Bank Loans Marked to Fantasy – The Next Bubble to Burst

I came across this interesting Bloomberg article in Mish’s blog, Next Bubble to Burst Is Banks’ Big Loan Values: Jonathan Weil:

Check out the footnotes to Regions Financial Corp.’s latest quarterly report, and you’ll see a remarkable disclosure. There, in an easy-to-read chart, the company divulged that the loans on its books as of June 30 were worth $22.8 billion less than what its balance sheet said. The Birmingham, Alabama-based bank’s shareholder equity, by comparison, was just $18.7 billion.

So, if it weren’t for the inflated loan values, Regions’ equity would be less than zero. Meanwhile, the government continues to classify Regions as “well capitalized.”

While disclosures of this sort aren’t new, their frequency is. This summer’s round of interim financial reports marked the first time U.S. companies had to publish the fair market values of all their financial instruments on a quarterly basis. Before, such disclosures had been required only annually under the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s rules.

The timing of the revelations is uncanny. Last month, in a move that has the banking lobby fuming, the FASB said it would proceed with a plan to expand the use of fair-value accounting for financial instruments. In short, all financial assets and most financial liabilities would have to be recorded at market values on the balance sheet each quarter, although not all fluctuations in their values would count in net income. A formal proposal could be released by year’s end.

Recognizing Loan Losses

[smartads]The biggest change would be to the treatment of loans. The FASB’s current rules let lenders carry most of the loans on their books at historical cost, by labeling them as held-to- maturity or held-for-investment. Generally, this means loan losses get recognized only when management deems them probable, which may be long after they are foreseeable. Using fair-value accounting would speed up the recognition of loan losses, resulting in lower earnings and reduced book values.

While Regions may be an extreme example of inflated loan values, it’s not unique. Bank of America Corp. said its loans as of June 30 were worth $64.4 billion less than its balance sheet said. The difference represented 58 percent of the company’s Tier 1 common equity, a measure of capital used by regulators that excludes preferred stock and many intangible assets, such as goodwill accumulated through acquisitions of other companies.

Wells Fargo & Co. said the fair value of its loans was $34.3 billion less than their book value as of June 30. The bank’s Tier 1 common equity, by comparison, was $47.1 billion.

Please also consider what I posted in April regarding GE & Mark to Market:

The world’s biggest maker of jet engines and power turbines told shareholders last week that 2 percent of GE Capital Corp.’s assets are being valued based on market prices. The remaining $624 billion is being carried at levels that GE, the last original member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, established in many cases years ago, according to CreditSights Inc.

“The notion of having 98 percent opaque and 2 percent valued with clarity is something that by its very nature would make investors nervous,” said Robert Arnott, founder of Research Affiliates LLC, which oversees $30 billion in Newport Beach, California and owned 481,201 GE shares as of Dec. 31. “Having some clarity on what the other 98 percent is worth is valuable.”

98% valued at fantasy prices, 2% at real world prices means that there is nothing but trouble down the road for GE.

I noted recently in Total US Credit and Loans – How Much Contraction Since Peak?:

Since the peak in October 2008, total credit and loans/leases outstanding have fallen by $725 billion, a 4.3% drop. And this doesn’t even take into account the decline in outstanding bond prices and unfunded liabilities. It is, indeed, tough to ascertain whether there is a decline in the net present value of unfunded liabilities. Thus we shall ignore them for now. However, bond prices have definitely declined across the board.

On top of that, I don’t think that people are oblivious to the fact that there is absolutely no way that all social security and medicare benefits will ever be paid. Thus it would only be reasonable to conservatively assume that the present value of those liabilities has dropped by the same amount. This would almost double the total contraction to around $4 trillion.

It is rather questionable whether all this credit is marked to market. I would say that all this number gives us at the moment is at the low end of the range.

The real contraction is obviously much more than stated in official reports. This may change in case the FASB follows through on its planned changes to accounting rules. It is rather remarkable that in spite of false over reporting of loan values, credit is contracting at this pace. I ask: How much will it be once they have to report real losses?

Whether they change the rules of this delusion game sooner or later or not at all. Bank loans are reported at ridiculous values and there is no chance of a substantial recovery until and unless the bad apples are sorted out.

