George W. Bush met with G7 finance ministers and heads of international finance institutions at the White House on October 11, 2008. The Bush administration is now working on a plan to partially nationalize the US banking industry in an effort to turn around the current financial crisis. (Photo: Reuters)
Washington - As international leaders gathered here on Saturday to grapple with the global financial crisis, the Bush administration embarked on an overhaul of its own strategy for rescuing the foundering financial system.
Two weeks after persuading Congress to let it spend $700 billion to buy distressed securities tied to mortgages, the Bush administration has put that idea aside in favor of a new approach that would have the government inject capital directly into the nation's banks - in effect, partially nationalizing the industry.
As recently as Sept. 23, senior officials had publicly derided proposals by Democrats to have the government take ownership stakes in banks.
The Treasury Department's surprising turnaround on the issue of buying stock in banks, which has now become its primary focus, has raised questions about whether the administration squandered valuable time in trying to sell Congress on a plan that officials had failed to think through in advance.
It has also raised questions about whether the administration's deep philosophical aversion to government ownership in private companies hindered its ability to look at all options for stabilizing the markets.
Some experts also contend that Treasury's decision last month to not use taxpayer money to save Lehman Brothers worsened the panic that quickly metastasized into an international crisis.
The administration's new focus was announced late Friday as part of a rescue plan in coordination with six of the world's richest nations. It came during a week when the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 18 percent, one of the worst weeks in stock market history.
While the Treasury says it still plans to buy distressed assets, the scope of that plan is unclear. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. has refused to say whether the capital infusion program for banks would be bigger than the original plan to buy troubled assets.
Still, Treasury has directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage giants, to ramp up their purchases of hard-to-sell mortgage bonds, in what could be a speedier and less formal process than the auctions proposed by the Treasury.
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, President Bush convened an early morning meeting at the White House on Saturday with finance ministers from the Group of 7 industrialized countries.
"All of us recognize that this is a serious global crisis, and therefore requires a serious global response, for the good of our people," Mr. Bush said afterward in the Rose Garden, flanked by the ministers, who are in Washington for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Mr. Bush said the countries had agreed to general principles to respond to the crisis, including working to prevent the collapse of important financial institutions and protecting the deposits of savers. But he offered no details on other measures, suggesting that there were still differences among countries about which steps to take to shore up their respective financial systems.
To some extent, the effort to agree on a coordinated plan is being driven less by the hope that such measures will carry more punch than by the fear that nations acting alone could destabilize the system.
Those worries grew in recent days when Iceland seized its three major banks, which were failing, and guaranteed the deposits of Icelanders but not foreigners. That provoked a fierce reaction from Britain, which is now in talks with Iceland to get back the deposits of British citizens.
With the United States and Europe working together on ways to secure their banking systems, economists are concerned that money may flow out of other countries, particularly emerging markets, to Western countries if investors decide that those markets are not as safe.
The United States sought to reassure these countries in a meeting on Saturday evening of the Group of 20, which includes countries with large emerging markets, like China and Russia.
"We want to reaffirm, reinforce our commitment that we're going to take these actions in a way that doesn't undermine the economies of other countries," said David H. McCormick, the under secretary of the Treasury for international affairs.
Like the United States, Britain plans to provide capital directly to banks. But the United States and other countries have not adopted Britain's proposal to guarantee lending between banks as a way to unlock the credit market.
Germany has been reluctant to put state capital directly into banks, though officials said there were signs of movement in that position on Saturday. Europeans leaders were scheduled to meet in Paris on Sunday, amid reports that Germany may announce a large rescue plan of its own.
Some experts said the delay in carrying out the Bush administration s $700 billion bailout plan had only hurt its prospects for success.
"Even if it was adequate before, it's not adequate now," said Frederic Mishkin, a professor of economics at Columbia University's business school who stepped down as a Federal Reserve governor at the end of August. "If you delay and create uncertainty, the amount of money you have to put up goes up."
As recently as late September, the idea of letting the government buy part of the banking system had been unthinkable in the Bush administration. To many officials, such intervention seemed like a European-style government intrusion in the markets.
