Yet, as Mr. Posen and other economists note, there are crucial issues of timing and market psychology that surround the discussion of bank solvency. If one assumes that current conditions reflect a temporary panic, then the value of the banks’ distressed assets could well recover over time. If not, many banks may be permanently impaired.
“We won’t know what the losses are on these mortgage-backed securities, and we won’t until the housing market stabilizes,” said Richard Portes, an economist at the London Business School.
Raghuram G. Rajan, a professor of finance and an economist at the University of Chicago graduate business school, draws the distinction between “liquidation values” and those of calmer times, or “going concern values.” In a troubled time for banks, Mr. Rajan said, analysts are constantly scrutinizing current and potential losses at the banks, but that is not the norm.
“If they had to sell these securities today, the losses would be far beyond their capital at this point,” he said. “But if the prices of these assets will recover over the next year or so, if they don’t have to sell at distress prices, the banks could have a new lease on life by giving them some time.”
That sort of breathing room is known as regulatory forbearance, essentially a bet by regulators that time will help heal banking troubles. It has worked before.
In the 1980s, during the height of the Latin American debt crisis, the total risk to the nine money-center banks in New York was estimated at more than three times the capital of those banks. The regulators, analysts say, did not force the banks to value those loans at the fire-sale prices of the moment, helping to avert a disaster in the banking system.
In the current crisis, experts warn, banks need to get rid of bad assets quickly. The Treasury’s public-private investment fund is an effort to do that.
But many economists and other finance experts say that the government may soon have to take on troubled assets itself to resolve the credit crisis. Then, they say, the government could wait for the economy to improve.
Initially, that would put more taxpayer money on the line, but in the end it might reduce overall losses. That is what happened during the savings and loan crisis, when the troubled assets, mostly real estate, were seized by the Resolution Trust Corporation, a government-owned asset management company, and sold over a few years.
The eventual losses, an estimated $130 billion, were far less than if the assets had been sold immediately.
“The taxpayer money would be used to acquire assets, and behind most of those securities are mortgages, houses, and we know they are not worthless,” Mr. Portes said.