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Disturbing Trend: Average Foreign Purchases Of US Securities Take Out Lehman Bottom, Hit All Time Low | Zero Hedge
As we reported earlier today, for whatever reason China sold the second biggest amount of US Treasurys in December. However, that was only part of the story. In fact, as we also noted, while the two largest US foreign creditors were net sellers, total foreign bond holdings actually rose in the last month of 2013 and as the chart below confirms, when it comes to Long-Term Treasury paper, foreigners were actually buyers of some $18 billion in Treasurys. It is everything else that they sold in the month when the S&P hit its all time high: specifically, foreigners were net sellers of Agency securities ($15.4 billion), Corporate Bonds ($7.5 billion) and Corporate Equities ($13.7 billion) something which hardly fits with the narrative of the record stock market high generating confidence in even more buying down the line.
In the chart above it is the black line – gross purchases of US long-term securities – that is the most troubling, as its trend is hardly anyone’s friend.
So what happens when one smooths out the line to normalize for monthly fluctuations? This:
The chart is very disturbing: it shows that as the S&P rises higher and higher (on ever declining volumes), foreigners are buying fewer and fewer US securities. In fact, on a 12 Month Moving Average basis, foreigners bought less long-term US securities than they did when Lehman crashed!
Luckily we live in a New Normal when price is no longer determined by simple supply and demand (and certainly not from retail investors who have long since given up on the fraudulent, broken US capital “markets”) but Fed jawboning of a record $2.5 trillion in bank excess reserves, corporate buybacks and HFT algos spurring momentum ignition and buying because others are buying.
And so we have come full circle, because while, understandably, nobody had any appetite for US securities around the Lehman crash when until the Fed stepped in and singlehandedly took over the US capital markets it was unclear if there even would be a US capital markets, now that five years later the S&P has risen to a level nearly three times the March 2009 lows thanks entirely to the Fed’s $4.1 trillion balance sheet backstop, the interest in US securities is… lower than it was in the days just after Lehman!
With only $24.5 billion left in FX reserves after valiantly defending major capital outflows since the Fed’s Taper announcement, the Kazakhstan central bank has devalued the currency (Tenge) by 19% – its largest adjustment since 2009. At 185 KZT to the USD, this is the weakest the currency has ever been as the central bank cites weakness in the Russian Ruble and “speculation” against its currency as drivers of the outflows (which will be “exhausted” by this devaluation according to the bank). The new level will improve the country’s competitiveness (they are potassium heavy) but one wonders whether, unless Yellen folds whether it will help the outflows at all. The Kazakhstan stock index is up 12% on the news…
The tenge, introduced in 1993 after the breakup of the Soviet Union two years earlier, weakened the most against the dollar last month since July. Kazakhstan devalued its currency by 21 percent in February 2009, as the biggest energy producer in central Asia spent billions of dollars to support the economy and bail out its biggest lenders following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
“The devaluation was a surprise for many people, considering the central bank’s assurances that the exchange rate is stable,” Damir Seisebayev, director of the analytical department at ?? Private Asset Management in Almaty, said by e-mail. “But you have to be realistic. What is the tenge? It’s the ruble rate multiplied by five. This is a tested formula.”
The Kazakhstan Stock Exchange gained 12 percent after the announcement, data on the bourse’s website show.
So it must be great news, right? Just as Venezuelan stock holders…
“The move reflects a combination of factors, including the steady deterioration in the current-account position, worries over the impact of weak growth in Russia and the ruble’s managed depreciation,” Tim Ash, chief emerging-markets economist at Standard Bank Group Plc. in London, said in a note today.
JPMorgan Sued For Crony Justice – Presenting “A Decade of Illegal Conduct by JP Morgan Chase” | Zero Hedge
Earlier today, the non-profit organization Better Markets did what so many others have only dreamed of doing – they sued JPMorgan.
Specifically, as they disclose in the fact sheet posted on their website, they are “challenging the historic and unprecedented $13 billion settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and JP Morgan Chase (“Agreement”). Better Markets alleges in its complaint that the DOJ violated the Constitution and laws of the United States by using a mere contractual agreement to resolve claims of historic importance without subjecting the Agreement to independent judicial review. In effect, the DOJ acted as investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury, sentencer, and collector, without any check on its authority or actions, even though the amount is the largest in the 237 year history of the United States. Because the DOJ has declared its intention to use the Agreement as a “template” in future similar cases, it is imperative that the DOJ’s unlawful and secretive approach in the settlement process be subjected to judicial review.”
We wish them the best of luck, as in a “crony jsutice” system as corrupt as this one – perhaps best described, paradoxically enough by the fictional movie The International – where the same DOJ previously implicitly admitted it will not prosecute “systemically important” firms like JPM to the full extent of the law and instead merely lob one after another wrist slap at them to placate the peasantry, any hope for obtaining true justice is impossible.
That said, the key aspects of the Better Markets lawsuit deserve attention. They are broken down as follows:
For years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, JP Morgan Chase allegedly engaged in pervasive fraud in the packaging and sale of thousands of mortgage-backed securities to investors. Those securities were stuffed with subprime loans that failed to meet applicable underwriting criteria. Employees, managers, and potentially high-level executives of JP Morgan Chase knew that the securities were riddled with toxic loans, but they allegedly concealed the truth from investors when they marketed and sold the securities. Investors lost huge but still unknown sums of money as a result of the fraud, and the bank’s illegal conduct contributed directly to the biggest financial crash since 1929 and the worst economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
After negotiating the Agreement in complete secrecy, the DOJ announced the $13 billion deal on November 19, 2013, claiming that it was holding JP Morgan Chase accountable for its illegal activities. Under the Agreement, DOJ grants JP Morgan Chase broad civil immunity in exchange for a $2 billion civil penalty, along with $4 billion in “consumer relief” for the benefit of homeowners with problem mortgages. The Agreement also allocates $7 billion to eight other agencies or states to resolve their claims against JP Morgan Chase.
