Posts Tagged ‘banks’

Ask what you can do for the banks

13 December 2010

Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican and incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, lets us know who’s his daddy:

“In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

The honesty’s too much.

Hat tip and emphasis: Matt Yglesias.

Too big

22 April 2010

The NYT has a good piece on the prospects for federal breakups of the big banks.  It’s not part of the financial reform bill that the Senate Finance Committee just passed, or the one the House passed earlier, but a group of Democratic senators including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ted Kaufman of Delaware just introduced such a measure.

Some numbers to sink your teeth into, from the article:

The banking industry has become much more concentrated as it has grown in recent years. In 1995, the assets of the six largest banks were equivalent to 17 percent of G.D.P.; now they amount to 63 percent of G.D.P. Meanwhile, the share of all banking industry assets held by the top 10 banks rose to 58 percent last year, from 44 percent in 2000 and 24 percent in 1990.

UPDATE: Simon Johnson likes the Kaufman-Brown bill and discusses it at length here.  A longer post here about the specious arguments by two senators and Larry Summers in favor of preserving the size of the big banks.


Too big to say no to

4 May 2009

Banking news of note this past week:

  • A bill to allow bankruptcy court judges to modify the terms of troubled mortgages, “cramming down” the amounts owed so as to avoid foreclosures and make these debts and troubled assets more manageable, failed in the Senate, getting just 45 votes.   En route to the bill’s failure, its chief sponsor, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said the banks “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”  The NYT noted that the White House, despite backing the bill, did not go to bat for it in its final days.
  • The Treasury has delayed the release of its “stress tests” of the 19 largest banks, apparently because their credulous-looking certification that all 19 banks are currently solvent is not rosy enough for some of the banks, notably Citigroup.  Word is that Citi and Bank of America are contesting the results, even though the tests (1) appear to have used the banks’ own questionable data on the values of their toxic assets and (2) minimize the amount of hypothetical “stress” these banks might be subject to, by entertaining only fairly optimistic worst-case scenarios.  Various economists have said the tests were rigged in the banks’ favor, but evidently some banks are pushing to make them even more so.  Yves Smith offers the full bill of indictment here.

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Trophies for everyone!

26 April 2009

“Too big to fail” evidently means “too big to fail a stress test,” too.  Although the results of the recently conducted stress tests on the nineteen largest U.S. banks won’t be made public until May 4, the advance word on Friday, April 24 was a Whole Lotta RosieFrom the NYT:

‘On Friday, the Federal Reserve reported that the banks whose books it had analyzed recently had enough capital to offset a raft of new losses, . . .’

So everybody’s solvent!  And those toxic assets are both nutritious and delicious!  I bet my students would love it if I could get Tim Geithner or the Fed to write my final exams — nobody would be allowed to fail.

‘. . . reinforcing the belief that the government would support the largest banks even if their financial health eroded, and buoying the stock market.’

Um, didn’t the government already do that, to the tune of $700 billion, not counting the Fed’s waves of loan/subsidies?  But of course those subsidies came with some conditions, from the understandable ($500,000 pay cap) to the asinine (don’t hire no foreigners), so the big banks are naturally eager to pay back those loans and return to looting.  As long as they can still count on a fresh round of bailouts when their losses become too gaping to hide, they’re in a perfect position.  The old mantra of “privatize the profits, socialize the losses” doesn’t quite convey the apparent duplicity at work here.  It leaves out the “fabricate the profits” and “hide the losses” steps.

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Lies, damned lies, and bank profits

21 April 2009

Remember the good old days when “creative accounting” was an oxymoron?

Ever since Citigroup last month projected a profit for the first couple months of the year, big banks have been startling the Street with better-than-expected quarterly earnings reports.  And for a while, the Street was overjoyed and stock prices shot up for banks and overall.  But um, shouldn’t we have been taking these profit figures with a big grain of salt?

  • Advance manipulation (read: lowering) of expectations so that you can miraculously beat those expectations is an old, old game.
  • Accounting chicanery played no small part in getting us into the current mess.   Covering up losses to impress the market, just like covering up profits to thwart the taxman, is legal and commonplace, under generally accepted accounting practices.
  • An excessive focus on short-term profits also played a big part in getting us into this mess.  Shouldn’t we be looking at other factors, too?  In particular: Bank share prices were way down because of the widespread belief that the banks were either insolvent or headed that way.  Positive short-term profits (cash flow) and solvency (assets greater than liabilities) are two different things, and can coexist at least for a little while.
  • The federal government has subsidized the big banks to the tune of tens of billions of TARP money apiece.   Shouldn’t that make it easier for them to be profitable?  (The whole point was that the banks would loan that money out profitably.  Granted, that hasn’t happened to the desired extent — I just heard on the radio that total lending is lower now than before the TARP legislation — but banks are surely using their TARP money for something that generates income, like T-bonds, no?)

