Paulson's squad at Treasury pumped $250 billion into the largest banks, buying their stock at inflated prices on the assumption it would persuade investors to step forward with their capital too. Instead, savvy financial players realized Paulson was spitting into a high wind, trying to save a system with stout talk.
Here is the ugly, unofficial truth that neither Wall Street nor the government will acknowledge: the pinnacle of the US financial system is broke -- with perhaps $2 trillion in rotten financial assets on the books. Nobody knows, exactly. The bankers won't say, and regulators won't ask, or at least don't dare tell the public. Official silence naturally feeds the conviction that banking's problems are far worse than we've been told. The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College puts it plainly: "It is probable that many and perhaps most financial institutions are insolvent today -- with a black hole of negative net worth that would swallow Paulson's entire $700 billion in one gulp."
The scale of this disaster explains why the Treasury secretary had to abandon his original plan to buy up failed mortgages and other bad assets from the banks. If government paid the true value for these nearly worthless assets, the banks would have to write down huge losses or, as Levy economists put it, "announce to the world that they are insolvent." On the other hand, if Paulson pumps the purchase price high enough to protect the banks from losses, $700 billion "will buy only a tiny fraction of the 'troubled' assets."