Bank Failures Way Up

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 |  Includes: CNB, KBE
by: John M. Mason

Friday, bank failures for the year reached 77. In January or March of this year people started projecting that we may make 100 by the end of the year. I think that is as sure a bet as you can get these days. Now, we are seeing forecasts of over 200 more bank failures in the next 18 months.

The headlines over the past several days have been eye-catching. On Bloomberg.com, we saw “Toxic Loans Topping 5% May Push 150 Banks to Point of No Return.” On Reuters Blogs, we saw ”Citi’s Dirty Pool of Assets,” which reported that Citigroup (NYSE:C) had identified $39.5 billion that represented deep problems on its pool of subprime mortgages, of which it has only incurred $5.3 in looses leaving another $34 billion to go. Citi also faces problems in it CDO portfolio some of which it has hedged its exposure with credit default swaps. And, Jonathan Weil, in an article titled “Next Bubble to Burst Is Banks’ Big Loan Values” on Bloomberg.com, argues that the change in mark to market accounting early this year has covered up huge losses on the books of the biggest banks that were reported in the fourth quarter of 2008 but have since disappeared.

The good news in all this is that most of the troubled assets in banks have been identified and the regulatory bodies, particularly the FDIC, are fully aware of the most troubled banks. These individual insolvency cases are being worked out on a case-by-case basis. We got headlines in the newspapers this week because of the sell-off of Colonial BancGroup Inc. (CNB) which was the largest bank to fail in 2009 and one of the most costly bank failures ever. But, this bank had been identified a long time ago and it has been systematically handled. The other four that failed this week did not claim headlines. This is good because the banking sector is staying relatively quiet (See my post of August 10 on this). Most bank failures over the next year or so will not get major headlines. (Our most optimistic wish is that none of the bank failures coming in the next year or so will warrant headlines.)

We are in the part of the credit or debt cycle where things are relatively calm: we are way past the phase of the cycle where liquidity was the primary issue. The problem now is not that financial institutions need to and want to get rid of assets as quickly as they can. We are in the “work out” phase of the cycle. Historically, the time it takes to “work things out” depends upon the depth of the collapse in asset values. The betting now seems to be that this time around, the “work out” phase of the cycle will be a relatively long one.

If we still have to go through 125 to 150 more bank failures in the next 18 months or so, the banking system as a whole is not going to be too aggressive in putting new loans on its books. And this will not result in a strong economic rebound going forward.

In addition, the amount of debt that is still outstanding in the economic system will remain a major drag on the banking system. The uncertainty pertaining to the future repayment of loans to the banking system, in the areas of commercial real estate loans, of credit cards, and because of another wave of residential loans that will be repricing over the next 12 months or so, is still a concern. This uncertainty will further restrain banks from being too aggressive in making new loans. (See my post of August 12, “The Debt Problem Poses a Two-Sided Threat to the Fed”.)

And, those who have borrowed will be reluctant to spend giving the uncertainties about the state of the economy, unemployment, foreclosures, and other economic dislocations. Even Paul Krugman has recognized the role that debt plays in spending. In a recent lecture Krugman discussed why the Great Depression did not re-start after World War II when almost all economists expected it to do so. He argued in this talk that by the end of World War II the private sector of the economy, households and businesses, had worked off most of the debt that it had taken on in the 1920s, but had not been able to eliminate in the 1930s. The private sector had deleveraged by the 1950s and was now ready to spend. Krugman contends that the private sector will not begin to spend again coming out of the current recession until it has deleveraged itself from the current buildup of debt.

The financial system and the economic system are working themselves out of their recent problems. Let us hope that things stay quiet. That means we need to avoid any more surprises. If we don’t have surprises there is a good chance that the recovery will start and will continue. This doesn’t mean that it won’t take a long time for the banks, households, and businesses to work through their current problems. It will. And, it doesn’t mean that other problems with respect to long term interest rates and the value of the United States dollar may not worsen because of the huge and increasing load of federal debt.

This “quiet” does give us some hope that we are moving in the right direction. There will continue to be bank failures, and foreclosures, and bankruptcies, and more. But they can be worked through if we don’t get too impatient.