The big problem with Tim Geithner's plan to fix the banks is the same as it ever was: The gap between what banks say their assets are worth and what the market says they are worth.
When a bank says an asset is worth 60 cents and the market says it's worth 30 cents, someone has to cover that spread. The genius of Geithner's plan is that it pawns most of the cost (and most of the risk) off on the taxpayer without the taxpayer noticing.
But unless the taxpayer gets stuck with the entire spread, which is probably what Geithner is hoping, banks that sell assets will have to take massive writedowns. This will start the whole cycle of violence again.
This risk to the banks is particularly acute when dealing with whole loans that the banks currently say they have no plans to sell. These loans are often carried at 100 cents on the dollar, because loans classified as held to maturity don't have to be marked to market. Even subsidized buyers won't likely be willing to pay anywhere near 100 cents on the dollar for these loans. So, here, the writedowns could potentially be huge.
And then there's another problem:
If the banks go through the exercise of putting assets up for sale only to have the bids come in at, say, 40 cents instead of the 60 cents on the books, the banks' accountants and/or federal regulators might notice. So even if the banks recoil in horror and refuse to sell at 40 cents, someone somewhere might insist that assets now carried at 60 cents be written down to 40 cents (after all, they won't have the "temporary illiquidity discount" excuse anymore, will they?). This will blow another huge hole in the banks' balance sheets.
Given this, banks would probably be wise not to participate in Geithner's plan. Which is why the government is already talking about forcing them to:
As the FT reports: "The unspoken fear here is that selling off loan portfolios would lead to more government capital injections into major banks," said an executive at a large bank...
Richard Bove, an analyst at Rochdale Research, wrote in a note to clients: "[The plan] will not happen because it would destroy bank capital. It might cause a bank to fail the new stress tests under way. Banks will not take this risk."
But while banks in theory have discretion over whether to sell loans, Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, said this decision would be made "in consultation with regulators" - a sign that the authorities might put pressure on banks to sell toxic assets.
It's time to face the fact that we have already de facto nationalized the big banks -- and that the way we've done it is worse than standard receivership and restructuring. The longer we remain in denial about this, the worse off we'll be. But that's another story...
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