proposed by the Obama administration seeks to free up lending and help address any doubts about our worsening credit market. Unfortunately, the latest plan has raised as many questions as it answers.
The idea behind the Troubled Assets Relief Program sounds great. The government, along with private investors, would buy toxic "legacy" assets. Investors would
get these assets off their books and manage them as
Bank of America
have already benefited from
changed their corporate statuses just so they could apply.
In theory, the government's plan would encourage lending and put the banks back on track. In actuality, taxpayers are taking on almost all the risk. The FDIC would sell the banks' assets to investors and the Treasury would match the amount investors spend.
With the FDIC guaranteeing the investment and the Treasury chipping in, investors have little on the line. They stand to reap huge returns if mortgage pools gain value. However, if a pool remains a dud, investors will have only lost their initial down payment. The taxpayer absorbs the rest of the loss.
Who are these private investors? They will likely be hedge funds. Many of them are run by the same people who helped create the crisis. So Wall Street would benefit while pinning the risk on average Americans.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner estimated the government would buy $500 billion in troubled assets, but that figure could balloon to $1 trillion. That would cover a fraction of the estimated $5 trillion in bad assets at banks.
Even if this idea succeeds, the government will have only put a band aid on the problem. It would become another example of how pouring money on a problem doesn't always make it go away.
In many regards, it's difficult to fathom that a president whose entire campaign was based on taking care of Main Street would be championing a system that benefits Wall Street.
This plan could help struggling banks increase lending and restore the faith of consumers, encouraging them to borrow again. But how much faith should we have in any bank? The industry contributed to the mortgage problem. Does it deserve a "freebie" for its own mistakes?
Imagine you have a friend who inherited money. Let's say he got greedy and hopped a plane to Las Vegas. He did well at the tables at first, but eventually lost everything. He comes to you crying because he not only lost the original money, but went into serious debt. Would you consider it wise to pay off his gambling debt?
Let's take this a step further. Would you also decide to match him dollar for dollar so he could go back to Vegas and attempt to recoup his losses?
While the plan sounds good, it comes with serious baggage. Buying these assets might generate an immediate return, but it could fall short of solving the larger problem long term.
Joseph Leonard is a financial planner and benefits consultant. He's also the author
Retirement Vault: A Guide to Protecting Your Assets in an Age of Uncertainty
(Second River Healthcare Press 2008). Leonard is the founder and chief executive officer of Coastal Investment Advisors.