Bad Bad Banks
And the financial crisis goes on … And the politicians still think they can avoid the painful solution and try to sustain asset prices. But the prices of many assets are bubble prices and these prices need to fall to market levels. In not letting the prices fall, the policy makers prolong the crisis. David Roche shows what should be done and what goes wrong in the following article in the Wall Street Journal.
A ‚Bad‘ Bank Can Solve Our Problems
Subsidizing institutions that hold toxic assets only prolongs the pain.
By DAVID ROCHE, WSJ, 23 January 20009
As bank shares plunge to new lows around the world, it seems we have entered the next stage of the financial crisis — most likely the last chapter in this horror story. The final word will probably be nationalization of the major financial institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom and in many other countries. How has it come to this? The global credit crisis and the ensuing economic slump we are now entering have both ultimate and proximate causes. The ultimate cause was the ingrained social behavior of the U.S., the U.K. and many other economies over the past two decades that put instant gratification of consumption over the ability to pay for it. Thrift gave way to borrowing and excessive spending. That in turn led to huge global imbalances and distortions. The proximate cause of the crisis was how these excesses were financed through liquidity creation in innovative ways and in huge proportions. Understanding these causes can explain why it has become so difficult to solve the crisis. Desperate to preserve the value of asset prices inflated by this huge liquidity bubble, policy makers have avoided the painful solution. The liquidity injections, the bailout programs, and the fiscal-stimulus packages try to sustain asset prices, when these prices need to fall to market levels so they can be cleared. The policy makers have just prolonged the crisis. I am reminded of the clear conclusions of the World Bank’s thorough analysis in a 2002 paper „Managing the Real and Fiscal Costs of Banking Crises,“ which examined banking crises over the past 50 years: „Accommodating measures such as open-ended liquidity support, blanket deposit guarantees, regulatory forbearance, repeated recapitalizations and debtor bailouts appear to increase significantly the costs of banking crises. Did these accommodating policies achieve faster economic recovery? We failed to uncover evidence that they did. Indeed, they seem to have prolonged crises because recovery took longer.“ As we saw in Japan in the 1990s, if the market is not allowed to clear, the financial crisis will be prolonged. Although debt deflation may be avoided, the economic recession will be longer and the recovery weaker. There is nothing mysterious about the policy steps that need to be taken to get us out of this mess as quickly as possible. It is not rocket science. In fact, it was successfully carried out by the Scandinavian authorities back in 1991. The banks must be forced to disclose their „toxic“ assets (the German banks have about 300 billion euros, the U.K. banks probably 200 billion pounds, and the U.S. banks maybe $800 billion). Then these must be written down to market prices with the hit being taken by shareholders and bondholders — but not depositors. If that means most banks become insolvent, then so be it. In effect, this function can be executed by the setting up of a „bad bank,“ as the Swedes did in the early 1990s. The bad bank clears the toxic assets off the books of banking systems by buying them at market prices and forcing write downs by the banks. A good bad bank forces banks to write down their bad assets and cleanse their balance sheets with those made insolvent being recapitalized, nationalized or liquidated by the state. But it is equally possible to use a bad bank to buy the banks‘ toxic waste at inflated prices so that the bank can start lending again. That’s when it becomes a bad bad bank. Unfortunately, so far, all the policy makers in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe have rejected the good bad-bank approach and we are now entering the third year of credit crunch with most banks already on their knees. Both the new U.S. administration and the current U.K. leadership are still in denial. Last October, when the U.K. came up with a better blueprint for dealing with the credit crisis through recapitalization than the Bush administration’s poorly conceived Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), I gave the Brown government credit for doing so, but faulted it for omitting the good bad-bank function. And now the latest U.K. bailout program, introduced because the October bailout is not working, has also eschewed the good bad-bank option and opted instead for an insurance guarantee scheme. This new bailout package proposes to insure banks against losses on their remaining toxic assets. Banks will pay a 10% insurance fee, payable with either cash or equity. The taxpayers will take on the risk of losses on 90% of the toxic assets insured. The toxic assets remain on the banks‘ books, but the banks no longer have any risk in their exposure to them. The government shied away from the good bad-bank solution because if toxic assets had been written down, most of the U.K. banking system would have been bust and forced into nationalization. In the U.S., the Obama administration is also apparently considering both the bad bank and the insurance solution. I fear they will opt for the latter. It’s natural for policy makers to say, „We know where the problem at the heart of the credit crisis is: it is a lack of lending and we must get credit flowing.“ If only it were that simple. What policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic desire is to sustain household leverage and consumption at any price, when the only exit from the credit crisis involves a return to thrift by the overleveraged. That cannot be achieved painlessly. Indeed, household debt in the U.S. and much of Europe reached such extremes that today it is lack of demand — rather than the impaired supply of credit — that is driving the deleveraging process and deepening the economic recession. So it is unlikely that even politically decreed credit expansion would be effective in turning the economy around. By not adopting the good bad-bank solution, the system remains as corrupted as before. The bad assets will continue to suck resources out of the economic system in the form of zombie borrowers, misallocation and mispricing of capital, public sector debt, and budget deficits. And as the reaction to the U.K. scheme is showing, avoiding the core problem fails to inspire confidence, so it is unlikely to result in any increase in aggregate credit or even forestall the inevitable nationalization of insolvent banks for long. In today’s money, the U.S. government alone has spent (counting fiscal spending, not Fed liquidity injections) a sufficient amount of money on the credit crisis to fund two Vietnam Wars. Around 90% of this spending has been to sustain lending and consumption, rather than to tackle the root causes of the credit crisis: overleveraged assets financed by excessive credit creation. I suppose it is possible that the sheer weight of all this largesse will eventually overcome the structural failures of the financial system and produce economic recovery. (I doubt it, but I can’t be sure because we’ve never been here before.) But if such profligate policies do produce economic recovery, they will do so by creating more bubbles, with the same ultimate consequences of collapse, though on an even grander scale. Such a recovery would be welcomed by the markets and send traders back to the champagne bars of Wall Street and London. Eventually, however, the second crash would make today’s look like kids‘ stuff.
Mr. Roche is president of Independent Strategy (www.instrategy.com), a London-based consultancy, and co-author of „New Monetarism“ (Lulu Enterprises, 2007).