Less than two weeks into it, the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Next week, several hundred billion dollars of credit default swap (default insurance) payments on Lehman's debt default are due. No one quite knows who owes what and if they're good for it. Hence the urgency in Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke's plan to inject $250 billion directly into bank balance sheets, which seems a necessary evil to get capital to the right place and help weaker banks save face. The credit markets agree -- so far.
Wall Street and banks live by short-term loans. But as a loan shark might say, right now, nobody wants to lend to nobody. The rate that banks charge each other, the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), has been trading so high above three-month Treasury-bill rates (on Monday it was 4.75% vs. 0.11%) that no one is lending. This so-called TED spread -- the difference between what banks pay and what the Treasury pays to borrow for three months -- signals the health of credit markets and has rarely been over 1% since the 1987 crash. The Treasury is clearly focused on this metric and needs to get it down to historic spreads. First it has to change the current mentality of "who wants to lend to the next Lehman or Wachovia?"