Tying It All Together (For Tom And Others On The Right)

Ok, I’ll be nice.


See, I’m a kinda-charitable guy, especially off-hours.  Besides, there’s a whole lot of “Tea Party” and other “Right of Aisle” types that really need to hear this.

I may change minds here and I may not.  I ask only one thing: Read this with an open mind, then verify anything that doesn’t sound right.  Do not trust my figures, verify them yourself.  Every source is cited.

It’s July 2008.  You are a “TBTF” bank CEO.  You’ve been running a 30 year ponzi scheme using ever-increasing amounts of debt while GDP has languished in roughly the same place for the last two decades in terms of numerical growth.  In the 3rd Quarter of 2007, when the S&P 500 hits 1576 and the DOW tops, the economy put about six times the amount of debt into the system as there was GDP growth, and at that point GDP had started to roll over.  It had an obvious geometric progression look to it but only a few people in the blogosphere had been hollering about it.  You wondered how much longer it was going to be before the people woke up.

Over the next three quarters from the 3Q 2007 GDP has actually gone negative.  Debt demand has cratered and is down by almost 50%.  The handwriting is on the wall; credit creation is going to go negative too.

You have tens of trillions of dollars in credit instruments on and off your balance sheet and things are looking pretty bad.  You’re getting pestered by people who see the credit contraction and start asking if you’re good for those swaps, and the credit default swaps on your bank are blowing out.  They have a point too: If credit demand actually goes negative, you’re dead.  You’re geared at 30:1 which means you can only lose $3 out of every $100 of alleged “value” of your assets before you’re broke.  The collateral calls alone on the more than $30 trillion in swaps are enough to kill your capital several times over should this occur.

See, that’s the nature of a pyramid.  It all looks ok right up until demand starts to reverse.  Then it works in reverse, just like it did on the way up.  What made you $30 for every $1 of actual capital you had now loses $30 for every dollar of capital.  Attempting to fire-sale assets to avoid the disaster simply tells everyone in the market you’re busted and they’ll pile in short, destroying your stock price and further widening the CDS.  Too much of that and what you’re trying to prevent will happen anyway.

Your morning includes one less coffee as you don’t need any more jitters than you already have, and your evenings have an extra scotch or two before going to bed.

Then the phone rings.  It’s one of your Vice-Presidents; he is responsible for, among other things, your repo desk.  One of your traders just came into his office and is as white as a ghost: Lehman has no collateral – they’re bankrupt.

You collapse into your chair, dropping your coffee mug on the marble floor, which shatters into a hundred pieces.  If your repo desk knows this so does the NY Fed, headed by Tim Geithner.  That means Bernanke knows.  It also means every other firm on the street knows.  You look at the CDS for Lehman on your Bloomberg and shudder.

The very nightmare that has woken you almost nightly for six months has begun.

Note this well: It’s July 31st 2008, or quite some time before anyone else outside of “TBTF” banks will know Lehman is about to fail.  Oh sure, there have been rumors since Bear went down, but that’s all they’ve been.  Lehman’s stock is trading at $17, and has been reasonably stable for a couple of weeks.  It was as low as $12 two weeks previous and looked like it was headed to zero, but then stabilized and recovered by almost 50%.  CNBC is chattering on a daily basis of rumors of all sorts but the market has actually been improving for a bit in tone.  The VIX, which was just shy of 31 two weeks ago, is now trading at 23.

You thought maybe – just maybe – it was going to be ok.

Now you know factually that it’s not.

You call your equity desk and ask them to start quietly shorting Lehman’s stock.  Not in size – you don’t want anyone to figure out what’s going on “outside” of those who already know.  You figure that everyone else in the TBTF club knows this too; there’s no way they couldn’t.  But you’re cautious – while you know how much trouble you’re in if credit demand doesn’t turn around fast you also know that Fuld had dinner with Paulson in April – just three months ago and that there were rumors flying around that Paulson “loved” their capital raise.  It didn’t make sense that in just three months they had no collateral for a routine overnight repo transaction!

The rest of the world will not know, of course, for a while yet that Lehman has effectively already detonated.  In fact for the entire next month the S&P 500 will actually trade up about ten points, from 1267 to 1277 in a choppy, directionless pattern.

During the next month credit demand doesn’t move much.

Then “it” happens.  Lehman files.

