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MIKE WHITNEY: Why Another Financial Crash is Certain

February 8, 2011

The following column is reprinted with permission from Mike Whitney.

Why Another Financial Crash is Certain
©  Mike Whitney
February 8, 2011

On August 9, 2007, an incident took place at a bank in France that touched-off a financial crisis that that would eventually wipe out more than $30 trillion in capital and thrust the world into the deepest slump since the Great Depression. The event was recounted in a speech by Pimco’s managing director Paul McCulley, at the 19th Annual Hyman Minsky Conference on the State of the U.S. and World Economies. Here’s an excerpt from McCulley’s speech:

If you have to pick a day for the Minsky Moment, it was August 9. And, actually, it didn’t happen here in the United States. It happened in France, when Paribas Bank (BNP) said that it could not value the toxic mortgage assets in three of its off-balance sheet vehicles, and that, therefore, the liability holders, who thought they could get out at any time, were frozen. I remember the day like my son’s birthday. And that happens every year. Because the unraveling started on that day. In fact, it was later that month that I actually coined the term “Shadow Banking System” at the Fed’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole.

It was only my second year there. And I was in awe, and mainly listened for most of the three days. At the end… I stood up and (paraphrasing) said, ‘What’s going on is really simple. We’re having a run on the Shadow Banking System and the only question is how intensely it will self-feed as its assets and liabilities are put back onto the balance sheet of the conventional banking system.’

BNP had been involved in credit intermediation, that is, it was exchanging bonds made up of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) for short-term loans in the repo market. It all sounds very complex, but it’s no different than what banks do when they take deposits from customers and then invest the money in long-term assets. (aka – “maturity transformation”) The only difference here was that these activities were not regulated, so no government agency was involved in determining the quality of the loans or making sure that the various financial institutions were sufficiently capitalized to cover potential losses. This lack of regulation turned out to have dire consequences for the global economy.

It took nearly a year from the time that sub-prime mortgages began to default en masse, until the secondary market (where these “toxic” bonds were traded) went into a nosedive. The problem was simple: No one knew whether the underlying mortgages were any good or not, so it became impossible to price the assets (MBS). This created, what Yale Professor Gary Gorton calls, the e coli problem. In other words, if even a small amount of meat is contaminated, millions of pounds of hamburger has to be recalled. That same rule applies to mortgage-backed securities. No one knew which MBS contained the bad loans, so the entire market froze and trillions of dollars in collateral began to fall in value.

Sub-prime was the spark that lit the fuse, but sub-prime wasn’t big enough to bring down the whole financial system. That would take bigger ructions in the shadow banking system. Here’s an excerpt from an article by Nomi Prins which explains how much money was involved:

Between 2002 and early 2008, roughly $1.4 trillion worth of sub-prime loans were originated by now-fallen lenders like New Century Financial. If such loans were our only problem, the theoretical solution would have involved the government subsidizing these mortgages for the maximum cost of $1.4 trillion. However, according to Thomson Reuters, nearly $14 trillion worth of complex-securitized products were created, predominantly on top of them, precisely because leveraged funds abetted every step of their production and dispersion. Thus, at the height of federal payouts in July 2009, the government had put up $17.5 trillion to support Wall Street’s pyramid Ponzi system, not $1.4 trillion.” (“Shadow Banking”, Nomi Prins, The American Prospect)

Shadow banking emerged so that large cash-heavy financial institutions would have a place to park their money short-term and get the best possible return. For example, let’s say Intel is sitting on $25 billion in cash. It can deposit the money with a financial intermediary, such as Morgan Stanley, in exchange for collateral (aka MBS or ABS), and earn a decent return on its money. But if a problem arises and the quality of the collateral is called into question, then the banks (Morgan Stanley, in this case) are forced to take bigger and bigger haircuts which can send the system into a nosedive. That’s what happened in the summer of 2007. Investors discovered that many of the sub-primes were based on fraud, so billions of dollars were quickly withdrawn from money markets and commercial paper, and the Fed had to step in to keep the system from collapsing.

Regulations are put in place to see that the system runs smoothly and to protect the public from fraud. But banking without rules is more profitable, so industry leaders and lobbyists have tried to block the efforts at reform. And, they have largely succeeded. Dodd-Frank – the financial reform act – is riddled with loopholes and doesn’t really resolve the central issues of loan quality, additional capital, or risk retention. Banks are still free to issue bogus mortgages to unemployed applicants with bad credit, just as they were before the meltdown. And, they can still produce securitized debt instruments without retaining even a meager 5 per cent of the loan’s value. (This issue is still being contested) Also, government agencies cannot force financial institutions to increase their capital even though a slight downturn in the market could wipe them out and cause severe damage to the rest of the system. Wall Street has prevailed on all counts and now the window for re-regulating the system has passed.

President Barack Obama understands the basic problem, but he also knows that he won’t be reelected without Wall Street’s help. That’s why he promised to further reduce “burdensome” regulations in the Wall Street Journal just two weeks ago. His op-ed was intended to preempt the release of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s (FCIC) report, which was expected to make recommendations for strengthening existing regulations. Obama torpedoed that effort by coming down on the side of big finance. Now, it’s only a matter of time before another crash.

Here’s an excerpt from a special report on shadow banking by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:

At the eve of the financial crisis, the volume of credit intermediated by the shadow banking system was close to $20 trillion, or nearly twice as large as the volume of credit intermediated by the traditional banking system at roughly $11 trillion. Today, the comparable figures are $16 and $13 trillion, respectively… The weak-link nature of wholesale funding providers is not surprising when little capital is held against their asset portfolios and investors have zero tolerance for credit losses.” (“Shadow Banking”, Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Report)

So, between $4 to $7 trillion vanished in a flash after Lehman Brothers blew up. How many millions of jobs were lost because of inadequate regulation? How much was trimmed from output, productivity, and GDP? How many people are on now food stamps or living in homeless shelters or struggling through foreclosure because unregulated financial institutions were allowed to carry out credit intermediation without government supervision or oversight?

Ironically, the New York Fed doesn’t even try to deny the source of the problem; deregulation. Here’s what they say in the report: “Regulatory arbitrage was the root motivation for many shadow banks to exist.”

What does that mean? It means that Wall Street knows that it’s easier to make money by eliminating the rules… the very rules that protect the public from the predation of avaricious speculators.

The only way to fix the system is to regulate all financial institutions that act like banks. No exceptions.


Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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