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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.
China’s push to open up its economy is winning praise from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Morgan Stanley and Jefferies Group LLC, which predicted last month a “massive” multiyear bull run for stocks.
John-Paul Smith doesn’t share the enthusiasm.
When the Deutsche Bank AG equity strategist looks at the country, he says he detects some of the same signs of a financial meltdown that led him to predictRussia’s 1998 stock market crash months in advance. China’s expansion is being fueled by soaring corporate borrowing, a high-risk model that needs to be replaced by the kind of free-market measures and budget cuts that fed Russia’s growth in the aftermath of the country’s default and subsequent 44 percent monthly tumble in the Micex Index (INDEXCF), Smith said.
“There is potential for a debt trap in industrial companies which can trigger an economy-wide financial crisis as early as next year,” Smith said in an interview from London on Dec. 12, a day after he issued a report predicting China’s slowdown will lead to a 10 percent decline in emerging-market stocks next year. “If I am wrong on China, I am wrong on everything.”
Smith’s 2013 call for a drop of at least 10 percent in developing-country stocks has proven prescient. The MSCI Emerging-Markets Index has slid 5.9 percent, trailing the 22 percent rally in MSCI’s developed-markets measure. The Shanghai Composite Index, the benchmark equity gauge in the world’s second-biggest economy, has lost 7.9 percent, heading for its third annual decline in four years. The measure rose 0.2 percent at today’s close after falling for nine days.
The selloff in Chinese (SHCOMP) stocks has eased since mid-November, when the government’s top policy makers pledged the biggest expansion of economic freedoms in at least two decades. Measures included encouraging private investment in state-controlled industries, accelerating convertibility of the currency and liberalizing interest rates, an initiative that helped drive interbank borrowing costs to a six-month high last week.
China’s benchmark money-market rate climbed for a seventh day today, with the seven-day repurchase rate, a gauge of funding availability in the banking system, jumping 124 basis points to 8.84 percent, the highest level since June 20.
Morgan Stanley said the free-market push will boost consumption, technology and health-care stocks while Jefferies Group said companies in industries including auto and insurance will do the best amid the bull market rally. Goldman Sachs upgraded Chinese equities to overweight in part because of the country’s “commitment to reform, which seems quite palpable.”
Smith, who has been bearish on China since he joined Deutsche Bank in 2010 from Pictet Asset Management, said he wants to see how the government carries out the policy changes.
The economy is at risk of expanding less than 5 percent annually over the next few years, he said. Gross domestic product has grown less than 8 percent in each of the past six quarters, down from a high of 14 percent in 2007.
“The proof will be in the implementation,” said Smith, who’s the global emerging markets equities strategist at the Frankfurt-based bank. “It will be very interesting to see if they really intend to go down the same ‘hard state liberal economic’ path that Russia did from 1999 to the autumn of 2003. So far, there is no indication they are prepared” for that.
Smith, 52, has honed his market acumen over a three-decade career. Raised in the English town of Glossop, near Manchester, he studied modern history at Oxford’s Merton College before going to work as a European fund manager with Royal Insurance in 1983. From there, he did stints at TSB Investment Management, Rothschild Asset Management and Moscow-based Brunswick Brokerage, before joining Morgan Stanley in 1995 as a Russian equity strategist.
It was at Morgan Stanley that Smith made the call that he’s still best known for today, a forecast that got its inspiration in part from a visit he made in 1997 to a port city 600 miles (965 kilometers) south of Moscow.
In Rostov-on-Don, he got an up-close look at a combine-harvester maker that surprised him: the company was taking a year to build its planned weekly quota, it was still employing two-thirds of its Soviet-era workforce and it was drowning in unpaid bills and barter deals.
That trip helped Smith understand the growing financial crisis that would lead Russia to devalue the ruble and default on $40 billion of domestic debt in August 1998.
In a June 1997 report, he wrote that investors may not have begun to “really focus on the possible fallout” from companies’ growing financial struggles. Smith highlighted the Rostov-on-Don trip in a January 1998 note in which he reiterated that investors were too optimistic. Two months later, he wrote that Russia had to “sort the situation out” that year or its financing burden would become unsustainable and trigger a devaluation.
In the aftermath of the collapse, Smith turned bullish on Russian stocks at an investors’ meeting in New York in 1999. The market soared 235 percent that year. He calls it the best forecast of his career.
“I suggested that Russia was now cheap and should be an overweight and the meeting ended very quickly indeed amid some expressions of minor outrage,” said Smith, who is underweight Russian stocks today.
Following those calls, Smith spent nine years at Pictet, first as head of emerging markets equities where funds managed by his team almost quadrupled to $9 billion between 2001 and 2005. His Eastern European Trust Fund, with 40 percent of its assets in Russian equities on average, outperformed the MSCI Emerging Market Eastern Europe dollar index by 1.5 percentage points at the end of 2005.
