The Detroit face-off

By Felix Salmon
April 17, 2009

Bankers are never particularly popular at the best of time. Pyschologically speaking, if I borrow $100 from the bank, that $100 is now mine. Yet if I lend $100 to the bank — if I put $100 on deposit at the bank — then psychologically that money is mine as well. Logically, the money can’t belong to both depositors and borrowers at once. And the result is that people hate banks for both charging them fees on their own deposits and also being unreasonable when it comes to loans.

Banks are used to dealing with such emotions when it comes to their small clients. But now they’re facing a tougher issue — how to deal with the biggest client of all, the government. One way, it seems, is to go crying to the press:

At a meeting with executives from four of the nation’s largest banks earlier this month, the chief of the government’s auto task force, Steven Rattner, delivered a message that shocked some in the room.

To save Chrysler, he told them, the four banks and several other financial firms would have to surrender their claims to most of the $7 billion the automaker owed them. And what would the banks get in return for this sacrifice? Nothing.

“People’s jaws just dropped,” said a person familiar with the discussions.

Lemme guess, that person familiar with the discussions was a banker, right?

The fact is that the bankers don’t have much of a leg to stand on here. The government is asking them to take about 15 cents on the dollar — which aligns almost exactly with the market price of Chrysler’s debt. The bankers, meanwhile, are holding out for more — as much as 50 cents on the dollar — based on pointless hypotheticals about how much money they might end up getting repaid in a liquidation.

The WaPo story continues:

The banks — J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — have all since balked at the government’s proposal. This week, they are drafting a counteroffer.

But those four banks are themselves recipients of billions of dollars in government largesse. Collectively, they have received $90 billion from the rescue program for the country’s banks. Now, their critics say, the firms have an obligation to cooperate as the government seeks to save Chrysler.

“These are banks that have received substantial investments from the government,” said Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), whose district includes Chrysler headquarters. “We hope they will understand that what was given to them was not for their benefit, but to get the economy moving again and maintain American jobs. People are angry that again it seems like the banks are standing in the way.”

While this might be the right poetic response to the banks, there are more mundane and less philosophical reasons why their plaints should be brushed off. Firstly, Chrysler is not going to be liquidated: that is not, and never was, an option — especially in the present economic environment, when the market for Detroit’s hypothetical cast-offs is, let’s say, highly illiquid.

And secondly, the only reason why the banks’ loans are worth anything at all is that the government has already poured billions of dollars of TARP money into Chrysler. If the banks continue to insist on talking about hypothetical liquidations, they should be asked how much money is likely to remain for them if the government is first in line for repayment.

Up until now, big and powerful creditors have done very well out of Detroit: just look at the way that the government blinked first when it asked GM’s bondholders to take a large haircut before any TARP money would arrive. They said no, and the TARP money arrived anyway. This time, it’s the government which will (please) stand firm. Washington holds all the cards, and the banks are ultimately going to have to do what they’re told. If the government blinks again, the probability that it will ever be able to seriously regulate these banks drops to zero.

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