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Assets Are Less Toxic, but Banks Have Other Troubles

The bundles of bad home mortgages that panicked the Bush and Obama administrations have turned out to be not so toxic for the financial industry after all.

After assembling $700 billion to deal with the problem, the government is devoting a relatively modest $30 billion to buy troubled mortgage-backed securities.

With that on the back burner, the big threat to the economy is now believed to be troubled credit card, commercial real estate and commercial industrial debt.

These bad loans, made worse by the severity of the recession, could be responsible for two-thirds of banks' losses.

"The commercial real estate time bomb is ticking," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said Thursday at a congressional hearing.

On that front, the administration is still looking for a solution. A so-called "legacy loan" purchase plan by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. announced last March has fizzled.

At the end of the first quarter of this year, banks held about $1.8 trillion in commercial real estate loans. About 7 percent of those loans were considered delinquent, almost twice the level a year earlier, Jon D. Greenlee, the Federal Reserve's associate director for banking supervision and regulation, told Congress on Thursday.

"Yes, the need to buy toxic assets from the banks is less present than it was," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told The Associated Press. "There are still lots of other problems."

It's hard to imagine today the dread with which Wall Street and top government officials viewed the mortgage-backed assets that banks were carrying last September. Lawmakers were told that these securities had so been so devalued that they had pushed the entire economy to the edge of a precipice. Congress moved swiftly to pass the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

As initially planned, the program would have bought, managed and sold these toxic assets to allow banks to recapitalize and free up more lending. But then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other members of President George W. Bush's team soon found that it was nearly impossible to assign a price to those assets.

Instead, the Bush administration and later the Obama administration reassembled TARP into about a dozen separate programs.

The government now is making large, direct infusions into hundreds of financial institutions, and helping lenders modify mortgages. The government also is using loans and other subsidies to prop up the largest firms, including banks, automakers and an insurance company.

The Treasury Department predicts that it has about $127 billion in TARP money that has not been spent or earmarked for a particular program. Of that, $70 billion represents money repaid by banks and has prompted a debate in Congress as to whether it should be used to reduce the deficit or, as Treasury wants, as a contingency for other financial sector assistance.

Commercial Real Estate
Photo by: Luca Masters
Commercial Real Estate

What's more, administration officials warn that the mortgage-backed securities, amassed during the subprime real estate boom, could still come back and bite the financial sector. But for now, they're not the main thing dragging banks down.

What altered the landscape? In a word, attitude.

"What we're seeing is a change in sentiment and confidence," said Mark Tenhundfeld, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association.

To be sure, there were steps along the way that contributed. The board that sets U.S. accounting standards gave companies more leeway in valuing assets and reporting losses. Federal Reserve stress tests on the nation's top banks also showed that even with their bad assets and troubled loans, they could still function. Pressed by the government, they then proceeded to raise $100 billion in new capital.

And the economy, though still sputtering, shows signs of bottoming out.

"The fact that the market itself and the institutions have actually strengthened themselves has given a degree of confidence that institutions may not be under such intense pressure to dispose of assets," said Randy Marshall, who heads the financial services practice at Protiviti, a global business consulting and internal auditing firm.

Since the program was conceived in a desperate moment and no longer addresses the banking system's root problems, Treasury would have been wise to scrap it, said Barry Ritholtz, head of the financial research firm FusionIQ.

"It doesn't make any sense to take federal tax dollars and give it to wealthy private equity people to buy junk that should never have been produced," Ritholtz said. "None of the underlying factors that led to this crisis have changed, but the pain from this issue has stopped for the moment."

And it remains an open question whether banks and investors will ever agree on the value of these assets.

Banks might value their pool of mortgage-backed assets at about 60 cents on the dollar while investors price them at about 30 cents on the dollar, said Douglas Elliott, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former investment banker. The government's $30 billion public-private partnership plan could lead investors to pay 40 to 45 cents on the dollar, he said.

Even that might not generate enough interest among banks to reach the government's goal of $40 billion in toxic-asset sales.

"It's not a matter of how much toxic assets are out there," said independent banking consultant Bert Ely. "The question is do banks need to sell them, and can they get the price they're looking for."

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