Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Where Will the Money Come From?

from Paul Krugman's New York Times Blog, 30 September 2008

In the end, the US government will rescue the financial system — not today or tomorrow, maybe not Thursday, but soon, and for the rest of our lives, or anyway until the next crisis.
But, people ask me, where will we get the money? Won’t we have to borrow it from the Chinese?
Actually, no.

Ten years days ago, I explained that the Paulson plan would actually move money in a circle. No outside financing would be needed.

What if we turn to a different and better plan, one that recapitalizes the financial system. Won’t that need outside funds? No.

First, a real-world example, the rescue of Wachovia. The FDIC got Citi to take over Wachovia’s assets and liabilities with a deal under which the feds limit the losses — they will cover any losses on mortgage paper over $42 billion — in return, basically, for receiving a share of ownership, in the form of warrants and preferred stock. No actual money changed hands, which illustrates a fundamental principle: recapitalization doesn’t mean laying out real money, at least initially — it just means having taxpayers take on some of the risk.

A large-scale recapitalization would probably take the form of a giant swap of debt for equity: the Treasury would issue several hundred billion dollars’ worth of bonds, and give them to financial firms in return for preferred stock. The bonds wouldn’t have to be sold to outside buyers — they would simply be credited to firms’ balance sheets.

The effect would be that if the financial firms did well, taxpayers would share in their good fortune via those stock holdings; if firms did badly, they could meet their obligations by selling some of those bonds, which would cut into the value of all their stock, including the stuff Uncle Sam owns. So as in the case of Wachovia, what’s really happening is that the taxpayers are taking on some of the risk.

So is all this magic? No, over time Treasury has to pay interest and principal on the bonds it issues; the value of the bonds comes from the fact that people believe the US government can do that, which ultimately comes from the government’s ability to raise taxes. If investors lose faith in that …

For now, however, none of the rescue schemes we’re talking about involve large-scale net borrowing from abroad.