WASHINGTON — No one denies the job is difficult. Everyone agrees the deadline was tight. But few were impressed Tuesday when the Obama administration unveiled its improvements to the government's rescue of the financial services industry.
The plan is short on pivotal details like how to establish values for illiquid assets and it puts off crucial issues like accelerating the pace of loan modifications. More "transparency" was pledged, but exactly how the government will force banks to prove they are using capital injections to finance new loans remains unclear.
President Obama had set the stage on Monday night by pledging Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's comprehensive strategy would restore confidence, but the stock market, and bank shares in particular, plunged Tuesday.
"I heard the president say that today you would outline a very clear and specific plan," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Mr. Geithner during a Senate Banking hearing Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, that didn't happen."
The financial rescue has a partisan element to it, of course, but Democrats openly voiced doubts as well.
"You started off on the right track. … But I have to be honest with you, a lot of questions remain," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told the Treasury secretary. "A lot of details are necessary before I can give it my support. … Right now I don't understand what the full plan is."
Among many issues left hanging is how the Treasury plans to slow the pace of foreclosures. Mr. Geithner said the agency would devote $50 billion to a foreclosure mitigation program, but he said details would not be released for at least two weeks. That angered administration allies including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd.
Sen. Dodd said he would have made foreclosure prevention the "No. 1 priority," ahead of other plans for another round of capital injections in banks, and Rep. Frank said he was disappointed the administration was taking so long to unveil a plan.
"The secretary said the administration would present details of their foreclosure reduction plan in a few weeks, which is too much time," Rep. Frank said.
Ultimately, many concluded that the Obama administration was just as lost on how to combat the financial crisis as the Bush administration.
"The bottom line is the market expected a detailed plan to respond to the credit crisis. That's what we were promised, and Geithner failed to deliver," said Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Stanford Research Group. "They've had months to craft this, and it seems like it just came together in a matter of hours and days."
(The Dow Jones industrial average lost 4.6% while KBW Bank Index fell 13.8%. Bank losses were widespread. Citigroup Inc. lost 15% and Bank of America Corp. lost 19.3%. Wells Fargo & Co. shed 14.2%, JPMorgan Chase & Co. 9.75%, and U.S. Bancorp 13.8%.)
Sen. Richard Shelby, the Senate Banking Committee's top Republican, said he was dismayed at the lack of detail.
"We need more information — I don't see the details," he told Mr. Geithner. "What is different about the process that you are offering such that we should have confidence it is well thought out?"
Mr. Geithner acknowledged that Treasury had not provided many details — but said doing so was a conscious decision.
"We did not lay out a level of detail to allow you to examine their efficacy and we are not claiming today we are doing that," he said during his third hour of testimony. "I do not want to put my department in the position of putting out partial details ahead of when they have been worked out. I don't think that's fair. We wanted to do this in a way that's careful and responsible."
Asked how Treasury would price assets, Mr. Geithner said it was still being worked out.
"There are no perfect ways to do this," he said. It is "enormously complicated to get it right and we are going to try and get it right before we lay out the details."
Treasury does plan to create a "bad bank" to buy toxic assets that would purchase $500 billion to $1 trillion of troubled assets. Left unclear was how much the government would invest, whether there would be one bad bank or several and how private capital would be encouraged to participate.
Observers also questioned whether private investors will rally to the public/private partnership.
"Nobody's buying these assets now and it's hard to imagine why they would want to enter into a partnership with the government to do it," said Chris Low, chief economist for First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial. "We wanted to hear not necessarily names, but numbers, like there have been several hundred billion in commitments."
"There is no sign that private capital is sitting on the sidelines ready to come in," Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said during the hearing.
Mr. Geithner implied some sort of guarantee may be offered, but he gave no details. "The government has to step in and be willing to take risks for a temporary period of time to help solve that problem," Mr. Geithner said.
Other elements of the plan also had problems.
The administration announced it is amping up its contribution to a Federal Reserve Board program designed to free up secondary markets for consumer loans. It also agreed to expand the program from auto, credit card, and student loans to include commercial mortgage-backed securities. But the Fed was more tentative. (See related story.)
The Treasury also pledged to inject more money — it did not say how much more — into banks, in addition to the $250 billion already allocated. Institutions with more than $100 billion of assets requesting Tarp assistance will be subject to a "stress test" before receiving funding. The new test is designed to ensure those that need the capital are healthy enough to be able to lend it.
The Treasury provided no details on how the stress test will differ from existing regulatory exams, and some said it sent a bad message: that the government does not know how dire the industry's situation is.
"The other huge uncertainty here is the size of the hole — how much money we're going to have to pour into the banks before they become … fully capitalized," said Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation. "The market is guessing about the size of the hole."
To address criticism over how the funds have been used, the Treasury said it would also require Tarp recipients to report how every dollar of their rescue funds is being used for new lending. But observers said that was easier said than done.
"I haven't spoken with a banker yet who believes that tracking the use of Tarp proceeds will make a hoot of difference," said Kip Weissman, a partner at Luse Gorman. "It is impossible to determine whether any individual loan was made with funds received from the federal government or funds from the little old lady in tennis shoes."