26 July 2008

National Bank bites the bullet

The National Australia Bank's decision to write off 90 per cent of its US conduit loans will have dramatic repercussions around the world. Wall Street will be deeply shocked when they understand the repercussions of what NAB has done. It is clear global banks have nowhere near provided for their exposures to US housing loans which in the words of John Stewart are experiencing a “meltdown”.

We are now way beyond sub-prime. NAB says that it is suffering a 55 per cent loss on American housing loans – an event that has never happened in the history of a developed country in recent memory. This is an unprecedented event and means that the cost of bailing out the US financial system is now far beyond the highest estimates. A US recession is now locked in, but more alarmingly, 55 per cent loan losses point to the possibility of a depression.

It means the cost of bailing out housing exposures to the two mortgage insurers will be so great that it will leave no room to bail out anything else and there are several US banks that are now in big trouble. NAB says that the dislocation in the residential market is separate from the corporate market, but the flow on is inevitable.

While global banks have been writing down their balance sheet assets, few have tackled their conduit exposures which are off balance sheet but to which they are ultimately liable.

This morning at around 6am I wrote that we had been experiencing a 'dead cat bounce'. I had no idea that NAB would trigger the downturn and confirm what I had written. And of course Wall Street will receive a deep shock when it wakes up.

How did NAB get caught in $1.2 billion mess? They had a number of big clients who wanted to invest in these US housing loans. They were sucked in by the 'triple A rating' given to the securities by the rating agencies. They did not take into account that the monoline insurers who guaranteed some of the loans had no substance. To become a player NAB took out $1.2 billion in these triple A securities and 90 per cent of it has been lost.

Many Australian institutions are very angry. NAB is paying out far too much in dividends and should be conserving capital. The American bank it purchased, Great Western, was a good idea but it is now clear it overpaid for it. Fortunately it only has a small exposure to the bad loans. But what's happening to the NAB is not the main game.

The global banks have been marking to market the assets they held on their balance sheet, but the vast amounts held in so called 'conduit trust accounts' have not been written down because they were not marketable. NAB wrote them down when they saw the bad mortgages.

US banks have written down $450 billion in bad housing loans. The revelation from NAB means that they will now certainly need to take provisions to $1,000 billion. But write-downs of $1,300 billion and perhaps even more are on the cards.

Where will the equity come from to cover these bad loans? The world has never attempted a rescue effort of this size and it will make liquidity in the globe very tight. That's why corporates will be hit. All Australian companies that need equity should raise it now.

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