30 Sep 2008

The Great Bank Robbery of 2008

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I give the lowdown here. Incidentally, much of this is repetition for “long time” Free Advice readers, but one novelty is that I discuss the claim that the taxpayers might make money on the deal:

Some analysts think that the price paid for these “toxic” assets is important. No it isn’t. The government officials running this operation will dole out the favors on both ends, when the mortgage-backed securities are coming and when they are going. Neglecting this insight, some people want to say that if the government pays $700 billion for a portfolio of assets that is really only worth $400 billion, then the taxpayers really only lost $300 billion, not the full $700 billion.

Yet this thinking is naïve. The taxpayers are not going to be treated as equivalent to shareholders of a firm that just acquired $400 billion in assets. The taxpayers are not going to get a cut of the monthly mortgage payments (less the servicing costs on the $700 billion in new debt) tied to the government’s massive portfolio. Instead, the government will simply bump up its annual spending by a few billion dollars. Maybe it will have to spend the money on homeownership programs, or homebuilder job retraining, but the net income from those government-owned assets certainly won’t translate into a dollar-for-dollar tax cut.

And then at some point — during a future Republican administration, no doubt — there will be a push to “privatize” the secondary mortgage market, and the government’s portfolio at that time will be auctioned off at very generous prices to politically connected institutions.

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