That discrepancy is the real story here, but it continues to be completely unreported: selling these assets, even after a massive credit rally and with subsidized non-recourse funding, still generates a loss to the seller that is so big banks cannot afford to take the hit.
The implication, of course, is that bank balance sheets do not remotely reflect market realities. As such, we can expect the drag of realized losses to be an anchor on bank earnings reports for the foreseeable future. Green shoots, though.
Anyway, here are some highlights from the WSJ.
The government's plan to enable banks to dump troubled assets is facing troubles of its own.
Markets initially rallied when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced in March a two-pronged plan to offer favorable government financing to entice investors to buy bad loans and toxic securities from banks.
But that initiative -- called the Public-Private Investment Program, or PPIP -- has lost momentum. Big banks worried about having to sell at fire-sale prices while small banks feared they would be shut out. Potential buyers balked at the risk of doing business with the government, concerned that politicians might demonize them for making big profits.
The program's problems threaten to stymie efforts by struggling smaller banks, in particular, to clean up their balance sheets. That in turn could hinder efforts to revive the nation's economy.
A look at why the program has stumbled underscores how difficult it has been to solve one of the economy's biggest problems: Mountains of bad debt sitting on the books of the nation's banks. As those loans and securities lose value, they are saddling the banks with losses and constricting their ability to lend.
The slimmed-down program will focus not on bad loans, but on toxic securities, which are a problem for a relatively small fraction of the nation's banks. That is bad news for hundreds of smaller banks burdened with growing piles of defaulted loans. [TILB comment: once again small banks get the wide end of the shaft] These banks are less able to tap capital markets than their larger rivals, so they have been eager for U.S. help unloading loans as a way to bolster their capital cushions. Many of them can face big problems if just one or two large loans go bad. Seventy banks, most of them community institutions, have failed since the start of last year. Analysts are bracing for hundreds of lenders to collapse in the next few years.
During the last banking crisis, nearly two decades ago, the government established the Resolution Trust Corp. to sell off the bad loans and securities of banks that had failed. Many experts credit the RTC with helping defuse that crisis.
This time around, efforts to rid banks of soured assets have sputtered repeatedly. In late 2007, federal officials helped cobble together a plan for a bank-financed fund to buy securities held by bank investment funds, but the effort was aborted. In 2008, the Bush administration established a $700 billion program to buy banks' soured assets. Partly because of the complexity of valuing those assets, the U.S. abandoned that plan, instead opting to directly pump taxpayer money into banks.
On March 23, when Mr. Geithner unveiled PPIP, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged nearly 500 points, or 7%, its biggest gain since October, on hopes that the program would nurse the banking industry back to health.
Many bank executives were skeptical about whether the program could succeed. Even before it was announced, some had grumbled that federal officials weren't consulting them, and instead were crafting the initiative with input from would-be investors. Some banking executives say they warned that they would be loath to sell at the kind of prices investors were likely to demand.
Executives at Citigroup Inc. shared those concerns, according to people familiar with the matter. While the New York bank was sitting on at least $300 billion of risky loans and securities, selling them at discounted prices would require painful hits to its already thin capital ratios, these people say [TILB: "already thin"? Didn't you see the stress test results - Citi almost qualified as well capitalized!].
Some Citigroup executives had a different idea: Maybe they could turn a profit by bidding on their own toxic assets at discounted prices, using government financing, according to the people familiar with the talks [TILB: If this had happened, I would have fucking moving out of the country.]. Other big banks also talked about setting up distressed-asset units to snap up troubled loans and securities, including from their parent companies, with taxpayer financing.
FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair later publicly shot down the idea. Citigroup declined to comment.
Meanwhile, many small-town bankers hoped the program would help them unload the bad assets -- generally loans to finance commercial real-estate projects -- that were hurting their balance sheets. Some potential buyers had surfaced before PPIP was announced, but they were offering such low prices that few banks could afford to sell the loans without severely denting their capital cushions.
When PPIP was announced, big-name investors were intent on figuring out how to profit from it. Raymond Dalio of giant hedge-fund firm Bridgewater Associates, which oversees $72 billion in assets, initially expressed interest in participating. But within days, he was blasting it, saying buyers and sellers would have difficulty agreeing on pricing and fund managers that profited would be exposed to criticism from politicians. The way PPIP is set up "makes us not want to participate and it makes us question the breadth of interest that we will see in the program," he wrote to clients.
In conference calls with bankers and investors, FDIC officials emphasized that PPIP was critically important to cleanse banks of their bad assets. "I think you know the stakes are very high with this," Ms. Bair, the FDIC chairman, said during a March 26 call, according to a transcript. "We need this program to work." [TILB: On to Super SIV v6.0, or whatever number we are at]
Next month, the FDIC intends to use PPIP for a far narrower purpose: to auction loans the agency has seized from failed banks. Eventually, it hopes to resuscitate the loan-buying program so that smaller banks can benefit from it.
Many banking experts contend that the financial system won't fully stabilize until banks get rid of their bad assets.
Mr. Segal, the bank adviser, complains that federal officials have cited recent capital raising by big banks as evidence that "the system is OK." That may be true "for the top 15 or 20 banks," he says. "But for everybody else, there really needs to be more attention paid." [all emphasis added by TILB]