The Myth That Banks Are Solvent

by: New Deal 2.0

By Marshall Auerback

If we keep pretending banks are just waiting for regulators to get out of the way, we’ll keep implementing the wrong policies.

Banks will likely have too much cash by 2019 as a result of the Basel III global banking rules, UBS AG Chief Executive Oswald Grübel said Thursday. "In the next 10 years, at the end of 2019, we will have overly liquid, overcapitalized banks," he said, addressing a business audience at a conference. "However this also means we won’t have a lot of growth." Mr. Grübel was discussing changes in the global balance of power and what the possible consequences would be. The CEO has said that investment banking could shift to the U.S. and Asia if stricter capital requirements are enforced in the U.K. and Switzerland. The basic economic tenet, however, remains that "power goes where the money is," he said.

This is consistent with the fallacy that the banks are basically solvent and able and ready to extend credit if only these darn regulators would get out of the way. As James Galbraith has argued, the problem is said to be no more serious than some clogged plumbing. A bit of Draino in the form of government handouts and guarantees should be sufficient to get credit flowing again. Most major banks are not insolvent, this story goes, but rather have a temporary liquidity problem induced by malfunctioning financial markets. Time will allow market mechanisms to restore the true, higher value of "legacy" assets. Once the banks are healthy, the economy will recover.

Nonsense. Private debt loads remain too high, income and employment continue to fall, and delinquencies and foreclosures continue to rise. Assets are overvalued event at current depressed prices. Many financial institutions (probably including most of the big ones) are hopelessly insolvent, holding mountains of toxic waste that will never be worth anything.

So why are we busy implementing policies that simply maintain a credit-based economy? All around the world, policymakers continue to foster the fiction that all we have a temporary illiquidity problem, not a problem of excessive leverage, excessive debt, and a legacy of assets that were vastly overvalued based on economic scenarios that had no chance of coming to fruition. Given the inappropriate premises under which policy makers in the U.S., the U.K., and the euro zone have dealt with the leverage of financial institutions, it’s obvious that problems will continue to languish if the administration does not change its course of action. This will heavily constrain the global economy’s capacity to recover and will lead to multiple Japanese style "lost decades" around the globe.

The whole boom of the last 25 years was predicated on financial deregulation, massive fraud, and a huge build up of private debt as a consequence of inadequate fiscal policy to generate full employment and rising incomes. Growth was based on household borrowing and the continuation of negative saving trends (that is, household deficit spending). A good place to start recovery efforts, therefore, would be to change this method of economic growth by promoting employment, rather than capitulating to the siren songs of the bankers whose recklessness got us into this mess.

In a much saner world, we would be in the midst of a government-led investment push, much like the Space Race or the Manhattan Project, to drive new energy technologies forward by scaling up production and innovation, both apt to lower unit cost points. There would also be a concerted effort to establish the new infrastructure required. (After all, highways were constructed in part for national defense purposes, and railroads and canals had their share of public subsidization.) But with the ease of capture so visible, no such effort led by the government could be trusted enough to be supported, especially by a citizenry that has become one of fragmented (and anxious) consumers. Deficit austerians in government fail to understand that a budget deficit is essential for stable economic growth if the contribution of net exports (the difference between exports and imports) is not strong enough to sustain domestic demand while the private domestic sector is trying to save.

We need to put an end to these ridiculous policy responses. We not only require substantially increased supervision and regulation of the financial sector, but must also put a stop to the practices that brought on the crisis in the first place. If left alone to deal with the current problems, market mechanisms will push management and owners of insolvent institutions to ramp up losses and engage in yet more fraudulent accounting, leading to an even bigger crash down the road.