After putting his embarrassing tax situation behind him, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Tuesday moved on to his next headache: selling a bailout-weary American public on a plan to hand out more cash to bankers, help financial firms make new investments, and rescue home owners who can't pay their mortgages. So how did it go? Well, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted nearly 400 points, as investors criticized the plan's lack of details and economists worried it might not be enough to heal the battered credit markets. "There have been any number of [press] leaks over the last month that had more detail than what we got today," says Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital. "[The lack of clarity is] obviously very disconcerting to the markets." With that in mind, here are five things you need to know about the Obama administration's new bailout plan:
Part I: Remove Rotten Assets. A centerpiece of the new plan is the removal of toxic real estate assets from bank balance sheets. These assets--often backed by souring home loans--have been at the heart of the credit market paralysis that took hold in the summer of 2007. To remove them, the Obama administration's plan involves launching a "public-private investment fund," which will offer financing to investors so they can purchase the assets. The fund will start with a capacity of $500 billion, but it could increase to as much as $1 trillion. "By providing the financing that private markets cannot now provide, this will help start a market for the real-estate related investments that are at the center of this financial crisis," Geithner said during the much-anticipated speech.
Thoughts: Details on the how the program would work are scant. Geithner said the administration is "exploring a range of different structures." Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard professor and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, says he hopes the program will succeed in getting credit flowing again, but he's not optimistic. "It's convoluted and it's complex, and so you worry that markets won't understand it," Rogoff said. "How is it going to inspire market confidence when it is so complicated?" While Geithner did a terrific job of explaining the genesis of the current crisis, Rogoff was disappointed that he didn't include more specifics about the government's plan to resolve it.
Part II: More Cash to Banks. In the face of higher loan delinquencies and troubled investments, the banking system remains in need of capital. As a result, the new bailout plan will include capital injections as a "bridge to private capital." Banks receiving the capital will be required to meet conditions ensuring that "every dollar of assistance is used to generate a level of lending greater than what would have been possible in the absence of government support," Geithner said.
Thoughts: Stanley said he worries that the restrictions put on banks receiving capital infusions--which include restrictions on dividend payments--could work to scare private investment away.
Part III: Jumpstart Consumer Lending. Another key component of the plan is an effort to jumpstart the securitization markets and get credit flowing to consumers again. The market for securitized loans--which are packaged and sold off to investors--has been hammered by the credit squeeze. As a result, access to many types of consumer loans has been limited. "No financial recovery plan will be successful unless it helps restart securitization markets for sound loans made to consumers and businesses – large and small," Geithner said. To that end, the Obama administration will expand a previously announced Fed initiative to bolster the secondary market for student loans, small business lending, and consumer and auto finance. The expanded program will use as much as $100 billion to support up to $1 trillion, and will include commercial mortgage-backed securities in addition to its previous menu. Government officials may expand the program further to include other assets classes, such as private label mortgage-backed securities, at a later date.
Thoughts: Former Fed Governor Lyle Gramley, now a senior economic adviser at Stanford Group, said that the success of this component of the package is essential to restoring the credit markets to health. "It's a fair statement that the credit needs of large, high-quality corporations are now being met pretty well through the commercial paper market," Gramley said. "But it's the businesses that are smaller and riskier in terms of the quality of their borrowings where the credit has slowed down to a trickle, and consumers of course are having a terrible time borrowing." Should this effort succeed in getting things moving again in the securitization market, "it would make an enormous contribution to helping us get back on the road of recovery," he said. But Gramley too says he would have liked to have seen more detail in the plan.
Part IV: Revive the Housing Market. Geithner also promised to launch a "comprehensive housing program." The plan will include $50 billion to prevent avoidable foreclosures, and require companies receiving capital from the government to participate in foreclosure mitigation efforts. "We risk an intensifying spiral in which lenders foreclose, pushing house prices lower and reducing the value of household savings, and making it harder for all families to refinance," he said.
Thoughts: Mike Larson of Weiss Research said the housing plan lacked clarity as well. "There's not much 'there' there as far as I can tell," Larson said. For example, Larson said he was unclear what form the $50 billion foreclosure prevention program would take. "It's not real clear to me where they derive that dollar amount from and what it is going to mean," he said. The administration said it will release details of the plan in the coming weeks.
Part V: PR makeover. The Obama administration took pains to distance its plan from President Bush's sharply criticized and wildly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program--they even changed its name to the "Financial Stability Plan." Meanwhile Geithner called the actions of the previous administration "inadequate," and marred by a lack of oversight and transparency. "To get credit flowing again, to restore confidence in our markets, and restore the faith of the American people, we are fundamentally reshaping the government's program to repair the financial system," Geithner said.
Thoughts: David Resler, chief economist with Nomura Securities International, said the new administration fumbled the unveiling of the plan, triggering the stock market's nosedive. "[The market] has gotten the crap kicked out of it today because for more than a week we've been promised a new initiative to deal with the financial [crisis] and for the last two or three days the broad outlines have been circulated in the press," Resler said. "I don't, for the life of me, understand why you have a massive press conference to simply repeat that what you leaked to the press…as public relations [go], this is a joke."