In bid to attract smaller buyers, US relaxes rules on bad assets

Associated Press / April 7, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Treasury Department is making it easier for hedge funds and other private investors to participate in its plan for buying up banks' bad assets, an acknowledgment that the interest level so far has been lackluster.

Analysts said the move shows the program hasn't yet attracted enough large fund managers, who may be wary of ending up on the wrong side of a congressional probe or public backlash. The program's requirements also excluded too many smaller managers, they said.

The government is relying on private investors to purchase poorly performing real estate investments currently weighing on bank balance sheets.

Yesterday, the Treasury relaxed a requirement that companies already manage at least $10 billion of the mortgage-backed securities to participate. A Treasury official said only a few firms qualified. The department also emphasized that the program is open to small firms owned by women and minorities and said it will encourage such firms to partner with private asset managers.

"Clearly, they weren't getting the participation they needed," said Bernie McGinn, chief executive of McGinn Investment Management, a money manager based in Alexandria, Va.

Some fund managers are concerned about teaming up with the government after the firestorm over bonuses paid to executives at insurance giant American International Group, which has received $182.5 billion in bailout funds. The House has approved legislation taxing the bonuses at 90 percent, though the measure hasn't become law.

"Investors are leery about getting involved with any government program, because they don't want to be very visible," said Steven Persky, managing partner and cofounder of Dalton Investments, a hedge fund specializing in distressed debt. "You don't want to be on the wrong side of a congressional investigation."

Large banks that have received billions in government bailout funds could seek to buy toxic assets through the public-private partnership, though Treasury said it would consider an institution's overall financial health before approving its application.

But McGinn noted that some large banks are more likely to sell assets into the program than buy.

Representatives from Citigroup and Morgan Stanley said those companies were evaluating the government partnership. A Goldman Sachs Inc. spokesman declined to comment.

The application deadline for private fund managers was extended until April 24.

Treasury officials plan to approve the first set of applications by May 15. Those managers would then raise capital, which Treasury has offered to match. The private firms also can borrow additional money from Treasury or the Fed.

The plan is that firms would then use that pot of money to purchase toxic assets from banks.