Suddenly the collateral calls begin in earnest.  Credit demand takes another leg down and GDP prints negative.  You’re now in the hole and there’s no way out.  The only good news is that everyone else in the TBTF club is in there with you – hundreds of trillions of dollars of swaps, from interest rate to CDS to god-knows-what-else that was bespoke by this person or that, and they all want collateral as your credit condition is wildly deteriorating and your own CDS quote looks like the peak of Mt. Everest on the upside.  Your stock price is falling like a stone and the bond desk is telling you they’re getting bid lists by the dozens from people trying to liquidate to save themselves but there are no bids at any price.

In the middle of all this you get called to Treasury for a meeting.  TARP has just passed and Hank and Ben want to talk with you and the rest of the TBTF CEOs.  You have your assistant call the hanger and get the jet ready.

When you arrive you figure you’re being nationalized.  You’re done and you know it.  There’s nowhere for you to go; there’s no bid at any price for some of your assets and for those where you can get a bid the loss will wipe you out.  You have CDS on some of your exposure but you’re pretty sure the counterparties don’t have the money — after all, you know you can’t cover everything you wrote if push comes to shove.  The simple fact is that an exponential contraction of credit demand into 30:1 leverage is not survivable.  You can protest all you want, but it doesn’t matter; the math is going to win as the collateral calls will eventually chew up all your cash while the ratings agencies ratchet you down.  With only $3 of capital behind every $100 on your book there’s just no way to make the math work, the bond market is effectively shuttered with the door bricked over and trying to raise equity capital into a crashing stock market is a fools game.  Even if you could get an offering off, which you can’t, the interest rate on bonds would be north of 10% and the dilution on a stock offering would be hideous, never mind that you simply couldn’t raise enough money going that route.  The bottom line is this: There’s no way to make money when you have to borrow at that price, and all banks borrow in order to lend.

When you get to DC Hank and Ben are in the room and they’re smiling.  You figure that the call to the board is going to end with you sending your assistant in to start boxing up your office, but when you all get there the mood is a bit different.  Oh sure, your TBTF buddies all think they’re dead too, but once the door closes the real intent is disclosed.

  • The government’s going to “give” you money.  It’s not exactly a gift, but it’s close.  The mechanics of this will look like a preferred stock purchase.  The reality is somewhat different.  Among other things with your CDS spreads in the stratosphere you can’t issue bonds without paying 10% or higher interest rates, which instantly collapses the company.  But with an FDIC guarantee, which is being put on the table as part of the package, you will get the risk free rate of Treasuries, which are currently trading in the mid 3% area.  That’s a huge savings – 5-6% a year in interest expense!  Suddenly the capital market door is open again!
  • Then Bernanke pipes up.  Provided you do this there won’t be questions about your collateral, since you’ll have the implicit backstop of the government.  This would go on to be worth over a trillion in direct loans; your “share” of it would wind up being nearly $100 billion, about 10% of your balance sheet, all at effectively zero interest.

You realize that what you feared – a call to announce that the regulators were seizing all of your firms as they all had no mathematical way to survive isn’t what was going to happen at all!  Instead, you were going to be given some $250 billion between you and the FDIC was going to take all credit risk on your new bond issues for the next year.  In addition you were briefed on the TLGP which will guarantee your customers won’t run your bank as it provides their demand accounts with unlimited FDIC insurance protection.  This is to be “free” for the first 30 days, and after that there’d be a fee, but compared to trying to keep your deposits and issue cheap debt it was for all intents and purposes zero cost.  Finally, Ben was going to let you have basically unlimited Fed credit at near-zero interest rates for the next year, meaning there would be no issue as to whether you could fund routine operations or not.

Your firm was being saved and the taxpayer was going to cover the risk – whether he liked it or not.

You were going to be asked to do a few things, however.  The public would never sit for being looted like this unless it looked like it was going to hurt a lot and there was simply “no alternative.”  As it was Treasury and Bernanke were not sure that the public would buy it.  Congress already had bought off on it, effectively; after all, Ben and Hank had corralled them into a room and threatened them with martial law if they didn’t pass TARP to begin with.  But it was important to make it look stringent, so there’d be no big bonuses until you paid the TARP money back and dividends would have to be cut to effectively zero.

All in you were getting a screaming deal.  Not only are you getting cheap capital, all things considered (the 5% preferred coupon with that FDIC backstop when your CDS spreads are being quoted in points up front literally saves your firm!) but the FDIC insurance on both senior debt issues and deposits – that is a pure windfall of unbelievable size.

