Waiting for the Government to Act on Banks

Includes: BAC, C, IAT, IYF, RKH, WFC
by: Alpha Author

There hasn’t been much inspiring me to write these days. The news across the board has been pretty much the same - the economy stinks, joblessness is increasing, housing continues its downward spiral, consumption is nowhere near recovery, bankruptcies are on the rise, banks are under stress, corporations are struggling, and Jon Stewart continues his hysterical rant at the folly that is CNBC. Did I miss anything??

Seems like these days we’re in a holding pattern waiting for the results of the bank stress tests and a decision on the GM/Chrysler aid.

So while we’re all waiting, I came across an interesting debate about the merits of various approaches to the banking crisis (e.g., nationalization versus ringfencing troubled assets versus good bank/bad bank). Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson (and the rest of the folks at The Baseline Scenario) have recently talked about what to do about bank liabilities; specifically, debt (not liabilities to depositors).

As Krugman points out (see Anti-nationalization Arguments):

Some decision must be reached on bank liabilities. Sweden guaranteed all of them. If forced to say, I would go the Swedish route; but of course we can’t do that unless we’re prepared to put all troubled banks in receivership. And I’m ready to be persuaded that some debts should not be honored — this is a deeply technical question.

What’s clear, however, is that the current system, of implicit maybe-kinda guarantees on bank liabilities — call it wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more banking policy — is failing badly.

From The Baseline Scenario (see Quick Note on Liabilities):

…The government has been doing everything it can to imply that bank creditors (at least for “systemically important” banks) will be protected, without saying so explicitly, because that would suddenly increase the potential liabilities of the government by trillions of dollars.

What’s clear is that several of the largest US banks (those subject to the stress test) are insolvent - their liabilities exceed the value of their assets. For those banks that are insolvent, shareholders will get wiped out, probably through nationalization, however administered. After shareholders get wiped out, the fact remains that the value of the remaining assets (after depositors are made whole) will not make existing creditors whole.

So the question remains, should the US government (taxpayers) guarantee the liabilities?

One of the issues, as I see it, depends upon the identity of those creditors. And this is where it gets complicated. Maybe this is what Krugman means by “deeply technical” (although perhaps he had something else in mind).

To the extent that US bank creditors include large sovereign wealth funds and central banks, forcing bondholders to take a haircut may come with political consequences. In contrast to small, private creditors, sovereigns have political and economic recourse. And, after all, we will probably need to rely on some of these same actors to fund our current deficit.

For this reason, I am inclined to believe that we will be forced to guarantee the liabilities of banks we nationalize, a la Sweden.

And we wait.

Disclosure: No positions