But Citigroup , the financial giant, values similar investments on its books at 61 cents on the dollar. Citigroup says its C.D.O.’s are relatively high quality because they were created before lending standards weakened in 2006.
A big challenge for Treasury officials will be deciding whether to buy the troubled investments near the values at which the banks hold them on their books. That would help minimize losses for financial institutions. Driving a hard bargain, however, would protect taxpayers.
“Many are tempted by a strategy of trying to do both things at once,” said Lawrence H. Summers, a former Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. As a hypothetical example, Mr. Summers suggested that an institution could have securities on its books at $60, but the current market price might only be $30. In that case, the government might be tempted to come in at about $55.
Many financial institutions are so weak that they must sell their troubled assets at prices near the value on their books, Carlos Mendez, a senior managing director at ICP Capital, an investment firm that specializes in credit markets. Anything less would eat into their capital.
“Depending on your perspective on the economy, foreclosure rates and home prices, the market may eventually reflect that price. But most buyers are not willing to make that bet right now,” he said. “And that’s why we have these low prices.”
Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress on Tuesday that the government should avoid paying a fire-sale price, and pay what he called the “hold-to-maturity price,” or the price that investors would bid if they expected to keep the bond till it was paid off.
The government would buy the troubled investments with the intention of eventually selling them back to the market when prices recover.
The Treasury has suggested it might conduct reverse auctions to determine the price for securities that are not trading in the market.
Unlike in a traditional auction in which would-be buyers submit bids to the seller, in a reverse auction the buyer solicits bids from would-be sellers. Often, the buyer agrees to pay the second-highest bid submitted to encourage sellers to compete by lowering their bids for all the assets submitted. The buyer often also sets a reserve price and refuses to pay any more than that price.
But Mr. Paulson told Congress on Tuesday that the government would use many other means in addition to auctions, suggesting that it would exercise wide discretion over the final prices to be paid.
Financial institutions will have an incentive to sell their worst assets to the government, a risk that the Treasury will have to guard against, said Robert G. Hansen, senior associate dean at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
“I am worried that the people who are going to offer the securities to the government will be the ones that have the absolute worst toxic waste,” Professor Hansen said. Even so, he added, the government could actually make a profit on its purchases — provided the Treasury buys at the right prices. Richard C. Breeden, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the auctions could thaw parts of the markets that have been frozen since late last year.
“One of the problems that many institutions are having is finding any bid for some of these assets, even though they are not without value,” said Mr. Breeden, who is chairman and chief executive of Breeden Capital Management, an investment firm in Greenwich, Conn.
“What are these assets worth?” asked Mr. Breeden. “Sometimes, because of fear or extreme uncertainty in the markets, you get in a situation in which there are no bids at all, or at least no realistic bids.”
Edmund L. Andrews contributed reporting.