“When he joined Pictet in 2001, it was like the second coming as the savior of our emerging markets business,” Stephen Barber, a managing director at parent company Pictet & Cie, wrote in a farewell note about Smith in June 2010. “He did seem to perform miracles in the years that followed, as our emerging markets business recovered strongly.”
While Barber said that Smith had an ability to avoid getting caught up in the market euphoria, he often made his calls too early.
“When he was with us, he was for a long period bearish on China,” Barber said. “The analysis was absolutely correct but in the meantime, you can miss out on a bull market.”
“When you have a great strategist who has these insights, you have to nurture these insights, not kill them,” he said.
Smith wrote an article for the Financial Times in December 2007 saying he sensed that the worst in the subprime mortgage crisis was over and that the U.S. market was poised to rally. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression followed.
The analyst, who has also been wrongly bearish on oil since April 2011, says he learned to never take a strong view without obtaining detailed understanding of the underlying fundamentals, such as what types of instruments were being held in the financial industry.
Smith’s China call is another strong view. His colleagues at other banks are underestimating the risks, he said.
China’s total credit, including items off bank balance sheets, climbed to about 190 percent of the economy by the end of 2012 from 124 percent in 2008, according to Fitch Ratings Ltd. That was faster lending growth than in Japan during the late 1980s that foreshadowed two decades of deflation, and in the U.S. before the financial crisis of 2008.
“It is really at the corporate level and at the micro level in China that the fate of the financial market and the economy there is going to be determined,” Smith said. “China is not such a safe haven as most market commentators appear to believe.”
During 2013, America continued to steadily march down a self-destructive path toward oblivion. As a society, our debt levels are completely and totally out of control. Our financial system has been transformed into the largest casino on the entire planet and our big banks are behaving even more recklessly than they did just before the last financial crisis. We continue to see thousands of businesses and millions of jobs get shipped out of the United States, and the middle class is being absolutely eviscerated. Due to the lack of decent jobs, poverty is absolutely exploding. Government dependence is at an all-time high and crime is rising. Evidence of social and moral decay is seemingly everywhere, and our government appears to be going insane. If we are going to have any hope of solving these problems, the American people need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and finally admit how bad things have actually become. If we all just blindly have faith that “everything is going to be okay”, the consequences of decades of incredibly foolish decisions are going to absolutely blindside us and we will be absolutely devastated by the great crisis that is rapidly approaching. The United States is in a massive amount of trouble, and it is time that we all started facing the truth. The following are 83 numbers from 2013 that are almost too crazy to believe…
#1 Most people that hear this statistic do not believe that it is actually true, but right now an all-time record 102 million working age Americans do not have a job. That number has risen by about 27 million since the year 2000.
#2 Because of the lack of jobs, poverty is spreading like wildfire in the United States. According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, an all-time record 49.2 percent of all Americans are receiving benefits from at least one government program each month.
#3 As society breaks down, the government feels a greater need than ever before to watch, monitor and track the population. For example, every single day the NSA intercepts and permanently stores close to 2 billion emails and phone calls in addition to a whole host of other data.
#4 The Bank for International Settlements says that total public and private debt levels around the globe are now 30 percent higher than they were back during the financial crisis of 2008.
#5 According to a recent World Bank report, private domestic debt in China has grown from 9 trillion dollars in 2008 to 23 trillion dollars today.
#7 The six largest banks in the United States (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) have collectively gotten 37 percent larger over the past five years.
#8 The U.S. banking system has 14.4 trillion dollars in total assets. The six largest banks now account for 67 percent of those assets and all of the other banks account for only 33 percent of those assets.
#9 JPMorgan Chase is roughly the size of the entire British economy.
#10 The five largest banks now account for 42 percent of all loans in the United States.
#11 Right now, four of the “too big to fail” banks each have total exposure to derivatives that is well in excess of 40 trillion dollars.
#12 The total exposure that Goldman Sachs has to derivatives contracts is more than 381 times greater than their total assets.
#13 According to the Bank for International Settlements, the global financial system has a total of 441 trillion dollars worth of exposure to interest rate derivatives.
#14 Through the end of November, approximately 365,000 Americans had signed up for Obamacare but approximately 4 million Americanshad already lost their current health insurance policies because of Obamacare.
#15 It is being projected that up to 100 million more Americans could have their health insurance policies canceled by the time Obamacare is fully rolled out.
#16 At this point, 82.4 million Americans live in a home where at least one person is enrolled in the Medicaid program.
#17 It is has been estimated that Obamacare will add 21 million more Americans to the Medicaid rolls.
