Are the banks in trouble?
By Mike Whitney
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 10, 2007, 01:25

�The new capitalist gods must love the poor -- they are making so many more of them.� Bill Bonner, �The Daily Reckoning�

�The hope of every central bank is that the real problem can be kept from public view. The truth is that the public -- even professionals on Wall Street -- have no clue what the real problem is. They know it has something to do with derivatives, but none of them realize that it�s more than a $20 trillion mountain of unfunded, unregulated paper that has just been discovered to not have a market and, therefore, no real value . . . When the dollar realizes the seriousness of the situation -- be that now or sometime soon -- the bottom will drop out.� --Jim Sinclair, Investment analyst

About a month ago, I wrote an article �Stock Market Brushfire: Will there be a run on the banks?� which showed how the collapse in the housing market and the deterioration in mortgage-backed bonds (CDOs) in the secondary market was creating difficulties for the banking system. Now these problems are becoming more apparent.

From the Wall Street Journal: �The rising interbank lending rates are a proxy of sorts for the increased risk that some banks, somewhere, may go belly up.� (Editorial; WSJ, 9-6-07)

Ironically, the WSJ editorial staff -- which normally defends deregulation and laissez faire economics "tooth-n-nail" -- is now calling for regulators to make sure they are �on top of the banks they are supposed to be regulating, so we don�t get any surprise bank failures that spook the markets and confirm the worst fears being whispered about.�

�Surprise bank failures?�

Henry Liu sums it up like this in his article, "The Rise of the non-bank system" -- required reading for anyone who wants to understand why a stock market crash is imminent: �Banks worldwide now reportedly face risk exposure of US$891 billion in asset-backed commercial paper facilities (ABCP) due to callable bank credit agreements with borrowers designed to ensure ABCP investors are paid back when the short-term debt matures, even if banks cannot sell new ABCP on behalf of the issuing companies to roll over the matured debt because the market views the assets behind the paper as of uncertain market value.

"This signifies that the crisis is no longer one of liquidity, but of deteriorating creditworthiness system-wide that restoring liquidity alone cannot cure. The liquidity crunch is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a decade of permissive tolerance for credit abuse in which the banks, regulators and rating agencies were willing accomplices." (Henry Liu,�The Rise of the Non-bank System,� Asia Times)

That's right; nearly $1 trillion in worthless paper is clogging the system, putting the kibosh on the big private equity deals and spreading panic through the money markets. It's a slow-motion train wreck and there's not a thing the Fed can do about it.

This isn't a liquidity problem that can be fixed by lowering the Fed's fund rate and creating more easy credit. This is a solvency crisis; the underlying assets upon which this world of "structured finance" is built have no established market value, therefore -- as Jim Sinclair suggests -- they're worthless. That means that the trillions of dollars which have been leveraged against these shaky assets -- in the form of credit default swaps (CDSs) and numerous other bizarre-sounding derivatives -- will begin to cascade down wiping out trillions in market value.

How serious is it? Economist Liu puts it like this: "Even if the Fed bails out the banks by easing bank reserve and capital requirements to absorb that massive amount, the raging forest fire in the non-bank financial system will still present finance capitalism with its greatest test in eight decades."


Credit standards are tightening and banks are increasingly reluctant to lend money to each other not knowing who may be sitting on billions of dollars in toxic mortgage-backed debt. (Collateralized debt obligations) It makes no difference that the �underlying economy is sound� as Bernanke likes to say. When banks hesitate to lend money to each other; it shows that there is real uncertainty about the solvency of the other banks. It slows down commerce and the gears on the economic machine begin to rust in place.

The banks' woes have been exacerbated by the flight of investors from money market funds, many of which are backed by Mortgage-backed Securities (MBS). Wary investors are running for the safety of US Treasuries even though yields that have declined at a record pace. This is causing problems in the Commercial Paper market as well as for the lesser known SIVs and �conduits.� These abstruse sounding investment vehicles are the essential plumbing that maintains normalcy in the markets. Commercial paper is a $2.2 trillion market. When it shrinks by more than $200 billion -- as it has in the last three weeks -- the effects can be felt through the entire system.

The credit crunch has spread across the whole gamut of commercial paper and low-grade debt. Banks are hoarding cash and refusing loans to even creditworthy applicants. The collapse in subprime loans is just part of the story. More than 50 percent of all mortgages in the last two years have been unconventional loans -- no down payment, no verification of income, �no doc,� interest-only, negative amortization, piggyback, 2-28s, teaser rates, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). All of these reflect the shoddy lending standards of the past few years and all are contributing to the unprecedented rate of defaults. Now the banks are holding $300 billion of these "unmarketable" mortgage-backed CDOs and another $200 billion in equally-suspect CLOs. (Collateralized loan obligations; the CDOs corporate-twin).

Even more worrisome, the large investment banks have myriad �off-book� operations which are in distress. This has forced the banks to circle the wagons and reduce their issuance of loans, which is accelerating the downturn in housing. Typically, housing bubbles unwind very slowly over a five- to 10-year period. That won�t be the case this time. The surge in inventory, the financial distress of many homeowners and the complete breakdown in loan-origination (due to the growing credit crunch) ensures that the housing market will crash-land sometime in late 2008 or early 2009. The banks are expected to write-off a considerable portion of their CDO-debt at the end of the 3rd quarter rather than keep the losses on their books. This will further hasten the decline in housing prices.

The banks are also suffering from the sudden sluggishness in leveraged buyouts (LBOs). Credit problems have slowed private equity deals to a dribble. In July, there were $579 billion in LBOs. In August, that number shrank to a paltry $222 billion. In September, those figures will deteriorate to double digits. The big deals aren�t getting done and debt is not rolling over. More than $1 trillion in debt will have to be refinanced in the next five weeks. In the present climate, that doesn�t look likely. Something�s has got to give. The market has frozen and the Fed�s $60 billion repo-lifeline has done nothing to help.

In the first seven months of 2007, LBOs accounted for �$37 of every $100 spent on deals in the US.�

Thirty-seven percent! How will the financial giants make up for the windfall profits that these deals generated?

Answer: They won�t. Just as they won�t make up for the enormous origination fees they made from �securitizing� mortgages and selling them off to credulous pension funds, insurance companies and foreign banks.

As Steven Rattner of DLJ Merchant Banking said, �It�s become nearly impossible to finance a private equity transaction of over $1 billion.� (WSJ) The Golden Era of Acquisitions and Mega-mergers is coming to an end. We can expect that the financial giants will probably follow the same trajectory as the dot-coms following the 2001 NASDAQ rout.

The investment banks are also facing enormous potential losses from liabilities that �operate off their balance sheets� In David Reilly�s article, �Conduit Risks are hovering over Citigroup� (WSJ 9-5-07), Reilly points out that �banks such as Citigroup Inc. could find themselves burdened by affiliated investment vehicles that issue tens of billions of dollars in short-term debt known as commercial paper . . . Citigroup, for example, owns about 25 percent of the market for SIVs, representing nearly $100 billion of assets under management. The largest Citigroup SIV is Centauri Corp., which had $21 billion in outstanding debt as of February 2007, according to a Citigroup research report. There is no mention of Centauri in its 2006 annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"Yet some investors worry that if vehicles such as Centauri stumble, either failing to sell commercial paper or suffering severe losses in the assets it holds, Citibank could wind up having to help by lending funds to keep the vehicle operating or even taking on some losses."

So, many investors don�t know that Citigroup could be holding the bag for �$21 billion in outstanding debt�? Or, perhaps, the entire $100 billion is red ink; who knows? (Citigroup�s stock dropped by more than 2 percent after this report appeared in the WSJ.)

Another report, which appeared in CNN Money, further adds to the suspicion that the banks� �brokerage affiliates� may be in trouble: �The Aug. 20 letters from the Fed to Citigroup and Bank of America state that the Fed, which regulates large parts of the U.S. financial system, has agreed to exempt both banks from rules that effectively limit the amount of lending that their federally-insured banks can do with their brokerage affiliates. The exemption, which is temporary, means, for example, that Citigroup's Citibank entity can substantially increase funding to Citigroup Global Markets, its brokerage subsidiary. Citigroup and Bank of America requested the exemptions, according to the letters, to provide liquidity to those holding mortgage loans, mortgage-backed securities, and other securities . . . This unusual move by the Fed shows that the largest Wall Street firms are continuing to have problems funding operations during the current market difficulties.� (CNN Money)

Does this mean that the other large banks are involved in the same type of �hide-n-seek� strategies? Sounds a lot like Enron�s �off-the-books� shenanigans, doesn�t it?

Wall Street Journal: �'Any off-balance-sheet issues are traditionally poorly disclosed, so to some extent, you're dependent on the insight that management is willing to provide you and that, frankly, is very limited,' says Mark Fitzgibbon, director of research at Sandler O'Neill & Partners. ' . . . Accounting rules don�t require banks to separately record anything related to the risk that they will have to loan the entities money to keep them functioning during a markets crisis. . . . The vehicles [SIVs and conduits] are often established in a tax haven and are run solely for investment purposes as opposed to typical corporate activities.'�

Still think the banks are on solid ground?

�Citigroup, the nation's largest bank as measured by market value and assets. Its latest financial results showed that it administers off-balance-sheet, conduit vehicles used to issue commercial paper that have assets of about $77 billion.

"Citigroup is also affiliated with structured investment vehicles, or SIVs that have 'nearly $100 billion' in assets, according to a letter Citigroup wrote to some investors in these vehicles last month.� (IBID)

Yes, and how many of these �assets� are in fact corporate debt, auto loans, credit card debt, and student loans that have been securitized and are now under extreme pressure in a slumping market?

In an �up market� loans can provide a valuable income stream that transforms someone else�s debt into a valuable asset. In a "down market," however, defaults can wipe out trillions in market capitalization overnight.

How did we get into this mess?

More than 20 years of dogged lobbying from the financial industry paid off with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was passed by Congress following the 1929 stock market crash. The bill was written to limit the conflicts of interest when commercial banks are permitted to underwrite stocks or bonds.

The financial industry whittled away at Glass-Steagall for years before finally breaking down its regulatory restrictions in August 1987, when Alan Greenspan -- formerly a director of J.P. Morgan and a proponent of banking deregulation -- became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

�In 1990, J.P. Morgan became the first bank to receive permission from the Federal Reserve to underwrite securities, so long as its underwriting business does not exceed the 10 percent limit. In December 1996, with the support of Chairman Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board issued a precedent-shattering decision permitting bank holding companies to own investment bank affiliates with up to 25 percent of their business in securities underwriting (up from 10 percent).

"This expansion of the loophole created by the Fed's 1987 reinterpretation of Section 20 of Glass-Steagall effectively rendered Glass-Steagall obsolete.� (�The Long Demise of Glass Steagall, Frontline, PBS)

In 1999, after 25 years and $300 million of lobbying efforts, Congress, aided by President Bill Clinton, finally repealed Glass-Steagall. This paved the way for the problems we are now facing.

Another contributing factor to the current banking-muddle is the Basel rules. According to the BIS (Bank of International Settlements) website: �The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision provides a forum for regular cooperation on banking supervisory matters. Its objective is to enhance understanding of key supervisory issues and improve the quality of banking supervision worldwide. It seeks to do so by exchanging information on national supervisory issues, approaches and techniques, with a view to promoting common understanding. At times, the Committee uses this common understanding to develop guidelines and supervisory standards in areas where they are considered desirable. In this regard, the Committee is best known for its international standards on capital adequacy; the Core Principles for Effective Banking Supervision; and the Concordat on cross-border banking supervision.�

The Basel Committee on Banking (Basel 2) requires �banks to boost the capital they hold in reserve against the loans on their books.�

Sounds like a good thing, doesn�t it? This protects the overall financial system as well as the individual depositor. Unfortunately, the banks found a way to circumvent the rules for minimum reserves by �securitizing� pools of mortgages (MBS) rather than holding individual mortgages. (which called for more reserves) This provided lavish origination and distribution fees for banks, but shifted much of the risk of default to Wall Street investors. Now, the banks are saddled with roughly $300 billion in mortgage-backed debt (CDOs) that no one wants and it is uncertain whether they have sufficient reserves to cover their losses.

By October, we should know how this will all play out. As David Wessel points out in �New Bank Capital requirements helped to Spread Credit Woes�: �Banks now behave more like securities firms, more likely to mark down the value of assets when market prices fall -- even to distressed levels -- rather than sitting on bad loans for a decade and pretending they�ll be paid back.�

The downside of this is that once that banks write off these toxic MBSs and CDOs; the hedge funds, insurance companies and pension funds will be forced to do the same -- dumping boatloads of this bond-sludge on the market, driving down prices and triggering a panic sell-off. This is what the Fed is trying to prevent through its $60 billion repo-bailout.

