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Kuttner: In Diagnosing the Financial Crisis, Obama Needs a Second Opinion

Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect and author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, advises President Obama to look outside the Geithner-Summers bubble for a different approach to the financial crisis, in this piece from the Huffington Post.

In the past two weeks, political support for the Tim Geithner/Larry Summers approach to solving the banking crisis has been unraveling in Congress, with blistering criticism from legislators of both parties.

The financial danger is that the Treasury will burn through the money approved by Congress without fixing the system. The political danger is that Republicans will posture as the populists, expressing faux-indignation that so much taxpayer money has gone to Wall Street. The overarching risk to Obama’s presidency is that the plan won’t work, and his political capital will evaporate along with the financial capital.

There is a whole other path to repairing the banking system, and a whole other set of experts, equally brilliant and better in touch with financial realities. But their unfiltered views are not reaching the president. This loyal opposition, of which more shortly, is not limited to lefties; it spans the ideological spectrum.

Though the details are numbingly technical (and deliberately mystified both by the investment bankers and their allies at the Treasury), the basics of what’s wrong with the banking system and how to fix it are, at bottom, very simple.

After all, what do banks do? They take in deposits and they put out loans and make other investments.

In the past decade, far too many of the banks’ investments were far too speculative. They lost vast sums, which now exceed the value of their capital. In plain English, they are insolvent.

In a situation like this, a busted banking system can push the whole economy into prolonged depression. We are right on the edge of that condition, and there is little time to lose.

As the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Thomas Hoenig, explained March 6 in a brilliant speech (PDF) that is being widely circulated on Capitol Hill, “Too Big Has Failed,” to save the banking system we need a public corporation like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of the 1930s, which at one point held about one-third of all U.S. bank stock, and by the time it wrapped up its affairs it did not cost taxpayers a penny.

A modern RFC would be given the technical competence and manpower to audit just how bad things are. It needs to determine how far underwater is each of the large banks. (The top four hold about 55 percent of all deposits; fix them and you fix the system.)

The public corporation, according to Hoenig, would need to decide which banks to take into receivership, which ones have competent management teams, and which managers need to go.

Once the size of the hole in bank capital is determined — and it will be on the scale of two trillion dollars — the government needs to decide who eats the loss. How much do the taxpayers put in, and how much do the bondholders have to sacrifice?

Owners of bank stocks are not really relevant. They have already lost upwards of 95 percent of their investments. When a bank is taken into receivership, they will lose the rest. But it’s no big deal for the system. Trying to use public money to pump up the value of bank stocks — Geithner’s approach — has it backwards.

Finally, when the banks are restored to solvency, they need to be returned to private ownership.

Read the whole article here.


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