Any Objective Review Shows That the Big Banks are Simply Too Big for the Safety of this Country

By: Reggie Middleton | Mon, Sep 14, 2009
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The title just about says it all. The only thing missing is that it doesn't tell you that the banks that are too big to ensure financial stability are still getting bigger, and riskier. Before we go on, let's get a few things established for those who have not followed me regularly. Note to avoid redundancies: If you have not read me regularly, I suggest you peruse the "Credibility" side bar below. If you have not followed my recent banking articles over the last few weeks, then continue below. If you have been hanging off of my every word, then skip down to the "Break'em up, and break'em up now!" section, otherwise please read on. I strongly believe that the content of this article can change many a perception of the big banks in this country, and hopefully alert many to the risks that have been concentrated therein, even after the meltdowns that we have had to suffer at the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Things have not only not gotten better, they have gotten worse! Forward this article (or a summarized version of it) to your local congressman, senator, regulator or investment advisor, and ask them to respond to the assertions herein.

Credibility

When I have sounded the alarm in the past, it made sense to take notice. Look at who has failed over the last two years, and what I have said publicly, months before each failure.

Is this the Breaking of the Bear?: On Sunday, 27 January 2008 I made it very clear that Bear Stearns was in a fight for its life and was in explicit risk of failure. Most sell side firms has a buy on this stock at $185, and it had an investment grade rating from all of the big ratings agencies. We all know what happened two months later.

"Is Lehman really a lemming in disguise?": On February 20th, 2008, I made the proclamation that Lehman was hiding significant losses on its balance sheet. We all know what happened 7 months later. It had an investment grade rating from all of the big ratings agencies.

At the inception of this blog, I warned about nearly all of the homebuilders as well as issuing explicit insolvency proclamations on the monoline insurers when they had AAA rating and were trading in the $60 dollar range. We all know how that story ended...
  1. A Super Scary Halloween Tale of 104 Basis Points Pt I & II, by Reggie Middleton.
  2. Ambac is Effectively Insolvent & Will See More than $8 Billion of Losses with Just a $2.26 Billion Market Cap
  3. Follow up to the Ambac Analysis
  4. Monolines swoon, CDOs go boom & I really wonder why the ratings agencies are given any credibility
I also warned about the more generalized life/P&C insurers when they had AAA ratings and were thought to be healthy. They have since converted into a bank to run to the government for TARP funds and aid. SeeIn case you haven't forgotten, I'm still bearish on the life insurance industry and scroll down for the relevant links.

The current regional bank failures were called out in the spring of 2008 with the advent of the Doo Doo 32 list. They shortly started dropping like flies. See As I see it, these 32 banks and thrifts are in deep doo-doo! and "The Doo Doo 32, revisited". Prior to this, in 2007, I made it clear that Washington Mutual and Countrywide were probably done for, see Yeah, Countrywide is pretty bad, but it ain't the only one at the subprime party... Comparing Countrywide to its peer.

The list of timely and relevant warnings can actually go on for some time. As a matter of fact, after sounding the alarm on commercial real estate exactly two years ago, and singling out the granddaddy of all commercial real estate failures a full year in advance (General Growth Properties was called out and shorted on this blog in November of 2007 as a general foreclosure case while it was the 2nd largest commercial mall owner in the country trading above $60, it filed for bankruptcy a year and a half later - see If only more rich heiresses read my blog for a full chronology).

So what has happened over the last two quarters?

In early March, I commented that I was preparing for a violent and aggressive bear market rally and sold off all of my profitable and in the money positions to prepare. Little did I know the extent to which I would be correct. I was actually "too right" and severely underestimated the depth and breadth of the market price increases to follow. So, what happened? I'll put it bluntly, government intervention, market manipulations and shenanigans. A picture here from "The Folly of US Financial Political Games" is worth a thousand words...


Larger Image

Long story, short - stock market prices have become totally detached from their fundamentals. This has a bifurcated meaning though. On one hand, this means momentum investors have outperformed over the last two quarters. On the other hand, markets always revert to fundamentals. and the longer this goes on, the stronger (and potentially more profitable) that reversion will be.

So, what's next?

I have started to take a close look at those big banks that have benefited immensely from the large dollops of government welfare that has been distributed on the taxpayers dime, and potentially what is behind the secrets that the Fed and the Treasury have been attempting to hide from the public. The results have been illuminating, indeed. Please read, or re-read these in order before we move on.

The Fed Believes Secrecy is in Our Best Interests. Here are Some of the Secrets

Why Doesn't the Media Take a Truly Independent, Unbiased Look at the Big Banks in the US?

As the markets climb on top of one big, incestuous pool of concentrated risk...

As can be garnered from the links above, I posit that big banks have (with the complicit assistance of the US government) amassed a concentrated pile of risk that easily will bring down our financial system if ignited. Listen, when 5 banks have 96% of the notional value of derivatives in the world, there is simply too much concentration in the system. THEY MUST BE BROKEN UP! Plain and simple. Let's look at this from a simplified perspective. I have 100 people in a room, and I give them each one gallon of gasoline, each. Each gallon of gasoline represents one unit of risky assets which has both a potentially lucrative energy store and the propensity to burst into flames as well, dependent on how it is handled and the surrounding conditions. If one where to walk into the room and somehow threaten any group of 2, 5 or 10 or even two dozen of those people with a match or flame (akin to the recent credit meltdown), the risks are still distributed enough where the risk can be considered manageable, albeit quite dangerous as well.

Just imagine if one were to move 96 gallons of this flammable gas to just 5 people (who were attempting to horde all of the potential energy) in one very small corner of the room! Would someone who doesn't want to get badly burned consider the risks those 5 people cause to the whole population excessive. Just imagine if a match was thrown in to the side of the room where those 5 people stood!!! That is what we currently have in our banking system in regards to derivatives on and off balance sheet. Hey, it gets even worse. As you will learn as you read on, several members of that group of five are holding those 96 gallons of gas with handles made of tinder, kindling and matches!!!

The biggest financial institutions, you know - those that were "too big to fail" - have swallowed their fallen brethren, hence have become too big to survive, particularly if there was actually any prudent concept of too big to fail in the first place. We started with 5 bulge bracket investment banks there were basically the backbone of the shadow banking system. The shadow banking system was a practically unregulated, gray market of credit and risk. There are only two bulge bracket firms left, and they were forced to become commercial banks (in name only, and I warned about this risk explicitly in each and every one of those banks, months before their downfall/conversion to commercial banks in name only). In actuality, they are simply large, government (read as taxpayer) insured/endorsed hedge funds:

  1. JP Morgan, formally one of the largest banks in the country that was considered too big to fail, has gotten significantly larger after swallowing Bear Stearns (a former bulge bracket Wall Street bank) and Washington Mutual (a pool of mortgage and lending losses combined with an overextended retail branch network that is now being shuttered). I will be releasing a forensic report on this bank for subscribers later on this week which shows that it is not nearly as profitable as analysts seem to think it is, as well as being rife with risks.
  2. Bank of America, probably the largest bank in the US, with a significant government stake that makes its namesake a most accurate moniker, dramatically improved upon its too big to fail status by acquiring the poster children of mortgage risk excesses, Countrywide and Merrill Lynch (a former bulge bracket firm).
  3. Wells Fargo (see Doo-Doo bank drill down, part 1 - Wells Fargo, Doo Doo 32 Bank Drill Down 1.5: The Forensic Analysis of Wells Fargo, Wells Fargo reports in a few hours and I wonder how forthcoming they will be with their credit losse and Fact, Fiction, Farce and Lies! What happened to the Bank Bears?), the largest west coast lender that was too big to fail became that much bigger when it swallowed the failing Wachovia bank, which would have been one of the biggest bank failures in history if Well's didn't outbid the failing and heavily government subisdized Citibank for it.
  4. PNC Bank, also one of the government's too big to fail anointed ones, used the government TARP bailout funds to buy a large subprime lender (National City, one of the original Doo Doo 32). Well, you can guess what happens if you eat doo doo... PNC can now not afford to pay back the TARP and their credit metrics are sinking like a rock. See The Official Reggie Middleton Bank Stress Tests, PNC plus CRE = Doo Doo hitting the Fan and The difference between a professional investor and a professional reporter is... )

I now posit that the already dangerous moniker of "too big to fail" has already morphed through the magicks of moral hazard into "too big to let survive intact". The biggest of these banks are literally smoking time bombs that will make the Lehman failure look like a kindergarten show and tell session.

Break'em up, and break'em up now!

We have looked at notional value of derivatives, gross fair value of derivative (before netting) and net fair value (after netting) for leading players in the "alleged" commercial banking industry and have compared them across various metrics.

On an absolute basis (dollar amount), JP Morgan is the leading derivative player in the industry with notional value of derivatives amounting to $80 trillion followed by Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. JPM also has the highest Gross fair value of derivatives (before netting) with $1.79 trillion of derivative assets and $1.75 trillion of derivative liabilities. I have reviewed what this means in terms of implied and explicit counterparty risks in "As the markets climb on top of one big, incestuous pool of concentrated risk...")

Despite higher gross fair value of derivatives, JP Morgan's net exposure on balance sheet is not the largest (with $97 bn and $67 bn of derivative assets and derivative liabilities, respectively) as the company has netted a significant part of its derivative exposure (trading direct market and credit risks for counterparty risks). Net fair value of derivative receivable to gross receivable for JPM is 5.42% compared to industry average of 9.84% while net fair value of derivative payables to gross payables for JPM is 3.84% compared to industry average of 6.03%.

JP Morgan's total derivative exposure on balance sheet is $165 bn, or 174% of its tangible equity. JPM's gross fair value of derivatives is approximately 38 times its tangible equity while notional amount of derivatives is about 850 times its tangible equity.

On a relative basis, HSBC (HSBC_Holdings_Report_04August2008 - retail 2008-09-16 06:38:38 87.28 Kb - HSBC_Holdings_Report_04August2008 - pro 2008-11-06 10:11:09 138.89 Kb) and Morgan Stanley (see "The Riskiest Bank on the Street") have the largest on balance sheet derivative risk exposure with total fair value of derivatives, net (asset and liability) forming a staggering 683% and 508% of their tangible equity.

As of June 30, 2009 Morgan Stanley's total gross fair value of derivatives to tangible equity stood at 114x.

Company Notional
Value of
derivatives
($ bn)
Gross fair
value of
derivative
assets
($ bn)
Net fair
Value of
derivative
assets
($ bn)
Gross fair
value of
derivative
liabilities
($ bn)
Net fair
value of
derivative
liabilities
($ bn)
Total
Assets
($ bn)
Tangible
Equity
($ bn)
JP Morgan 80,458 1,798 97 1,749 67 2,027 95
Bank of America 75,501 1,760 102 1,722 51 2,254 97
Goldman Sachs** 47,749 1,094 90 955 68 827 51
Citi 33,769* 826 85 809 75 1,849 42
Morgan Stanley 39,285 1,536 79 1,466 54 626 26
Wells Fargo 4,895 116 28 107 10 1,284 59
HSBC 16,920* n/a 311 n/a 299 2,422 89
* Includes both trading and non-trading derivatives
** Notional value of derivative for GS is sourced from OCC report and pertains to 1Q09
All data pertain to latest 10-Q (June 30, 2009)

Needless to say, we will be following up with a revamped report on the "riskiest bank on the street" soon.

For those who don't speak banking parlance, tangible equity is the actual "spendable" capital that you have on hand to cover events that you would actually need money for. It excludes intangible nonsense that cannot be spent. What this means is that if Morgan Stanley's or HSBC's derivative portfolio moves a few percentage points againt them, theoretically (and actually) their equity can be totally wiped out. Now, what are the chances of that happening? Well, do you see that long list of dead companies in the "credibility" side bar above? Why don't you ask them? Oh yeah, you can't can you? That's because the infallible experts that worked there didn't think their excessive leverage and risk taking would turn againt them in such a fashion as described above as well. Not to worry, these "too big to fail" banks have the cusioning of the US taxpayer to save them if they fall. You know, the currently 10% unemployed US taxpayer!

