So here we are: The banks are sitting on paper originally valued at 100 cents on the dollar (or even more) which is now worth 20 or 10 or 0 cents. If they sell the stuff at those prices, most of the capital they’ve put behind those assets will be erased, leaving them insolvent, technically and perhaps literally – as in, unable to cover their current liabilities. On the other hand, if they don’t sell their pieces of Big Shitpile, all their capital (including what Uncle Sam has already thrown into the till) will remain frozen in place, blocking them from doing any new lending. Without new lending, they can’t earn the profits they need to make good the losses they are sitting on. Zombies. Night of the Living Dead Banks.
The banks know this, investors know this, Geithner and Co. know this. And everybody knows that the others know. (...)
One of the things that creeps me out about the political system’s response to the crisis so far – the insolvency of the banking system in particular – are the increasingly desperate attempts to maintain a phony façade of free markets and private enterprise, in an economy now utterly dependent on the federal safety net. I totally expected that from Hank Paulson and the Cheney Administration, but is Obama’s financial team really pressed from exactly the same Wall Street mold?
It may be best not to think too much about that question. It reminds me too much of the USSR’s fetish for preserving the trappings of socialist "democracy" – a Supreme Soviet, a ministerial government, courts, etc. – even though the actual decisions were all made, behind the scenes, by the party and the Politburo. It’s not a good sign when societies routinely lie to themselves about such big, fundamental truths, which in turn suggests that toxic assets may not be the poison we most need to worry about: The rottenness and decadence of the entire system may do us in first (not exactly a new theme for me.)