Staring into the Abyss: The Collapse of the Modern Day Banking System
By Mike Whitney, Dec 21, 2007, 12:40
In past financial crises… the Fed has been able to wave its magic wand and make market turmoil disappear. But this time the magic isn’t working. Why not? Because the problem with the markets isn’t just a lack of liquidity — there’s also a fundamental problem of solvency.” – Paul Krugman
Stocks fell sharply last week on news of accelerating inflation which will limit the Federal Reserves ability to continue cutting interest rates. On Tuesday the Dow Jones Industrials tumbled 294 points following the Fed’s announcement of a quarter point cut to the Fed Funds rate. On Friday, the Dow dipped another 178 points when government figures showed consumer prices had risen 0.8% last month after a 0.3% gain in October. The stock market is now lurching downward into a “primary bear market”. There has been a steady deterioration in retail sales, commercial real estate, and the transports. The financial industry is going through a major retrenchment, losing more than 25% in aggregate capitalization since July. The real estate market is collapsing. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on Friday that he will declare a “fiscal emergency” in January and ask for more power to deal with the $14 billion budget shortfall from the meltdown in subprime lending. Economists are beginning to publicly acknowledge what many market analysts have suspected for months; the nation’s economy is going into a tailspin which will inevitably end in a hard landing.
Morgan Stanley’s Asia Chairman, Stephen Roach, made this observation in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday:
This recession will be deeper than the shallow contraction earlier in this decade. The dot-com-led downturn was set off by a collapse in business capital spending, which at its peak in 2000 accounted for only 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The current recession is all about the coming capitulation of the American consumer — whose spending now accounts for a record 72 percent of G.D.P.
Most people have no idea how grave the present situation is or the disaster the country will face if trillions of dollars of over-leveraged bonds and equities begin to unwind. There’s a widespread belief that the stewards of the system—Bernanke and Paulson—can somehow steer the economy through this “rough patch” into calm waters. But they cannot, and the presumption shows a basic misunderstanding of how markets work. The Fed has no magical powers and will it allow itself to be crushed by standing in the path of a market-avalanche. As foreclosures and bankruptcies increase; stocks will crash and the fed will step aside to safety. That much is certain.
In the last few weeks, Bernanke and Paulson have tried a number of strategies that have failed miserably. Paulson concocted a plan to help the major investment banks consolidate and repackage their nonperforming mortgage-backed junk into a “Super SIV” to give them another chance to unload their bad investments on the public. The plan was nothing more than a public relations ploy which has already been abandoned by most of the key participants. Paulson’s involvement is a real black eye for the Dept of the Treasury. It makes it look like he’s willing to dupe investors as long as it helps his well-heeled Wall Street buddies.
Paulson also put together an “industry friendly” rate freeze that is supposed to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. But the plan falls well short of providing any meaningful aid to the estimated 3.5 million homeowners who are facing the prospect of defaulting on their loans if they don’t get government assistance. Recent estimates by industry experts say that Paulson’s plan will only help a meager 140,000 mortgage holders, leaving millions of others to fend for themselves. Paulson has proved over and over that he is just not up to the task of confronting an economic challenge of this magnitude head-on.
Fed chief Bernanke hasn’t done much better than Paulson. His three-quarter point cut to the Fed’s Funds rate hasn’t lowered interest rates on mortgages, stimulated greater home sales, stabilized the stock market or helped banks deal with their massive debt-load. It’s been a flop from start to finish. All its done is weaken the dollar and trigger a wave of inflation. In fact, government figures now show energy prices are rising at a whopping 18.1% annually. Bernanke is apparently following Lenin’s injunction that “The best way to destroy the Capitalist System is to debauch the currency.”
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve initiated a “coordinated effort” with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the and the Swiss National Bank to address the “elevated pressures in short-term funding of the markets.” The Fed issued a statement that “it will make up to $24 billion available to the European Central Bank (ECB) and Swiss National Bank to increase the supply of dollars in Europe.” (Bloomberg) The Fed will also add as much as $40 billion, via auctions, to increase cash in the U.S. Bernanke is trying to loosen the knot that has tightened Libor rates in England and reduced lending between banks. The slowdown is hobbling growth and could send the world into a recessionary spiral. Bernanke’s “master plan” is little more than a cash giveaway to sinking banks. It has no chance of succeeding. The Fed is offering $.85 on the dollar for mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that sold last week in the E*Trade liquidation for $.27 on the dollar. At the same time, the Fed has promised to keep the identities of the banks that are borrowing these emergency funds secret from the public. Thus, accountability and transparency have been both been shattered by one shortsighted action. The Fed is conducting its business like a bookie.
