Thomas Friedman — Alas, there is no silver bullet
Two signs of the times: First, a banker friend remarked to me that you know your bank is in trouble when its share price is less than the cost of taking money out of one of its ATMs.
Second, go to Google and type in these four letters: m-e-r-e. Before you go any further, Google will list the possible things or people you’re searching for, and at the top of that list will be the name "Meredith Whitney." She comes up before "merengue" and "Meredith Viera." Who is Meredith Whitney? She is a banking analyst who became famous for declaring last year, long before others, that Citigroup was up to its neck in bad mortgages and would not likely survive in its present form.
Do you know how many people have to be searching for you if all you have to do is put in four letters and your name pops up first? A lot! But I am not surprised. Our banking system is in so much trouble everyone is searching for the silver-bullet solution — and the person who can describe it.
I’m worried. We’ve just elected a talented young president with many good instincts about how to propel our country forward, extend health care to more people, make our tax code fairer and launch a green industrial revolution. But do you know what I fear? I fear that his whole first term could be eaten by Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and the whole housing/subprime credit bubble we inflated these past 20 years.
I hope my fears are exaggerated. But ask yourself this: Why couldn’t former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson solve this problem? And why does it seem as though his successor, Tim Geithner, won’t even look us in the eye and spell out his strategy? Is it because they don’t get it? No. It is because they know — like Roy Scheider in the movie "Jaws," when he first saw the great white shark — that "we’re gonna need a bigger boat," and they’re too afraid to tell us just how big.
This problem is more complicated than anything you can imagine. We are coming off a 20-year credit binge. As a country, too many of us stopped making money by making "stuff" and started making money from money — consumers making money out of rising home prices and using the profits to buy flat-screen TVs from China on their credit cards, and bankers making money by creating complex securities and leverage so more and more consumers could get in on the credit game.
When this huge bubble exploded, it created a crater so deep that we can’t see the bottom — because that hole is the product of two inter-related excesses. Some banks are in trouble because of the subprime mortgage securities they have on their books that are now worth only 20 cents on the dollar because of widespread defaults.
And many other banks — the ones that took on the most leverage like Citigroup and Bank of America — are in trouble because of all the loans on their books that can’t now be repaid, such as auto loans, commercial real estate loans, credit card loans, corporate loans. Most of the big banks have not marked down these loans yet because if they did, they would be insolvent. The subprime toxic securities will take billions to bail out; the loans could take trillions.
Climbing out of such a deep crater is going to be tricky. Any big step we try to take could trigger other problems — the full dimensions of which we don’t understand. We need to create a "bad bank" to buy and hold the toxic mortgage assets or have the government buy the first batch and create a market, but that would likely involve bailing out banks that have behaved very recklessly. It is a price I’d pay to save the system, but even doing that is very complicated. Buying securitized toxic mortgages is not like buying a yacht off the books of a bankrupt savings-and-loan.
Nationalizing Citigroup may sound good on paper, but putting Citigroup into receivership could trigger all kinds of defaults on derivative contracts that it has written. It may be inevitable, but we’d better understand all of Citigroup’s counterparty risks so we don’t inadvertently set off more falling dominos, a la Lehman Brothers.
At the moment, the Obama team seems to prefer a gradual attempt to nurse these sick banks back to health with repeated blood transfusions — $30 billion more to AIG today, another $40 billion to Citigroup tomorrow. And Lord only knows how much Bank of America will need after its weekend fling with Merrill Lynch has left it with Toxic Asset Disease. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury seem to be trying to give these banks enough capital to survive the next two years, as they de-leverage and de-risk their portfolios — and then hope for the best.
If they are right, the president (and the rest of us) will just have a wrenching first year and then be able to gradually put the banking crisis behind him.
For now, though, the banks still threaten to consume the Obama presidency. Indeed, I’m sorry to report that if you just type two letters into Google — "b-a" — the first thing that comes up is not Barack Obama. It’s "Bank of America." Barack Obama is third.
Thomas Friedman, a Minnesota native, is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize who writes for the New York Times.