It’s Not the Assets That Make The Bad Bank Bad

The Wall Street Journal offers us the latest thinking on Citi:

Regulators say the planning should be seen as a normal function of government during a financial crisis. One possible future step could involve creating a “bad bank” to take distressed assets off the balance sheet of Citigroup or other troubled financial institutions. Differing approaches are still being considered. Treasury officials already are developing a public-private partnership to tackle that problem more broadly, and the two concepts could either run parallel or be merged.

I’m increasingly frustrated with the conventions in which this idea is discussed in public. I think an ordinary person reading that sentence would think that the problem with Citi is that some of its assets are somehow “distressed” or “toxic” in a way that’s causing a problem for the rest of the bank. Take the toxicity off its hands, and the rest can go merrily about its way. But that’s not right. We can argue ‘till the cows come home as to what the assets in question are “really” worth, but at a minimum they’re worth $0. And in practice they’re sure to be worth more than $0. Assets with a positive value can’t be a problem for a company. A company gets into trouble because of its debts. Citi’s problem isn’t that it has toxic assets, it’s that it made loans backed with toxic assets. You don’t rescue banks by “tak[ing] distressed assets off the balance sheet of Citigroup or other troubled financial institutions.” The problem isn’t the assets, it’s the debts. You can deal with the problem by giving the banks vast sums of money in exchange for their toxic assets but in this case what’s solved the problem isn’t that the assets came off the balance sheet, it’s that the money you gave them got on the balance sheet. Alternatively, you can create a government-owned bad bank that owns the bad assets and assumes responsibility for much of the debt. In either case, though, the key element of the rescue is expenditure of taxpayer funds to service the debts, not anything that’s being done with the assets.