Unfortunately, the Fed bailout has achieved nothing. Libor rates–which are presently at seven-year highs–have not come down at all. This is causing growing concern among the leaders of the Central Banks around the world, but there’s really nothing they can do about it. The banks are hoarding cash to meet their capital requirements. They are trying to compensate for the loss of value to their (mortgage-backed) assets by increasing their reserves. At the same time, the system is clogged with trillions of dollars of bad paper which has brought lending to a grinding halt. The massive injections of liquidity from the Fed have done nothing to improve lending or lower interbank rates. It’s been a complete flop. Bernanke has lost control of the system. The market is driving interest rates now. If the situation persists, the stock market will crash.
STARING INTO THE ABYSS
One of Britain’s leading economists, Peter Spencer, issued a warning on Saturday: “The Government must suspend a set of key banking regulations at the heart of the current financial crisis or risk seeing the economy spiral towards a future that could make 1929 look like a walk in the park”.
Spencer is right. The banks don’t have the money to loan to businesses or consumers because they’re desperately trying to raise more cash to meet their capital requirements on assets that continue to be downgraded. (The Fed may pay $.85 on the dollar, but investors are unwilling to pay anything at all.) Spencer correctly assumes that the reason the banks have stopped lending is not because they “distrust” other banks, but because they are capital-strapped from all their “off balance” sheets shenanigans. If the Basel regulations aren’t modified, money markets will remain frozen, GDP will shrink, and there’ll be a wave of bank closings.
“The Bank is staring into the abyss. The Financial Services Authority must go round and check that all banks are solvent, and then it should cut the Basel capital requirement level from 8pc to about 6pc.” (”Call to Relax Basel Banking Rules,” UK Telegraph)
Spencer confirms what we already knew; the banks are seriously under-capitalized and will come under growing pressure as hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) continue to lose value and have to be propped up with additional capital. The banks simply don’t have the resources and there’s going to be a day of reckoning.
Pimco’s Bill Gross put it like this: “What we are witnessing is essentially the breakdown of our modern day banking system.” Gross is right, but he only covers a small portion of the problem.
Economist Ludwig von Mises is more succinct in his analysis: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought on by credit expansion. The question is only whether the crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”
The basic problem originated with the Federal Reserve when former Fed chief Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates below the rate of inflation for 31 months straight which pumped trillions of dollars of low interest credit into the financial system and ignited a speculative frenzy in real estate. Greenspan has spent a great deal of time lately trying to avoid any blame for the catastrophe he created. He is a first-rate “buck passer”. In Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Greenspan scribbled out a 1,500-word defense of his actions as head of the Federal Reserve pointing the finger at everything from China’s “low cost workforce” to “the fall of the Berlin Wall”. The essay was typical Greenspan gibberish. In his trademark opaque language, Greenspan tiptoes through the well-documented facts of his tenure as Fed chief to absolve himself of any personal responsibility for the ensuing disaster.
Greenspan’s polemic is a masterpiece of circuitous logic, deliberate evasion, and utter denial of reality. He says:
I do not doubt that a low U.S. federal-funds rate in response to the dot-com crash, and especially the 1% rate set in mid-2003 to counter potential deflation, lowered interest rates on adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and may have contributed to the rise in U.S. home prices. In my judgment, however, the impact on demand for homes financed with ARMs was not major.
“Not major”? 3.5 million potential foreclosures, 11 month inventory backlog, plummeting home prices, an entire industry in terminal distress pulling down the global economy is not major?
But Greenspan is partially correct. The troubles in housing cannot be entirely attributed to the Fed’s “cheap credit” monetary policies. They were also nursed along by a Doctrine of Deregulation which has permeated US capital markets since the Reagan era. Greenspan’s views on how markets should function were–to great extent–shaped by this non-interventionist/ non-supervisory ideology which has created enormous equity bubbles and horrendous imbalances. The former-Fed chief’s support for adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and subprime lending; shows that Greenspan thought of himself as more as a cheerleader for the big market-players than an impartial referee whose job was to monitor reckless or unethical behavior.
Greenspan also adds this revealing bit of information in his article:
The value of equities traded on the world’s major stock exchanges has risen to more than $50 trillion, double what it was in 2002. Sharply rising home prices erupted into major housing bubbles world-wide, Japan and Germany (for differing reasons) being the only principal exceptions. (“The Roots of the Mortgage Crisis”, Alan Greenspan, WS Journal)
This admission proves Greenspan’s culpability. If he knew that stock prices had doubled their value in just 3 years, then he also knew that equities had not risen due to increases in productivity or demand.(market forces) The only reasonable explanation for the asset inflation, therefore, was monetary policy. As his own mentor, Milton Friedman famously stated, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”. Any capable economist would have known that the explosion in housing and equities prices was a sign of uneven inflation. Now that the bubble has popped, inflation is spreading like mad through the entire economy.