Key Allegations in the Complaint
The Agreement was struck under the most extraordinary circumstances. For example—
- THE HISTORIC CLAIMS: The Agreement resolved claims of pervasive fraud that contributed to the worst financial crash since 1929 and the worst economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
- THE LARGEST AMOUNT EVER: The settlement amount was the largest in U.S. history from any single entity by more than 300%.
- THE BIGGEST BANK: JP Morgan Chase is the largest, richest, and most well-connected Wall Street bank in the United States.
- THE HIGHEST-LEVEL NEGOTIATORS: The Attorney General and other senior DOJ political appointees negotiated directly and entirely in secret with the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, someone who was considered a possible Treasury Secretary just a few years ago.
- THE $10 BILLION PHONE CALL: The cellphone of DOJ’s third highest ranking official rang with the “familiar” phone number of JP Morgan Chase’s CEO, who called to offer billions of dollars to stop DOJ from holding a press conference and filing a lawsuit in just a few hours. The call worked, and the press conference and lawsuit were both called off.
- THE UNPRECEDENTED AGREEMENT: DOJ gave complete civil immunity to JP Morgan Chase for defrauding thousands in exchange for $13 billion, via a contract that was negotiated and finalized in secret without any review or approval by a federal court.
?Notwithstanding the historic nature of the settlement, the Agreement was never subjected to judicial review, so there has been no independent evaluation of its terms. Furthermore, the vague settlement documents fail to disclose critically important information about every aspect of the deal. For example, the Agreement fails to identify or explain—
- THE LOSSES: How much did JP Morgan Chase’s clients, customers, counterparties, investors, and others lose as a result of its fraudulent conduct? $100 billion? $200 billion? More?
- THE PROFITS: How much revenue, profits, and other benefits did JP Morgan Chase receive as a result of its fraudulent conduct, and was it all disgorged? $10 billion? $20 billion? More?
- THE BONUSES: Who received what amount of bonuses for the illegal conduct?
- THE INVESTIGATION: What was the scope and thoroughness of the investigation that provided the basis for the Agreement?
- THE FRAUD: What are the material facts of the illegal conduct by JP Morgan Chase and the specific violations of law that were committed?
- THE CULPRITS: What exactly did the individual executives, officers, managers, and employees involved in the illegal conduct actually do to carry out the fraud, and do any of them still work for the bank?
- THE CORRECTIVE ACTION: Why did the contract fail to impose on JP Morgan Chase any obligation to change any of its business or compliance practices, which are standard conduct remedies that regulators routinely require? And how can the sanctions effectively punish and deter JP Morgan Chase, given its wealth and its extensive history of lawless conduct?
- THE LACK OF ADMISSIONS: Why are there no admissions of fact or law by JP Morgan Chase, and what, if any, are the concrete legal implications of their so-called “acknowledgment”?
By entering the Agreement without seeking any judicial review and approval, the DOJ violated the Constitution and laws of the United States.
- The Executive Branch, acting through the DOJ, violated the separation of powers doctrine by unilaterally striking a bargain with JP Morgan Chase to resolve unprecedented matters of historic importance, without seeking any judicial review and approval of the Agreement.
- The DOJ violated the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”) by failing to commence a civil action in federal court so that the court could, among other things, assess the civil penalty.
- The DOJ acted arbitrarily and capriciously by, among other things, entering the Agreement without seeking judicial review and approval.
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But perhaps the most informative aspect of the lawsuit fact sheet is simply stepping back and observing the relentless illegal transgressions by Jamie Dimon’s firm. Better Markets summarizes them best as follows:
Highlights From A Decade of Illegal Conduct by JP Morgan Chase
- United States v. JPMorgan Case Bank, NA, No-1:14-cr-7 (S.D.N.Y. Jan 8, 2014) ($1.7 billion criminal penalty); In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., OCC Admin. Proceeding No. AA-EC-13-109 (Jan. 7, 2014) ($350 million civil penalty); In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., Dept. of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network Admin. Proceeding No. 2014-1 (Jan. 7, 2014) ($461 million civil penalty) (all for violations of law arising from the bank’s role in connection with Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, the largest in the history of the U.S.);
- In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., CFTC Admin. Proceeding No. 14-01 (Oct. 16, 2013) ($100 million civil penalty); In re JPMorgan Chase & Co., SEC Admin. Proceeding No. 3-15507 (Sept. 19, 2013) ($200 million civil penalty); In re JPMorgan Chase & Co., Federal Reserve Board Admin. Proceeding No. 13-031-CMP-HC (Sept. 18, 2013) ($200 million civil penalty); UK Financial Conduct Authority, Final Notice to JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. (Sept. 18, 2013) (£137.6 million ($221 million) penalty); In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., OCC Admin. Proceeding No. AA-EC-2013-75, #2013-140 (Sept. 17, 2013) ($300 million civil penalty) (all for violations of federal law in connection with the proprietary trading losses sustained by JP Morgan Chase in connection with the high risk derivatives bet referred to as the “London Whale”);
- In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., CFPB Admin. Proceeding No. 2013-CFPB-0007 (Sept. 19, 2013) ($20 million civil penalty and $309 million refund to customers); In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., OCC Admin. Proceeding No. AA-EC-2013-46 (Sept. 18, 2013) ($60 million civil penalty) (both for violations in connection with JP Morgan Chase’s billing practices and fraudulent sale of so-called Identity Protection Products to customers);