You roll the numbers around in your head.  There is roughly $850 billion in deposits throughout the system that would be covered by the FDIC “unlimited” deposit insurance, and the majority of it was in your bank and that of your TBTF friends.  You figure that you and your buddies in the room could issue some $300 billion in “super insured” debt through the FDIC program and the surcharge from the FDIC is only 50 to 100 basis points; with the credit condition oncoming long rates will be headed southbound fast, so the odds are you’d see a 10 year in the 2.5% or so area soon.  That makes the deal damned attractive; you figure between you in the room this will easily save you $15 billion a year in the first-year financing costs (about 500 basis points on that $300 billion) or more than the coupon on the preferred stock!

It doesn’t take long before the light comes on – this is a zero-cost option for you.  The capital costs a coupon on the preferred but the savings on the bond issues more than make up for it and the FDIC deposit insurance makes sure nobody runs your bank.

For all intents and purposes you’re being paid to take the taxpayer’s money!

When you walked in the room you were sure you were going to be nationalized – or at least expropriated in some fashion, as you were dead flat broke.  Now, well, let’s just say that it’s good to have friends in high places.

You wonder how the press is going to spin this one.  This finance stuff is pretty tough for mainstream reporters; so long as nobody noodles on the numbers they probably won’t figure it out.  Never mind that the bonds won’t all issue at once and most people will simply applaud the unlimited deposit insurance without thinking about the fact that it’s essentially a gift – the 10 basis point fee (0.1%) is a bad joke.  $8 billion across the entirety of the system to provide unlimited coverage on $800 billion in deposits?  This much is certain: Nobody’s going to be allowed to fail as that’s wildly lower than the actual risk premium on that transaction.

What’s not to like?

You walk out of Treasury with one of your friends from the TBTF bank down the street, yukking it up as you come down the stairs.  Who would have ever thought that such a heist would be possible?  Even better, the press reaction, especially from the right wing, can be counted on to get this wrong and claim that the government had stolen capitalism. That will give you cover for the fact that your firm was so far underwater when you walked into that room that you needed helium in your dive tanks lest you be narced out of your mind.

You will go on to pay record bonuses a year later, also paying back the TARP money.  Well, that which everyone saw anyway. The Auto industry is a different matter of course, and there were plenty of games played with AIG, which had written a lot of credit protection.  Had they blown you were dead, as they were the guarantor one way or another on far too much of your derivative stack.  But Geithner will claim at every opportunity that “TARP made a profit” and the public is too obsessed with American Idol to figure out that he’s lying through his teeth.

But the real problem from a budget perspective, when all is said and done, was and is in Fannie and Freddie.  Although not really “TARP” funds their bailout was instrumental in preventing nearly all the 30:1 levered banks from blowing sky-high, not to mention pension funds and insurance companies, as everyone had a material amount of MBS on their balance sheets and had Fannie and Freddie defaulted it might have been enough to sink the TBTF banks all on its own and spiral the big insurers into the ground.  The discounted cash flow cost of not letting them blow up through 2009 was nearly $300 billion, of which $145 billion had already gone in through direct cash infusions.  This looked like “protecting the public”, but it really was protecting the banks and insurers who were holding a crazy amount of MBS on their balance sheets and were able to unload them to The Fed during QE1 at a very nice profit, effectively screwing the taxpayer not only through the direct subsidy but also through the price-supported buyout in the QE program.  The exact amount effectively stolen from the people in this regard is hard to determine, but it is likely close to a half-trillion dollars in total including the direct and indirect costs.

Of course it got better from there too for the banks.  We now know from the Bloomberg lawsuit that there was in fact over a trillion in revolving credit doled out in the next few months to these firms, all at effectively zero interest rates since the overnight rate was for all intents and purposes zilch.  This too was a benefit, as the market price of credit is never zero, and that “benefit” continues to this day.  Tim Geithner, who had to know about the Lehman collateral problem in July of 08, would be rewarded for his part in all of this by being appointed Secretary of the Treasury.  And Paulson?  He got to keep his $500 million in Goldman stock and options when he took the original Treasury job, tax free.  He has not a care in the world.

Capitalism didn’t die in 2008.  That’s a convenient story, but it isn’t true.  You can’t expropriate a broke man or a broke business; there’s nothing to take, even if you want to.

The truth is much simpler: The taxpayer was just plain robbed by the government and banks acting together.

