Imagine you’re a public official faced with the problem of a several important banks becoming undercapitalized due to investment losses on, for example, backed securities. What’s more, there are several other important banks that, though not currently undercapitalized, are close enough to the line that a generalized “panic” about the banking sector will push them under. You’re in a scenario, in other words, when you don’t dare allow even a single bank fail lest it cause a nearly universal failure of your banks.
You have basically two choices in this scenario. One choice is that you force the banks in question to accept capital injections from the public sector. This will “bail out” the bank and save it as an institution. It’s also obviously better for the bank’s owners than the alternative of letting the bank fail. But for the owners it’s also not ideal since it means the value of their shares is being diluted. Indeed, if raising extra capital were a bailout of the shareholders they would have avoided this problem long ago by simply raising capital from private investors. But their reluctance to do this has helped bring us to the crisis point. They’d rather get public equity than fail, but they’d rather avoid getting public equity.
A different option is to refuse to give “the banks” extra money. Instead you perform stress tests and proclaim that the banks are secure, implicitly signaling the existence of government guarantee of their operations. You have the Federal Reserve start paying interest on banks’ excess reserves, giving them a zero risk profitable investment parking cash with the Fed. Then you hunker down and wait for the regulatory forbearance to allow the profit-making process to generate sufficient capital to resolve the situation.
The downside of the second option is that it takes much longer to work, needlessly prolonging the massive suffering throughout the country. Another downside of the second option is that it undermines the effective of loose monetary policy, needlessly prolonging the massive suffering throughout the country. A third downside of the second option is that it’s wildly more favorable to the people who owned the banks, in a way that creates a massive problem of injustice. The upside, however, is that you don’t need to ask congress for additional bailout money. And, indeed, the public at large will regard this option as superior to a soft-on-bankers “bailout.” But at the very same time the bankers themselves will recognize that forbearance is actually a much softer policy than the unpopular “bailout” alternative.