FT: Wall Street Sees a New Shell Game

The Financial Times fronts an important story today that shows the ridiculousness of several things, including our banking system and, yes, our banking bailout system.

This is of the increasingly common brand of financial crisis news that’s astonishing, but not really. See what I mean:

US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury’s $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.

The plans proved controversial, with critics charging that the government’s public-private partnership - which provide generous loans to investors - are intended to help banks sell, rather than acquire, troubled securities and loans.

So now common sense would say either the banks (at least these) don’t need a bailout at all—that’s what the vast majority of right-thinking folks not down in the weeds of this stuff will think—or that it neatly exposes the ridiculousness of the Treasury’s toxic-asset program PPIP (public-private investment program), which lends financial investors money, takes almost all of the risk, but reaps only half of the upside. Helluva deal if you can get it!

Even the walking dead like Citigroup can’t resist the primal urge to go for it. Wall Street just can’t help itself. It’s like a shark bleeding to death smelling something else’s blood in the water. I like the understated manner in which the FT slaps down hapless Citi:

Participating in the plan as a buyer could be complicated for Citi, which has suffered billions of dollars in writedowns on mortgage-backed assets and is about to cede a 36 per cent stake to the government.

Yeah, I don’t think so, Citi.

These trial balloons have already raised the hackles of Congress. Republican Senator Spencer Bachus says if these plans move ahead he’ll put forth legislation to stop them from “gaming the system to reap taxpayer-subsidised windfalls.”

Bachus added it would mark ”a new level of absurdity” if financial institutions were ”colluding to swap assets at inflated prices using taxpayers’ dollars.”

Glad he’s seeing the real point of the Obama/Geithner plan: Incentivize people to pay way too much for assets so the banks don’t have to take losses. The taxpayers will take them for them.

Wall Street knows a good game of three-card Monte when it sees it and just can’t resist.

But public opinion may not tolerate the idea of banks selling each other their bad assets. Critics say that would leave the same amount of toxic assets in the system as before, but with the government now liable for most of the losses through its provision of non-recourse loans.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Obama administration:

Administration officials reject the criticism because banking is part of a financial system, in which the owners of bank equity - such as pension funds - are the same entitites that will be investing in toxic assets anyway. Seen this way, the plan simply helps to rearrange the location of these assets in the system in a way that is more transparent and acceptable to markets.

One thing the FT doesn’t report is how much in questionable assets these guys have. Citigroup, from my understanding, has far more than Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, and Goldman Sachs—all of which are relatively healthy.

Still, good work by the paper.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.