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     Jul 31, 2009
Dead banks walking
By John Browne

In recent weeks, the financial world has been dazzled by strikingly high earnings reported by our leading investment banks, or at least what we used to call investment banks. The numbers are reminiscent of another era, the one that came to a crashing end last September.

The euphoria is keyed to the record US$3.44 billion second-quarter profit announced by that branch office of the Treasury Department also known as Goldman Sachs. Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and State Street also chipped in with strong numbers.

The seeming health of these institutions, which are often referred to as the "backbone" of the US economy, is being cited as strong

 

proof that economic recovery is at hand. This conclusion is based on selective memory and dubious logic.

The more immediate question hinges on whether this rise in bank and corporate earnings can be sustained in the face of increased commercial real estate mortgage defaults, rising unemployment, and increased savings? Would it then be likely that the broad stock market can continue to rally while the financial sector sputters? If not, a serious correction in US equity prices is a foregone conclusion.

In the early years of this century, major money-center banks and shadow banks incurred irrational risks and paid themselves unimaginably large bonuses. They were termed "gambling casinos" and deservedly drew fire when their bets went south. But instead of forcing these irresponsible firms to pay for their bad behavior, the federal government forced the general public to rescue them.

The Treasury and Federal Reserve instituted four key measures intended to boost the banks' earnings, which in turn, would boost their share prices, improve their capital ratios and force their share prices upward.

First, Congress was pressured into giving instant approval to the $750 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). This massive sum of public money was designed to buy toxic assets from the banks. However, the government soon realized that buying some toxic assets would create a real price and thereby threaten the inflated value of other toxic assets held by financial institutions worldwide. The initial TARP plan was dropped in favor of injecting billions of dollars into certain banks, leaving the toxic assets on their books. Meanwhile, the true values of these toxic assets were officially camouflaged by the initiation of "exceptional" accounting changes.

The injection of free TARP funds enabled the recipient banks to enter a charred landscape that was, nevertheless, bristling with easy profits. For example, $10 billion of TARP funds enabled Goldman Sachs to make leveraged trades during the bear market rally of the last four months. Though this is the same activity that caused its downfall, Goldman now assumes a government guarantee on its risk-taking. With no limits on their appetite for risk, record profits are theirs for the taking.

Second, some of the shadow banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, were allowed to become bank holding companies. This change allowed them access to the Fed Window to borrow at zero percent interest. This greatly increased the profit margins of the banks day-to-day lending operations.

Third, the reduction of Fed rates to below 1% has steepened the yield curve, enabling banks to take 6% to 8%-plus spreads in lending to boost earnings.

Fourth, for the first time, the Fed is paying interest on bank reserves. This means that all banks can borrow at zero and lend back to the Fed at an interest rate spread of some 3%, thus boosting earnings further. The downside is that banks are discouraged from lending to risky companies and individuals while they can lend at no risk to the Fed. Therefore, despite political pressure for banks to lend, credit remains tight.

With the great privileges listed above, and with the competitive landscape improved by the disappearance of Lehman Brothers and the absorption of Bear Stearns and Merrill, it is little wonder that the surviving banks earned more. A firm like Goldman Sachs, with its stellar earnings, is now effectively a hedge fund subsidized by taxpayers.

However, toxic assets remain on the books of the banks. In addition, problems in the commercial property and consumer lending field loom menacingly.

The Fed has also acknowledged that, eventually, it will need to sharply increase interest rates to "mop up" all the liquidity its pouring into the world economy. This action alone, if the Fed ever has the nerve to execute it, could bankrupt every financial firm that survived the initial crisis.

Should earnings falter and banks stumble for a second time in the face of a looming $3.4 trillion commercial mortgage problem, the entire US stock market could follow suit.

That would be the crisis we've been predicting. Better be prepared.

John Browne is senior market strategist, Euro Pacific Capital. Euro Pacific Capital commentary and market news is available at http://www.europac.net. It has a free on-line investment newsletter.

(Copyright 2009 Euro Pacific Capital.)


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