Thursday, October 02, 2008

A $700 Billion Investment, Not Bailout

The following commentary is from the October issue of the Forbes Growth Investor.

The biggest stock market sell-off occurred on October 17, 1987. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 508 points or 22.6% on what has come to be known as Black Monday. Yet, on average, stocks have shown a tendency to do worse in September than in any other month and what happened this past September was nothing less than ugly. Despite a strong rally on the last day, all major market indexes took a nosedive.

September’s sell-off came in reaction to the expanding economic crisis, which has seen one major financial institution after another either go out of business or get gobbled up at fire-sale prices. Lehman Brothers, for example, filed for bankruptcy protection. One of the oldest investment banks on Wall Street was selling for $85 per share less than two years ago, but could find no buyers in its time of need. The remaining investment banks on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, have since decided to move to Bank Street.

While investment and commercial banks went under, our elected officials twiddled their thumbs. Eventually, they raised investors’ hopes by finally agreeing to vote on Secretary Hank Paulson’s unpopular $700 billion rescue package. Then they quickly dashed those hopes by voting it down. Ironically, more Democrats than Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which was being pushed by the Bush administration. It remains to be seen if Republicans will pay a political price for refusing to go along. No doubt their constituents are extremely angry about the so-called bailout, yet they will be even angrier when they lose their jobs and watch their retirement savings shrink.

Those who voted against the bill say they are protecting taxpayers. How much truth is there to this statement? After all, one-third of Americans do not pay any federal income tax at all. The bulk of the taxes are actually paid by a rather small portion of the population. Most of the ones I know are in favor of the bill. Are the politicians listening to what real taxpayers have to say?

Furthermore, it is completely wrong to assume that the rescue plan will cost the quoted $700 billion. In fact, the government stands to make money on the deal. Because of mark-to-market accounting rules, financial institutions must pretend there is little if any value to these “toxic” securities. Yet once housing prices stabilize, a market for these securities will reemerge. The government is in an enviable position. It can borrow money at low Treasury rates and use that cheap money to purchase securities it will later sell—perhaps at higher prices. Even if it ends up losing money on the deal, those losses will be nowhere near $700 billion.

Warren Buffett, widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest investor, thinks Mr. Paulson’s rescue plan is a good idea. Buffett decided to take advantage of the current financial turmoil by purchasing $5 billion worth of Goldman Sachs preferred stock. He also got warrants to buy $5 billion of common stock at $115 per share. He cut a similar deal with General Electric. This kind of private investment in public equity (PIPE) is Buffett’s modus operandi. He said his decisions to invest in Goldman and GE were predicated on the assumption that the government would approve the rescue package.

There is still hope that government officials will overcome political gridlock and get their act together by week’s end. Expect a big rally once they do—or at least a smaller sell-off than we would otherwise see.