Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book 'em, Greenspan

Alan Greenspan wrote a guest piece in the Economist magazine this month. He paints a rather grim picture which, from the perspective of political economy, there seems no way out.

Book equity is the amount of money banks have in reserves. Book assets basically the asset value of the loans they have made. The ratio of book equity to book assets basically tells the percentage of loans outstanding versus cash on hand. This is called "book capital".

As can be seen from the chart to the right, the current average book capital for US banks is around 10%. This means for every $1 in cash, the bank has $10 in asset liens secured by loans made. This is different than the value of the loans because the value of the assets fluctuate over time whereas the value of the loan is fixed at the time the loan was made. This is called "mark-to-market" valuation (Fair Value Accounting Standards, US SEC).

For instance, if a home mortgage loan is made for $50,000 and the home (asset) goes up in value to $55,000, the asset value is $55,000. If the value of the home declines to $45,000, the asset value is $45,000.

It is not difficult to see the problem we currently face. Banks have loaned at a ratio of 10:1, the housing market valuations have declined by 20%, the stock market by 35% and the bond market has also tanked. So, in essence, the assets of many banks have declined not only below the value of the original loans, but have even declined more than the amount of cash they have on hand.

For instance, Joe the Plumber Bank (JP Bank) has $100 in cash and $1,000 loans backed by assets at the beginning of 2007. JP borrowed $500 from Lenny Bruce Bank (LB Bank) to make some of those loans, and another $300 from the Fed. JP assets decline by 20%, leaving him with $100 in cash, $800 in assets and $800 in debt, with $1,000 in loans outstanding. JP Bank has $200 in losses to write-off. This is double the cash on hand. JP is therefore insolvent.

From the Greenspan article:
To avoid this scenario, many banks are holding onto cash so they can pay their creditors and prevent losses. They are afraid to invest money in assets which show no sign of a rebound.

How much extra capital, both private and sovereign, will investors require of banks and other intermediaries to conclude that they are not at significant risk in holding financial institutions’ deposits or debt, a precondition to solving the crisis?

The insertion, last month, of $250 billion of equity into American banks through TARP (a two-percentage-point addition to capital-asset ratios) halved the post-Lehman surge of the LIBOR/OIS spread. Assuming modest further write-offs, simple linear extrapolation would suggest that another $250 billion would bring the spread back to near its pre-crisis norm. This arithmetic would imply that investors now require 14% capital rather than the 10% of mid-2006. Such linear calculations, of course, can only be very rough approximations. But recent data do suggest that, while helpful, the Treasury’s $250 billion goes only partway towards the levels required to support renewed lending.

Government credit has in effect acted as counterparty to a large segment of the financial intermediary system. But for reasons that go beyond the scope of this note, I strongly believe that the use of government credit must be temporary. What, then, will be the source of the new private capital that allows sovereign lending to be withdrawn? Eventually, the most credible source is a partial restoration of the $30 trillion of global stockmarket value wiped out this year, which would enable banks to raise the needed equity.


Even before the market linkages among banks, other financial institutions and non-financial businesses are fully re-established, we will need to start unwinding the massive sovereign credit and guarantees put in place during the crisis, now estimated at $7 trillion. The economics of such a course are fairly clear. The politics of draining off that much credit support in a timely way is quite another matter.

18-Dec-2008. Greenspan, Alan. Banks need more capital. The Economist.
So what is Greenspan saying here?

First, banks need to be better capitalized, in other words, have more money in the bank. Since US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is a follower of Greenspan, literally and figuratively, this explains why the TARP money was basically given to the banks to hoard in their vaults.

Second, confidence in the solvency of banks needs to be restored in order to 1) ensure they lend to each other, and 2) the interest rates they charge do not make the cost of borrowing so expensive that it would drive up rates across the board, or be too costly, thereby freezing borrowing. If it costs banks more to borrow than they will make on the spread, they will loose money on the transaction.

Third, the government, e.g. the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury, are acting as lenders of last resort. This is what is meant by "counter party". Basically, its the same as a parent co-signing for a car loan for his teenager. This gives the lender confidence that, in the event the primary borrower cannot pay, the loan doesn't go into default because daddy will pay the bills. Only in this case, the government doesn't have money in the bank, but it does have the power of taxation.

Fourth, and almost unbelievably, Greenspan says that the credit crisis can only be resolved by recapitalizing assets via a stock market increase of over $30 trillion plus an "unwinding" of over $7 trillion in "sovereign credit" (the $7 trillion is the money provided by the US and other governments via the TARP and other, similar vehicles - Greenspan seems to be somewhat re-defining "sovereign credit" here). Greenspan is basically saying forget the real economy, forget about stagnation in capital investment, the financial sector fueled by Friedman monetary policy must be relied upon to bring us out of this mess.

Rest assured that this kind of thinking is not very different from that which guided the policies of the Hoover administration. Although Greenspan aggressively decreased interest rates in the run-up to the current speculative bubble (something 1930s Fed policy attempted to prevent), the idea that we need to drain credit support as soon as possible is very much in line with the orthodox economic ideology that guided both the Hoover administration and the Greenspan gang. Undoubtedly this thinking will result in massive resistance to government investments in non-defense spending, such as Obama's public works initiative.

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