The US Government has significantly expanded its proposed $US700 billion buyout Fund to become a grab bag collection of dodgy loans and securities from mortgages, to commercial loans, to car loans and credit card debt.

Reports this morning are now saying that the Bush administration has widened the scope of its plan by including assets other than mortgage-related securities.

Bloomberg reported:

The U.S. Treasury submitted revised guidance to Congress on its plan a day after first submitting it, as lawmakers and lobbyists push their own ideas. Officials now propose buying what they term troubled assets, without specifying the type, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News and confirmed by a congressional aide.

The change suggests the inclusion of instruments such as car and student loans, credit-card debt and any other troubled asset. That may force an eventual increase in the size of the package as Democrats and Republicans in Congress negotiate the final legislation with the Bush administration, analysts said.

The fund’s size of $US700 billion will not be enough if t it is going to be supporting more than just property.

This will help more financial groups than just commercial and investment banks: it will include the likes of General Electric and its Money subsidiary (which was a profligate lender to subprime mortgages and credit derivatives), GMAC, 51% owned by a private equity group, and 49% by GM, which needed a multi billion bailout from its owners because of poor lending to subprime mortgage holders.

American Express, which is already suffering from ballooning credit card defaults, home loan providers to prime mortgage owners and student loan financiers, will be able to access the fund.

But while it will help the US financial sector and foreign-owned groups as well with significant operations in the US (such as Barclays of the UK and Deutsche Bank) and which have been involved in subprime mortgages and CDOs.

But it will be slow in helping end the root cause of the problem, the continuing decline in US home sales, new home starts and house prices. The expansion of the scope of the bailout fund is aimed at relieving pressures on all financial groups to given them room to lift lending more quickly. The bailout fund will be able to buy mortgages directly, but there is no signal from the Bush Administration that this will happen. The US economy is sliding remorselessly towards an increasingly nasty recession and this widening won’t be able to stop that.

And it is going to have to survive a partisan fight that will be coloured by the forthcoming Presidential and Congressional elections.

Congressional Democrats want to use the rescue plan to curb executive pay, spend more on infrastructure spending and help people avoid foreclosures. It’s a grab bag of election slogans and one off special interest ideas that could derail the fund if the Bush Administration digs its heels in

Republicans object to adding extras to the package which would authorize the administration to spend an amount that will be almost 50% larger than the Pentagon’s annual budget to buy bad mortgage debt and associated securities from US banks and financial groups.

Contrary to initial impressions, the US Government’s $US700 billion buyout fund will be able to buy dud commercial property mortgages and any associated securities, as well as residential mortgages.

It’s also an enormous lifeline for the American property industry, which is suffering from slumping demand, increasing defaults and rising levels of foreclosures.

The Treasury revealed the types of securities that can be bought in a background document on its website.

“Treasury will have authority to issue up to $700 billion of Treasury securities to finance the purchase of troubled assets. The purchases are intended to be residential and commercial mortgage-related assets, which may include mortgage-backed securities and whole loans. The Secretary will have the discretion, in consultation with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to purchase other assets, as deemed necessary to effectively stabilize financial markets.”

That not only gives the fund the freedom to buy residential debt and related securities, and commercial debt, which presumably covers apartment blocks, townhouses and more mainstream forms of commercial property. The discretion given to the Fed allows the fund to buy any other form of security whose uncertainty is threatening market stability.

With that discretion, the fund has the potential to buy anything, including equities!

We will get a couple of reminders this week on the extent of the disaster in housing with sales figures for August for existing and new houses: both are expected to be at or near record lows.

Thousand of new job losses are flowing from Wall Street and will continue for some time: in the 8 months to the end of August 610,000 jobs had been lost in the US this year and the unemployment rate was 6.1% and looking to go higher. That spells more bad news for homeowners and banks in coming months.

If consumers continue to be hammered by the economy, US banks will have to add to the billions it they have set aside to cover potential losses in credit-card, home-equity and auto loans.

It is clear that the central problem in the US isn’t with holders of commercial mortgages: it’s with the holders of residential mortgages (homeowners) and those financial groups which hold securities (CDOs etc) based on those increasingly troubled home loans.

It would make more sense to buy troubled mortgages directly from homeowners and/or their lenders, and to buy the illiquid and tanking credit derivatives as well. That way the continuing root cause for the problem, collapsing home prices and demand for mortgages can be addressed directly.

The $US700 billion is an arbitrary figure and seems to have been selected out of the air.

It is in addition to an $US85 billion agreement on a bailout of the insurance giant American Insurance Group, $US29 billion to support the Bear Stearns rescue from the Fed, nor does it reflect the cost of rescuing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: $US100 billion will be available each for that, but US Government officials reckon it might cost just $US25 billion. In any case that’s an extra $US134 billion already committed from the Treasury and or the Fed.

So the poor American taxpayer is paying two ways for the housing crisis: losing their homes in three million cases, facing that prospects in millions more, losing their jobs (an extra 610,000 so far this year) and now having to stump up well over $US800 billion, and well over a $US1 trillion if the costs of early support moves are added in.

Seeing financial institutions around the world have already written down or lost over $US500 billion (and have raised around $US360 billion in new capital), the cost so far of the debacle that started with dodgy subprime mortgages and associated credit derivatives is well over $US800 billion (including Fannie, Freddie IAG etc).

If the $US700 billion is for new purchases of bad securities (and it could be extended to non-US groups at the decision of the Treasury secretary), the cost will balloon. That will allow the likes of Deutsche Bank, UBS, Credit Swiss and French and UK banks to unload their dodgy securities in certain cases.

Assuming that the $700 billion is spent on new securities, the cost could be well over $US1.1 trillion, excluding already announced losses (and over $US1.6 trillion if they are included).

And on top of all the spending so far on the likes of Bear Stearns and AIG, there’s the $US500 billion spent or being spent a day by the Fed funding the markets in the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Switzerland and other areas.

There’s the $US180 billion swapped last week, there’s the monthly $US200 billion being lent to banks and other groups in the US each 28 days and there’s the daily $US33 billion being injected into US commercial banks each day and the $59 billion primary dealers last week (investment banks).

Even in a US economy that produces $US14.4 trillion worth of goods and services a year, that’s a lot of cash.

In fact a working paper from two IMF economists estimated that banking crises chew up an average of 16% of the GDP of an economy. That’s based on looking at 42 major banking crises around the world from 1970 to 2007 (and not including the current problem). In the US that would put the total cost around $US2.3 trillion. On present indications, were on our way there!

Spending all that money will intensify long-standing questions about America’s fiscal health, possibly at the expense of another drop in the value of the dollar.

No wonder the US dollar blew out on Friday, sliding to over $US1.44 on the euro (the Australian dollar rose by more than 1.5c in offshore trading on Friday night).

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW