Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fixing bankrupt systems is just the beginning

By Martin Wolf
Published: April 28 2009 21:59 Financial Times

Can we afford to fix our financial systems? The answer is yes. We cannot afford not to fix them. The big question is rather how best to do so. But fixing the financial system, while essential, is not enough.

The International Monetary Fund’s latest Global Financial Stability Report provides a cogent and sobering analysis of the state of the financial system. The staff have raised their estimates of the writedowns to close to $4,400bn (€3,368bn, £3,015bn). This is partly because the report includes estimates of writedowns on European and Japanese assets, at $1,193bn and $149bn, respectively, and on emerging markets assets held by banks in mature economies, at $340bn. It is also because writedowns on assets originating in the US have jumped to $2,712bn, from $1,405bn last October and a mere $945bn last April.

To put this in context, the writedowns estimated by the IMF are equal to 37 years of official development assistance at its 2008 level. Estimated writedowns on US and European assets, largely held by institutions located in these regions, also come to 13 per cent of the aggregate gross domestic product.

The IMF estimates the additional equity requirements of the banks as well. It starts from total reported writedowns up to the end of 2008, which come to $510bn in the US, $154bn in the eurozone and $110bn in the UK. The capital raised to the end of 2008 is, again, $391bn in the US, $243bn in the eurozone and $110bn in the UK. But the IMF estimates additional writedowns in 2009 and 2010 at $550bn in the US, $750bn in the eurozone and $200bn in the UK. Against this, it estimates net retained earnings at $300bn in the US, $600bn in the eurozone and $175bn in the UK.

The IMF points out that the ratio of total common equity to total assets – a measure investors burned by more sophisticated risk-adjusted ratios increasingly trust – was 3.7 per cent in the US at the end of 2008, but 2.5 per cent in the eurozone and 2.1 per cent in the UK. The IMF concludes that the extra equity needed to reduce leverage to 17 to 1 (or common equity to 6 per cent of total assets) would be $500bn in the US, $725bn in the eurozone and $250bn in the UK. For a 25 to 1 leverage, the required infusion would be $275bn in the US, $375bn in the eurozone and $125bn in the UK.

In current dire circumstances, the chances of raising such sums from markets are zero. Part of the reason is that they could still prove to be too little. After all, the IMF’s estimates of the potential writedowns on US assets alone have grown nearly three-fold in just one year. It would not be surprising if they rose again.

Yet these are not the only sums required. Governments have so far provided up to $8,900bn in financing for banks, via lending facilities, asset purchase schemes and guarantees. But this is less than a third of their financing needs. On the assumption that deposits grow in line with nominal GDP, the IMF estimates that the “refinancing gap” of the banks – the rollover of short-term wholesale funding, plus maturing long-term debt – will rise from $20,700bn in late 2008 to $25,600bn in late 2011, or a little over 60 per cent of their total assets (see chart below). This looks like a recipe for huge shrinkage in balance sheets. Moreover, even these sums ignore the disappearance of securitised lending via the so-called “shadow banking system”, which was particularly important in the US.

The IMF also provides new estimates of the ultimate fiscal costs of rescue efforts (see chart below). At the high end are the US and the UK, at 13 per cent and 9 per cent of GDP, respectively. Elsewhere, costs are far lower. These, happily, are affordable sums. Indeed, compared with the recession’s impact on public debt, they look quite manageable. True, costs are likely to end up higher. But the overwhelming likelihood remains that the fiscal costs of deep recessions are substantially greater than those of rescuing finance. Refusing to rescue financial systems because it looks too expensive is a classic case of being “penny wise, pound foolish”.

A better reason for refusing to bail out banks is its dire effect on incentives. The alternative must then be bankruptcy. Jeremy Bulow of Stanford University and Paul Klemperer of Oxford University have advanced a scheme that would do this neatly. Valuable banking functions of each institution would be split off into a new “bridge” bank, leaving liabilities (apart from deposits) in the old bank. Creditors left behind would be given equity in the new bank. Governments could “top up” some creditors beyond this level, without making all creditors whole, as now.

Respectable opinion assumes that it would be best to provide full bail-outs of creditors in systemically important institutions. The rationale for this is that it is the only way to eliminate further panic. The objection is not the fiscal cost. It is that a limited number of large, complex and “too-big-to-fail” institutions would then emerge. Their creditors would naturally believe they were lending to governments. This would be a recipe for yet bigger catastrophes in future years.

Yet imposing large losses on creditors is indeed risky. It would probably have to be done simultaneously everywhere. Only after it was obvious that surviving banks were sound would anybody be willing to lend to them without guarantees.

Even worse than this choice between grim alternatives is the fact that the path to recovery is likely to be slow, whichever is chosen. As the latest World Economic Outlook notes in an important chapter, recessions that follow financial crises are unusually severe. So, too, are globally synchronised recessions. But now we are living through a globally synchronised recession that coincides with a huge financial crisis that emanates from the core countries of the world economy, particularly the US. This is a recipe for a long recession and a weak recovery. Whatever is done about the financial system, “deleveraging” is the order of the day (see chart). The UK’s position in this looks dire. But that of the US looks quite bad, too, even compared with that of Japan in the 1990s.

For better or worse, the authorities have decided to bail out their financial systems with taxpayer money. Almost all the affected countries should be able to afford to do this, at least on the IMF’s numbers. So now, having made the fundamental decision to prevent bankruptcy, they must return their financial systems to health as swiftly as they possibly can.

Even so, that will prove to be a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for a return to robust economic health. The overhang of debt makes deleveraging inevitable. But it has hardly begun. Those who hope for a swift return to what they thought normal two years ago are deluded.

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