Will U.S. move toward British bailout approach? Maybe

LONDON — A day after the United Kingdom unveiled a big bailout plan of its own, the approach crafted here is being talked about by many analysts as the right way forward for other countries too — possibly including the U.S. Investors might be forgiven for wondering which government is at the forefront of efforts to curb the global financial crisis. Many had assumed it was America, whose dramatic congressional battle over a $700 billion bailout package grabbed the world's attention two weeks ago.

The most telling sign that Britain's plan has been noticed abroad is the shifting language of Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary, who wrote the first draft of America's financial bailout.

"We will use all the tools we've been given to maximum effectiveness, including strengthening the capitalization of financial institutions of every size," he said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Until then, the most discussed aspect of the U.S. bailout had been a government plan to purchase troubled assets from banks. Suddenly Paulson was talking about something that sounded rather like the British approach, which had been unveiled hours earlier by his counterparts in London.

The $692 billion British package outlined on Wednesday morning contains three key elements designed to address specific bank's worries about capital, funding and liquidity. The first piece is an injection of up to $86.5 billion of public money to recapitalize British banks. The government will initially pay $43 billion to take equity stakes in big banks (eight of them will be the prime beneficiaries), with the possibility that it will double that amount. This effectively represents a partial nationalization.

The second aspect of the plan is up to $432.5 billion in government loan guarantees to banks. These will be offered at commercial rates, with the aim of encouraging jittery banks to start lending to each other again. The third piece involves an increase in the amount of short-term cash — sometimes as briefly as overnight — that the government will provide to money markets.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor as chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling — the U.K. equivalent of U.S. treasury secretary — are urging other countries to follow their lead.

Officials across Europe and even in developing countries are said to be looking closely at the British plan. Brown, in describing the plan on Wednesday, took a political dig at Washington's bailout when he said the time for buying distressed assets was past. He argued that a government infusion of cash into banks not only will get them back on their feet, but also promote better discipline and supervision.

Charles Goodhart, a professor of banking and finance at the London School of Economics, said the British bailout plan "goes more directly at the root of the problem" than America's plan.

One problem with America's emphasis on distressed assets, he said, is that the value of many of those assets is tied to what happens in the housing market. If home prices continue to fall, the government would lose money on the assets, and if prices rise it might appear to be "a backdoor subsidization."

Goodhart said Washington has thus far emphasized distressed assets rather than bank recapitalization for "political" reasons. In other words, he said, a Republican administration might find the notion of partial nationalization of banks distasteful.

Brown acknowledged such resistance in his remarks about Britain's bailout. "The problem that started in America has now hurt every banking system on every continent in the world," he said. "This is not a time for outdated dogma."

One U.S. firm agrees.

"If Paulson heeds the advice of Brown and Darling, the chances that the U.S. economy will be steered away from a deep recession extending through 2009 will be greatly improved," according to analysts at RDQ Economics, a New York research firm.

Both Paulson and Darling will have a chance to make their cases on Friday when finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of Seven — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. — meet in Washington.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent in London.)


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