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US to spend 500b to clean bad assets

WASHINGTON, Mar 23 – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced late Sunday a new 500-billion-dollar federal program to remove from bank balance sheets troubled assets that he said "are now clogging" the US financial system.

"The financial system as a whole is still working against recovery," Geithner wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal outlining his plans.

"Many banks, still burdened by bad lending decisions, are holding back on providing credit."

The administration of President Barack Obama has developed a new "Public-Private Investment Program" that will set up funds to provide a market for the troubled loans and securities issued by banks over the past several years, he wrote.

"The new Public-Private Investment Program will initially provide financing for 500 billion dollars with the potential to expand up to one trillion dollars over time, which is a substantial share of real-estate related assets originated before the recession that are now clogging our financial system," Geithner pointed out.

The treasury secretary was due to make a formal announcement of the plan and provide details at press conference on Monday.
In the op-ed piece Geithner indicated the program will have three essential elements.

It will use funds from the Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Federal Reserve to mobilize capital from private investors.

Second, it will ensure that private-sector participants share the risks alongside with the government, and that the government shares in potential profits from these investments.

The funds established under the program will be open to investors of all types, including pension funds, Geithner noted.

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Third, the value of the loans and securities purchased under the program will be established by the private sector in order to protect the government from overpaying for the assets, according to the secretary.

"Over time, by providing a market for these assets that does not now exist, this program will help improve asset values, increase lending capacity by banks, and reduce uncertainty about the scale of losses on bank balance sheets," Geithner noted.

He said the ability to sell assets to these funds will make it easier for banks to raise private capital, which will accelerate their ability to replace the capital investments provided by the Treasury.

Despite the crisis facing the US banking system, Geithner described it as "diverse and resilient."

But he cautioned that the process of repairing it "will take time, and progress will be uneven, with periods of stress and fragility."

However, the treasury secretary expressed confidence that the economic policies adopted by the Obama administration "will work."

The comments followed an optimistic assessment of the US economy provided by President Obama in a television interview broadcast earlier Sunday.

"Well, we\’re already starting to see flickers of hope out there," Obama told the CBS program "60 Minutes," noting that mortgage refinancings have significantly increased and interest rates have never been lower.

"That promises the possibility at least of the housing market bottoming out and stabilizing."

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But Obama warned of a system-wide collapse with the potential to trigger an economic "depression" if another big financial institution like insurer American International Group (AIG) or banking giant Citibank were to fail.

"Yes," said the president, "I think that systemic risks are still out there. And if we did nothing you could still have some big problems."

But he said stressed that he was optimistic about that not happening because American society "did learn lessons from the Great Depression."

In Japan, the Nikkei stock index reacted quickly by rising more than three percent in early afternoon trading Monday on optimism about plans announced by Geithner.

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