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Federal Reserve Continues to Push on a String

The AP noted today that With credit tight, Fed extends consumer loan plan:

With banks limiting the availability of auto, student and other consumer loans, the Federal Reserve said Monday it would extend a program intended to help spur more lending at low rates.

The program is set up to provide up to $1 trillion in low-cost financing to investors to buy securities backed by consumer and commercial loans. But private economists said the program, Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF, has so far provided little benefit for consumers and businesses still struggling to get credit.

The program, originally set to expire at the end of the year, has two parts.

The part aimed at boosting consumer and business lending is being extended through March. The part geared toward boosting new commercial real estate lending will run through June, because of the extra time typically needed to complete such deals. Delinquency rates on such loans have soared as companies have downsized or closed their doors, the Fed has said.

TALF was created in March, part of the efforts by the Fed and the Obama administration to ease credit, stabilize the financial system and fight the recession. Under the program, the Fed allows for low-rate financing for investors to buy securities backed by credit card debt, auto loans, student loans and loans to small businesses. The market for such loans essentially froze up last fall with the eruption of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The program has the potential to generate up to $1 trillion in lending, according to the government. But participation has been scant: As of Aug. 12, the value of loans outstanding stood at just $29.6 billion.

To get an idea of how successful the Fed’s program to bring back consumer lending has been, please consider the latest update on consumer credit:

total-consumer-credit-US-june-2009

In June 2009 total consumer credit volume dropped to $2.48 trillion. It fell by $17.2 billion (0.7%) from May 2009 and a total of $110.5 billion (4.3%) since its peak in December 2008; an ongoing corollary of deflation, overall contraction, and ending consumerism.

It is important to understand what is so misguided about these ideas. We hear it again and again, how the Fed will continue to push for more credit, borrowing, lending, consumption, etc. Rarely ever do we hear the question asked “Do people want any more debt?”. The simple answer: No. People are sick and tired of debt. The Fed can try as much as it wants, it won’t be able to force lending. When people have had enough they have had enough.

Since this causality is not intuitive for everyone to understand, Robert Prechter came up with a neat example that explains the concept a little better, I already posted it before:

Jaguar Inflation

I am tired of hearing people insist that the Fed can expand credit all it wants. Sometimes an analogy clarifies a subject so let’s try one.

[smartads]It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing Jaguar automobiles and providing them to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating Jaguar plants all over the country, subsidizing it with tax money. To everyone’s delight , it offers these luxury cars for sale at 50 percent off the old price. People flock to the showrooms and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the government cuts the price in half again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to $900 each. People return to the stores and buy two or three, or half a dozen. Why not? Look how cheap they are! Buyers give Jaguars to their kids and park an extra one on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in Jaguars. Alas, sales slow again, and the government panics. It must move more Jaguars, or, according to its theory – ironically now made fact – the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay their taxes so the government can keep producing more Jaguars. If Jaguars stop moving the economy will stop. So the government begins giving Jaguars away. A few more cars move out of the showrooms, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more Jaguars. They don’t care if they’re free. They can’t find a use for them. Production of Jaguars ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of Jaguars. Tax collections collapse, the factories close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to buy gasoline , so many of the Jaguars rust away to worthlessness. The number of Jaguars – at best – returns to the level it was before the program began.

The same thing can happen with credit.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing credit and providing it to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating credit production plants all over the country, called Federal Reserve Banks. To everyone’s delight , the banks offer the credit for sale at below market rates. People flock to the banks and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the banks cut the price again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to 1 percent. People return to the banks and buy even more credit. Why not? Look how cheap it is! Borrowers use credit to buy houses, boats and an extra Jaguar to park out  on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in credit. Alas, sales slow again, and the banks panic. They must move more credit, or, according to its theory – ironically now made fact – the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay the interest on their debt so the banks can keep offering more credit. If credit stops moving the economy will stop. So they start giving credit away at zero percent interest. A few more loans move through the tellers’ windows, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more credit. They don’t care if they’re free. They can’t find a use for it. Production of credit ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of credit. Interest payments collapse, banks close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to pay interest on their debts , so many bonds deteriorate away to worthlessness. The value of credit – at best – returns to the level it was before the program began.