#18 It is being projected that health insurance premiums for healthy 30-year-old men will rise by an average of 260 percent under Obamacare.
#19 One couple down in Texas received a letter from their health insurance company that informed them that they were being hit with a 539 percent rate increase because of Obamacare.
#21 The U.S. government has spent an astounding 3.7 trillion dollarson welfare programs over the past five years.
#22 Incredibly, 74 percent of all the wealth in the United States is owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of all Americans.
#23 According to Consumer Reports, the number of children in the United States taking antipsychotic drugs has nearly tripled over the past 15 years.
#24 The marriage rate in the United States has fallen to an all-time low. Right now it is sitting at a yearly rate of just 6.8 marriages per 1000 people.
#25 According to a shocking new study, the average American that turned 65 this year will receive $327,500 more in federal benefits than they paid in taxes over the course of their lifetimes.
#26 In just one week in December, a combined total of more than 2000 new cold temperature and snowfall records were set in the United States.
#27 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income in the United States has fallen for five years in a row.
#28 The rate of homeownership in the United States has fallen for eight years in a row.
#29 Only 47 percent of all adults in America have a full-time job at this point.
#30 The unemployment rate in the eurozone recently hit a new all-time high of 12.2 percent.
#31 If you assume that the labor force participation rate in the U.S. is at the long-term average, the unemployment rate in the United States would actually be 11.5 percent instead of 7 percent.
#32 In November 2000, 64.3 percent of all working age Americans had a job. When Barack Obama first entered the White House, 60.6 percent of all working age Americans had a job. Today, only 58.6 percent of all working age Americans have a job.
#33 There are 1,148,000 fewer Americans working today than there was in November 2006. Meanwhile, our population has grown by more than 16 million people during that time frame.
#34 Only 19 percent of all Americans believe that the job market is better than it was a year ago.
#35 Just 14 percent of all Americans believe that the stock market will rise next year.
#36 According to CNBC, Pinterest is currently valued at more than 3 billion dollars even though it has never earned a profit.
#37 Twitter is a seven-year-old company that has never made a profit. It actually lost 64.6 million dollars last quarter. But according to the financial markets it is currently worth about 22 billion dollars.
#39 Total consumer credit has risen by a whopping 22 percent over the past three years.
#40 Student loans are up by an astounding 61 percent over the past three years.
#41 At this moment, there are 6 million Americans in the 16 to 24-year-old age group that are neither in school or working.
#42 The “inactivity rate” for men in their prime working years (25 to 54) has just hit a brand new all-time record high.
#43 It is hard to believe, but in America today one out of every ten jobs is now filled by a temp agency.
#45 According to the Social Security Administration, 40 percent of all U.S. workers make less than $20,000 a year.
#46 Approximately one out of every four part-time workers in America is living below the poverty line.
#47 After accounting for inflation, 40 percent of all U.S. workers are making less than what a full-time minimum wage worker made back in 1968.
#48 When Barack Obama took office, the average duration of unemployment in this country was 19.8 weeks. Today, it is 37.2 weeks.
#49 Investors pulled an astounding 72 billion dollars out of bond mutual funds in 2013. It was the worst year for bond funds ever.
#50 Small business is rapidly dying in America. At this point, only about 7 percent of all non-farm workers in the United States are self-employed. That is an all-time record low.
#51 The six heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton have as much wealth as the bottom one-third of all Americans combined.
#52 Once January 1st hits, it will officially be illegal to manufacture or import traditional incandescent light bulbs in the United States. It is being projected that millions of Americans will attempt to stock up on the old light bulbs before they are totally gone from store shelves.
#53 The Japanese government has estimated that approximately 300 tons of highly radioactive water is being released into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear facility every single day.
#56 Wal-Mart recently opened up two new stores in Washington D.C., and more than 23,000 people applied for just 600 positions. That means that only about 2.6 percent of the applicants were ultimately hired. In comparison, Harvard offers admission to 6.1 percent of their applicants.
#57 At this point, almost half of all public school students in America come from low income homes.
#58 Tragically, there are 1.2 million students that attend public schools in the United States that are homeless. That number has risen by 72 percent since the start of the last recession.
#59 According to a Gallup poll that was recently released, 20.0 percent of all Americans did not have enough money to buy food that they or their families needed at some point over the past year. That is just under the all-time record of 20.4 percent that was set back in November 2008.
#61 Right now, one out of every five households in the United States is on food stamps.
#62 The U.S. economy loses approximately 9,000 jobs for every 1 billion dollars of goods that are imported from overseas.
#64 According to one survey, approximately 75 percent of all American women do not have any interest in dating unemployed men.
#65 China exports 4 billion pounds of food to the United States every year.
#66 Overall, the United States has run a trade deficit of more than 8 trillion dollars with the rest of the world since 1975.