- In Re Make-Whole Payments and Related Bidding Strategies, FERC Admin. Proceeding Nos. IN11-8-000, IN13-5-000 (July 30, 2013) (civil penalty of $285 million and disgorgement of $125 million for energy market manipulation);
- SEC v. J.P. Morgan Sec. LLC, No. 12-cv-1862 (D.D.C. Jan. 7, 2013) ($301 million in civil penalties and disgorgement for improper conduct related to offerings of mortgage-backed securities);
- In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., CFTC Admin. Proceeding No. 12-37 (Sept. 27, 2012) ($600,000 civil penalty for violations of the Commodities Exchange Act relating to trading in excess of position limits);
- In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., CFTC Admin. Proceeding No. 12-17 (Apr. 4, 2012) ($20 million civil penalty for the unlawful handling of customer segregated funds relating to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.);
- United States v. Bank of America, No. 12-cv-00361 (D.D.C. 2012) (for foreclosure and mortgage-loan servicing abuses during the Financial Crisis, with JP Morgan Chase paying $5.3 billion in monetary and consumer relief);
- In re JPMorgan Chase & Co., Federal Reserve Board Admin. Proceeding No. 12-009-CMP-HC (Feb. 9, 2012) ($275 million in monetary relief for unsafe and unsound practices in residential mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure processing);
- SEC v. J.P. Morgan Sec. LLC, No. 11-cv-03877 (D.N.J. July 7, 2011) ($51.2 million in civil penalties and disgorgement); In re JPMorgan Chase & Co., Federal Reserve Board Admin. Proceeding No. 11-081-WA/RB-HC (July 6, 2011) (compliance plan and corrective action requirements); In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., OCC Admin. Proceeding No. AA-EC-11-63 (July 6, 2011) ($22 million civil penalty) (all for anticompetitive practices in connection with municipal securities transactions);
- SEC v. J.P. Morgan Sec., LLC, No. 11-cv-4206 (S.D.N.Y. June 21, 2011) ($153.6 million in civil penalties and disgorgement for violations of the securities laws relating to misleading investors in connection with synthetic collateralized debt obligations);
- In re JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., OCC Admin. Proceeding No. AA-EC-11-15, #2011-050 (Apr. 13, 2011) (consent order mandating compliance plan and other corrective action resulting from unsafe and unsound mortgage servicing practices);
- In re J.P. Morgan Sec. Inc., SEC Admin. Proceeding No. 3-13673 (Nov. 4, 2009) ($25 million civil penalty for violations of the securities laws relating to the Jefferson County derivatives trading and bribery scandal);
- In re JP Morgan Chase & Co, Attorney General of the State of NY Investor Protection Bureau, Assurance of Discontinuance Pursuant to Exec. Law §63(15) (June 2, 2009) ($25 million civil penalty for misrepresenting risks associated with auction rate securities);
- In re JPMorgan Chase & Co., SEC Admin. Proceeding No. 3-13000 (Mar. 27, 2008) ($1.3 million civil disgorgement for violations of the securities laws relating to JPM’s role as asset-backed indenture trustee to certain special purpose vehicles);
- In re J.P. Morgan Sec. Inc., SEC Admin. Proceeding No. 3-11828 (Feb. 14, 2005) ($2.1 million in civil fines and penalties for violations of Securities Act record-keeping requirements); and
- SEC v. J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., 03-cv-2939 (WHP) (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 28, 2003) ($50 million in civil penalties and disgorgements as part of a global settlement for research analyst conflict of interests).
Did we mention that nobody from JPM has gone to prison, and instead as of late last week, one of the biggest JPM culprits was set to become a member of the CFTC’s advisory panel before the people and not the regulators, were forced to step in? Why? #AskJPM
Plain vanilla bank runs are as old as fractional reserve banking itself, and usually happen just before or during an economic and financial collapse, when all trust (i.e. credit) in counterparties disappears and it is every man, woman and child, and what meager savings they may have, for themselves. However, when it comes to shadow bank runs, which take place when institutions are so mismatched in interest, credit and/or maturity exposure that something just snaps as it did in the hours after the Lehman collapse, that due to the sheer size of their funding exposure that they promptly grind the system to a halt even before conventional banks can open their doors to the general public, the conventional wisdom is that this is a novel development (and one which is largely misunderstood). It isn’t.
As the NY Fed’s blog (whose historical narratives are far more informative and accurate than its attempts to “explain away” the labor force participation collapse) recounts, the first tremor in the shadow banking system took place not in 2008 but some 250 years ago… during the Commercial Credit crisis of 1763, whose analog today is the all too shaky and largely unregulated core shadow banking system component: Tri-Party Repo.
From the NY Fed blog, by James Narron and David Skeie:
Crisis Chronicles: The Commercial Credit Crisis of 1763 and Today’s Tri-Party Repo Market
During the economic boom and credit expansion that followed the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), Berlin was the equivalent of an emerging market, Amsterdam’s merchant bankers were the primary sources of credit, and the Hamburg banking houses served as intermediaries between the two. But some Amsterdam merchant bankers were leveraged far beyond their capacity. When a speculative grain deal went bad, the banks discovered that there were limits to how much risk could be effectively hedged. In this issue of Crisis Chronicles, we review how “fire sales” drove systemic risk in funding markets some 250 years ago and explain why this could still happen in today’s tri-party repo market.
