Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Treasury bank plan: not so "voluntary"

That latest Paulson/Treasury plan to buy equity stakes in "healthy" banks is now a done deal, with nine banks having signed on to accept money from the government in exchange for ownership stakes.

In exchange for $250 billion in funds from the government, the banks are required to issue preferred shares paying a 5 percent dividend to the government, along with warrants on common stock.

Despite earlier assurances by Hank Paulson that the ownership proposal would be a "voluntary" arrangement between the government and banks, it seems there was actually a strong element of coercion in all of this.

Consider the following description of this "voluntary" plan as it took shape:

"Neel Kashkari, the U.S. Treasury official overseeing the $700 billion rescue of the financial system, said government equity injections will be aimed at ``healthy'' firms.

``We are designing a standardized program to purchase equity in a broad array of financial institutions,'' Kashkari, who heads the department's Troubled Asset Relief Program, said in a speech in Washington. ``The equity purchase program will be voluntary and designed with attractive terms to encourage participation from healthy institutions.'' "

This was how the plan was presented in news reports Monday. Now that the bankers have signed on to the deal, a rather different story is emerging:

"...Analysts say the United States was forced to shift policy in part because Britain and other European countries announced plans to recapitalize their banks and backstop bank lending. But unlike in Britain, the Treasury secretary presented his plan as an offer the banks could not refuse.

“It was a take it or take it offer,” said one person who was briefed on the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private. “Everyone knew there was only one answer.” "

And consider these revealing article snippets from, respectively, USA Today and Fox Business:

"...Participation will be voluntary, though the nine major banks that agreed to participate did so under pressure."

"...Although the program is voluntary, Treasury essentially forced nine major U.S. banks, including JPMorgan, to take a total $125 bn investment from the federal government."

Let me check the dictionary, because I think some people are having a hard time defining the word "voluntary". A brief refresher, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: vol·un·tary


1 : proceeding from the will or from one's own choice or consent

2 : unconstrained by interference : self-determining

There seems to be no shame in spreading the doublespeak around these days. But are the people buying into this nonsense? Survey says: "no".

Related articles and posts:

1. "Jamie Dimon unbound" - Elizabeth MacDonald @ Fox Business.

2. "Compelling banks to lend at bazooka point" - Mish.

3. "Drama behind a $250 billion banking deal" - NY Times.

4. "Explaining Uncle Sam's bet on US banks" - Deal Journal.