#68 It is being projected that the number of Americans on Social Security will rise from 57 million today to more than 100 million in 25 years.
#69 Back in 1970, the total amount of debt in the United States (government debt + business debt + consumer debt, etc.) was less than 2 trillion dollars. Today it is over 56 trillion dollars.
#71 The U.S. government “rolled over” more than 7.5 trillion dollars of existing debt in fiscal 2013.
#72 If the U.S. national debt was reduced to a stack of one dollar bills it would circle the earth at the equator 45 times.
#74 The U.S. national debt is on pace to more than double during the eight years of the Obama administration. In other words, under Barack Obama the U.S. government will accumulate more debt than it did under all of the other presidents in U.S. history combined.
#75 The federal government is borrowing (stealing) roughly 100 million dollars from our children and our grandchildren every single hour of every single day.
#76 At this point, the U.S. already has more government debt per capitathan Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain.
#77 Japan now has a debt to GDP ratio of more than 211 percent.
#78 As of December 5th, 83 volcanic eruptions had been recorded around the planet so far this year. That is a new all-time record high.
#79 53 percent of all Americans do not have a 3 day supply of nonperishable food and water in their homes.
#80 Violent crime in the United States was up 15 percent last year.
#81 According to a very surprising survey that was recently conducted,68 percent of all Americans believe that the country is currently on the wrong track.
The too big to fail banks have a larger share of the U.S. banking industry than they have ever had before. So if having banks that were too big to fail was a “problem” back in 2008, what is it today? As you will read about below, the total number of banks in the United States has fallen to a brand new all-time record low and that means that the health of the too big to fail banks is now more critical to our economy than ever. In 1985, there were more than 18,000 banks in the United States. Today, there are only 6,891 left, and that number continues to drop every single year. That means that more than 10,000 U.S. banks have gone out of existence since 1985. Meanwhile, the too big to fail banks just keep on getting even bigger. In fact, the six largest banks in the United States (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) have collectively gotten 37 percent larger over the past five years. If even one of those banks collapses, it would be absolutely crippling to the U.S. economy. If several of them were to collapse at the same time, it could potentially plunge us into an economic depression unlike anything that this nation has ever seen before.
Incredibly, there were actually more banks in existence back during the days of the Great Depression than there is today. According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government has been keeping track of the number of banks since 1934 and this year is the very first time that the number has fallen below 7,000…
The number of federally insured institutions nationwide shrank to 6,891 in the third quarter after this summer falling below 7,000 for the first time since federal regulators began keeping track in 1934, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
And the number of active bank branches all across America is falling too. In fact, according to the FDIC the total number of bank branches in the United States fell by 3.2 percent between the end of 2009 and June 30th of this year.
Unfortunately, the closing of bank branches appears to be accelerating. The number of bank branches in the U.S. declined by 390 during the third quarter of 2013 alone, and it is being projected that the number of bank branches in the U.S. could fall by as much as 40 percent over the next decade.
Can you guess where most of the bank branches are being closed?
If you guessed “poor neighborhoods” you would be correct.
According to Bloomberg, an astounding 93 percent of all bank branch closings since late 2008 have been in neighborhoods where incomes are below the national median household income…
Banks have shut 1,826 branches since late 2008, and 93 percent of closings were in postal codes where the household income is below the national median, according to census and federal banking data compiled by Bloomberg.
It turns out that opening up checking accounts and running ATM machines for poor people just isn’t that profitable. The executives at these big banks are very open about the fact that they “love affluent customers“, and there is never a shortage of bank branches in wealthy neighborhoods. But in many poor neighborhoods it is a very different story…
About 10 million U.S. households lack bank accounts, according to a study released in September by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. An additional 24 million are “underbanked,” using check-cashing services and other storefront businesses for financial transactions. The Bronx in New York City is the nation’s second most underbanked large county—behind Hidalgo County in Texas—with 48 percent of households either not having an account or relying on alternative financial providers, according to a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, an advocacy organization for lower-income Americans.
And if you are waiting for a whole bunch of new banks to start up to serve these poor neighborhoods, you can just forget about it. Because of a whole host of new rules and regulations that have been put on the backs of small banks over the past several years, it has become nearly impossible to start up a new bank in the United States. In fact, only one new bank has been started in the United States in the last three years.
So the number of banks is going to continue to decline. 1,400 smaller banks have quietly disappeared from the U.S. banking industry over the past five years alone. We are witnessing a consolidation of the banking industry in America that is absolutely unprecedented.
Just consider the following statistics. These numbers come from a recent CNN article…
-The assets of the six largest banks in the United States have grown by 37 percent over the past five years.
-The U.S. banking system has 14.4 trillion dollars in total assets. The six largest banks now account for 67 percent of those assets and all of the other banks account for only 33 percent of those assets.
-Approximately 1,400 smaller banks have disappeared over the past five years.
-JPMorgan Chase is roughly the size of the entire British economy.
-The four largest banks have more than a million employeescombined.
-The five largest banks account for 42 percent of all loans in the United States.
-Bank of America accounts for about a third of all business loans all by itself.
-Wells Fargo accounts for about one quarter of all mortgage loans all by itself.
-About 12 percent of all cash in the United States is held in the vaults of JPMorgan Chase.
As you can see, without those banks we do not have a financial system.
Our entire economy is based on debt, and if those banks were to disappear the flow of credit would dry up almost completely. Without those banks, we would rapidly enter an economic depression unlike anything that the United States has seen before.
It is kind of like a patient that has such an advanced case of cancer that if you try to kill the cancer you will inevitably also kill the patient. That is essentially what our relationship with these big banks is like at this point.
Unfortunately, since the last financial crisis the too big to fail banks have become even more reckless. Right now, four of the too big to fail banks each have total exposure to derivatives that is well in excess of 40 TRILLION dollars.
Keep in mind that U.S. GDP for the entire year of 2012 was just 15.7 trillion dollars and the U.S. national debt is just 17 trillion dollars.
So when you are talking about four banks that each have more than 40 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives you are talking about an amount of money that is almost incomprehensible.
Posted below are the figures for the four banks that I am talking about. I have written about this in the past, but in this article I have included the very latest updated numbers from the U.S. government. I think that you will agree that these numbers are absolutely staggering…
Total Assets: $1,947,794,000,000 (nearly 1.95 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $71,289,673,000,000 (more than 71 trillion dollars)
Total Assets: $1,319,359,000,000 (a bit more than 1.3 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $60,398,289,000,000 (more than 60 trillion dollars)
Bank Of America
Total Assets: $1,429,737,000,000 (a bit more than 1.4 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $42,670,269,000,000 (more than 42 trillion dollars)
Total Assets: $113,064,000,000 (just a shade over 113 billion dollars – yes, you read that correctly)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $43,135,021,000,000 (more than 43 trillion dollars)
Please don’t just gloss over those huge numbers.
Let them sink in for a moment.
Goldman Sachs has total assets worth approximately 113 billion dollars (billion with a little “b”), but they have more than 43 TRILLON dollars of total exposure to derivatives.
That means that the total exposure that Goldman Sachs has to derivatives contracts is more than 381 times greater than their total assets.
Most Americans do not understand that Wall Street has been transformed into the largest casino in the history of the world. The big banks are being incredibly reckless with our money, and if they fail it will bring down the entire economy.
The biggest chunk of these derivatives contracts that Wall Street banks are gambling on is made up of interest rate derivatives. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the global financial system has a total of 441 TRILLION dollars worth of exposure to interest rate derivatives.
When that Ponzi scheme finally comes crumbling down, there won’t be enough money on the entire planet to fix it.
We had our warning back in 2008.
The too big to fail banks were in the headlines every single day and our politicians promised to fix the problem.
But instead of fixing it, the too big to fail banks are now 37 percent larger and our economy is more dependent on them than ever before.
And in their endless greed for even larger paychecks, they have become insanely reckless with all of our money.
Mark my words – there is going to be a derivatives crisis.
When it happens, we are going to see some of these too big to fail banks actually fail.
At that point, there will be absolutely no hope for the U.S. economy.
We willingly allowed the too big to fail banks to become the core of our economic system, and now we are all going to pay the price.
Three ex-General Electric traders are seeing the outside sooner than anyone expected after their convictions were overturned. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
The `GE Three’ Go Free
It wasn’t long after three former General Electric Co. executives were convicted of rigging auctions for municipal-bond investment contracts that they received the ultimate sendoff: A 7,400-word torching in Rolling Stone magazine by Matt Taibbi, the writer who branded Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with the nickname “vampire squid.”
“Someday, it will go down in history as the first trial of the modern American mafia,” Taibbi began his June 2012 opus about Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm. “Over 10 years in the making, the case allowed federal prosecutors to make public for the first time the astonishing inner workings of the reigning American crime syndicate, which now operates not out of Little Italy and Las Vegas, but out of Wall Street.”
Then came a surprise last week, right before Thanksgiving. A federal judge ordered the men released from prison. An appeals court had reversed their convictions the day before, without explanation. An opinion would be issued “in due course,” it said. Bloomberg News ran a short story this week. The rest of the news media barely noticed.
Americans tend to like their crime stories simple: Good guys catching bad guys and sending them to jail. Nuances and complexities can complicate morality tales. The country is still baying for blood after the financial crisis. Folks want the people who they think helped crash the economy locked up and fed bread and water in place of Cristal and lobster.
