22 July 2008

The Failure of the American Financial System

"Where are the leaders? Has our political process become so compromised by powerful interest groups and the threat of character assassination that even the best among us will not dare to speak honestly about the solutions that might bring us back to common sense and fundamental fairness?" Senator Jim Webb, A Time to Fight

One of the reasons we like Noriel Roubini is that he is an economist willing to dig into pertinent details, to get involved with current events, to take an intellectual stand and defend it, to tell it like it is, to borrow a phrase from another era.

This places him as a man apart from many of his economic peers, who lurk in obscure and largely irrelevant details, hiding behind rhetorical flourishes and courtly manners, lurking in the waiting rooms of universities and thinktanks, emerging every so often to speak for some vested interest with studies supporting pre-ordained conclusions. All of which of course is absolutely useless if not harmful to the real economy and legitimate achievement. But it does leave them open for research grants, and appointments, honorariums, and self-advancement within a corrupted system that rewards those who propagate it with the motto, go along to get along.

There is a management style in which achievement is rarely considered, although there is often an intricate if not baroque system of measures amenable to manipulation, but mistakes are penalized, and heavily. As one manager of a large business said in an interview, "If you do 99 things right, and one thing wrong, all they will remember is what you have done wrong and use it against you, depending on who you are."

And the shame is, he was right. The firm for which he worked had ceased to be a meritocracy, and instead had become an oligopoly in which influence-peddling and personal connections mattered above all, even as the business results deteriorated. Its vision and preoccupations turned increasingly inward on itself, almost obsessively. It eventually went bankrupt, formally, long after it had become functionally bankrupt. We saw this phenomenon at any number of mature companies we visited in the course of our consultancy.

Yes, there is that element of oligarchy in all societies, in all companies, in every organization, especially after they mature after a long period of relative stability, and unfortunately fall under the control of a few powerful people whose number one priority is self-perpetuation.

It is a matter of degree. When that modus operandi becomes predominant, pervasive, you have an organization that will surely soon be in trouble, and is headed towards a serious change of management, a major shakeup, a sometimes spectacular and precipitous failure, if it is subject to the forces of the markets.

So too it is with countries. This is what had happened to the former Soviet Union. And it is now happening to The United States and its financially-heavy economy. We have a bad case of the winner's curse. The dollar as the world's reserve currency fostered a deterioration of the American spirit that acted like slow poison on the vigor of the real economy.

The US is going to be passing through a purging of the system and its management for some time, measured in years but not decades, until it emerges again and can move forward.

The Coming Systemic Bust of the U.S. Banking System: “Dead Stocks Rallying”
Nouriel Roubini
Jul 20, 2008
RGE Monitor

This past week started with concerns about another systemic meltdown of the U.S. financial system as the insolvency of Fannie and Freddie was revealed and as IndyMac went bust (this third largest bank collapse in U.S. history). But the week ended with a remarkable rally of financial stocks as better than expected results from Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and Citi soothed the fears that major financial institutions were in even more distress than already predicted by market analysts.

Unfortunately, this massive rally of financial stocks in the latter part of the week is just another temporary bear market rally that will fizzle away once the onslaught of bad financial and macro news builds up again.

The views I presented in a recent blog that we will experience a severe financial and banking crisis received the support of many well respected commentators. Alan Abelson – at Barron’s – is one of the most senior and well known commentators on financial issues and on Wall Street. In his latest Barron’s column – aptly titled “Dead Stocks Rallying” he wrote:

WHY WE'RE STILL BEARISH WAS SPELLED out starkly in a dispatch we received last week from Nouriel Roubini. Nouriel is a professor of economics at NYU Stern School of Business (but don't hold that against him) and runs an economic
advisory firm called RGE Monitor that casts a knowing and clear eye on the
global financial and economic scene. We think he's top-notch (which means we
agree with him, a lot of the time).

The nub of his argument is that we're suffering the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and he proceeds to give chilling chapter and verse. He predicts that hundreds of small banks loaded with real estate will go bust and dozens of large regional and national banks will also find themselves in deep do-do.

He reckons that, in a few years, there'll be no major independent broker-dealers left: They'll either pack it in or merge, victims of excessive leverage and a badly flawed and discredited business model.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., after it gets through picking up the pieces of IndyMac, will sooner or later have to get a capital transfusion, Nouriel asserts, because its insurance premiums won't cover the tab of rescuing all the troubled banks. He foresees credit losses ultimately reaching at least $1 trillion and anticipates a heap of woe for credit purveyors across the board.

