jimsaftcolumn-- James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. --

U.S. plans for a public-private fund to buy up toxic assets are likely to amount to a fig leaf with which to hide subsidies to failing banks.

It is also, inevitably, an entirely new subsidy to outside investors, who by definition will only participate if they get better terms than now available in what we formerly thought of as the free market.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner last week announced the plan, which will provide between $500 billion and $1 trillion of financing to private sector funds which will use the money to lever up their own capital and make offers for complex and doubtful securities now clogging balance sheets. Further details are to follow.

But it's likely the plan won't work, if by work we mean come up with a believable price for these assets.

Banks won't sell at market prices because to do so would make many fall over bankrupt. The U.S. can surely manipulate prices by providing cheap and plentiful leverage - sound familiar? - but that will be seen for what it is; a subsidy for the funds and the banks rather than a firm base to allow confidence to return.