy when it should have eased. Mr. Bernanke didn't repeat that error. And Congress moved more swiftly to approve fiscal stimulus than most Washington veterans thought possible.
In part, the broader economy has held mostly steady because exports have been so strong at just the right moment, a reminder of the global economy's importance to the U.S. And in part, it's because the U.S. economy is demonstrating impressive resilience, as information technology allows executives to react more quickly to emerging problems and -- to the discomfort of workers -- companies are quicker to adjust wages, hiring and work hours when the economy softens.
But the risk remains that Wall Street's woes will spread to Main Street, as credit tightens for consumers and business. Already, U.S. auto makers have been forced to tighten the terms on their leasing programs, or abandon writing leases themselves altogether, because of problems in their finance units. Goldman Sachs economists' optimistic scenario is a couple years of mild recession or painfully slow economy growth.
Aaron Lucchetti, Mark Whitehouse, Gregory Zuckerman and Sudeep Reddy contributed to this article.
Write to Jon Hilsenrath at firstname.lastname@example.org
, Serena Ng at email@example.com
and Damian Paletta at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyrighted, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.