The case against the former GE bankers is a reminder that high-profile financial-crime cases rarely are cut and dry. Even when prosecutors win, they still might lose later, especially if the defendants can afford top-notch appellate lawyers. Until last week the GE Three were considered criminals. Now they are innocent in the eyes of the law, and we don’t even know why yet. It’s possible that the government will appeal further and win in the end. A resolution seems far from final.
A reversal like this helps explain why some prosecutors might hesitate to bring difficult white-collar cases to trial. The Justice Department seemed to pull back from pursuing financial-crisis cases after two former Bear Stearns Cos. hedge-fund managers were acquitted of fraud charges in 2009. (One of the jurors said after their trial that she would invest with them if she had the money.) It’s easier to rack up wins by going after small fry for simpler crimes.
Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm each had been convicted on multiple counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors accused them of paying kickbacks to brokers hired by cities and towns to oversee the bidding on municipal-investment contracts, which local governments use to invest the proceeds from bond sales. Goldberg was sentenced to four years in prison. Carollo and Grimm got three years each.
Although the appeals court hasn’t yet explained its decision, the defendants claimed that the statute of limitations had elapsed by the time they were indicted in 2010. They also complained that they hadn’t been allowed to finish cross-examining one of the government’s key witnesses after he attempted suicide during a break. The government said he couldn’t return for further questioning.
What should we make of their sudden freedom? Sometimes justice is rough. Sometimes it seems random. It’s often messy. Some judges disagree with other judges’ rulings. Some crooks get pinched while others who seem guilty as sin never get charged. Mysteries abound as to why. Insider-trading cases get hot, so other frauds get put on the backburner. The government rarely explains why it chose not to prosecute someone, leaving the public to speculate.
And what are we now to make of GE’s own decision in 2011 to enter a non-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, under which it paid $70 million? As part of that deal, GE made this admission: “From 1999 to 2004, certain former traders who bid on municipal contracts on behalf of the company entered into unlawful agreements to manipulate the bidding process on certain relevant municipal contracts, and caused the company to make payments and engage in other related activities in connection with those agreements through at least 2006.”
In other words, the company turned against its former employees. Maybe GE could have beaten the government’s rap, given that the former executives’ convictions have been overturned. We’ll never know. Even if it turns out they got off on a technicality, Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm deserve respect for having the guts to demand that the government prove its case in court. That is something large financial institutions rarely try. Perhaps more should.
One final note: The Justice Department issued news releases to trumpet the former GE executives’ indictments, convictions and sentencings. It didn’t issue a news release to say that their convictions had been reversed. That sure doesn’t look like fair play or justice to me.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
Four weeks later, job applicants would find the position filled. Such has been the clamour among investors for the higher yields from higher-risk products that big banks including Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley are turning again to the more esoteric parts of the financial markets. Hence the need to hire.
ON THIS STORY
- Analysis Deutsche Bank – Show of strength or a fiction?
- Bid to relaunch synthetic CDO unravels
- Credit default swaps run out of road
ON THIS TOPIC
- Citigroup cuts South Korea branches
- Bond trading slowdown hurts Citigroup
- Lex Citigroup – the good and the bad
- Comment Mortgage servicing rights – natural hedge
IN CAPITAL MARKETS
Synthetic CDOs are a type of structured credit product blamed by critics for exacerbating the global financial crisis. Wall Street manufactured billions of dollars of these securities at the peak of the credit boom. They have all but disappeared since.
The road to recovery, though, has been a bumpy one for synthetic products. The stigma of buying into such boom-era assets remains strong for investors, particularly when leverage – or borrowing – is used in an effort to enhance returns.
“Investors have learnt the use of leverage can create losses when they are not expected,” says Ashish Shah, head of global credit at AllianceBernstein. “Investors have to be conservative when applying leverage to less liquid assets.”
That has prompted some banks to tweak the structure of new synthetic deals. Citi has begun marketing an unusual $100m senior slice of a four-year synthetic CDO to investors.
Since their creation in the early 2000s, synthetic CDOs have allowed investors to make amplified, or leveraged, bets on portfolios of credit ranging from subprime mortgage bonds to corporate loans. The products buy derivatives known as credit default swaps and divide them into “tranches” with varying risk and seniority.
Finding investors to buy the most senior pieces of such deals has tended to be difficult because the top slices generate the lowest yields. So banks invented a so-called “leveraged super senior” tranche, which allowed investors to pay only a fraction of the senior tranche’s total value and, by doing so, juice their returns.
But leveraged super seniors caused massive losses during the crisis as declines in the market value of the products triggered contract clauses that required investors to stump up billions of dollars of collateral or walk away.
To assuage investors’ concerns about possible losses, Citi has changed the structure of its proposed senior synthetic CDO deal, which is tied to a pool of investment-grade corporate credits.
Instead of asking investors to put up more collateral as the market value of the underlying portfolio falls, investors will have to pay up only if actual losses on the portfolio exceed 15 per cent. “It’s very easy to call it a leveraged super senior but what it really is, is a vanilla super senior plus financing,” said an executive at a rival bank.
While synthetic CDOs with a “full capital structure” – including junior, “mezzanine” and senior tranches – have yet to return to the market, banks have been selling “bespoke” or “single-tranche” CDOs in recent years. Citi, in particular, has been offering customised single-tranche deals notable for attractive-looking yields.
Such unrated deals are typically tied to corporate credit, rather than mortgages. Average trades have two-year terms instead of the 10-year deals that were common before the crisis. The bank is believed to have sold as much as $1bn of these bespoke single-tranche CDOs so far this year.
“They [Citi] have been reasonably active in junior parts of the capital structure,” says one bank executive. Selling off the bank’s senior credit risk to new investors is “the best way for them to risk manage” overall credit exposure.
It is unclear whether Citi will be able to find buyers for its proposed deal, which it has been marketing to potential investors including big pension funds and endowments for a month in Europe and the US, according to people familiar with the transaction.
Some big institutional investors have criticised the product for yielding only 3.5 per cent – or about one percentage point more than regular investment-grade bonds. They reckon the deal should yield about 5 per cent.
Investors have learnt the use of leverage can create losses when they are not expected– Ashish Shah, AllianceBernstein
That could prove a stumbling block. A previous attempt to resuscitate a pre-crisis-like, “full capital structure” CDO by JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley failed after the two banks were unable to line up investors to take on the most senior part of the deal.
Still, people familiar with the deal say Citi could prepare the ground for a wider revival in demand for structured credit in the new year, once investors have a clearer view of interest rates and when the Federal Reserve starts to pare back its $85bn-a-month bond-buying programme.
Bankers are hopeful that, once the dust settles from the Fed “taper”, investors will feel more comfortable buying investment-grade credit at higher interest rates and, moreover, leveraging the returns against a low risk of high-quality companies going bust. Citi, for its part, believes a super senior revival will be the story of 2014.
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Hunting season is off to a good start this week, and I’m not just talking about deer hunting. It seems that former Fed officials declared open season on their ex-colleagues.
First, Andrew Huszar, who once ran the Fed’s mortgage buying operation, let loose in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Huszar apologized to all Americans for his role in the toxic QE programs.
And then today, the WSJ struck again, this time with an op-ed by former FOMC Governor Kevin Warsh.
Instead of excerpting the Huszar essay, we’ll only share the apt words of commenter Ernest Moosa, who wrote:
Every reader needs to understand and grasp what is being said here. We have been on the wrong economic path for five years, and without the desired results, our leadership says “FULL SPEED AHEAD”. We have wasted so much time and money that future generations will point to us and say this is how a great country can be destroyed in less than a decade with no shots even being fired. Deplorable.
Moosa hit the nail on the head, and we recommend reading the op-ed in its entirety if you haven’t already done so.
As for Warsh’s editorial, it was tough to read without wondering what he’s thinking. Warsh is a former Morgan Stanley investment banker whose 2006 to 2011 stint on the FOMC spanned the end of the housing boom and the first few years of “unconventional” policy measures. After such a solid grounding in the ways of the Fed and Wall Street, he recently morphed into a critic of the status quo. His criticisms are welcome and we believe accurate, but they’re also oh so carefully expressed. They’re written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seems to be holding back.
So, what does he really want to say?
Here are our guesses, alongside excerpts from the editorial on each of nine topics that Warsh covered:
“The purchase of long-term assets from the U.S. Treasury to achieve negative real interest rates is extraordinary, an unprecedented change in practice since the Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951.
The Fed is directly influencing the price of long-term Treasurys—the most important asset in the world, the predicate from which virtually all investment decisions are judged. Earlier this year the notion that the Fed might modestly taper its purchases drove significant upheaval across financial markets. This episode should engender humility on all sides. It should also correct the misimpression that QE is anything other than an untested, incomplete experiment.”
What he really wants to say:
We’d all be better off if the central banking gods (myself included) hadn’t been so damn arrogant to think that we actually understood QE. We don’t, and it never should have been attempted.
The Fed’s focus on inflation
“Low measured inflation and anchored inflationary expectations should only begin the discussion about the wisdom of Fed policy, not least because of the long and variable lags between monetary interventions and their effects on the economy. The most pronounced risk of QE is not an outbreak of hyperinflation. Rather, long periods of free money and subsidized credit are associated with significant capital misallocation and malinvestment—which do not augur well for long-term growth or financial stability.”
