It’s Time for Banks To Put Their Chips On the Table

One suspect player can ruin a poker game.

The Federal Reserve injected $480 billion domestically and globally last week and it doubled the dose this Monday, injecting more than $900 billion in one single day. That makes for almost twice the $700 billion rescue package that Congress approved with so much discussion last week.

Yet banks are still refusing to lend to each other, and when they do lend they charge a record-high risk premium — which more than cancels out any Fed rate reductions. At the same time, banks have absorbed about $1.5 trillion in cash from the Fed, more than twice the most likely loss in the mortgage markets (about $600 billion). It now seems that they will absorb as much cash as the Fed decides to throw at them.

What we are witnessing is what economists call a rise in the liquidity preference, which was the main factor leading to the Great Depression. By a rise in the liquidity preference we mean that investors aim to increase the share of liquid instruments in their total assets. For the banks it means they want to liquidate loans and transfer the proceeds to very liquid instruments, such as Treasury Bills.

This migration depresses the economy by reducing credit. In these circumstances, the solution is not to keep on throwing money at the banks, which are inclined to hoard it not lend it. Rather, what is needed is stopping the skyrocketing increase in their liquidity preference and then lowering it. Doing that requires writing off the losses now lodged in the financial system as soon as possible.

A simple analogy will help illustrate this point. Imagine that you are playing poker with 10 people and that you learn that a minority of them is broke and would not pay you if they lose. You don’t know, however, who the ones are who won’t pay. In this environment, the risk of losing would be too high even if you know that most of the players are perfectly sound financially and would pay up if they lose.

In this environment, any rational card player would stop making bets until the true solvency position of each player is revealed and the bankrupt ones are expelled from the game. Having insolvent players sitting at the table spoils the game.

This is what is happening in the banking system — only worse, because in poker you would only fail to collect the pot if you played with an insolvent player, while in the banking system you would lose your bets if you lend to an insolvent bank. Liquidity preference will not subside until the losses are made explicit, written off and absorbed.

To achieve this you simply let the illiquid borrowers and their financiers go bankrupt. This is how financial crises were solved in the 19th century. The method was expensive because commercial banks are central to the operation of the payments system and their uncontrolled failure can cause enormous damage to the economy.

Yet the alternative, continuing to play poker with failed players, also causes enormous damage. This is because the resources that could be used to spur economic recovery are not allocated due to lack of information. Worse still, resources are taken from the efficient to keep insolvent banks and companies operating.

The government must allow bank losses to come to the surface. The $700 billion rescue fund can be used for this purpose — absorbing the losses and weeding out the failed players. How do we accomplish this? By forcing the failed commercial banks to write off their losses then asking the owners to compensate for the losses with new capital. If they don’t do it, the government takes over and recapitalizes the banks by purchasing the bad loans at their nominal value (as if they had not been written off). This no longer benefits the previous owners, who have already abandoned the table. The government then sells the banks, making a loss equal to the write-offs.

The $700 billion rescue fund will more than cover this approach. The fund should not be used to hide the losses in the accounts of the financial system by pretending that the government will recover all of them, as is the case now. This will only prolong the paralysis of the world economy, and ruin an otherwise winnable poker game.

Mr. Hinds, a financial consultant and former finance minister of El Salvador, is the author of “Playing Monopoly with the Devil: Dollarization and Domestic Currencies in Developing Countries” (Yale University Press, 2006).

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