Monday, December 29, 2008

Sheila Bair's Mixed Signals

Friday's Wall Street Journal's Money & Investing Section carried a lead article entitled "Banks Told: Lend More, Save More." With a picture of FDIC's Chairman, Sheila Bair, accompanying it, the piece explored the mixed, opposite signals now being given to US banks- lend what the Federal government has invested in them, but, at the same time, build capital cushions.

As Brian Wesbury pointed out recently, about which I wrote in this post,

"In a related argument, Wesbury noted something genuinely novel and elegant. He opined that, with the Fed pushing rates to nearly zero, there was no way bank lending could expand.

He pointed out that, at a time when risk in the economy, among borrowers, is still so high, and rates are now so low, there is absolutely no way lending can be cost-justified. The risk-adjusted returns to ultra-low interest loans are negative. Wesbury thus observed that the problem isn't a lack of borrowers, but a lack of lenders willing to effectively take a loss on new loans.

He then pointed out how ludicrous was the situation in which banks have been placed by Treasury and the Fed. They are pilloried if they don't lend out the new, unwanted TARP-based 'capital' bestowed upon them by Hank Paulson.

But, if they do make loans at market rates in this environment, those loans will surely go bad, too, resulting in even more balance sheet damage and reprimands from regulators."

It's never fun to have to note a situation of governmental incongruity and wrong-headedness. In this case, Wesbury called this a full two weeks ago.

This is why, in my opinion, if we're going to nationalize the banking sector, we should do it correctly. Lending standards should be articulated from Washington, with clear, quantitative guidelines. If Federal money is going to back the banking system, let's not have loose, prone-to-misinterpretation signals.

If Treasury, the Fed and FDIC all want more bank lending, they should clearly express that in a formal regulatory message, complete with guidelines and a statement of responsibility for subsequent loan performance.

This is why it's not a great idea to mix Federal funding with private funding of banks. Now we have Federal directives to private shareholders that their bank employees should be doing more lending, though, as Wesbury notes, the chances of getting rates to compensate the risks are nil.

Gee, didn't we just spend about a dozen years doing this in the housing sector, via Fannie, Freddie, Barney Frank and two Presidents?

We could be in for a long, long learning period under the new, quasi-nationalized banking system the US now possesses.

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