This is exactly the situation we have in the US. People took on way more credit than they could ever pay off. They have over borrowed, over spent, over consumed. The contraction we see now is the deflationary payback for years of unprecedented profligacy. When people have had enough of something, they’ve had enough. Jaguars? Anyone?

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Inflation & Deflation Revisited

I have in the past defined inflation as an increase in the true money supply. I defined deflation as a drop or only a very minor increase in the money supply. In those strict terms I have interpreted economic data correctly. I said we were in a major inflation through the 90s and from 2001 through 2006, then I switched to the deflationary camp and later, and toward the end of 2008 again supported the inflationary view. The chart below shows the money supply growth up until the end of 2008.

I include only actual money in cash or in checking accounts in my data. I still would not change a word of what I said regarding what is and what is not to be included in the true money supply, the supply of the medium of exchange inside a country.

But I admit that I used an insufficient definition for inflation and deflation. What I was really referring to was monetary inflation. We create definitions in order to understand and/or explain cause and effect of market events.

I agree with Mish in that:

I prefer a practical definition of deflation that matches and even predicts what the credit markets and stock markets are going to do, not some definition that is useless for anything but academic debate.

Inflation is broadly understood as an event where, due to monetary intervention, a large group of people consumes and/or produces differently from how they would have consumed or produced without the intervention. The dislocations of demand versus supply generally cause prices to rise differently from how they would have risen/fallen without the intervention. I explained these phenomena in the consumption business cycle and the production business cycle. Deflation is the reversal of this development back toward market equilibrium.

I said in The Dispute About the True Money Supply:

We are trying to ascertain the true money supply for a reason. We want to explain the current and the future development of asset and consumption prices in the country, measured in dollars. The more money is available for spending the higher will the prices be. But prices emerge in exchange transactions where money is surrendered in exchange for goods and services. They change over time as a result of continuous ongoing exchange transactions. As a tendency, they change with every additional exchange transaction. The medium used in these transactions and thus affecting prices, and nothing but it, is what we need to measure (…)

…maybe if we want to know how many media of exchange are available. But it won’t necessarily help us in explaining inflation and deflation. Why? It’s simple. Inflation is created based on how much money people think they have, not how much they actually have. People act based on perception. Their error will only become apparent at a later point in time. In addition to that, prices don’t necessarily have to emerge through exchange transactions only. When two investors agree on a certain price to trade claims to money from some business, then all other holders of the same may see that same price on their broker statement at the end of the day without having done anything.

Imagine a society with a relatively free market and a certain amount of fiat money in circulation. Now imagine the central bank or one of its fractional reserve banks offers to A a new credit of $100, pushing down interest rates and pushing up the prices for debt instruments. Now imagine the person A who receives the loaned money passes it on as a loan to someone else, B. If A is certain that he’ll be paid back with interest he will consider the claim to future money as good as money. B may do the same and so on and so forth.

All participants in this chain will think their claim to $100 is actually $100 of money owned. Each of them will, at worst, consider it a wash: I owe $100 and I am owed $100. In other cases they may value the asset owned higher than the money owed, especially when government intervention creates an ongoing demand for these claims by buying them up or by offering guarantees to banks who buy them up (see Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) and push up their prices. Everyone will continue spending the rest of their other money as if their claim was as good as money. But what if the final debtor in the chain has squandered the money and defaults. Now others in the chain may default as well: The price of the claims drops to zero.

Suddenly reality kicks in and everybody realizes that they never owned as much money as they thought. “I have my money in mortgage backed securities.” or “I have my money in corporate bonds.” may be some of the things they used to say before their net worth evaporated. But they never had money in anything. They had given their money away in exchange for a future claim to it. There was never enough money in circulation to pay off every debt in the first place. This is when people begin appreciating true cash again, with no strings attached, earned money. Everybody will be scrambling for it on order to pay off their debts. Others see this happening before their eyes and will save more than they used to.

The US economy has been at the center of a worldwide network of such cascading credit relationships. Central banks loaned fiat money to fractional reserve banks, those would pass it on to financial institutions which would make it available as wholesale mortgages, individual mortgage banks would take those on and make loans to homebuyers. Insurance companies would insure one or the other loan in the chain and again consider the insurance policy as good as money, using it as collateral to obtain … more credit. On top of that, huge pension plans would invest money in such financial institutions and insurance companies. This is just one example of how the entire world economy has been permeated by credit that is now imploding.