Early Credit Wrappers
One of the primary financial credit instruments of the 1760s was the bill of exchange—essentially a written order to pay a fixed sum of money at a future date. Early forms of bills of exchange date back to eighth-century China; the instrument was later adopted by Arab merchants to facilitate trade, and then spread throughout Europe. Bills of exchange were originally designed as short-term contracts but gradually became heavily used for long-term borrowing. They were typically rolled over and became de facto short-term loans to finance longer-term projects, creating a classic balance sheet maturity mismatch. At that time, bills of exchange could be re-sold, with each seller serving as a signatory to the bill and, by implication, insuring the buyer of the bill against default. This practice prevented the circulation of low-credit-quality bills among market participants and created a kind of “credit wrapper”—a guarantee for the specific loan—by making all signatories jointly liable for a particular bill. In addition, low acceptance fees—the fees paid to market participants for taking on the obligation to pay the bill of exchange—implied a perceived negligible risk. But the practice also resulted in binding market participants together through their balance sheets: one bank might have a receivable asset and a payable liability for the same bill of exchange, even when no goods were traded. By the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, high leverage and balance sheet interconnectedness left merchant bankers highly vulnerable to any slowdown in credit availability.
Tight Credit Markets Lead to Distressed Sales
Merchant bankers believed that their balance sheet growth and leverage were hedged through offsetting claims and liabilities. And while some of the more conservative Dutch bankers were cautious in growing their wartime business, others expanded quickly. One of the faster growing merchant banks belonged to the de Neufville brothers, who speculated in depreciating currencies and endorsed a large number of bills of exchange. Noting their success (if only in the short term), other merchant bankers followed suit. The crisis was triggered when the brothers entered into a speculative deal to buy grain from the Russian army as it left Poland. But with the war’s end, previously elevated grain prices collapsed by more than 75 percent, and the price decline began to depress other prices. As asset prices fell, it became increasingly difficult to get new loans to roll over existing debt. Tight credit markets led to distressed sales and further price declines. As credit markets dried up, merchant bankers began to suffer direct losses when their counterparties went bankrupt.
The crisis came to a head in Amsterdam in late July 1763 when the banking houses of Aron Joseph & Co and de Neufville failed, despite a collective action to save them. Their failure caused the de Neufville house’s creditors around Amsterdam to default. Two weeks later, Hamburg saw a wave of bank collapses, which in turn led to a new wave of failures in Amsterdam and pressure in Berlin. In all, there were more than 100 bank failures, mostly in Hamburg.
An Early Crisis-Driven Bailout
The commercial crisis in Berlin was severe, with the manufacturer, merchant, and banker Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky at the center. Gotzkowsky’s liabilities were almost all in bills of exchange, while almost all his assets were in fixed capital divided among his silk works and porcelain factory. Berlin was able to mitigate the effects of the crisis when Crown Prince Frederick imposed a payments standstill for several firms. To prevent contagion, the prince also organized some of the first financial-crisis-driven bailouts after he examined the books of Gotzkowsky’s diverse operations. Ultimately, about half of Gotzkowsky’s creditors accepted 50 cents on the dollar for outstanding debts.
Meanwhile, banks in Hamburg and the Exchange Bank of Amsterdam tried to extend securitized loans to deflect the crisis. But existing lending provisions restricted the ratio of bank money to gold and silver such that the banks had no real power to expand credit. These healthy banks were legally limited in their ability to support the credit-constrained banks. To preserve cash on hand, Hamburg and Amsterdam banks were slow to honor bills of exchange, eventually honoring them only after pressure from Berlin. The fact that Amsterdam and Hamburg banks re-opened within the year—and some even within weeks—provides evidence that the crisis was one of liquidity and not fundamental insolvency.
The crisis led to a period of falling industrial production and credit stagnation in northern Europe, with the recession being both deep and long-lasting in Prussia. These developments prompted a second wave of bankruptcies in 1766.
Distressed Fire Sales and the Tri-Party Repo Market
From this crisis we learn that it is difficult for firms to hedge losses when market risk and credit risk are highly correlated and aggregate risk remains. In this case, as asset prices fell during a time of distressed “fire sales,” asset prices became more correlated, further exacerbating downward price movement. When one firm moved to shore up its balance sheet by selling distressed assets, that put downward pressure on other, interconnected balance sheets. The liquidity risk was heightened further because most firms were highly leveraged. Those that had liquidity guarded it, creating a self-fulfilling flight to liquidity.
As we saw during the recent financial crisis, the tri-party repo market was overly reliant on massive extensions of intraday credit, driven by the timing between the daily unwind and renewal of repo transactions. Estimates suggest that by 2007, the repo market had grown to $10 trillion—the same order of magnitude as the total assets in the U.S. commercial banking sector—and intraday credit to any particular broker/dealer might approach $100 billion. And as in the commercial crisis of 1763, risk was underpriced with low repo “haircuts”—a haircut being a demand by a depositor for collateral valued higher than the value of the deposit.
Much of the work to address intraday credit risk in the repo market will be complete by year-end 2014, when intraday credit will have been reduced from 100 percent to about 10 percent. But as New York Fed President William C. Dudley noted in his recent introductory remarks at the conference “Fire Sales” as a Driver of Systemic Risk, “current reforms do not address the risk that a dealer’s loss of access to tri-party repo funding could precipitate destabilizing asset fire sales.” For example, in a time of market stress, when margin calls and mark-to-market losses constrain liquidity, firms are forced to deleverage. As recently pointed out by our New York Fed colleagues, deleveraging could impact other market participants and market sectors in current times, just as it did in 1763.
Crown Prince Frederick provided a short-term solution in 1763, but as we’ll see in upcoming posts, credit crises persisted. As we look toward a tri-party repo market structure that is more resilient to “destabilizing asset fire sales” and that prices risk more accurately, we ask, can industry provide the leadership needed to ensure that credit crises don’t persist? Or will regulators need to step in and play a firmer role to discipline dealers that borrow short-term from money market fund lenders and draw on the intraday credit provided by clearing banks? Tell us what you think.
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Fast forward to today when we find that the total collateral value in the Tri-Party repo system as of December amounts to $1.6 trillion.
… or 10% of US GDP. What can possibly go wrong.
Paul Singer’s “Vision” Of The Coming “Riot Point” And The Fed’s “Formula For Destruction” | Zero Hedge
We sympathize with traditional stock and bond investors, who are faced with extremely poor choices today. QE has distorted the prices of all traditional asset classes to such an extent that none currently promises a fair return with modest risk…. Because the dominant force in securities-price movements today is government policy, particularly the governmental buying of bonds and stocks, there is a vulnerability to all trading and investing prospects that cannot be assessed or measured with confidence… Since there is no history of Americans losing confidence in the basic soundness of their currency and their government, and since monetary policy today is so manipulative and large, it will be hard to parse the reasons for any particular market moves in 2014.
– Paul Singer, Elliott Management
As always, perhaps the best periodic commentary on the state of the “markets” (even if such a thing has not existed for the past 5 years) and global economy comes from the person whose opinion has not been swayed by fly-by-night screechers and book-peddling pundits who fit in CNBC’s octobox and who come fast and are forgotten even faster, and whose 37 year track record at Elliott Management, whose assets he has grown from $1.3 million to $23 billion, speaks for itself: Paul Singer.
Below are the key excerpts from his January letter.
Imagine how mainstream experts would have reacted to the following set of predictions in 2006: “In two years Lehman will be bankrupt; Merrill and Bear will be acquired in distressed takeunders; Citicorp, AIG, Chrysler, GM, Delphi, Fannie and Freddie will be taken over by the government facing possibly hundreds of billions of dollars of losses; and only 13 global megabanks will survive.”
The 2008 crisis had a lasting and profound impact on virtually the entire developed world. The financial system was brought to the brink of collapse; conditions were created for the radical monetary policy of the past five years and a severely distorted recovery; the plans and dreams of hundreds of millions of people were disrupted, in some cases catastrophically; and societal values were significantly twisted away from individual responsibility toward dependency. In fact, the consequences of the bubble, the bust and the policy aftermath are not yet in full historical view. Despite all the pain, policymakers
refuse to take responsibility for the bubble, the distortions of the bubble years, the ensuing failure to lay the groundwork for strong post-bust growth, the continued riskiness and fragility of the major financial institutions, the lack of appropriate policies to deal with the bust, or their total inability to deal with competitive and technological challenges in the labor market.
It is not that the path toward destruction was impossible to see. On the contrary, a number of people saw the disaster coming, even if they did not all see the timing or the shape of it. The strangest part of the whole series of events is that only a few large professional investors noticed the smoke and shouted “fire.” Policymakers, particularly at the Fed and including (importantly) Janet Yellen, paid some small lip service to the building risks, but they were wedded to their primitive “models” and had a completely inadequate grasp of modern financial instruments, leverage and the interconnectivity of financial institutions. Not only did policymakers fail to understand what was happening and how to deal with the crisis and its aftermath, but also many of those same policymakers, and ALL of the structures and assumptions that prevailed pre-crash, are still in place today. No apologies have been issued. There has been a great deal of partisan back-and-forth and successful lobbying, but sadly the financial system is still not sound. This may be impossible to prove until the next crisis, but you could have said the same about conditions leading up to the last one.
Policymakers were and remain asleep at the wheel. The lack of introspection at the Treasury, the Fed, Congress, the White House and other regulatory bodies is astounding. Instead of taking reasonable and conservative steps to strengthen the financial system and to reach consensus on what is necessary to generate growth, there has been a series of cronyist, ideological, punitive steps that have neither catalyzed the growth that this country needs nor made financial institutions safe. At the same time, the Administration has allowed (and encouraged) the Fed to carry the ball all by itself, heaping praise on it for saving the world at the very time that the White House is shirking its own responsibilities. The Fed’s “dual mandate” (to promote “maximum employment” as well as “price stability”) is bunk in today’s context. It seems as if the entire world is acting as if the Fed actually has a “total mandate” and the rest of the federal government gets to stand around and applaud its heroic efforts. In fact, what we have now is a lopsided recovery, gigantic price risk in financial markets because of QE, and unknown but potentially massive risks of inflation and the ultimate loss of confidence in the major paper currencies, all because the federal government is more interested in ideology than in getting the country back on track, and the Europeans are more interested in preserving the euro than promoting the prosperity of the sovereign nations of Europe.
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For private investment firms like hedge funds, leverage in the modern world is a matter of semi-volition. True, it is much more readily available than in the past, but there are credit departments and initial margins limiting the size of positions. The big financial institutions, on the other hand, found themselves in an environment starting a couple of dozen years ago in which leverage was entirely voluntary, subject to no real constraint because they were not required to post initial margins with each other. Since many of their positions were “hedges” in similar securities, they risk-underwrote those trades using models that projected very little possibility of generating losses. As a result, the entire system has become super-leveraged, super-interconnected and very brittle. Given the benefits of hindsight, we do not have to prove the proposition that the limits of leverage were exceeded in the recent past and that the system was improperly risk-managed by governments and by the managements of financial institutions. It is frustrating, therefore, that no meaningful de-risking of the financial system has occurred since the crisis. You will see a system primed for a rerun of 2008, perhaps even faster and more intense this time.