Regrettably, the Fed cannot hope to remove a half-trillion dollars of bad debt from the balance sheets of the banks or forestall the collapse of related financial institutions and funds which are loaded with these �unmarketable� time-bombs. Besides, most of the mortgage derivatives (CDOs) have been massively enhanced with low interest leverage from the �carry trade.� When the value of these CDOs is finally determined -- which we expect will happen sometime before the end of the 3rd quarter -- we can expect the stock market to fall sharply and the housing recession to turn into a full-blown economic crisis.

Alan Greenspan: The Fifth Horseman?

So, who�s to blame? The finger pointing has already begun and more and more people are beginning to see how this massive economy-busting equity bubble originated at the Federal Reserve -- it is the logical corollary of former Fed chief Alan Greenspan's �easy money� policies.

Henry C K Liu sums up Greenspan�s tenure at the Fed in his Asia Times article, �Why the Subprime Bust Will Spread�: �Greenspan presided over the greatest expansion of speculative finance in history, including a trillion-dollar hedge-fund industry, bloated Wall Street-firm balance sheets approaching $2 trillion, a $3.3 trillion repo (repurchase agreement) market, and a global derivatives market with notional values surpassing an unfathomable $220 trillion.

"On Greenspan's 18-year watch, assets of US government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) ballooned 830 percent, from $346 billion to $2.872 trillion. GSEs are financing entities created by the US Congress to fund subsidized loans to certain groups of borrowers such as middle- and low-income homeowners, farmers and students. Agency mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) surged 670 percent to $3.55 trillion. Outstanding asset-backed securities (ABSs) exploded from $75 billion to more than $2.7 trillion.�

"The greatest expansion of speculative finance in history." That says it all.

But no one makes the case against Greenspan better than Greenspan himself. Here are some of his comments at the Federal Reserve System�s Fourth Annual Community Affairs Research Conference, Washington, D.C., April 8, 2005. They show that Greenspan �rubber stamped� every one of the policies which have since metastasized and spread through the entire US economy.

Greenspan, Champion of Subprime loans: �Innovation has brought about a multitude of new products, such as subprime loans and niche credit programs for immigrants. Such developments are representative of the market responses that have driven the financial services industry throughout the history of our country. With these advance in technology, lenders have taken advantage of credit-scoring models and other techniques for efficiently extending credit to a broader spectrum of consumers.�

Greenspan, Main Proponent of Toxic CDOs: �The development of a broad-based secondary market for mortgage loans also greatly expanded consumer access to credit. By reducing the risk of making long-term, fixed-rate loans and ensuring liquidity for mortgage lenders, the secondary market helped stimulate widespread competition in the mortgage business. The mortgage-backed security helped create a national and even an international market for mortgages, and market support for a wider variety of home mortgage loan products became commonplace. This led to securitization of a variety of other consumer loan products, such as auto and credit card loans.�

Greenspan, Supporter of Loans to People with Bad Credit: �Where once more marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit, lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately.

"These improvements have led to the rapid growth in subprime mortgage lending . . . fostering constructive innovation that is both responsive to market demand and beneficial to consumers.

�Improved access to credit for consumers, and especially these more-recent developments, has had significant benefits.

Unquestionably, innovation and deregulation have vastly expanded credit availability to virtually all income classes. Access to credit has enabled families to purchase homes, deal with emergencies, and obtain goods and services. Home ownership is at a record high, and the number of home mortgage loans to low- and moderate-income and minority families has risen rapidly over the past five years. Credit cards and installment loans are also available to the vast majority of households�

Greenspan, Big Fan of �Structural Changes� Which Increase Consumer Debt: "As we reflect on the evolution of consumer credit in the United States, we must conclude that innovation and structural change in the financial services industry have been critical in providing expanded access to credit for the vast majority of consumers, including those of limited means. Without these forces, it would have been impossible for lower-income consumers to have the degree of access to credit markets that they now have.

"This fact underscores the importance of our roles as policymakers, researchers, bankers, and consumer advocates in fostering constructive innovation that is both responsive to market demand and beneficial to consumers.�

Greenspan�s own words are the most powerful indictment against him. They show that he played a central role in our impending disaster. The effort on the part of media pundits, talking heads, and so-called experts to foist the blame on the rating agencies, predatory lenders or gullible mortgage applicants misses the point entirely. The problems began at the Federal Reserve and that�s where the responsibility lies.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor