Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nothing like shock therapy to jolt the economy

Jan 21, 2009

By Thomas Friedman

I WAS walking by a TV the other day and CNN was on, airing a hearing of what seemed to be a banking committee in Congress debating whether to release more bailout money. CNN didn't identify the lawmaker who was speaking. He had a bit of a Southern drawl. But I burst out laughing when he said something like: 'I remember a time when banks lent money to people. Now it's the other way around.'

Yes, kids, those were the days - when banks lent money to the people, not the people to the banks!

Many commentators have suggestions for President Barack Obama on what should be his first meeting at the White House. Here is mine: Mr Obama and his economic team should convene the 300 leading bank presidents in the East Room and the President should say to each one of them something like this:

'Ladies and gentlemen, this crisis started with you, the bankers, engaging in reckless practices, and it will only end when we clean up your mess and start afresh. The banking system is the heart of our economy. It pumps blood to our industrial muscles, and right now it's not pumping. We all know that in the past six months you've gone from one extreme to another. You've gone from lending money to anyone who could fog up a knife to now treating all potential borrowers, no matter how healthy, as bankrupt until proven innocent.

'And, therefore, you're either not lending to them or lending under such onerous terms that the economy can't get any liftoff. No amount of stimulus will work without a healthy banking system.

'So here's what we're going to do: we're going to unclog the arteries. My banking experts have analysed each of your balance sheets. You will tell us if we're right. Those of you who are insolvent, we will nationalise and shut down. We will auction off your viable assets and will hold the toxic ones in a government reconstruction fund and sell them later when the market rebounds. Those of you who are weak will be merged. And those of you who are strong will receive added capital for your balance sheets, after you write down all your remaining toxic waste. I am not going to continue rewarding the losers and dimwits amongst you with handouts.'

Without this sort of come-to-Jesus strategy, we're going to continue to just limp along. We'll never quite confront the real problem because we don't want to take the upfront pain. So the market will never clear - meaning start-ups in need of capital will be choked in their cribs and profit-making firms won't be able to grow as they should.

'Right now,' said Mr David Smick, author of The World Is Curved, 'the bankers are sitting on mountains of cash, including our bailout money, because they know their true balance sheets are a disaster - far worse than publicly stated.' The situation will likely worsen as delinquent consumer and auto loans are piled atop bad mortgages. 'Mr Obama needs to inject some truth serum into the banking discussion. No one trusts the banks, and even the bankers don't trust each other.' Bringing clarity to bank balance sheets, said Mr Smick, 'is the first step to fixing America's bank lending problem.'

Only after we bring full transparency to the bank balance sheets will we see private capital buying into banks again at scale. But have no illusions. There are still real balance sheet problems that have to be surmounted. This is not just a psychological crisis.

'I wish people would stop saying that this is a crisis of confidence,' said Mr Steven Eisman, a portfolio manager and banking expert at FrontPoint Partners. 'The loss of confidence is just a symptom of bad credit and over-leverage. The banks are not lending because they know their balance sheets are loaded with future losses and they don't have enough capital. The Tarp (Troubled Assets Relief Programme) gave them preferred equity, which is nothing more than a bridge loan. We need the government to force the banks to write down all their bad assets and then recapitalise themselves, preferably with private capital. Those banks that cannot raise sufficient capital should be seized and their deposits sold off.'

For too long the government has been taking the banks at their own words, which is one reason we keep getting surprised with demands for more bailout cash. The Treasury needs to be doing its own brutal, burn-down analysis of every major bank's balance sheet - and then acting accordingly.

In recent years, 'whenever other countries - Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea or Mexico - got themselves into an economic crisis, we lectured them about how they had to adopt 'shock therapy,' ' said editor of Foreign Policy magazine Moises Na├»¿½m. 'But now that we are the ones in crisis and in need of shock therapy, everyone is preaching gradualism.'

A stimulus package that does not also unclog the arteries of our banking system will never stimulate sufficiently. Mr Obama should take the pain early, blame it all on Mr George W. Bush and then reap the benefits down the road. Postpone the pain, postpone the recovery.


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