MONETARY POLICY GOING FORWARD
QE has created asset price booms, but historically high excess bank reserves are still generally not being lent, and monetary velocity remains relatively low. But last spring, we witnessed the first tangible sign that the Fed may be trapped in its current posture. The Fed cannot retreat due to excessive debt in the system, the fragility of major financial institutions (still opaque and overleveraged) and the prospect that a collapse of bond prices could lead to a quick, deep recession. This situation may be the early stages of a phase in which the Fed is afraid to act because it has the “tiger by the tail,” and perhaps is beginning to realize that the current situation carries significant risks. QE has not generated a sharp upsurge of sustaining and self-reinforcing growth thus far. What it has done is lift stock and asset prices and exacerbate inequality. If investors lose confidence in paper money, as evidenced by either a hard sell-off in one of the major currencies or a sharp fall in bond prices, the Fed and other major central bankers will be in a pickle. If they stop QE and/or raise short-term rates to deal with the loss of confidence, it could throw global markets into a tailspin and the worldwide economy into a severe new recession. However, if they try to deal with the loss of confidence by stepping up QE or keeping interest rates at zero, there could be an explosion in commodity and other asset prices and a sharp acceleration in inflation. What would be the “exit” from extraordinary Fed policy at that point? The current, benign-looking environment (low inflation and
stable economies) is by no means ordained to be the permanent state of things. At the moment, “tapering” is expected to get underway, but that prospect represents a tentative, slight diminution of bond-buying. It contains no real promise of normalizing monetary conditions. If the economy does not light up, the impact of another year of full-bore QE is impossible to predict. Five years and $4 trillion have created economic and moral distortions but very little sustainable value. Maybe the sixth year will produce the “riot point.” Nobody knows, including the Fed.
As we and others have said, the Fed is overly reliant upon models that do not account for real-world elements of instruments, markets and traders in the derivatives age. Models cannot possibly take into account unpredictable interactions among huge positions and traders in new and very complicated instruments. Thus, the Fed should be careful, humble and conservative. Instead, it is just blithely plowing ahead as if it knows exactly what is going on. Intelligent captains sail uncharted waters with extra caution and high alert; only fools think that each mile they sail without sinking the vessel further demonstrates that they are wise and the naysayers were fools. This is a formula for destruction. The crash of 2008 should have been smoking-gun evidence of the folly of this approach, but every mistake leading up to the crash, especially excessive and “invisible” leverage and interest rates that were too low, has been doubled down upon in the years since.
A classicial economist… and Harvard professor… preaching to the world that one’s money is not safe in the US banking system due to Ben Bernanke’s actions? And putting his withdrawal slip where his mouth is and pulling $1 million out of Bank America? Say it isn’t so…
From Terry Burnham, former Harvard economics professor, author of “Mean Genes” and “Mean Markets and Lizard Brains,” provocative poster on this page and long-time critic of the Federal Reserve, argues that the Fed’s efforts to strengthen America’s banks have perversely weakened them. First posted in PBS.
Is your money safe at the bank? An economist says ‘no’ and withdraws his
Last week I had over $1,000,000 in a checking account at Bank of America. Next week, I will have $10,000.
Why am I getting in line to take my money out of Bank of America? Because of Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who officially begins her term as chairwoman on Feb. 1.
Before I explain, let me disclose that I have been a stopped clock of criticism of the Federal Reserve for half a decade. That’s because I believe that when the Fed intervenes in markets, it has two effects — both negative. First, it decreases overall wealth by distorting markets and causing bad investment decisions. Second, the members of the Fed become reverse Robin Hoods as they take from the poor (and unsophisticated) investors and give to the rich (and politically connected). These effects have been noticed; a Gallup poll taken in the last few days reports that only the richest Americans support the Fed. (See the table.)
Why do I risk starting a run on Bank of America by withdrawing my money and presuming that many fellow depositors will read this and rush to withdraw too? Because they pay me zero interest. Thus, even an infinitesimal chance Bank of America will not repay me in full, whenever I ask, switches the cost-benefit conclusion from stay to flee.
Let me explain: Currently, I receive zero dollars in interest on my $1,000,000. The reason I had the money in Bank of America was to keep it safe. However, the potential cost to keeping my money in Bank of America is that the bank may be unwilling or unable to return my money.
They will not be able to return my money if:
- Many other depositors like you get in line before me. Banks today promise everyone that they can have their money back instantaneously, but the bank does not actually have enough money to pay everyone at once because they have lent most of it out to other people — 90 percent or more. Thus, banks are always at risk for runs where the depositors at the front of the line get their money back, but the depositors at the back of the line do not. Consider this image from a fully insured U.S. bank, IndyMac in California, just five years ago.
- Some of the investments of Bank of America go bust. Because Bank of America has loaned out the vast majority of depositors’ money, if even a small percentage of its loans go bust, the firm is at risk for bankruptcy. Leverage, combined with some bad investments, caused the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and would have caused the failure of Bank of America, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and many more institutions in 2008 had the government not bailed them out.
In recent days, the chances for trouble at Bank of America have become more salient because of woes in the emerging markets, particularly Argentina, Turkey, Russia and China. The emerging market fears caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to lose more than 500 points over the last week.
Returning to my money now entrusted to Bank of America, market turmoil reminded me that this particular trustee is simply not safe. Or not safe enough, given the fact that safety is the reason I put the money there at all. The market turmoil could threaten “BofA” with bankruptcy today as it did in 2008, and as banks have experienced again and again over time.
If the chance that Bank of America will not return my money is, say, a mere 1 percent, then the expected cost to me is 1 percent of my million, or $10,000. That far exceeds the interest I receive, which, I hardly need remind depositors out there, is a cool $0. Even a 0.1 percent chance of loss has an expected cost to me of $1,000. Bank of America pays me the zero interest rate because the Federal Reserve has set interest rates to zero. Thus my incentive to leave at the first whiff of instability.
