How Much Trouble Could Big Banks Be In? Lots!

The future of the Euro and the Eurozone is bleak and will likely look like a series of prolonged, rolling crises that slowly evolve to reveal just how critically the financial health of each country is affected by their individual sovereign debt and their failing banks.

The inevitable result will be severe Eurozone-wide stress, emergency liquidity loans from the IMF and the European Central Bank and politicians from all the countries involved increasingly attacking each other  over allegations of blame and corruption. To no good end.

Even the optimists now say openly that Europe will only solve its problems when there are no options left and time has run out. Less optimistic analysts increasingly think that the Eurozone will break up because all the proposed solutions are essentially Pollyannaish jokes. Let’s say the realists are right, and Europe starts to dissolve. Markets, investors, regulators and governments can stop worrying about interest-rate and credit risk, and start worrying about dissolution risk.

More importantly, they need to start worrying seriously about what the repricing of risk will do to the world’s thinly capitalized and highly leveraged megabanks. European officials, strangely, appear not to have thought about this at all; the Group of 20 meeting last week seemed to communicate a weird form of complacency and calm.

So, for all of the European officials and the U.S. bankers, here’s what dissolution risk means:  If you have a contract that requires you to be paid in euros and the euro no longer exists, what you will receive is not real clear. See? That’s dissolution risk.

Let’s say you have lent 1 million euros to a German bank, payable three months from now. If the euro suddenly ceases to exist and all countries revert to their original currencies, then you would probably receive payment in deutsche marks. You might be fine with this — and congratulate yourself on not lending to an Italian bank, which is now paying off in lira.

But what would the exchange rate be between new deutsche marks and euros? How would this affect the purchasing power of the loan repayment? More worrisome, what if Germany has gone back on the deutsche mark but the euro still exists — issued by more inflation-inclined countries? Presumably you would be offered payment in the rapidly depreciating euro. If you contested such a repayment, the litigation could drag on for years.

What if you lent to that German bank not in Frankfurt but in London? Would it matter if you lent to a branch (part of the parent) or a subsidiary (more clearly a British legal entity)? How would the British courts assess your claim to be repaid in relatively appreciated deutsche marks, rather than ever-less- appealing euros? With the euro depreciating further, should you wait to see what the courts decide? Or should you settle quickly in hope of recovering half of what you originally expected?

What if you lent to the German bank in New York, but the transaction was run through an offshore subsidiary, for example in the Cayman Islands? Global banks are extremely complex in terms of the legal entities that overlap with business units. Do you really know which legal jurisdiction would cover all aspects of your transaction in the currency formerly known as the euro?

Moving from relatively simple contracts to the complex world of derivatives, what would happen to the huge euro-denominated interest-rate swap market if euro dissolution is a real possibility? Guess what? No one really knows.

But, what I am really talking about here is the balance sheets of the really big banks. For example, in recently released filings with banking regulators, JPMorgan Chase & Co. revealed that $50 billion in losses could hypothetically bring down the bank. JPMorgan’s total balance sheet is valued, under U.S. accounting standards, at about $2.3 trillion. But U.S. rules allow a more generous netting of derivatives — offsetting long with short positions between the same counterparties — than European banks are allowed. HA!

The problem is that the netting effect can be overstated because derivatives contracts often don’t offset each other precisely. Worse, when traders smell trouble at a bank that has taken on too much risk, they tend to close out their derivatives positions quickly, leaving supposedly netted contracts exposed. Remember the final days of Lehman Brothers?

When one bank defaults and its derivatives counterpart does not, the failing bank must pay many contracts at once. The counterpart, however, wouldn’t provide a matching acceleration in its payments, which would be owed under the originally agreed schedule. This discrepancy could cause a “run” on a highly leveraged bank as counterparties attempt to close out positions with suspect banks while they can. The point is that the netting shown on a bank balance sheet can paper over this dynamic. And that means that JPMorgan’s regulatory filings vastly understate the potential danger.

JPMorgan’s balance sheet, using the European method isn’t $2.3 trillion, but closer to $4 trillion. That would make it the largest bank in the world. Holy Moly!

What are the odds that JPMorgan would lose no more than $50 billion on assets of $4 trillion, much of which is complex derivatives, in a euro-area breakup, an event that would easily be the biggest financial crisis in world history? Slim. And, None.

No one on these shores seems to see the storm coming. In an effort to forestall the impending global crisis, the Federal Reserve should be insisting that big U.S. banks increase their capital levels by suspending dividends, and set up emergency liquidity facilities with an emergency and across-the-board suspension of dividend payments, but it won’t. The Fed is convinced that its recent stress tests show U.S. banks have enough capital even though these tests didn’t model serious euro dissolution risk and the effect on global derivatives markets.

The Fed is dead wrong about that, and the pending Euro-crisis is very real. Our mega-banks are in no position to weather even the known storm, let alone the real storm when all the European counter-parties pony up to the bar with their real exposures, and the true sovereign debt gets exposed. Then, what do you think that means for smaller banks? 

How do you think that might affect the U.S. economic recovery? What is gold trading at? $1,575 an ounce?  Hmmmm.

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About Steve King

iPeopleFINANCE™ Chief Operating Officer. Former CEO of Endymion Systems, Inc. a $36m Information Systems Services company. Co-founder of the Cambridge Systems Group, the creator of ACF2, the leading IBM Mainframe Data Center Security product; acquired by Computer Associates. IBM, seeCommerce, marchFIRST, Connectandsell alumni. UC Berkeley alumni. View all posts by Steve King

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