Bank plan will work if the price is right

A bank sign

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Judging by the stock markets today, euphoria over the Treasury's plan to help banks unload their bad assets is beginning to wear off. Stocks gave back some of yesterday's rally.

But assuming Secretary Geithner's proposal does get going, we will all get a much closer look at banks' balance sheets. They won't be able to claim that they can't price the assets they have. That's been the complaint for a year-and-a-half now. And so they will find it much more difficult to write those assets down, actually forcing banks to 'fess up to their liabilities. And that could leave some weaker lenders in an awkward position, as Ashley Milne Tyte reports.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: The auctions are meant to help banks sell some of their troubled assets and take some weight off their books. The program is voluntary. But banking consultant Bert Ely says he's hearing hints the government may lean on banks to participate.

BERT ELY: It reminds me of when I was in the Army: Soldier, you will volunteer to do X, Y or Z. And therefore you volunteered.

So what happens if a bank decides, or is persuaded, to put certain securities on the block, but thinks the offers are too low? Johs Worsoe is senior vice president of Union Bank.

JOHS WORSOE: If the price isn't attractive enough for the banks, they're not gonna sell. If the price isn't attractive enough for these private entities to buy, they're not gonna invest. So that's gonna be where the rubber hits the road, obviously.

Even if the auction doesn't result in a sale, it will still provide a benchmark price for the security. Banks might not like that price, but it will be hard for them to argue, as they sometimes do now, that they can't value their assets accurately. Bert Ely says that the mere presence of a benchmark price could force the bank to write those assets down and that could have some unwelcome consequences.

ELY: If they get indications that they need to mark certain loans down more, that's gonna reduce their capital and that will in turn reduce their lending capacity.

The government might not like much. The whole idea of the plan is to get banks lending again. Bank shareholders could be disappointed too. Heavy write-downs will mean falling stock prices.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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