If you think that $750 billion was a ridiculous subsidy to the TBTFs, or that they really didn’t join with the government to steal from the public during 2008, the epilogue over the next three years went from ridiculous to stupefying.  From 2008 – 2010 we ran about $1,100 billion per year in additional deficits over the Bush years, for a total of $3.3 trillion.  This too was sold as “for the people” but that was a lie.  See, financial product credit (Z1 line Z1/Z1/LA794104005.Q) contracted from $17.1 trillion to $13.8 trillion today, or almost exactly the same $3.3 trillion.  Mortgages, during the same period, would contract by about $600 billion while non-financial business credit remained pretty-much flat and State and local borrowing expanded.  Put another way, the entire deficit addition over the previous multi-year baseline was literally given to the financial firms; the total amount of the taxpayer heist is over $3 trillion from 2008-2010, and as of the 2nd Quarter of 2011 we’re still literally stealing from the taxpayer and handing it to the TBTF institutions via government deficit spending.

Ps: The worst part is that we didn’t fix anything, especially the derivatives.  In fact, with the consolidation and “swallowing” of failed firms in 08 and 09 the risks now are higher than they were three years ago, and we’re further down the road with the pyramid.  We stopped it from falling over temporarily, but only by shifting the debt accreation to the Federal Government and, to a lesser degree, on the backs of students.  If we do not voluntarily stop the nonsense, as I pointed out in the other Ticker, it will come crashing down anyway as we squandered our opportunity to force these jackals to either cover or tear up those contracts that cannot possibly be met in full.

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In Explanation Of The Last Paragraph

It seems there’s some confusion over the last paragraph of this ticker:

The truth is much simpler: The taxpayer was just plain robbed by the government and banks acting together.

If you think that $750 billion was a ridiculous subsidy to the TBTFs, or that they really didn’t join with the government to steal from the public during 2008, the epilogue over the next three years went from ridiculous to stupefying.  From 2008 – 2010 we ran about $1,100 billion per year in additional deficits over the Bush years, for a total of $3.3 trillion.  This too was sold as “for the people” but that was a lie.  See, financial product credit (Z1 line Z1/Z1/LA794104005.Q) contracted from $17.1 trillion to $13.8 trillion today, or almost exactly the same $3.3 trillion.  Mortgages, during the same period, would contract by about $600 billion while non-financial business credit remained pretty-much flat and State and local borrowing expanded.  Put another way, the entire deficit addition over the previous multi-year baseline was literally given to the financial firms; the total amount of the taxpayer heist is over $3 trillion from 2008-2010, and as of the 2nd Quarter of 2011 we’re still literally stealing from the taxpayer and handing it to the TBTF institutions via government deficit spending.

To understand this you need to noodle for a few minutes; put yourself in noodle-mode and grab a coffee.  You’ll have to roll this around in your head before it gels, but it will.

Let’s start with a couple of fundamental facts:

  • We have a “fiat” currency – the dollar.  All “dollars” are in fact debt instruments.  Pull out one from your wallet (pick a denomination, so long as it’s not an old silver certificate!) and you will see “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private” printed on the face.  The language is precise and important: I may demand payment for my gasoline in oranges and you must pay in oranges provided I never allow you to go into debt to me for the gasoline.  As soon as I do (e.g. by letting you pump it before you pay me) I must accept dollars.
  • All dollars are debt-backed.  Specifically, they’re issued against an obligation, typically against Treasury debt.  When the Federal Reserve wishes to emit more “dollars” (whether electronically or otherwise) they buy Treasuries and pay for them by either printing dollars or pushing a button and creating digital facsimiles of paper notes.

This, incidentally, is why when you read Leverage (and you should) you’ll understand how and why the “money men” at the banks robbed everyone through what is effectively a naked short on the currency.   But that’s not the point of this post.

Rather, the fact that there’s a liability associated to the asset in the form of dollars means that the entire economic system is a gigantic balance sheet.

And the fundamental truth about balance sheets is that they balance.

So if you want to get rid of excessive debt you must also write off assets.  The asset side of the balance sheet has to contract at the same time the liability side does.  There’s no escaping this fact.  It is simply not possible to contract one side without the other, because by definition a balance sheet must balance and when you “blew up” one side you also “blew up” the other.

This fact, however, means that if someone is over-valuing assets then someone is also claiming a liability they cannot pay.  Again, the two are exactly in balance – always.  So when the bank is holding home equity lines at 100 cents on the dollar (“par”) when in fact the loan is a second lien behind an underwater first mortgage that is delinquent, not only is the bank lying but the homeowner is lying too – he has possession of something he hasn’t and can’t pay for.

So what happens when the bank is forced to recognize this bad debt?  It has to write it down; the asset disappears at the same time the liability does.  But if the lending institution can’t cover the write-down because it has insufficient capital to do so it blows up.