I find it absolutely amazing that this country could justify breaking up a telephone company (Ma Bell, ala AT&T) yet allow these monstrosities of unproductive financial risk to grow even bigger and threaten the entire world, not once but twice, with their extreme levels of concentrated esoterica.

One would think that smaller banks and the associated banker's associations would scream bloody murder since they are being surcharged for risks by the FDIC (see More on the FDIC as a Catalyst...) that most couldn't even afford to take in the first place - the risks that were purposely borne by the big banks. The risks that are still being expanded by the big banks. For instance, Goldman makes nearly all of their profits through trading like a risky hedge fund (VaR is shooting through the roof, despite getting exemptions from accurate VaR reporting from the regulatory authorities), yet is protected by the FDIC, has access to the Fed window and pays one of the smallest percentages of its revenues into the FDIC insurance pool. The smaller banks are being hit so hard by these insurance charges that they are losing over 13% of their gross revenues to it, despite the fact that thay are not doing anything near as risky as proprietary trading. You guys need to speak up and defend yourself against the big boys. Hey, use this article as a lobbying tool if you have to, but do something are you will soon no longer be in existance, wiped out by the re-emergence of the dinosaurs!

 


 

Reggie Middleton

Author: Reggie Middleton

Reggie Middleton
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Reggie Middleton

Who am I?

Well, I fancy myself the personification of the free thinking maverick, the ultimate non-conformist as it applies to investment and analysis. I am definitively outside the box - not your typical or stereotypical Wall Street investor. I work out of my home, not a Manhattan office. I build my own technology and perform my own research - in lieu of buying it or following the crowd. I create and follow my own macro strategies and am by definition, a contrarian to the nth degree.

Since I use my research as a tool for my own investing to actually put food on my table, I can stand behind it as doing what it is supposed too - educate, illustrate and elucidate. I do not sell advice, I am not a reporter hence do not sell stories, and I do not sell research. I am an entrepreneur who exists just outside of mainstream corporate America and Wall Street. This allows me freedom to do things that many can not. For instance, I pride myself on developing some of the highest quality research available, regardless of price. No conflicts of interest, no corporate politics, no special favors. Just the hard truth as I have found it - and believe me, my team and I do find it! I welcome any and all to peruse my blog, use my custom hacked collaborative social tools, read the articles, download the files, and make a critical comparison of the opinion referencing the situation at hand and the time stamp on the blog post to the reality both at the time of the post and the present. Hopefully, you will be as impressed with the Boom Bust as I am and our constituency.

I pay for significant information and data, and am well aware of the value of quality research. I find most currently available research lacking, in both quality and quantity. The reason why I had to create my own research staff was due to my dissatisfaction with what was currently available - to both individuals and institutions.

So here I am, creating my own research for my own investment activity. What really sets my actions apart is that I offer much of what I produce to the public without charge - free to distribute and redistribute, as long as it is left unaltered and full attribution is given to the author and owner. Why would I do such a thing when others easily charge 5 and 6 digits annually for what some may consider a lesser product? It is akin to open source analysis! My ideas and implementations are actually improved and fine tuned when bounced off of the collective intellect of the many, in lieu of that of the few - no matter how smart those few may believe themselves to be.

Very recently, I have started charging for the forensics portion of my work, which has freed up the resources to develop the site to deliver even more research for free, particularly on the global macro and opinion front. This move has allowed me to serve an more diverse constituency, which now includes the institutional consumer (ie., investment turned consumer banks, hedge funds, pensions, etc,) as well as the newbie individual investor who is just getting started - basically the two polar opposites of the investing spectrum. I am proud to announce major banks as paying clients, and brand new investors who take my book recommendations and opinions on true wealth and success to heart.

So, this is how I use my background and knowledge in new media, distributed computing, risk management, insurance, financial engineering, real estate, corporate valuation and financial analysis to pursue, analyze and capitalize on global macroeconomic opportunities. I have included a more in depth bio at the bottom of the page for those who really, really need to know more about me.

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