(As an aside, one might ask, why did these firms make such bad bets? Essentially, it was a result of poor judgment among various private decisionmakers, encouraged by equally poor judgment of various public policymakers, many of whom were more interested in promoting homeownership among questionable borrowers than in the preserving the safety and soundness of the financial system. But this is not the time for recriminations. We have to face up to the problem sitting in our laps.)
The question for the moment is, How can we get capital back into the financial system? Ideally, it would be great if more Warren Buffetts would step up to the plate and recapitalize financial firms with private money. Unfortunately, that might not happen fast enough to prevent a major economic downturn.
Some economists have proposed forcing these firms to go raise more capital from private sources. But how exactly can the government do that? It is not entirely clear how, as a legal matter, that can be accomplished. Perhaps regulators can twist the arms of the financial institutions. Call it the Tony Soprano approach. “Nice bank you have here. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to it.”
Other economists have suggested that the government inject capital itself. That raises several questions. First, which firms? The government does not want to put taxpayer money into “zombie” firms that are in fact deeply insolvent but have not yet recognized it. Second, at what price should the government buy in? Third, isn’t this, kind of, like socialism? That is, do we really want the government to start playing a large, continuing role running Wall Street and allocating capital resources? I certainly don't.
Here is an idea that might deal with these problems: The government can stand ready to be a silent partner to future Warren Buffetts.
It could work as follows. Whenever any financial institution attracts new private capital in an arms-length transaction, it can access an equal amount of public capital. The taxpayer would get the same terms as the private investor. The only difference is that government’s shares would be nonvoting until the government sold the shares at a later date.
This plan would solve the three problems. The private sector rather than the government would weed out the zombie firms. The private sector rather than the government would set the price. And the private sector rather than the government would exercise corporate control.
Why would an undercapitalized financial firm take advantage of this offer? Because it would need to raise only half as much capital from private sources, that financing should be easier to come by. With Warren Buffetts in scarce supply, the government can in effect replicate them, by pigging backing on what they do.
I believe that Treasury has the discretion to use some of the $700 billion recently approved by Congress to make these equity injections. I would recommend that the Treasury announce an upper limit, say, $300 billion, allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. The limit would encourage financial institutions to act quickly to get in before the door closed. Given how fast matters are deteriorating, the sooner capital gets back into the financial system, the better.