What he really wants to say:
The inflation target is stupid. It’s not the CPI that’s killing us, it’s the credit booms and busts. The best way out of this mess is to lose the inflation target and go back to the old-fashioned approach of “taking the punch bowl away when the party gets going.”
Pulling off the exit from extraordinary measures
“[T]he foremost attributes needed by the Fed to end its extraordinary interventions and, ultimately, to raise interest rates, are courage and conviction. The Fed has been roundly criticized for providing candy to spur markets higher. Consider the challenge when a steady diet of spinach is on offer.”
What he really wants to say:
Pundits who praise the courage of our central bankers are clueless. The true story is that we consistently take the easy way out. If the current cast of characters wanted to show courage, they’d man up and replace the short-term sugar highs with long-term thinking.
The Fed’s relationship to the rest of Washington
“The administration and Congress are unwilling or unable to agree on tax and spending priorities, or long-term structural reforms. They avoid making tough choices, confident the Fed’s asset purchases will ride to the rescue. In short, the central bank has become the default provider of aggregate demand. But the more the Fed acts, the more it allows elected representatives to stay on the sidelines. The Fed’s weak tea crowds out stronger policy measures that can only be taken by elected officials. Nobel laureate economist Tom Sargent has it right: ‘Monetary policy cannot be coherent unless fiscal policy is.’”
What he really wants to say:
And if we don’t man up, you can count on Congress to continue with its egregious generational theft and destroy our nation’s finances, just as me, Stan and Geoff have been warning.
Who benefits from QE and who doesn’t?
“Most do not question the Fed’s good intentions, but its policies have winners and losers, which should be acknowledged forthrightly.
The Fed buys mortgage-backed securities, thereby providing a direct boost to balance sheet wealth of existing homeowners to the detriment of renters and prospective future homeowners. The Fed buys long-term Treasurys to suppress yields and push investors into riskier assets, thereby boosting U.S. stocks.
The immediate beneficiaries: well-to-do households and established firms with larger balance sheets, larger risk appetites, and access to low-cost credit. The benefits to workers and retirees with significant fixed obligations are far more attenuated. The plodding improvement in the labor markets offers little solace.”
What he really wants to say:
Unbelievably, my ex-colleagues still don’t acknowledge their policies are killing the middle class to the benefit of the plutocracy. Their silence on this is wholly unacceptable and has to stop (and so do the policies).
Domestic versus global policy considerations
“[T]he U.S. is the linchpin of an integrated global economy. Fed-induced liquidity spreads to the rest of the world through trade and banking channels, capital and investment flows, and financial-market arbitrage. Aggressive easing by the Fed can be contagious, inclining other central banks to ease as well to stay competitive. The privilege of having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency demands a broad view of global economic and financial-market developments. Otherwise, this privilege could be squandered.”
What he really wants to say:
We really need to climb out of our shell and look at things from a global perspective. The rest of the world knows that we’re selling a bill of goods and won’t continue buying it forever. If we don’t change, you can say goodbye to the dollar.
“Since QE began, Fed policy makers have tried to explain that asset purchases and interest rates are different. Hence their refrain that tapering is not tightening, and that very low interest rates will continue after QE. Investors do not agree. Once the Fed begins to wind down its asset purchases, these market participants are likely to reassert their views with considerable force.
Recently, the Fed has elevated forward guidance as a means of persuading investors that it will indeed keep interest rates exceptionally low even after QE. Forward guidance is intended to explain how the central bank will react to incoming data. Fed projections for example, may show below-target inflation and a residual output gap justifying very low interest rates several years from now. But words are not equal to concrete policy action. And the Fed hasn’t received many awards for prescience in recent years.”
What he really wants to say:
Forward guidance is a load of crap. First, you won’t convince the market of any of your dumb ideas. Investors can and will think for themselves. Second, talk is cheap. And talk that’s based on the Fed’s ability to foresee the future? C’mon now, that’s ridiculous.
“[T]ransparency in communications about future policy is not a virtue unto itself. The highest virtue is getting policy right. Given manifest uncertainties about the state of the economy, oversharing policy deliberations is not useful if markets are led astray, or if public commitments reduce policy makers’ flexibility to call things the way they see them.”
What he really wants to say:
Transparency, shmansparency. I’ve had it up to here with taper, untaper, maybe taper, maybe not taper. I’ll trade a transparent central bank for one that knows what it’s doing any day.
Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen as the next FOMC chair
“The president has nominated a person with a well-deserved reputation for probity and good judgment. The period ahead will demand these qualities in no small measure.”
What he really wants to say:
The president made a bad choice.
These are only our guesses, not actual thoughts from Kevin Warsh, who hasn’t told us what he really wants to say. We don’t even know if he hunts. (We’re guessing no.