Monday, July 14, 2008

Smart idea

Now, here's a smart idea from Nouriel Roubini (via Naked Capitalism). Instead of the government nationalizing Freddie and Fannie, why don't we just magically say that all of their obligations par value has been reduced by 5%. After all, what's really going on today is that the US is defaulting. We borrowed a lot of money from the Chinese and spent it on McMansions and color televisions, and now we can't pay it back. Fortunately for us, we have the reserve currency and the nukes, so the rest of the world is just going to have to resign themselves to having lost money on the deal. This is the sort of things that happens when somebody goes bankrupt -- you restructure their debt and life continues on.
First, notice that the hit that bondholders will take will be limited in the absence of their bailout. With a debt/liabilities of about $5 trillion and expected insolvency – as of now and in the worst scenario of $200 to $300 billion – the necessary haircut is relatively modest: either a reduction in the face value of the claims of the order of 5% (if the mid-point hole is $250 billion) or – for unchanged face value – a very modest reduction in the interest rate on their debt after it has been forcibly restructured.

Second, a 5% haircut is much smaller than the 75% haircut that the holders of Argentine sovereign bonds suffered in 2001-2005, much smaller than the haircuts that holders or Russian and Ecuadorean debt suffered after those sovereign defaults, and much smaller than the 30% haircut that holders of corporate bonds suffer on average when a corporation goes into Chapter 11 and its debt is restructured. So why should Uncle Sam – i.e. eventually the U.S. taxpayer – pay that $250 billion bill when investors in the U.S. and around the world can afford it? The same investors are getting a fat subsidy of $50 billion a year (whose NPV is much bigger than $250 billion) for holding claims that now provide a 100bps spread above Treasuries and are under the implicit guarantee of a full bailout.

Third, of the two options we need to pick one: either we formally guarantee those claims and start paying the Treasury yield on that debt saving the tax payer that $50 billion subsidy; or if we maintain the subsidy a credit event in the form of a small haircut because of insolvency would be the fair cost that such investors pay for earning the extra spread over Treasuries.

Fourth, while the haircut would reduce the market value of such agency debt and inflict mark to market losses to investors such losses are already priced by the fact that the widening of the agency debt spread relative to Treasuries – from 10bps to about 100bps – has reduced the mark to market value of such agency debt. So, in the current legal limbo of insolvent GSEs whose debt is however not formally guaranteed the persistence of the spread would lead to those $250 billion mark-to-market losses regardless of a formal default, restructuring and haircut on that debt. We may as well resolve that insolvency and restore the positive net worth of the GSEs by doing the haircut.

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