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Stats of the day

7 April 2009

64%

= percent of U.S. bank assets controlled by the four largest commercial banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo; source: Martin Wolf in the FT).  That four-firm concentration ratio is up sharply from 39% in Feb. 2003 (source: Frederic Mishkin’s money and banking textbook, ~2004 edition).

$2.7 million

= money received by Obama chief economist Larry Summers for 40 speaking appearances before bailout-receiving Wall Street financial institutions in 2008.   Now, Summers is a brilliant man with lots of policy experience to share, but how likely is it that these cash-strapped firms were paying just for his insights and not even trying to buy access to Obama’s top economic adviser?  The White House would have us believe that access had nothing to do with it:

‘A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said the compensation was not a conflict for Mr. Summers, adding it was not surprising because he was “widely recognized as one of the country’s most distinguished economists.”’

Some have already called for breaking up the biggest financial institutions, to the point where none of the ones remaining are “too big to fail,” and then letting market discipline or effective regulation keep them in line.  All well and good, but these stats, especially the last two, recall the original 19th century rationale for antitrust action:  The biggest firms just have too much political power.  Small is not only beautiful, but small firms are less likely to be writing the laws of the land.

Jon Stewart is a national treasure

6 March 2009

Jon Stewart’s takedown of Rick Santelli and CNBC on “The Daily Show”

Hat tip: Terry.

UPDATE, 13 March 2009:  CNBC’s answer to Dick Vitale, Jim Cramer, returns fire, opening the door for another hilarious Stewart takedown (don’t miss the “Dora” clip at the end).  And last night’s “Daily Show” included what sounds like a hard-hitting interview with Cramer (I haven’t watched it yet); the much longer unedited version is available on Comedy Central’s website.

Turning Japanese?

14 February 2009

Yesterday’s NYT continues the paper’s excellent coverage of the financial crisis with Hiroko Tabuchi’s article “In Japan’s Stagnant Decade, Cautionary Tales for America.” Notable quote:

‘“I think they know how big it is, but they don’t want to say how big it is. It’s so big they can’t acknowledge it,” said John H. Makin, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to administration officials. “The lesson from Japan in the 1990s was that they should have stepped up and nationalized the banks.”’

When someone from the American Enterprise Institute says it’s time to nationalize, then it’s probably time for policymakers to show a little openness to it (e.g., “only as a last resort,” “we’re not ruling out anything”).

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Big zombies

12 February 2009

Must . . . eat . . . money

(hat tip: Julia)

Many economists have been warning that the net-worth problems of the banks are a lot bigger than the $700 billion that’s been allocated to deal with them.  Some have said a TARP II, TARP III, etc., to the tune of $2 trillion or so may be necessary to fix the banks once and for all.  Now Dr. Doom himself, Nouriel Roubini, says the banking system is just plain insolvent, and by about $3.6 trillion.  The specter of 1990s-Japan-style zombie banks in the U.S. is no longer a specter but a reality, it seems.

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Nationalize it, mon

10 February 2009

petertoshThe sticking point in the lingering credit crunch seems to be the remaining toxic assets (or dodgy assets, as the Brits call them) on the balance sheets of so many banks, especially the big problem banks that are getting government bailouts or are in line for them.

The sticking point in the policy question of how to remove those toxic assets as an obstacle to normal financial intermediation seems to be valuation, i.e., as Winston Churchill is said to have put it, a matter of haggling over the price.   No small haggle, this.   It’s often said that there is no market for these assets, and that appears to be true in the sense that there seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between what banks say those assets are worth (97 cents on the dollar?) and what they’ll fetch on the open market (38 cents on the dollar?  The numbers are from a New York Times article, 2 Feb. 2009, and refer to a particular mortgage-backed bond.  A division of Standard & Poor’s estimated the bond’s value at 87 cents or 53 cents under a less optimistic scenario. )  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan for the remaining $350 billion of last fall’s bank bailout is due to be unveiled Tuesday, and advance word is that it calls for the Treasury to buy up a lot of those toxic assets and quarantine them in a “bad bank.”

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