Consumer behavior will obviously change drastically as a result of this. This is exactly what has been going on for the past 2 years. It is a credit deflation. The sum of money inflation/deflation and credit inflation/deflation can thus be defined as total inflation/deflation. The amount of debt at this point is so huge that the pure money inflation/deflation component almost doesn’t matter: The true money supply is currently at around $2.14 trillion. According to Michael Hodges, in January 2009 total Debt in the US excluding unfunded social security and medicare commitments is estimated at roughly $60 trillion, and at around $174 trillion when those are included.

Some may now ask “But what about the Fed with all its money pumping and printing?”. But the Fed is not just printing money and unloading it over our cities. The only way the Fed and other banks can currently add money to the economy is by offering credit. But when it offers credit then naturally someone on the other end must accept it. When the demand for credit dries up the game is over. Robert Prechter offers a great illustration with his Jaguar example:

Jaguar Inflation

I am tired of hearing people insist that the Fed can expand credit all it wants. Sometimes an analogy clarifies a subject so let’s try one.

It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing Jaguar automobiles and providing them to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating Jaguar plants all over the country, subsidizing it with tax money. To everyone’s delight , it offers these luxury cars for sale at 50 percent off the old price. People flock to the showrooms and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the government cuts the price in half again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to $900 each. People return to the stores and buy two or three, or half a dozen. Why not? Look how cheap they are! Buyers give Jaguars to their kids and park an extra one on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in Jaguars. Alas, sales slow again, and the government panics. It must move more Jaguars, or, according to its theory – ironically now made fact – the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay their taxes so the government can keep producing more Jaguars. If Jaguars stop moving the economy will stop. So the government begins giving Jaguars away. A few more cars move out of the showrooms, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more Jaguars. They don’t care if they’re free. They can’t find a use for them. Production of Jaguars ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of Jaguars. Tax collections collapse, the factories close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to buy gasoline , so many of the Jaguars rust away to worthlessness. The number of Jaguars – at best – returns to the level it was before the program began.

The same thing can happen with credit.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing credit and providing it to as many people as possible. To facilitate that goal, it begins operating credit production plants all over the country, called Federal Reserve Banks. To everyone’s delight , the banks offer the credit for sale at below market rates. People flock to the banks and buy. Later, sales slow down, so the banks cut the price again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to 1 percent. People return to the banks and buy even more credit. Why not? Look how cheap it is! Borrowers use credit to buy houses, boats and an extra Jaguar to park out  on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in credit. Alas, sales slow again, and the banks panic. They must move more credit, or, according to its theory – ironically now made fact – the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay the interest on their debt so the banks can keep offering more credit. If credit stops moving the economy will stop. So they start giving credit away at zero percent interest. A few more loans move through the tellers’ windows, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more credit. They don’t care if they’re free. They can’t find a use for it. Production of credit ceases. It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of credit. Interest payments collapse, banks close, and unemployment soars. The economy is wrecked. People can’t afford to pay interest on their debts , so many bonds deteriorate away to worthlessness. The value of credit – at best – returns to the level it was before the program began.

I also explained this, albeit a bit less vividly, in Sick and Tired of Debt. I recommend reading Prechter’s excellent paper The Guide to Understanding Deflation in full. Nowhere else have I seen the concepts behind deflation explained so precisely and with so much foresight.

A lot of economists and investors, such as Peter Schiff and Marc Faber are ignoring the ideas that I outlined above. They are expecting a Weimar style hyperinflation. I used to think the same way. But I wasn’t looking at the details. Weimar Germany’s hyperinflation happened because the German government simply printed money, actual currency, in order to pay off debts owed to the victors from World War 1. Zimbabwe did the same thing to honor IMF loans. This is nothing near to what is going on in the US. Money is created by issuing new debt, not by paying it off. When people have had enough, it ends.

Hyperinflation is simply not going to happen under the current conditions. So long as credit remains the only means for the Federal Reserve Bank to “inject” money, deflation will continue to run its course.

What will happen after the debt is written off? Who knows. We may or may not see a hyperinflation at some point in the far distant future, depending on how monetary policy changes over time. But to put all your eggs in that basket, and to do so right now would be a mistake.

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