The Real Reason for the Rush?

One of the questions that has come up in connection with this week's scramble to pass a $700 billion bailout package for the beleaguered financial sector is: Why the rush? Why not take some time to fully explore the risks, discuss the financial, economic and political ramifications, and figure out ways to minimize the cost to taxpayers?

Although those in charge have attributed their sense of urgency to fears of an imminent seize-up in financial markets, it is conceivable that policymakers could have applied a few more of the band-aids they have been using prior to now so that the issues and prospective outcomes could be examined more fully in the harsh light of day.

Unless, of course, there is more to it than what our leaders are admitting to. In "Brad Setser: Extraordinary Times," the London Banker blog suggests the pressure for a rapid-fire solution stems from the precarious financial position of the rescuer-in-chief: the Federal Reserve.

Brad Setser has a fascinating insight to offer in his newest post, Extraordinary Times:

In the last two weeks — if I am reading the Federal Reserves’ balance sheet data correctly — the Fed has:

Increased “other loans” to the financial system by around $230 billion (from $23.56b to $262.34b);

Increased its “other assets” by about $80b (from $98.67b to $183.89b);

Increased the securities it lends out to dealers by $60b (from $117.3b to $190.5b);

That works out to the provision of something like $370b of credit to the financial system in a two week period. And that is just what I saw on a cursory glance.

The most that the IMF ever lent out to cash strapped emerging economies in a year?

$30b, in the four quarters through September 1998 (i.e. the peak of the 97-98 crisis).

The most the IMF ever lend out over two years?

$40b, in the eight quarters through June 2003 (this covered crises in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Turkey)

This is a very real crisis. The Fed’s balance tells a story of extraordinary stress. I never would have expected to see the Fed lent out these kinds of sums over such a short-period.

My response:

Excellent and timely, Brad. I’ve been speculating all week that the pressure being used on the Congress to pass the Paulson Plan is the threat of Fed illiquidity. As of two weeks ago, the Fed had lent out more than $600 billion of its $800 billion balance sheet Treasuries against crap MBS collateral.

The Paulson Plan would have allowed the banks to unwind the repos putting the Treasuries back in the Fed, get cash for the crap MBS, and get more Treasuries from the issues financing the $700+ billion funding of the Plan. As a bonus, the Paulson mark-to-maturity price becomes the implicit Level 3 price for capitalisation of all the firms and banks in the system, giving them some breathing room to stay in business. Everyone wins except the poor American taxpayer.

The Fed is very close to being illiquid. That is the fear factor we are seeing at work, and the reason no one will discuss why the bailout is needed - only emphasise the urgency.

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