Saturday, October 04, 2008

It's Hard Work


Even after working feverishly over the last two weeks, the Treasury will not buy its first distressed asset from a bank for roughly six weeks, and almost certainly not until after the Nov. 4 elections.

Treasury officials do not plan to manage the mortgage assets on their own. Instead, they will outsource nearly all of the work to professionals, who will oversee huge portfolios of bonds and other securities for a management fee.

...The government will hire only a bare-bones internal staff of about two dozen people with expertise in asset management, accounting and legal issues, according to administration officials, and will outsource the bulk of the program to 5 to 10 asset management firms.

...The selected asset management firms will receive a chunk of the $250 billion that Congress is allowing the Treasury to spend in the first phase of the bailout. Those firms will receive fees that are likely to be lower than the industry standard of 1 percent of assets, or $1 for every $100 under management.

Administration officials said they would try to drive down fees with a competitive bidding process. But with $700 billion to disburse, the plan could still generate tens of billions of dollars in fees if the firms negotiate anywhere close to their standard fees.

The main mechanism for buying these assets will be reverse auctions, using the same principles that govern auctions of electricity or the wireless spectrum. In this case, the government will issue an offer to buy a class of assets — for example, subprime mortgage-backed securities — with the final price being determined by how many banks are willing to sell.

...The Treasury officials said they were still writing a policy on conflicts of interest as well as guidelines on compensation.

As if the mechanics were not daunting enough, Treasury officials need to make wrenching decisions that will determine the bailout’s winners and losers. With so much money on the line, lobbyists for interest groups are already besieging the government to decide in their favor.

The prospect of pitching in during a national crisis has drawn unsolicited offers from prominent asset managers, like William H. Gross, the managing director of Pimco, who offered his services free.

In setting up the program, Mr. Paulson has relied on a cadre of former Goldman Sachs executives: Edward C. Forst, a former co-head of Goldman’s investment management business who is on leave from his job as executive vice president at Harvard; Kendrick R. Wilson III, formerly chairman of Goldman’s financial institutions groups; and Dan Jester, who was deputy chief financial officer at Goldman.

...The bailout legislation itself highlights the contradictory goals that the Treasury will face when it goes on its buying spree. Among the goals it is supposed to consider are “protecting taxpayers,” “preventing disruption to financial markets” and “the need to help families keep their homes.”

Democratic lawmakers insisted that the Treasury use its authority to help restructure many subprime mortgages so that at least some troubled homeowners could avoid foreclosure.

But the Treasury’s auction plan will make that difficult. More than 90 percent of all subprime mortgages are part of giant pools, or trusts, which sell mortgage-backed securities to investors around the world.

Before the government would be able to modify any mortgage that was in a trust, securities experts said, it would have to acquire agreement from 100 percent of the bondholders. But a senior Treasury official said the government would probably want to buy no more than half of the securities tied to a trust, which would hamper winning agreement from all investors.

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