I've been told by an experimental economist that in some market models, more (true) information actually makes the market outcomes less efficient. This seems to be the mental model that Hank Paulson is working on: he's essentially trying to enforce the pooling equilibrium that big financial players have been seeking for over a year. That is, he wants to recapitalize all the big banks, because recapitalizing only the weak ones would send a message about their balance sheets that might trigger the run he is trying to prevent.
The government is set to buy preferred equity stakes in Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. -- including the soon-to-be acquired Merrill Lynch -- Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of New York Mellon and State Street Corp., according to people familiar with the matter.
Some of the big banks were unhappy about the government taking equity stakes, but acquiesced under pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in a meeting Monday. During the financial crisis, the government has steadily increased its involvement in financial markets, culminating with a move that rivals the breadth of the government's response to the Great Depression. It intertwines the banking sector with the federal government for years to come and gives taxpayers a direct stake in the future of American finance, including any possible losses.
Formulated jointly by the Treasury, the Fed and the FDIC, these moves announced Tuesday are designed to keep money flowing through the financial system, ensuring that banks continue lending to companies, consumers and each other. A freeze in these markets rippled through the economy and helped cause stocks to crater last week.
Along with the government's involvement come certain restrictions, such as caps on executive pay. For example, firms can't write new employment contracts containing golden parachutes and their ability to use certain executive salaries as a tax deduction is capped. These restrictions are relatively weak compared with what congressional Democrats had wanted when they approved this spending, a potential flash point.
Some critics also say Treasury should have formulated a comprehensive plan earlier in the crisis. Even if this move helps mend credit markets, the economy is likely to suffer in the months ahead from the aftershocks of the recent turmoil.
A central plank of these new efforts is a plan for the Treasury to take about $250 billion in equity stakes in potentially thousands of banks, using funds approved by Congress through the recently approved $700 billion bailout plan.
Treasury will buy $25 billion in preferred stock in Bank of America -- including Merrill Lynch -- as well as J.P. Morgan and Citigroup; between $20 billion and $25 billion in Wells Fargo; $10 billion in Goldman and Morgan Stanley; $3 billion in Bank of New York Mellon; and about $2 billion in State Street.
The government will purchase preferred stock, an equity investment designed to avoid hurting existing shareholders and deterring new ones. Such shares typically don't come with voting rights. They will carry a 5% annual dividend that rises to 9% after five years, according to a person familiar with the matter. By investing in several big firms at once, the government hopes to avoid placing a stigma on any one firm for getting government help.
The plan will be structured to encourage firms to bring in private capital. For instance, firms returning capital to the government by 2009 may get better terms for the government's stake, a person familiar with the discussions said.
It's a sort of interesting quandary for libertarians, and indeed most proponents of regulation, who want the government to enhance transparency. In this case, the government is specifically fighting to keep the market from getting information about whose balance sheets are shakiest. And I'm not sure they're wrong.