One thing that mystifies me about the current economic crisis is the inability of the big banks to get their house in order.  Or the inability of us (the government) to force them to get their house in order.  We are not talking about very many banks:  Citi, Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.  Together they own something on the order of 60% of all banking assets.  But for six months they’ve been sitting on assets that everyone knows are worth much less than the banks have them recorded at.  They need to be written down to prices that will let the market clear.  However management doesn’t want to do it.  They prefer to wait for “things to turn around”; maybe some day those assets will be worth more.  They don’t want to have a fire sale.

When this happens to smaller banks the FDIC shows up at the bank on Friday, closes the doors, look over the books, and sells off the assets to another bank at whatever price they can get from the other bank.  Then they use the proceeds to payoff depositors.  If anything is left over, they pay off debt holders and shareholders, but usually, since the the FDIC is there because the bank has bad assets, shareholders get nothing.  Management is asked to polish up their resumes and look for a job.  On Monday, the bank re-opens and everyone gets on with their life.

But with the big banks, it apparently can’t happen this way.  For one thing, they are so big, no one can buy them, and when there are this many bad assets, assigning price to the assets is a real problem.  Still, can’t we get the key players together, come to some agreement, and move on?

As Thomas Friedman said the other day

“I wake up every morning hoping to read this story: “President Obama announced today that he had invited the country’s 20 leading bankers, 20 leading industrialists, 20 top market economists and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to join him and his team at Camp David. ‘We will not come down from the mountain until we have forged a common, transparent strategy for getting us out of this banking crisis,’ the president said, as he boarded his helicopter.”

One of the problems with this approach is that the holders of the banks’ debt aren’t just depositors in this country.

As Michael Mandell at Business Week observed

The international angle is very important. Geithner and Bernanke keep saying that the problem is that no one knows how much the toxic assets are worth. But that’s not the full story. If the counterparties and beneficiaries of the toxic assets held by American banks are also American, it would be relatively easy for Geithner and Bernanke to gather them in a room and make them come to a ‘reasonable’ agreement about how much these securities were worth. After all, even the most powerful hedge funds must ultimately bow to the power of the Fed and Treasury, especially in a crisis.

But with most of the counterparties in other countries, the job becomes much more difficult. There’s no way for Bernanke and Geithner to force European banks, for example, to accept any particular valuation of derivatives or bank bonds—not without the cooperation of the foreign regulators.

So, if this is correct, this will all come down to a big international deal in which it is finally decided who is going to take the hit when these assets are finally written down.  If only W were still president.  He was so awesome at getting international cooperation.


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