Monday, September 14, 2009

The Second Shoe: a fresh look at the world of banking

2008 was a close call for the world’s banks. The system almost collapsed. The stock market did collapse. The only thing that saved the banks was government intervention: sovereign states all over the world poured billions into the banks to prevent the collapse. Let’s review the rules: what really went wrong?

Imagine that you and I decided to start up a bank. Our investors put up $1 billion of capital. A year later we have $500 million in deposits for a total of $1.5 billion. In Canada our bank would be entitled to loan out 17 times $1.5 billion. In other words, our bank could create $1.5 billion X 17 = $25.5 billion in loans. We make our profit by charging interest on the $25.5 billion in loans. And where does the $25.5 billion come from? It was “created.” Canada’s central bank created $25.5 billion and loaned it to us at the Bank of Canada’s overnight bank rate.

In Canada, our rule is we can “create” loans of 17X capital + deposits.
In the USA, it’s 22X.
In some countries in Europe, it’s 27X.

Years ago the world’s bankers decided to hold most of their capital reserves in US dollars [US$] assets. Mostly they would own US treasury bills or bonds. They wanted something safe. Their reserves were mostly in US$, but their loans were mostly local currency. So our bank would have held its $1 billion in reserve capital mostly in US$ and we would have loaned out the $25.5 billion mostly in Canadian dollars [CD$]. If the Canadian dollar went UP against the US$, we could get in trouble because our reserves were shrinking compared to our loans. If the CD$ became stronger and stronger, our 17X ratio might go to 18X or 19X. If this happened, we would have to call $1 or 2 billion in loans. When the banks are forced to call in loans, it’s called a credit squeeze and it is very bad for the economy. Business’s who rely on bank loans to operate need the money – they don’t have the cash to pay off those loans that have been called.

The world banking system needs a strong stable US$ to operate efficiently – and the world’s economies need a strong and stable banking system in order to operate effectively. And that’s where the 2008 banking crisis began.

In winter 2002, 62 cents US would buy one Canadian dollar. In autumn 2007 it took $1.11 US to buy that same Canadian dollar. The CD$ had gone up 79%! Another way of saying that is the US$ went down by 44%. The little bank we created for this article was under tremendous pressure. Our reserve capital had shrunk over those 5 years. The strong CD$ [weak US$] seriously impaired out ability to do business.

It wasn’t just the Canadian-dollar based banks that felt the pressure because of the long decline of the US$. The same story applied to Euro-based banks, pound-based, yen-based, etc. The US$ had been devalued against them all.

American brokerage firms had somehow persuaded the world’s bankers to hold pooled mortgage funds as part of their US$ capital reserves instead of treasury bills or bonds. Yes, they were not quite as safe as US treasury issues, but they paid a lot more interest. And with a booming US real estate market, how much risk could there be in mortgage investments?

The sub-prime mortgage fiasco became widely recognized in 2007. All the banks saw the defaults and they all wanted to reduce their exposure to this now shaky investment. Soon there were no buyers: only sellers. These vast pools of US$ paper that were now part of the banks’ capital reserve had no value. The world’s banks had lost their shirts. Our little bank would have been in serious trouble. No only did the currency of these junk mortgages go down, but the actual price of the mortgaged pools collapsed too. Our little bank would have had to call in loans to the tune of 17X the loss. European banks might have had to call 27X their losses. The US banks had not experienced the currency loss – but even so, bank after bank had to be bailed out because of their mortgage losses. The world’s banks were under pressure to call in loans on such a scale as to ruin the world’s economies. This all came to a climax as the US’s new president was being inaugurated. The nations of the world cooperated as never before and saved the banks.

It worked. The governments and central bankers actually did restore order. Here’s how:
1. Governments provided capital reserves to the banks so they would not have to call loans.
2. Banks began to raise their own capital. Canadian banks raised billions in spring of 2009 by selling preferred shares.
3. The US$ went sharply higher, stabilizing the value of the banks’ US dollar denominated capital reserves.

The stock markets recovered and now the economies appear to be recovering. The bail outs worked.

Americans do not want a stronger US$ right now. The US economy is in trouble. Their manufacturing sector is in tatters. A strong US$ makes it harder for them to sell US manufactured good abroad. Americans need a lower dollar right now.

But if a weak US dollar causes the worlds’ banks to fail, the US economy will go down too. What will they do?

In the last six months, the US dollar has dropped 14% against an average of the Yen, the Euro, the Pound, etc. If the decline of US$ continues at this pace, by New Years Day the US dollar will be back down to where it was in the height of the banking crisis. The pressure will be on the world’s banking system again.

During the last six months the worlds’ bankers have taken steps to shore up their weak capital reserve positions. They are stronger now than they were last winter. And they have already written off those disastrous sub-prime mortgage assets. So, if the US$ gets even weaker and their reserves come under even more pressure, they are better able to stand the punishment than they were last winter.

Every central banker in the world understands these dynamics. Every pension manager, every mutual funds manager, every portfolio manager understands these dynamics. As the US$ eases down, it helps the US economy and it hurts non-American banks. As long as things happen gradually, the parties involved can adjust.

What kind of adjustments do the parties involved need to make? Well, foreign banks and foreign governments need to continue to cooperate as they did last winter. Most observers believe this will work out just fine. But, what about those big investment managers? Their clients were hard hit when the stock market dropped so sharply last fall and winter. Many pension plans dropped so sharply that they were unable to meet their payment obligations. Bank stocks were particularly hard hit: after all, in a banking crisis, that’s where the maximum risk is. Will the big pension managers ride through the sharp decline as they did last year? Or will they try to sell off some of their stock portfolios? For the multibillion dollar stock portfolios, this is a theoretical question: they are so big that their selling is what forces the stock market lower. They are too big to sell. Even the adjustments they make to their portfolios must be done by stealth selling. Each day they feed a few big blocks of stock out into the market in an orderly and controlled way so as not to overly disturb the market.

What kind of adjustments do we need to make if the US dollar is devalued further? Should we sell our bank stocks? Should we sell all our stocks? We are not in the same position as the mega-money managers of billions – we can sell our portfolios in a heart beat. What do we wish we’d done last year when the US dollar was at this same level?

Those mega-money investment managers who understand these financial dynamics can’t sell out of the stock market when the going gets rough. And those investors who can sell don’t. The small investor has an edge over the large when it comes to selling out – but often doesn’t use that advantage. Why not?

In my book, Beyond the Bull, I try to persuade ordinary investors to develop investment techniques. An investment technique involves objectively observing the world of finance, looking for certain events. When the sought-after events occur, we act: we buy or sell based on pre-planned logic. In this example, we notice a decline in the US dollar and suggest this spells trouble for the banking industry. If the US dollar continued to go down and then the prices of bank shares start to go down, this would be a reason to sell your bank stocks. But that’s not how most ordinary investors behave. Instead of selling, they worry. And, instead of buying their stocks back after a stock market sell-off, they hope the stocks they held through the crash will bounce back up: worrying and hoping instead of buying and selling.

Ken Norquay, CMT
Chief Market Strategist,
CastleMoore Inc.

Links to Beyond the Bull




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