The poor consumer, he contends, is shopped out and being hammered by falling home prices, falling equity prices, falling jobs and incomes, rising inflation. The recession he anticipates will last 12 to 18 months. And the rest of the world won't escape: He looks for hard landings for 12 major economies. As for the stock market, he hazards that there's plenty of room left on the downside. In fact, he feels the bear market won't end until equities are down a full 40% from their peaks.

We must say this vision is a mite too apocalyptic even for us. But Nouriel is not a
professional fear-monger out to make a splash with end-of-the-world
prognostications He's a sound guy with a solid record and an impressive résumé.
We obviously believe his views are worth pondering, even if they ruin your
That was a very nice summary by Abelson of my views and a kind endorsement of them.

But how to square the views that a large fraction of the US financial system is in trouble with the apparently better than expected earnings results and lower than expected writedowns presented by financial institutions such as Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and Citi that led to the financials’ stocks most recent rally? There are many reasons why those earnings results are misleading and cosmetically retouched upward while the true financial conditions of the financial system are more dire than otherwise presented.

Let us discuss next in some detail the various reasons why financial conditions of financial firms and banks are much worse than those headline figures and why we the US will experience a systemic financial crisis…

First of all, in a week when only a massive and open ended bailout rescued Fannie and Freddie, when IndyMac went bust and when Merrill presented much worse than expected results it is very hard to be optimistic about the health of the US financial institutions. Reports in the next few days will reveal whether reality is closer to Fannie/Freddie/IndyMac/Merrill or rather closer to the Citi/JPMorgan/Wells Fargo outlook.

Most financial institutions are putting increasing numbers of assets in the illiquid buckets of Level 2 and Level 3 assets. While FASB 157 should prevent manipulation of the valuation of such illiquid assets, forbearance by the SEC, the Fed and other regulators allows a massive amount of fudging.

An insider told me that in a major financial institution the approach is as follows now: top management decide in advance what the announced writedowns should be and folks dealing with the toxic/illiquid assets come up with totally ad hoc assumptions to make sure that such illiquid assets are valued consistently with the decided-in-advance amount of writedowns and losses.

This is not earnings smoothing; this is active manipulation and falsification of financial results aimed at creating even more obfuscation of the true state of financial institutions. This obfuscation is actively abetted by the SEC, the Fed and all other regulators that are now in forbearance crisis management stage where the objective is to avoid at any cost anything that may trigger a financial meltdown. Thus, most of these earnings reports are not worth the paper they are written off.

This earnings manipulation occurs in a variety of ways. First, ad hoc assumptions still used to value and write down level 2 and level 3 assets. Second, banks are leaving aside less reserves for loan losses that are much less than necessary; they do that by using ad hoc assumptions about future losses on mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home equity loans and other commercial real estate loans and industrial and commercial loans. Reserves for loan losses have been sharply lagging actual and expected losses, thus padding earnings as decided by the financial institutions' managers. Third, there is disposal of illiquid and toxic assets in ways that misleadingly reduces the amount of actual writedowns. An example is as follows: suppose a bank wants to dump illiquid MBS or leveraged loans that are worth – mark to market – 70 cents on the dollar rather than 100 cents on the dollar. Then, instead of selling these at a price of 70 and showing a 30% writedown these are sold to hedge funds and other investors to a price closer to par – and thus showing in the balance sheet a smaller writedown – by providing a subsidy to the buyer of the security: so a hedge fund will buy such toxic securities at 80 or 90 cents and receive a loan to finance the transaction at an interest well below the borrowing costs for the funds. Thus, writedowns are then shown smaller than the true underlying loss on the asset and the bank finances that fudged transaction with earning less revenues than otherwise on its credit portfolio. This is an accounting scam- bordering on the criminal - that auditors and regulators are abetting on a regular basis.

The bailout plan of Fannie and Freddie implies a direct bailout of financial institutions and helps them to report better than expected earnings in two ways. First, since these financial institutions hold massive amounts of agency debt the government bailout of the holders of such unsecured debt props the market price of the agency debt (reduces its spread relative to Treasuries) and thus allows financial institutions and investors to report less mark to market losses on the values of such assets. Second, after the bust of subprime, near prime and prime mortgage markets the market for private label MBS is dead with absolutely no origination of new MBS. Thus, today – as senior mortgage market participant put it – Fannie and Freddie are “THE mortgage market” as the only institutions that securitize and guarantee mortgages are Fannie and Freddie. Without the government bailout plan that last channel for mortgage securitization and insurance would be frozen and the ability of banks to originate even prime and conforming mortgages would be serious hampered and its cost sharply increased. Thus, the Fannie and Freddie bailout is actually a bailout of the mortgage market and of every institution that holds agency debt or the MBS issued by the two GSES and of every institution that is in the mortgage origination business. On top of this Fannie and Freddie have also been used as tools of public policy in order to further grease the mortgage market and the banks originating mortgages: their portfolio limits were increased; their capital requirement reduced; and the limit for what a conforming loans – the only ones that Fannie and Freddie can securitize – increased from about $420K to over $720K.

The Fed has been actively beefing up the earnings and balance sheet of financial institutions in four major ways.

First, a 325bps reduction in the Fed Funds rate sharply reduced the cost of
borrowing for banks and allowed them to enjoy a nice intermediation margin (the
difference between longer terms interest rates at which they lend and the much
lower short term interest rates at which they borrow). This steepening of the
yield curve is a major subsidy to financial institutions.

Second, the Fed has created a range of new liquidity facilities – the TAF,
the TSLF, the PDCF – that allow banks and now non-bank primary dealers to swap
their illiquid toxic asset backed securities for liquid Treasuries and that
provide access for non-banks – and now also Fannie and Freddie - to the Fed’s
discount window liquidity.

Third, the bailout of Bear Stearns creditors – JP Morgan and many other
counterparties of Bear – not only avoided a systemic meltdown and a certain run
on the other broker dealers but it has led the Fed to take on a significant
credit risk by taking off the balance sheet of Bear Stearns over $29 billion of
toxic securities. So the Fed has directly and indirectly systemically subsidized
and propped up the financial system and the earnings of bank and non-bank
financial institutions.

Fourth, a variety of forbearance regulatory actions – starting with the
waiver of Regulation W for some major banks – have been used to beef up the
profits and earnings of financial institutions and reduce their reported

The entire Federal Home Loan Bank system – another GSE system that is another effective arm of the government - has been used to prop hundreds of mortgage lenders. The insolvent Countrywide alone received more than $51 billion of funds from this semi-public system. This is a system that has increased its lending in the last 18 months by hundreds of billions of dollars: Citigroup, Bank of America and most other US mortgage lenders have also been beneficiaries of this public subsidy to the tune of dozens of billions of dollars each.

In 1990-91 at the height of that recession and banking crisis many major banks – in addition to 1000 plus S&L's that went bust – were effectively insolvent, including, as it was well known at that time, Citibank. At that time the Fed and regulators used instruments similar to those used today – easy money and steepening of the intermediation yield curve, aggressive forbearance, creative – i.e. liar – accounting, etc. – to rescue these major financial institutions from formal bankruptcy. But at that time the housing bust and the ensuing decline in home prices was much smaller than today: during that recession home prices – as measured by the Case-Shiller/S&P index – fell less than 5% from their peak. This time around instead such an index has already fallen 18% from its peak and it will most likely fall by a cumulative 30% before it bottoms sometime in 2010. If a 5% fall in home prices was enough to make Citi effectively insolvent in 1991 what will a 30% fall in home prices – and massive defaults on many other forms of credit (commercial real estate loans, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home equity loans, leveraged loans, muni bonds, industrial and commercial loans, corporate bonds, CDS) - do to these financial institutions? It challenges the credulity of even spin masters to argue that financial firms are not in worse shape today than they were in 1990-91 when a significant number of major banks were technically insolvent. So, not only hundreds of small banks and a significant fraction of regional banks but also some major money center banks will become effectively insolvent during this crisis.

In spite of the headline figures that showed better than expected earnings at some major financial institutions – Citi, JPM, Wells Fargo - the details were utterly ugly. For one thing, Merrill announced massive writedowns and losses that were much worse than expected. Second, even JPMorgan’s results details were worrisome: for example the recognition of a significant amount of rising losses on prime mortgages. In the case of Citi – a firm that has a presence in over 100 countries and whose revenues come, to a great extent, from foreign operations - there was a sharp increase in the losses on its consumer credit operations, including a large increase in delinquencies on credit cards both in the US and other markets (Brazil, Mexico). Thus, after having already shut down its money losing consumer credit operations in Japan, Citi is now experiencing a surge of delinquencies on unsecured consumer debt both at home and abroad. And the reserves set aside to take care of such expected loan losses are still woefully insufficient as they are based on very optimistic assumptions about the level at which such delinquencies will peak; this is another way to pad earnings and not recognize early on such losses. Systematic use of creative accounting is at work in all of these institutions and other banks and other financial institutions to hide the extent of the incoming losses on assets and loans.