Greenspan is a very sharp man. It is crazy to think he didn’t know what was going on. This is basic economic theory. Of course he knew why stocks and housing prices were skyrocketing. He was the one who put the dominoes in motion with the help of his well-oiled printing press.
But Greenspan’s low interest credit is only part of the equation. The other part has to do with way that the markets have been transformed by “structured finance”.
What’s so destructive about structured finance is that it allows the banks to create credit “out of thin air”, stripping the Fed of its role as controller of the money supply. Author David Roache explains how this works in an excerpt from his book New Monetarism which appeared in the Wall Street Journal:
The reason for the exponential growth in credit, but not in broad money, WAS SIMPLY THAT BANKS DIDN’T KEEP THEIR LOANS ON THEIR BOOKS ANY MORE—AND ONLY LOANS ON BANK BALANCE SHEETS GET COUNTED AS MONEY. Now, as soon as banks made a loan, they “securitized” it and moved it off their balance sheet.
There were two ways of doing this. One was to sell the securitized loan as a bond. The other was “synthetic” securitization: for example, using derivatives to get rid of the default risk (with credit default swaps) and lock in the interest rate due on the loan (with interest-rate swaps). Both forms of securitization meant that the lending bank was free to make new loans without using up any of its lending capacity once its existing loans had been “securitized.”
So, to redefine liquidity under what I call New Monetarism, one must add, to the traditional definition of broad money, all the credit being created and moved off banks’ balance sheets and onto the balance sheets of nonbank financial intermediaries. This new form of liquidity changed the very nature of the credit beast. What now determined credit growth was risk appetite: the readiness of companies and individuals to run their businesses with higher levels of debt. (Wall Street Journal)
This is truly mind-boggling.
The banks have been creating trillions of dollars of credit (by originating mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and asset-backed commercial paper) without maintaining the proportional capital reserves to back them up. That explains why the banks were so eager to provide mortgages to millions of loan applicants who had no documentation, no income, no collateral and a bad credit history. They believed their was no risk, because they were making enormous profits without tying up any of their capital. It was, quite literally, money for nothing.
Now, unfortunately, the mechanism for generating new loans (and fees) has broken down. The main sources of bank revenue have either been seriously curtailed or dried up entirely. (Mortgage-backed) Commercial paper (ABCP) one such source of revenue, has decreased by a full-third (or $400 billion) in just 17 weeks. Also, the securitization of mortgage-backed securities is DOA. The market for MBSs and CDOs and other complex bonds has followed the Pterodactyl into the history books. The same is true of structured investment vehicles (SIVs) and other “off balance-sheet” swindles which have either gone under entirely or are presently withering with every savage downgrade in mortgage-backed bonds. The mighty gear that was grinding out the hefty profits (“structured investments”) has suddenly reversed and—like a millstone that breaks free from its support-axle–is crushing everything in its path.
The banks don’t have the reserves to cover their downgraded assets and the Federal Reserve cannot simply “monetize” their bad bets. There’s no way out. There are bound to be bankruptcies and bank runs. “Structured finance” has usurped the Fed’s authority to create new credit and handed it over to the banks. Now everyone will pay the price.
Wary investors have lost their appetite for risk and are steering-clear of anything connected to real estate or mortgage-backed bonds. That means that an estimated $3 trillion of securitized debt (CDOs, MBSs and ASCP) will come crashing to earth delivering a withering blow to the economy.
And it’s not just the banks that will take a beating either. As Professor Nouriel Roubini points out, the broker dealers, the investment banks, money market funds, hedge funds and mortgage lenders are in the crosshairs as well.
Non-bank institutions do not have direct access to the Fed and other central banks liquidity support and they ARE NOW AT RISK OF A LIQUIDITY RUN as their liabilities are short term while many of their assets are longer term and illiquid; so the risk of something equivalent to a bank run for non-bank financial institutions is now rising. And there is no chance that depository institutions will re-lend to these to these non-banks the funds borrowed by central banks as these banks have severe liquidity problems themselves and they do not trust their non-bank counterparties. SO NOW MONETARY POLICY IS TOTALLY IMPOTENT IN DEALING WITH THE LIQUIDITY PROBLEMS AND THE RISKS OF RUNS ON LIQUID LIABILITIES OF A LARGE FRACTION OF THE FINANCIAL SYSTEM. (Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor)
As the downgrades on CDOs and MBSs continue to accelerate, there’ll likely be a frantic “flight to cash” by investors, just like the recent surge into US Treasuries. This will be followed by a series of spectacular bank and non-bank defaults. The trillions of dollars of “virtual capital” that was miraculously created through securitzation when the market was buoyed-along by optimism; will vanish in a flash when the market is driven by fear. In fact, the equity bubble has already been punctured and the process is well underway.