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Banks in Trouble

An excellent op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal (which I can’t access on the web) explained the credit crunch problem well to me, and why the Fed has so far been unable to solve it.

The problem is that banks don’t trust each other. Therefore, it’s clear that there is another shoe to drop. Banks have expanded their risks enormously because they used securitization (selling loans as some kind of paper) to get loans off of their books. If the loans stayed on their books, the banks would have been limited in their loan making by their capital and their access to funds. Once banks were close to being limited in making loans by the size of their capital, the Fed could regulate new lending by expanding or limiting the banks access to additional funds.

If they moved the loans off of their books, however, they were never limited. Furthermore, at least in theory, moving the loans off of their books also moved the risk off. But now all of this junk that the banks thought they had gotten rid of is coming back home. Citibank has recently taken several of the “SIV” off-books sham entities it created back onto its own books, thus limiting the amount of new lending it can do.

To the extend that Citibank or other banks become capital limited, the Fed can help in its traditional way. However, if the majority of the loans are floating around as commercial paper being held by who knows who, there is not much the Fed can do. In essence the banks created money that was beyond the control of the Fed.

The rub is that the banks know how much trash is out there, because they know how much trash they sold. Therefore, banks are reluctant to lend to other banks, because they don’t trust the other bank to stay solvent to repay the loan. The scary thing is that the banks know better than anybody what risk is out there, and they are too scared to lend to their colleagues. That makes it look bad.

Everybody talks about the subprime housing crisis, but what if there is other bad stuff out there. Banks have been “securitizing” everything, getting loans off their books. What about credit card debt? Car loans? Business loans? If banks lowered their lending standards considerably in these other sectors as they did for mortgages, won’t some of them start to go belly up, too?

Paul Krugman has an article in the NYT saying that we are in more than a liquidity crisis. A liquidity crisis is when you have the capacity to pay off a loan, but you just don’t have the cash on you. In this case, somebody (the Fed) can loan you the money to pay it off now, and then you can pay them (the Fed) off later as you continue to get salary paychecks, or your house finally sells, or whatever. But if you can never pay off the loan, it’s a different problem. The money is gone for good. In this case the banks may have paid themselves huge profits on bad loans in a giant ponzi scheme. If the debtor can never pay, a Fed loan is not going to help. It may be that the banks believe this, and that’s why they won’t lend to each other.

If only a small percentage of the loans are bad, the system can handle it, but at some point this could grow from a liquidity crisis into a financial crisis.

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