Monday, October 13, 2008

Credit Problems Beyond Subprime

When the subprime credit crisis began to unfold in 2007 I believed it was a sign of deeper problems in the credit markets. Easy money and unchecked leverage puts pressure on banks to lend. First they make the good loans, then the not so good ones, and then they make bad loans. So far most of the media attention has been on the subprime mortgage crisis. Last week, to little fanfare, the Shared National Credits Program released the results of its review of loans to corporate borrowers that are shared by banks in the US, banks overseas, and other institutions such as pension funds, hedge funds, and insurance companies. The review is of:

loan commitments of $20 million or more and held by three or more federally supervised institutions
The review shows considerable deterioration in credit quality of these loans.
Criticized credits increased $259.3 billion and represent 13.4 percent of the SNC portfolio compared with 5.0 percent in the 2007 SNC review. Credits rated special mention (potentially weak credits) increased by $167.9 billion and represent 7.5 percent of the SNC portfolio compared with 1.9 percent in the 2007 SNC review. Classified credits (credits with well-defined weaknesses) increased $91.5 billion and represent 5.8 percent of the SNC portfolio compared with 3.1 percent in the 2007 SNC review.
Even more interesting is how the criticized loans are distributed:
Classified credits held by non-bank entities increased to $70.0 billion from $34.8 billion and represent 42.9 percent of classified credits. The volume of classified credits held by non-banks is particularly significant given their relatively small 19.9 percent share of the SNC portfolio.
The distribution could be due, in part, to purchases by non-bank entities of credits at a discount from face value but the report is silent on this point.

So what does all of this show us? It demonstrates the fact that subprime was one area of the credit binge of the past few years. Subprime is certainly a very big part of the credit crisis, but it is not the only part. Here is what the review states about underwriting standards for these $2.79 trillion of loan commitments with $1.2 trillion outstanding:
For the second consecutive year, the review included an assessment of underwriting standards. Examiners again found an inordinate volume of syndicated loans with structurally weak underwriting characteristics particularly in non-investment grade or leveraged transactions.
Add to this portfolio and mortgages all of the other loan portfolios, including credit cards, auto loans, corporate loans, small business loans, and so on, and this crisis goes well beyond subprime mortgages. Just how far is impossible to tell, but the rapid deterioration in the portfolios of major banks, such as the loss reserves announced by Bank of America, give us an indication. As reported in The Wall Street Journal Online Edition:
The nation's largest retail bank reported net income of $1.18 billion, or 15 cents per share, down from $3.70 billion, or 82 cents per share a year earlier. The results were worse than expected. Credit losses on mortgages and credit cards dragged down the results. Its provision for credit losses was $6.45 billion, up from $5.83 billion in the second quarter. Net charge offs were $4.36 billion, as compared to $3.62 billion in the second quarter.

Nonperforming assets were $13.3 billion, or 1.42 percent of total loans, leases and foreclosed properties. The dividend cut at Bank of America, the country's largest bank in terms of deposits, mirrors similar moves by smaller banks across the country as they look for ways to cut costs and raise capital amid the volatility that has driven some of the country's biggest financial institutions out of business.
For more on credit cards see this WSJ article.

I think the credit crisis and its impact on the economy have a long way to go. There are many reasons I believe this and I have been writing about them for the past year. What I found amazing and would like to point out is just how rapidly Wall Street greed exploded, bringing the financial system to its knees. In 2004, investment banks and commercial banks were recipients of deregulation relating to the amount of leverage, on and off their balance sheets, they could employ. There have been many reports on these events, including this New York Times article addressing the investment banking regulations, this blog piece by yours truly addressing both sets of regulations, and this one I penned last May pointing my finger at Bush appointed regulators. Two years after these regulatory changes, the system imploded. True, there are many other issues that are much longer term in nature. In particular, unregulated derivatives markets turn out, not unexpectedly nor without warning, to be a major structural problem in the financial system, and easy monetary policy plus global liquidity were certainly contributing factors. But notwithstanding these other factors that come in to play in this crisis, the simple fact is that if regulators had limited the amount of leverage financial institutions could employ we would not have necessarily reached the crisis stage.

In 2004 regulators gave Wall Street some rope, and it took a mere blink of the eye for Wall Street to hang itself (and, unfortunately, a lot of others).

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5 comments:

charlesbrownell said...

Rather than bail out the fat cats on Wall Street, I like the idea of having a government sponsored loan available for every homeowner up to $100,000. The loan would be available at 0% interest plus the rate of inflation. The catch is that the loan would be personally guaranteed and would survive foreclosure and bankruptcy. As part of this the lending institution would agree to write the loan down to the fair market value and reset the balance of the loan to the prime rate. This would cost approximately $1 trillion but it would inject that $1 trillion into the financial system thereby immediately increasing liquidity. Eventually the $1 trillion would in probably be repaid because it is personally guaranteed. It also would mean that those institutions that were over leveraged should be allowed to fail if the $1 trillion doesn't provide them with enough liquidity.

Palermo's Blog said...

charles - would there be any limitation on what the loan could be used for? If not, couldn't this just make the problem worse because people would borrow on these terms and spend? Or are you saying that the $100k would be used to reduce mortgage debt only?

Al said...

Kinda wish you'd gotten an answer to that.

Is there a day we can call "Black something?" I really long for that.

Palermo's Blog said...

Al - what about Black October?

Al said...

Ugh. It is kinda like that isn't it?