Surely, you say, the federal government is going to keep its promises, at least on insured deposits. Yes, the Federal Government (via the FDIC) insures deposits in most institutions up to $250,000. But there is a problem with this insurance. The FDIC currently has far less money in its fund than it has insured deposits: as of Sept. 1, about $41 billion in reserve against $6 trillion in insured deposits. (There are over $9 trillion on deposit at U.S. banks, by the way, so more than $3 trillion in deposits is completely uninsured.)
It’s true, of course, that when the FDIC fund risks running dry, as it did in 2009, it can go back to other parts of the federal government for help. I expect those other parts will make the utmost efforts to oblige. But consider the possibility that they may be in crisis at the very same time, for the very same reasons, or that it might take some time to get approval. Remember that Congress voted against the TARP bailout in 2008 before it relented and finally voted for the bailout.
Thus, even insured depositors risk loss and/or delay in recovering their funds. In most time periods, these risks are balanced against the reward of getting interest. Not so long ago, Bank of America would have paid me $1,000 a week in interest on my million dollars. If I were getting $1,000 a week, I might bear the risks of delay and default. However, today I am receiving $0.
So my cash is leaving Bank of America.
But if Bank of America is not safe, you must be wondering, where can you and I put our money? No path is without risk, but here are a few options.
- Keep some cash at home, though admittedly this runs the risk of loss or setting yourself up as a target for criminals.
- Put some cash in a safety box. There is an urban myth that this is illegal; my understanding is that cash in a safety box is legal. However, I can imagine scenarios where capital controls are placed on safety deposit box withdrawals. And suppose the bank is shut down and you can’t get to the box?
- Pay your debts. You don’t need to be Suze Orman to know that you need liquidity, so do not use all your cash to pay debts. However, you can use some surplus, should you have any.
- Prepay your taxes and some other obligations. Subject to the same caveat about liquidity, pay ahead. Make sure you only pay safe entities. Your local government is not going away, even in a depression, so, for example, you can prepay property taxes. (I would check with a tax accountant on the implications, however.)
- Find a safer bank. Some local, smaller banks are much safer than the “too-big-to-fail banks.” After its mistake of letting Lehman fail, the government has learned that it must try to save giant institutions. However, the government may not be able to save all failing institutions immediately and simultaneously in a crisis. Thus, depositors in big banks face delays and defaults in the event of a true crisis. (It is important to find the right small bank; I believe all big banks are fragile, while some small banks are robust.)
Someone should start a bank (or maybe someone has) that charges (rather than pays) interest and does not make loans. Such a bank would be a good example of how Fed actions create unintended outcomes that defeat their goals. The Fed wants to stimulate lending, but an anti-lending bank could be quite successful. I would be a customer.
(Interestingly, there was a famous anti-lending bank and it was also a “BofA” — the Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609. The Dutch BofA charged customers for safe-keeping, did not make loans and did not allow depositors to get their money out immediately. Adam Smith discusses this BofA favorably in his “Wealth of Nations,” published in 1776. Unfortunately — and unbeknownst to Smith — the Bank of Amsterdam had starting secretly making risky loans to ventures in the East Indies and other areas, just like any other bank. When these risky ventures failed, so did the BofA.)
My point is that the Federal Reserve’s actions have myriad, unanticipated, negative consequences. Over the last week, we saw the impact on the emerging markets. The Fed had created $3 trillion of new money in the last five-plus years — three times more than in its entire prior history. A big chunk of that $3 trillion found its way, via private investors and institutions, into risky, emerging markets.
Now that the Fed is reducing (“tapering”) its new money creation (now down to $65 billion a month, or $780 billion a year, as of Wednesday’s announcement), investments are flowing out of risky areas. Some of these countries are facing absolute crises, with Argentina’s currency plummeting by more than 20 percent in under one month. That means investments in Argentina are worth 20 percent less in dollar terms than they were a month ago, even if they held their price in Pesos.
The Fed did not plan to impoverish investors by inducing them to buy overpriced Argentinian investments, of course, but that is one of the costly consequences of its actions. If you lost money in emerging markets over the last week, at one level, it is your responsibility. However, it is not crazy for you to blame the Fed for creating volatile prices that made investing more difficult.
Similarly, if you bought gold at the peak of almost $2,000 per ounce, you have lost one-third of your money; you share the blame for your golden losses with Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. They removed the opportunities for safe investments and forced those with liquid assets to scramble for what safety they thought they could find. Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by the Fed has caused many assets to swing wildly in value, creating winners and losers.
The Fed played a role in the recent emerging markets turmoil. Next week, they will cause another crisis somewhere else. Eventually, the absurd effort to create wealth through monetary policy will unravel in the U.S. as it has every other time it has been tried from Weimar Germany to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Even after the Fed created the housing problems, we would have been better of with a small 2009 depression rather than the larger depression that lies ahead. See my Making Sen$e posts “The Stockholm Syndrome and Printing Money” and “Ben Bernanke as Easter Bunny: Why the Fed Can’t Prevent the Coming Crash” for the details of my argument.
Ever since Alan Greenspan intervened to save the stock market on Oct. 20, 1987, the Fed has sought to cushion every financial blow by adding liquidity. The trouble with trying to make the world safe for stupidity is that it creates fragility.
Bank of America and other big banks are fragile — and vulnerable to bank runs — because the Fed has set interest rates to zero. If a run gathers momentum, the government will take steps to stem it. But I am convinced they have limited ammunition and unlimited problems.
What is the solution? For you, save yourself and your family. For the system, revamp the Federal Reserve. The simplest first step would be to end the dual mandate of price stability and full employment. Price stability is enough. I favor rules over intervention. We don’t need a maestro conducting monetary policy; we need a system that promotes stability and allows people (not printing presses) to make us richer.