With the excuse of wanting to crack down on “manipulators” the SEC has now imposed restrictions on short sales on the stocks of 19 major financial institutions including Fannie and Freddie. Let us be clear about this new rule: this is a clear and naked attempt by the SEC to manipulate upwards the price of equities of financial firms. The SEC should start investigation and legal action against itself for actively manipulating the stock market. And shame on the SEC for this most un-capitalist and manipulative action: when there is an upward bubble in stock prices and 95% of investors/speakers on CNBC are talking their books in that most public forum to manipulate upwards their portfolio the SEC does nothing and allows this charade to go on. But when short sellers are shorting the stocks of firms that are likely to be bust that is considered manipulation. That is a pretty pathetic action by the SEC that has artificially boosted the equity valuations of US financial firms – now up 20% plus in the last part of the past week after the introduction of this manipulative rule. And of course this manipulated increase in financials’ equity prices reduces the mark to market losses that banks and other financial firms holding such equities would have incurred, another additional way to pad upwards earnings.

The few and rare banks and mortgage/MBS analysts that were willing to provide a realistic assessment of the mortgage market and the financial conditions of US banks and brokers have been effectively muzzled by upper management. With the partial exception of Meredith Whitney who benefits from being at an independent research firm, many other analysts have gone into the spin mode that the Fed, the regulators and the senior management of these financial institutions have dictated to them. Sell-side research that was never independent – even after the additional Chinese walls that the corporate scandals of the early part of the decade led to – is even less independent today. So you have financial institutions manipulating at will their earnings and analysts falling for this supreme baloney.

The FDIC will for sure run out of money as hundreds of banks will go bust and their depositors will have to be made whole given deposit insurance. With funds of only $53 billion, already up to 15% of such funds will be used to rescue the depositors of IndyMac alone. Thus, the FDIC is already requesting to Congress that the deposit insurance premia should be raised to compensate for this shortfall of funding. Too bad that this increase in insurance premia – that should be high enough in advance (not ex-post) to ensure that deposit insurance is incentive-compatible and not leading to gambling for redemption via risky lending in banks – is now too little and too late and is requested when the damage is already done as the biggest credit bubble in U.S. history is now going bust. Also the FDIC has done a mediocre job at identifying which banks are at risk. So far there are only about 90 banks on its watch list; and IndyMac was not put on that list until last month! So if the FDIC did not even identify IndyMac as in trouble until it was too late, how many other IndyMacs are out there that that the FDIC has not identified yet? Certainly a few hundred but such honest analysis of banks at risk is nowhere to be found.

As I have argued in previous work all independent broker dealers are in deep trouble and may not survive – in a few years’ times – as independent firms. And some of them are already walking zombies. In a few years time there will be no major independent broker dealers as their business model (securitization, slice & dice and transfer of toxic credit risk and piling fees upon fees rather than earning income from holding credit risk) is bust and the risk of a bank-like run on their very short term liquid liabilities is a fundamental flaw in their structure. I.e. the four remaining U.S. big brokers dealers will either go bust or will have to be merged with traditional commercial banks. Indeed, firms that borrow liquid and short, highly leverage themselves and then lend in longer term and illiquid ways (i.e. most of the shadow banking system) cannot survive without formal deposit insurance and a formal permanent lender of last resort support from the central bank. (They did have quite a long run though - Jesse)

While a formal government bailout of most U.S. financial institutions has not occurred yet the U.S. government has avoided such bailout only by making sure that foreign government-owned institutions – the Sovereign Wealth Funds – did that job in lieu of the U.S. government. So instead of the U.S. government recapitalizing U.S. financial institutions we have seen foreign governments doing the job. Too bad that such SWFs have already lost 30% to 50% of their initial investments in such financial institutions. Thus, while U.S. financial firms will need hundreds of billions of additional capital injections to survive this crisis it is not obvious that foreign governments (SWFs) will not require conditions for such recapping (a percentage of equity that implies control, board membership, voting powers, common shares rather than preferred stock, etc.) that may not be politically acceptable in the U.S.

One could go on in more detail – as I have done in recent analyses – in discussing the severity of the current banking and financial crisis in the U.S. and how the official figures on earnings and balance sheets of financial institutions provide a misleading picture of the real financial state of such firms. As I argued before the $1 trillion of credit losses ($300-400 bn for mortgages and $600-700 bn for all the other non-mortgage credit) that I estimated last February are only a floor, not a ceiling, for such expected losses. Such losses are likely to end up being closer to my $2 trillion estimate. And such an estimate do not include the $200 to 300 billion that the rescue of Fannie and Freddie will entail. And such losses don’t even include scenarios where up to 50% of households who will end up underwater will walk away from their homes: that factor alone could entail mortgage losses of $1 trillion (average mortgage of $200k times the 50% loss that a foreclosure/walk away implies on that mortgage times 50% of the 21 million households that are underwater) rather than the $300-400 bn that I originally estimated.

So when you add it all up this will be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression: not as severe as that episode but second only to it. And the real effects of this financial crisis will be severe and more severe if remedial policy action is not rapidly undertaken. Ditto for the US recession: this will be the worst of such U.S. recessions in decades.

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