With their balance sheets restored to health, goes the theory, the banks will lend again. Investors who team up with Uncle Sam get a chance to make a fortune with very little risk: The government will provide half the equity, and the partnerships can juice returns by borrowing more funds on attractive terms from the Federal Reserve or by securing private-sector loans whose repayment is guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Besides the generous terms, the partnerships have loopholes big enough for an investment banker to drive his Ferrari through. The basic problem: Everyone gets to play. Banks selling dubious assets can finance their sale to the partnerships, investors can buy debt from banks in which they own shares, and on and on. Strictly speaking, there's nothing wrong with much of this. But many of the strategies to exploit the partnerships increase the chance that the feds will overpay for the debt, sticking taxpayers with the bill.