Now you should understand why delinquent homeowners are, in many cases, living in houses without making a payment for two years.  The banks aren’t “overwhelmed”, they’re bankruptThey’re not kicking people out because if they do under the accounting rules they have to recognize the loss and doing so causes their demise!  They’re not doing the delinquent homeowner a favor, they’re doing themselves a favor while committing (legal) balance sheet fraud.

The fact that balance sheets must balance becomes extremely useful when looking at the macro economic picture.  If the government is deficit spending the additional debt goes on their balance sheet.  The question is where is the flow go on the other side?  If the entire credit picture is expanding across the economy compared to output (GDP) then the answer is that we’re simply blowing bubbles.  That’s what happened in aggregate over the last 30 years.

But right now the credit picture isn’t expanding much.  Government borrowing, however, is!

Someone is contracting credit at the same time the government is expanding it.  That is, while the total system liability is not changing much liability is shifting from a private party to the taxpayer.  Let’s figure out who’s getting the benefit.

Remember, the “narrative” run by the media and the government is that they’re “helping the people.”  If that was true then we would see that $3.3 trillion show up in the form of decreased debt held by people.  But that hasn’t happened – the aggregate “all instrument” Household and Non-profit credit peaked at $13.9 trillion and today is just $600 billion smaller, nearly all in mortgages.

The Fed Z1 tells us how the composition of liabilities is shifting over time and what the general picture of those liabilities “in aggregate” are.  It is one of the most-useful tools for this sort of macro-level analysis, because it is basically impossible to successfully corrupt.  It’s also one that most people don’t look at; it’s not “in your face” and announced in the mainstream media like GDP or employment data is, and there’s no “headline” number to focus on.  Instead it’s just a jumble of figures.  Fortunately, Excel is really good at taking columns of numbers and turning them into pretty pictures, like this:

And what that Z1 is telling us, today, is that from 2008 to now about $3.3 trillion in credit was removed from the Z1 line called “Financial Products.”

When we look at the household sector we find that it’s not mortgages where that help went (those are separately accounted for); in point of fact that number has only gone down by about $600 billion.

Here’s the rub: Home values, according to Zillow and Case-Schiller, have contracted by something between $6-10 trillion.  How is it that only 10% of that value change has shown up in the outstanding debt when just 30% of homes are owned free and clear and a quarter of all homes are underwater on their mortgage?  Remember, all second lines behind an underwater first are worth zero if the first goes 60+ delinquent, as the odds of cure on a 60+ mortgage is statistically indistinguishable from zero and a second only recovers on a foreclosure after the first is paid in full.

The answer to that is simple: Institutions are pretending that some debt instruments have value when they really do not.  That’s the only possible explanation since again, balance sheets must balance.

But in the case of financial credit it really has been contracting on a recognized basis.  This would normally be enough to blow all of these institutions to beyond the orbit of Mars; note that the common “TBTF” banks are somewhere around $500 billion to ~$1 trillion in size.  The contraction of $3.3 trillion in financial products credit, given their leverage, would be enough to bury them all.

That hasn’t happened.

The reason it hasn’t happened is that in effect the credit they were carrying — remember that “liabilities” on one side are “assets” on the other — was effectively transferred to the Federal Government via additional deficit spending.

The amount of “back door” bailing out through transference of the banks’ (bad) “assets” to the federal government, relieving them of what would otherwise have blown them to bits, amounts to approximately $10,000 for every man, woman and child, all taken on over the last three years.  And note that this not total deficit spending, it’s only additional deficit spending over what Bush was running before (if you look at the total it’s even worse — in excess of $4.5 trillion.)

This is what the media means when they say “the private economy is de-leveraging” — they’re only really speaking about the “1%”, in this case the TBTF institutions.

The statement on balance is false when applied to the entire economy: You may think you’re de-leveraging but the economy as a whole is not; instead you’re having the private obligations of a small number of people, in this case the TBTF banks, forced upon you as taxpayers as the government levers up to counteract private credit contraction among the big multi-national and national banks!

In short every citizen of this nation — man, woman and child — has been robbed of $10,000 which was taken from you and given to the TBTF banks to prevent them from blowing up, with the obligation to pay in the future shoved in your face at literal gunpoint by the government. 

So much for “de-leveraging” of the private economy, at least as it applies to the 99% of the nation!

The government didn’t “expropriate” or “extort” anything from the TBTF banks as is commonly said by the right-wing side of the aisle — in fact government actively conspired with the TBTF to steal your money and give it to those very-same institutions while it was lying about helping you.

The Fed Z1 – a simple compendium of mathematical facts – does not lie.

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