Europe is recovering, right? Wrong. As Nigel Farage raged last night, things are not what they seem and even the IMF is now beginning to get concerned again (especially after Lagarde’s call yesterday for moar from Draghi and every other central banker). As Bloomberg’s Niraj Shah notes, it’s not just the PIIGS we have to worry about (or not), Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland have been added to the IMF’s list of countries with the potential to destabilize the global economy.
Via Bloomberg’s Niraj Shah ( @economistniraj ),
The IMF’s decision means the four nations will be subject to mandatory financial sector assessments. The total number of countries on the list has risen to 29 from 25. The IMF’s decision may further undermine the safe-haven status of the Nordic nations, where rising household debt imposes a financial risk.
Ballooning Household Debt
Household debt and government-imposed austerity measures are deterring consumers from spending in the Nordic region. Denmark’s financial regulator is considering curbing banks’ lending policies to address the record household debt load. Danish households owe creditors 321 percent of disposable income, the OECD says. Norway’s household debt reached a record 200 percent of disposable income in 2011.
Austerity Triggered by Rising Government Debt
Finland’s debt-to-GDP ratio will almost double to 60.5 percent by 2015 from 33.9 percent in 2008, the IMF forecasts. The fund estimates the Finnish economy shrank 0.65 percent last year. Polish government debt reached 57.6 percent of GDP last year. A clause in the country’s constitution states that breaching a 55 percent ceiling triggers mandatory austerity measures.
Competitiveness at Risk
Denmark has dropped to 15th place in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report from third in 2008. Labor costs rose 9.1 percent between 2008 and 2012, compared with an EU average increase of 8.6 percent in the period. Norway has the highest labor costs in Europe at 48.3 euros per hour in 2012, compared with 30.4 euros in Germany. That may undermine competitiveness and the growth outlook.
Most Financially Interconnected Countries
The inclusion of three Nordic nations for mandatory assessment is the result of a new methodology by the IMF that gives more weight to financial interconnectedness. The U.K. is the most financially linked nation in the world, followed by Germany. Seven of the top 10 most interconnected financial nations are in the euro-area.
So as the world congratulates itself (most notably Ben Bernanke today), the IMF seems concerned that this could all get worse again very quickly. Think they are all too small to worry about? Remember Lehman?
Bernanke’s Legacy: A Record $1.3 Trillion In Excess Deposits Over Loans At The “Big 4” Banks | Zero Hedge
The history books on Bernanke’s legacy have not even been started, and while the euphoria over the Fed’s balance sheet expansion to a ridiculous $4 trillion or about 25% of the US GDP has been well-telegraphed and manifests itself in a record high stock market and a matching record disparity between the haves and the have nots, there is never such a thing as a free lunch… or else the Fed should be crucified for not monetizing all debt since its inception over 100 years ago – just think of all the foregone “wealth effect.” Sarcasm aside, one thing that can be quantified and that few are talking about is the unprecedented, and record, amount of “deposits” held at US commercial banks over loans.
Naturally, these are not deposits in the conventional sense, but merely the balance sheet liability manifestation of the Fed’s excess reserves parked at banks. And as our readers know well by now (hereand here) it is these “excess deposits” that the Banks have used to run up risk in various permutations, most notably as the JPM CIO demonstrated, by attempting to corner various markets and other still unknown pathways, using the Fed’s excess liquidity as a source of initial and maintenance margin on synthetic positions.
So how does the record mismatch between deposits and loans look like? Well, for the Big 4 US banks, JPM, Wells, BofA and Citi it looks as follows.
What the above chart simply shows is the breakdown in the Excess Deposit over Loan series, which is shown in the chart below, which tracks the historical change in commercial bank loans and deposits. What is immediately obvious is that while loans and deposits moved hand in hand for most of history, starting with the collapse of Lehman loan creation has been virtually non-existent (total loans are now at levels seen at the time of Lehman’s collapse) while deposits have risen to just about $10 trillion. It is here that the Fed’s excess reserves have gone – the delta between the two is almost precisely the total amount of reserves injected by the Fed since the Lehman crisis.
As for the location of the remainder of the Fed-created excess reserves? Why it is held by none other than foreign banks operating in the US.
So what does all of this mean? In a nutshell, with the Fed now tapering QE and deposit formation slowing, banks will have no choice but to issue loans to offset the lack of outside money injection by the Fed. In other words, while bank “deposits” have already experienced the benefit of “future inflation”, and have manifested it in the stock market, it is now the turn of the matching asset to catch up. Which also means that while “deposit” growth (i.e., parked reserves) in the future will slow to a trickle, banks will have no choice but to flood the country with $2.5 trillion in loans, or a third of the currently outstanding loans, just to catch up to the head start provided by the Fed!
It is this loan creation that will jump start inside money and the flow through to the economy, resulting in the long-overdue growth. It is also this loan creation that means banks will no longer speculate as prop traders with the excess liquidity but go back to their roots as lenders. Most importantly, once banks launch this wholesale lending effort, it is then and only then that the true pernicious inflation from what the Fed has done in the past 5 years will finally rear its ugly head.
Finally, it is then that Bernanke’s legendary statement that he can “contain inflation in 15 minutes” will truly be tested. Which perhaps explains why he can’t wait to be as far away from the Marriner Eccles building as possible when the long-overdue reaction to his actions finally hits. Which is smart: now it is all Yellen responsibility.
- Lehman’s lessons How to cope when disaster strikes (nzherald.co.nz)
- ZeroHedge: Lehman Brothers… Where Are They Now? (silveristhenew.com)
- “You work for Lehman? I thought that went bust” (uk.reuters.com)
- Hedge funds emerge as winners after Lehman’s fall (thetimes.co.uk)