"Some said we should just stick capital in the banks, take preferred stock in the banks. That's what you do when you have failure," Mr. Paulson told the Senate Banking Committee on Sept. 23. "This is about success."
Mr. Paulson told lawmakers it made more sense to jumpstart the frozen credit markets with "market measures," by which he meant buying up assets rather than institutions. He staunchly resisted Democratic proposals to require that the government receive an equity stake in the companies it was helping.
But on Friday, Mr. Paulson not only confirmed his intention to buy stakes in banks but gave the idea central billing. "We can use the taxpayer's money more effectively and efficiently, get more for the taxpayer's dollar, if we develop a standardized program to buy equity in financial institutions," Mr. Paulson said.
Treasury officials said they hoped to make the first capital investments within the next two weeks. That would be earlier than any government purchases of unwanted mortgage-backed securities. One reason for Mr. Paulson's rapid reconsideration was that global financial markets have been going downhill faster than anyone had seen before.
Credit markets seized up and all but stopped functioning, making it impossible for most companies to borrow money on more than an overnight basis. Bank stocks plummeted, making it much more difficult to shore up their balance sheets by raising more capital from investors.
Investors panicked as the House initially rejected the bailout bill on Sept. 29. They panicked even more after Congress passed a bill on Oct. 3 that was packed with sweeteners that added $110 billion to the price tag.
By the closing bell last Friday, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index had suffered its worst week since 1933. A growing number of analysts argue that Mr. Paulson's original plan, called the Troubled Assets Relief Program, would have been unhelpful and possibly unworkable. Some noted that Mr. Paulson presented Congress a proposal that was only three pages long and that Treasury officials have yet to provide details how the auctions will work.
As envisioned, the Treasury or its agents would hold so-called "reverse auctions" in which financial institutions are invited to compete against each other in offering to sell their mortgage-backed securities at a low price.
Though auctions are common for all sorts of products, including electricity that utilities sell one another, experts said that mortgage-backed securities would pose difficult headaches because they are extraordinarily complex, difficult to value and come in almost limitless varieties.
The bonds for a single pool of mortgages are divided into more than a dozen "tranches," or slices, which have different seniority, different credit ratings and different rules for being paid off. The performance of the underlying mortgages varies greatly from one pool to another, even if both pools are made up of seemingly similar loans.
"I am not aware that the Treasury Department presented any evidence on auctions that have been successful when they are used for assets that are so heterogeneous," said William Poole, who retired in August as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants, buy and sell mortgage securities every day, they could absorb some of the hard-to-sell securities without going through the untested auction process.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which last month seized the companies and placed them into a conservatorship, lifted capital restrictions on them last week and effectively gave them a green light to buy more mortgage securities of all types, including those backed by subprime loans, given to borrowers with weak credit.
The companies have a lot of money; Congress authorized Treasury to lend them as much as $100 billion each as part of the rescue plan created for them. That could free up money in the separate $700 billion bailout plan for injecting capital directly into the banks. People familiar with the early planning efforts for a systemic bailout said the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke, argued that it would be easier and more efficient to inject capital directly into banks. But Treasury officials balked, in part because they were ideologically opposed to direct government involvement in business.
But as the financial markets spiraled further downward during the last 10 days, a growing number of top-tier institutions, including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, became worried about their survival.
"The crisis in confidence goes way beyond the actual losses that will be incurred from debt securities," Mickey Levy, chief economist for Bank of America, said in an interview on Friday. "It's truly incumbent on policy makers to address that crisis."
Treasury officials began canvassing banks and investment firms about the possibility of having the government buy stakes in them. The new bailout law gave the Treasury the authority to buy up almost any kind of asset it wanted, including stock or preferred shares in banks.
Industry executives quickly told Mr. Paulson that they liked the idea, though they warned that the Treasury should not try to squeeze out existing shareholders. They also begged Mr. Paulson not to impose tough restrictions on executive pay and golden-parachute deals for executives who are fired.
Mr. Paulson heeded those pleas. In his remarks on Friday, he carefully noted that the government would acquire only "nonvoting" shares in companies. And officials said the law lets the Treasury write most of its own restrictions on executive pay, and those restrictions can be lenient if they are applied to a set of fairly healthy companies.
Mark Landler contributed reporting.