Warning: More Bank Bailouts Possible

One area I haven’t commented on much is the ongoing European “debt crisis”.  The Greek debt crisis is a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The roots are much deeper.  One reason I haven’t commented is because it’s fairly complex and requires a lot of background explanation which I haven’t had time to write.  Nonetheless, it’s something worth mentioning.  In particular because it’s likely to mean more big bank bailouts.

In short, the crisis involves the way the Euro currency zone is constructed.  Countries that use the Euro have surrendered their sovereignty on monetary policy – that’s now the purview of the European Central Bank (ECB).  This means that government debt levels do matter for countries in the Euro.  They can default because they don’t have control over their own currency.  The U.S., Japan, UK, Canada, Australia, and others can’t default because they control their own central bank and currency.  But Euro countries can.  In the case of Greece and Ireland this means a high likelihood of default.  When the global economy crashed three years ago, it sent the economies of most countries down.  This raised the debt-to-GDP level by reducing the denominator, the GDP number.  But a country in a recession needs to increase government spending and deficits to stimulate growth.  Instead, the construction of the Euro agreement and pressures from the ECB forced these countries to pursue an austerity-based policy of cutting government programs.  But the cutting of government spending has only worsened the recession and shrunk their GDP even more, reducing tax collections.  It’s made default more likely.

In the Greek case, default appears inevitable.  The question is how much of a loss do bondholders take and when.  Therein lies a problem.  The people who own the Greek debt are largely big French and German banks. These banks themselves aren’t exactly robust.   If Greece defaults at a level that will actually help Greece find it’s way out instead of simply delaying the crisis, then these banks will likely take very heavy losses.  The losses are large enough to jeopardize the solvency of the banks themselves.  So Greek default also means figuring out how to recapitalize these big banks.  These are so-called “too big to fail banks”.

Currently there are negotiations going on about how to structure a  Greek default, simultaneously prop up the Euro banks, and stop a possible contagion effect from spreading to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.  But there have been negotiations over this crisis for nearly two years now with much successs.  The German and French leaders have promised a comprehensive solution later this week. It was supposed to be today, but it’s been delayed to mid-week.

What does that have to do with the U.S.?  Nobody really knows.  The devil is in the details.  At first pass, big U.S. banks aren’t supposed to have much exposure to Greek debt, so they shouldn’t be endangered by a large Greek default.  But, the big U.S. banks like Citi, JP Morgan Chase, BofA, and Goldman Sachs have large stakes in the big Euro banks.  A failed Euro bank could have repercussions.  Of greater concern are derivatives, particularly Credit Default Swaps. The U.S. banks, particularly Goldman are known to have been active in selling these derivatives.  Since the derivative markets and positions are largely secret and non-transparent (a failure of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill), we don’t know if a Greek default will trigger significant liabilities for these banks.

In separate news, Bank of America, is on a death-watch by some analysts.  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism clues us in:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it. I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC. About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

That compares with JPMorgan’s deposit-taking entity, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, which contained 99 percent of the New York-based firm’s $79 trillion of notional derivatives, the OCC data show.

Now you would expect this move to be driven by adverse selection, that it, that BofA would move its WORST derivatives, that is, the ones that were riskiest or otherwise had high collateral posting requirements, to the sub. Bill Black confirmed that even though the details were sketchy, this is precisely what took place.

Part of BofA’s problems, well, actually a very large part of it’s problems stem from the loose and possibly illegal banking practices at Countrywide Mortgage which it took over in 2008.  Yves updates us on this here.

Bottom-line on all this:  expect more big bank bailouts of some kind in coming months.  It might only be big Euro banks.  It might only involve Bank of America.  But there’s significant,if less than probable, chance that we’ll have to see another round of bank bailouts.

Too Big to Fail Should Be Too Big to Exist

Against Monopoly has a great graphic that shows a big part of the problem with our financial sector and our economy.

How the Too Big to Fail Banks Got  So Big

How the Too Big To Fail Banks Got So Big

The four banks shown above are the four largest banks in the U.S.: JP Morgan Chase, Citi, BofA, and Wells Fargo.  Together they dominate the financial industry. If you add in Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the domination is near complete.  They all received large bailouts in the 2008-09 crisis.  Today they are much larger than when we entered the crisis. As the graph shows, none of these banks grew so large by “natural” or “organic” means.  They didn’t grow because they offered better or more efficient services to customers.  They didn’t “win in the marketplace” by competing better.  They simply bought the competition.  It’s domination by merger.  The U.S. banking system which at one time was very competitive and decentralized with literally thousands of very competitive banks is now dominated by a few.  We call it oligopoly on the way to monopoly.

When very, very large banks get too big, they become “Too Big To Fail”.  That means, if the banks were allowed to fail because of bad decisions, bad management, or bad investments, it would set off a domino effect throughout the economy and financial system.  That would punish all of us and not just the bank’s owners.  This, of course, is what happened in 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail.  It set off a financial panic where banks wouldn’t / couldn’t loan to each other (or anyone else).  Result:  big bailouts of big banks.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Yes, once we have a “too big to fail” bank and it fails, then there’s pretty much no choice but to bail them out.  There are choices about the structure of the bailout. We could have set up the bailouts in a way that the economy wins and the failed managers and bank owners suffered.  We didn’t.  The Federal Reserve, the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration made it a priority to keep the bank managers and bank owners whole.  The economy has suffered from a slow recovery partly as a result.

But bailouts shouldn’t be necessary because we shouldn’t allow the banks to become this big in the first place.  Again, we have a choice.  We could have prevented some or all of these mergers.  The laws are on the books to do it.  Washington, following the failed anti- antitrust philosophy of the Chicago school since the 1980’s simply doesn’t challenge many mergers these days.  It’s bad for campaign contributions.  Besides we’re supposed to believe that a market fairy will make it all right.  Instead of challenging and stopping some of these mergers, both the government and The Federal Reserve have actually facilitated and acted as match-maker for many of the mergers.  In March 2008, when Bear Stearns failed, The Federal Reserve offered a deal to JP Morgan Chase.  If Chase would buy Bear Stearns, The Fed would reimburse Chase for any losses over a set amount.  Heads Chase wins. Tails Chase wins.  Nice deal.

We have other choices as well.  In other industries historically when the private competition in the market led to monopoly or near-monopoly outcomes, the government chose to regulate the industry as a public utility.  We did it in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the electrical industry.  Your local electrical company wasn’t always a regulated utility.  At one time it was ravenous and rapacious private monopoly just like these banks are becoming.  When Standard Oil became a monopoly over a hundred years ago, we sued and broke it up into a bunch of other companies.

This complicity in allowing the big banks to become Too Big To Fail is among the types of policies that the protesters of #OccupyWallStreet want changed.  Me, too.

Finally Some Justice for a Homeowner

This from WFMY TV Channel 2 in Florida:

Have you heard the one about a homeowner foreclosing on a bank?  Well, it has happened in Florida and involves a North Carolina based bank. Instead of Bank of America foreclosing on some Florida homeowner, the homeowners had sheriff’s deputies foreclose on the bank.

It started five months ago when Bank of America filed foreclosure papers on the home of a couple, who didn’t owe a dime on their home.  The couple said they paid cash for the house.  The case went to court and the homeowners were able to prove they didn’t owe Bank of America anything on the house. In fact, it was proven that the couple never even had a mortgage bill to pay. A Collier County Judge agreed and after the hearing, Bank of America was ordered, by the court to pay the legal fees of the homeowners’, Maurenn Nyergers and her husband.  The Judge said the bank wrongfully tried to foreclose on the Nyergers’ house.

So, how did it end with bank being foreclosed on?  After more than 5 months of the judge’s ruling, the bank still hadn’t paid the legal fees, and the homeowner’s attorney did exactly what the bank tried to do to the homeowners. He seized the bank’s assets.

“They’ve ignored our calls, ignored our letters, legally this is the next step to get my clients compensated, ” attorney Todd Allen told CBS.

Sheriff’s deputies, movers, and the Nyergers’ attorney went to the bank and foreclosed on it. The attorney gave instructions to to remove desks, computers, copiers, filing cabinets and any cash in the teller’s drawers.

After about an hour of being locked out of the bank, the bank manager handed the attorney a check for the legal fees.

“As a foreclosure defense attorney this is sweet justice” says Allen.

Allen says this is something that he sees often in court, banks making errors because they didn’t investigate the foreclosure and it becomes a lengthy and expensive battle for the homeowner.

Of course if there were true justice, some Bank of America executives should spend a few days in the county lockup for contempt of court.