Friday, March 27, 2009

Towards a New, Better, Different Deal

National Lead, follow or get out of the way: In 1936 F.D.R. said at a campaign rally:

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. "

Nothing changes; Barack Obama could almost say the same thing today. Not a single Republican voted for the bailout bill and three Republican senators held the bill hostage until its provisions were so watered down enough to almost become ineffective. The Republican hatred is so pervasive it extends to public pronouncements that they "hope he fails." The right to bear arms apparently includes the right to shoot oneself (and ones neighbor) in the foot.

The Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, went before Congress to ask for the power to regulate and take over any financial institution in trouble that is large enough to cause havoc in the banking system. Everyone admits that the Federal takeover of AIG was necessary even if there was no law explicitly permitting it. The Treasury took over AIG after it had failed. It failed because there was no one watching. "Credit default swaps," were an unregulated form of insurance which is why AIG, an insurance powerhouse, became so heavily involved.

Credit default swaps were created in the early 1990’s as a way to insure commercial loans . If a bank loans a million dollars to a company it could buy insurance, a credit default swap, to protect itself. By the late 1990’s CDS were being sold to cover Corporate and Municipal bonds. By 2000, the CDS market was approximately $900 billion and was working reliably. For example, CDS payments were made to cover some of the Enron and Worldcom bonds. In the original from CDS contracts were purchased by those who actually held the bonds and stood to loose if the bonds defaulted. As the new decade progressed a substantial change occurred in the market for CDS.

First, a secondary market developed for both sellers and buyers of CDS. The result was that it became impossible to determine the financial strength of the insurer since the chain of CDS coverage, the provenance of the CDS could not be determined.

Second, CDS were being traded for all sorts of exotic investments like asset backed securities (ABS), mortgage backed securities (MBS) and other exotic financial instruments. The problem was these new investments no longer had a known entity like a company or a municipality to follow to determine the strength of a particular loan or bond.

Third, speculation became rampant in the market. Sellers and buyer of CDS were no longer owners of the underlying asset (bond or loan), but were just betting on the possibility of a "credit event" for a specific asset.

By the end of 2007 the CDS market had a value of $45 trillion, but the underlying corporate bond, municipal bond, and structured investment vehicles market totaled less than $25 trillion. That leaves $20 Trillion in bets. Because of the secondary market for CDS the original two parties that entered into the CDS contract may very well not be the current holders of the rights of the protection buyer and protection seller. Some CDS contracts are believed to have passed through 10-12 different parties. The financial strength of all the intervening parties may not be known so it has became very difficult to determine, or "unwind," the final ownership and value of the CDS after our massive "credit event" in the fall of 2008.

Credit default swaps are really just the tip of the unregulated iceberg. The problem is that the FDIC, which insurers individual bank depositors, and the SEC, which oversees securities marketed to the general public, have no oversight authority for securities that aren’t sold to the public. The underlying issue is that deposits from the public are going into these unregulated financial instruments and that’s what the Treasury Department wants to be able to regulate just like the FDIC regulates banks.

Enter the time machine: Between 1910 and 1920 an average of less than 6 banks failed per year but from 1921 through 1929 more than 600 banks failed per year . The stock market crash of October 1929 triggered a huge wave of bank failures, almost 1400, and huge amounts of wealth disappeared over night. Borrowing money from banks to buy stocks, known as buying on margin, became the CDS of the 1920’s.

Prices began to slide in late September and early October of 1929, but speculation continued, fueled in many cases by individuals who had borrowed money to buy shares—a practice that could be sustained only as long as stock prices continued rising. On October 18 the market went into a free fall but the first day of real panic, October 24, is known as Black Thursday; on that day a record 12.9 million shares were traded as investors rushed to exit the market and salvage their losses. Still, the Dow average closed down only six points after a number of major banks and investment companies bought up great blocks of stock in a successful effort to stem the panic that day.

The panic began again on Black Monday (October 28), with the market closing down 12.8 percent. On Black Tuesday (October 29) more than 16 million shares were traded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost another 12 percent. President Hoover and Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon declared that business was "fundamentally sound" and that a great revival of prosperity was "just around the corner."

The panics fed on themselves and investors sold stocks to cover margin calls the market sank triggering further margin calls which could no longer be repaid. Banks failed. Rumors of bank failures triggered "runs on the bank" as people took their deposits in cash. The Federal Reserve did nothing to ease the liquidity problems of even solvent banks and lending, for all intents and purposes, stopped.

To Hoover’s credit he created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), financed with taxpayer’s money, to lend banks money and the Glass-Steagall Act which broadened the circumstances that the Federal Reserve could lend to member banks. In 1929 not all banks in the US were members of the Federal Reserve System. "Transparency," Congress desire to see where the money went put a quick end to the RFC effectiveness because banks that borrowed from the RFC were seen as unsound.

A failure to act early and decisively by both the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank is widely seen by economists today as the cause for the depth of The Great Depression. Waves of bank failures and a sinking stock market drove the depression deeper and deeper. By the winter of 1932-33 the banking system was in near collapse. The banking panic reached its peek in the three days leading up to F.D.R.’s inauguration on March 4th 1933. Visitors arriving in Washington to attend the presidential inauguration found notices in their hotel rooms that checks drawn on out-of-town banks would not be honored. By March 4, Inauguration Day, every state in the Union had declared a bank holiday. As one of his first official acts, President Roosevelt proclaimed a nationwide bank holiday would start on March 6 and last four days

On March 9th the Senate passed the Emergency Banking Act which legalized the national bank holiday, set standards for the reopening of banks after the holiday and expanded the RFC's powers by authorizing the RFC to invest in the preferred stock and capital notes of banks and to make secured loans to individual banks.

Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s there had been repeated attempts to introduce some form of depositors insurance. Many states had insurance systems but they were largely voluntary and were quickly overwhelmed by the circumstances of the early depression. On June 16th 1933 F.D.R. signed the Banking Act of 1933 which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee. The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee sets monetary policy for the United States. In doing so it sets interest rates by buying and selling (mostly) government bonds.

In 1933 banking interests viewed federal deposit insurance with distaste. The President of the American Bankers Association declared that deposit insurance was "unsound, unscientific and dangerous."

Fast forward: It is the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee that has been buying so called toxic assets from banks and commercial paper from large corporations and loaned almost $200 billion to AIG in an effort to stabilize the financial system. The FDIC has been closing, reorganizing banks while the Treasury, with TARP money has prevented the largest banks from failing by investing in the preferred stock and capital notes of huge failed banks and by making secured loans to smaller troubled banks just as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation did 76 years ago.

The Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, is simply asking for the authority to regulate financial institutions large enough to wreck havoc on the Worlds Financial system. It’s a simple request, a conservative request, given the magnitude of the problem and the speed with which it arose.

See also:
FDR speech
History of Credit Default Swaps
History of the FDIC
Battles Over Reform Plan Lie Ahead

No comments: