Monday, March 23, 2009

Obama Plan Seeks Private Investors for Risky Assets

Published: March 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration formally presented the latest step in its financial rescue package on Monday, an attempt to draw private investors into partnership with a new federal entity that could eventually buy up to $1 trillion in troubled assets that are weighing down the nation’s banks and clogging up the credit markets.

At least partly in anticipation of the program, which has been widely publicized, Asian and European markets were sharply higher. Index futures on Wall Street were also significantly higher.

Initially, a new Public-Private Investment Program will provide financing for $500 billion in purchasing power to buy those troubled or toxic assets — which the government refers to more diplomatically as legacy assets — with the potential of expanding later to as much as $1 trillion, according to a fact sheet issued by the Treasury Department.

At the core of the financing package will be $75 billion to $100 billion in capital from the existing financial bailout known as TARP, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, along with the share provided by private investors, which the government hopes will come to 5 percent or more. By leveraging this program through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve, huge amounts of bad loans can be acquired.

The private investors would be subsidized, but could stand to lose their investments, while the taxpayers could share in prospective profits as the assets are eventually sold, the Treasury said. The administration said that it expected participation from pension funds to insurance companies and other long-term investors.

The department defined three basic principles underlying the program. First, by combining government financing, involving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve, with private sector investment, “substantial purchasing power will be created, making the most of taxpayer resources,” the fact sheet said.

Second, private investors will share both in the risk and potential profits, the Treasury Department said, “with the private sector investors standing to lose their entire investment in a downside scenario and the taxpayer sharing in profitable returns.”

The third principle is the use of competitive auctions to help set appropriate prices for the assets. “To reduce the likelihood that the government will overpay for these assets, private sector investors competing with one another will establish the price of the loans and securities purchased,” the department said.

By emphasizing that private investors will share in the risk, the Treasury Department seemed to be seeking to reassure ordinary taxpayers that they will not be bear the entire downside burden of yet another $1 trillion program.

At the same time, administration officials strove over the weekend to reassure potential investors that they will not be subjected to the sort of pressures, criticism and public outrage that followed reports of the million-dollar bonuses to executives of the American International Group.

The Treasury Department defended its approach as a compromise that would avoid the dangers both of too gradualist an approach and of one in which taxpayers bear the entire risk.

“Simply hoping for banks to work legacy assets off over time risks prolonging a financial crisis, as in the case of the Japanese experience,” the department said. “But if the government acts alone in directly purchasing legacy assets, taxpayers will take on all the risk of such purchases — along with the additional risk that taxpayers will overpay if government employees are setting the price for those assets.”

The plan relies on private investors to team with the government to relieve banks of assets tied to loans and mortgage-linked securities of unknown value. There have been virtually no buyers of these assets because of their uncertain risk.

But some executives at private equity firms and hedge funds, who were briefed on the plan Sunday afternoon, are anxious about the recent uproar over millions of dollars in bonus payments made to executives of the American International Group.

Some of them have told administration officials that they would participate only if the government guaranteed that it would not set compensation limits on the firms, according to people briefed on the conversations. The executives also expressed worries about whether disclosure and governance rules could be added retroactively to the program by Congress, these people said.

Administration officials took to the airwaves Sunday to reassure investors that the public would distinguish between companies like A.I.G., which are taking government bailout money, and private investment groups that, under this latest plan, would be helping the government take troubled assets off the books of some of the country’s biggest banks.

“What we’re talking about now are private firms that are kind of doing us a favor, right, coming into this market to help us buy these toxic assets off banks’ balance sheets,” Christina D. Romer, the White House’s chief economist, said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I think they understand that the president realizes they’re in a different category,” she said, adding, “They are firms that are being the good guys here.”

Eric Dash and Rachel L. Swarns reported from Washington, and Andrew Ross Sorkin from New York.