Last Tuesday, the Federal Reserve Board said that it would guarantee up to $300 billion worth of the highly devalued assets held by those banks that had been speculating in the subprime real estate market, thus enabling those banks to borrow money because of the federal guarantee. Nobody else would accept the subprime mortgage portfolios as collateral for loans. So in effect the taxpayers were being put on the hook if the loans could not be repaid. The stock market that day reacted with glee, skyrocketing upwards. (I explained what was going on here.)
That party ended on Friday. The big investment bank Bear Stearns said that it could not meet its obligations and requested a loan from another big investment bank JPMorgan Chase. The latter, unlike the general public, was aware of the nature of the assets held by Bear Stearns and said nothing doing, unless the Federal Reserve was willing to guarantee that loan too. The Fed, always eager to please the big financial interests on Wall Street, readily agreed and in a single day the whole transaction was approved. This is pretty amazing speed when you consider that $30 billion of taxpayer money was involved.
But the news of Bear Stearns’ troubles, which came just two days after a cheery message of confidence by its head just two days earlier that everything was just fine and dandy, sent jitters down the spine of investors who wondered how bad the situation really was and what dark secrets existed in the vaults of other big financial institutions.
They found out on Sunday when it was announced that JPMorgan Chase was actually buying Bear Stearns for the astoundingly low price of $2 per share, with the Fed once again guaranteeing the transaction. Just last year that stock had been trading at $172 per share. In just one year, the bank had lost almost 99% of its value, a collapse of Enron-sized proportions, but this time affecting one of the oldest and largest investment banks in the country. The total cost to JPMorgan Chase to buy this former financial powerhouse was only $236 million. Given that the Bear Stearns’ fancy headquarters building alone was estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, this fire sale price indicates that Bear Stearns was in even more terrible shape than previously thought.
To understand what is going on here, we need to know that banks invest the money deposited in them to make money for themselves and their depositors. They do this by buying and selling securities of various types. But they are expected to keep a certain percentage of that money in cash to meet the routine demands of depositors who need to withdraw money for whatever reason. As long as not too many people want too much money at once, the banks are said to have sufficient ‘liquidity’ and the system works well. Even if the banks run out of cash, they can get short-term loans from the Fed or other banks using their securities as collateral. The interest on these loans is what is called the ‘discount rate’ and it is much less than the interest that we pay on loans. These kinds of loans are routinely done and are meant to ease any short-term liquidity problems.
But if there are suspicions that a bank is in trouble, that can lead to a stampede of depositors all demanding their money at the same time and we have a ‘run’ on the bank. If the banks cannot convert enough of their securities to cash or raise large enough loans, it can go bankrupt. This can happen even if a bank is perfectly sound. All it requires is a rumor of trouble to cause a run.
It was to prevent such problems that the FDIC system was set up. This said that whatever happened to a bank, the government would guarantee to reimburse depositors up $100,000 each. This was meant to reassure depositors so that they need not panic and withdraw their money suddenly. This is what possibly saved Countrywide Bank last year when it was discovered to have had huge losses by investing in subprime portfolios. I, for example, have an account at Countrywide but did not panic and ask for my money back when I heard the news of its troubles, precisely because of the guarantee.
In return for this government guarantee, the commercial banks have to submit to supervision by the government to make sure that they are not making too many risky investments, though we see in the case of Countrywide that the system is not foolproof.
But investment banks like Bear Stearns are not like the commercial banks ordinary people deal with. There are two kinds of investors in banks like Bear Stearns, those who buy shares in the bank and those who give the bank their money to manage. These banks are outside the FDIC system and the federal government has not previously assumed any responsibility for them or their depositors. Those banks are not like the ones where most ordinary people have accounts. These are meant for very wealthy investors for whom $100,000 is just pocket money. It is presumed that these wealthy depositors and investors are financially savvy people who are capable of evaluating for themselves the risks involved and do not need the government to protect their interests.
These investment banks can and do take much greater risks with their investments in return for much higher rates of return than we get on our checking and savings account. This is capitalism in theory, where there is supposed to be a correlation between risk and reward.
But the trouble was that Bear Stearns was one of the worst culprits causing the subprime mortgage debacle, underwriting many of the transactions and causing the inflation in values of those securities that had little relationship to the actual value of the properties. So when the party ended, they got stuck holding a lot of securities which they had paid high prices for and which were now worthless. When investors started suspecting that things were not going well and started trying to take out their money, Bear Stearns did not have the money and could not sell its securities to raise anywhere near enough money, and nobody would lend them money using those worthless securities as collateral.
Except the government. In an unprecedented move, the Federal Reserve decided that they would intervene to try and prop up, at least partially, Bear Stearns so that it did not go bankrupt by offering guarantees for loans given to it, essentially putting an artificial value on its securities. In essence, the government is using taxpayers’ money to try and protect the wealthy financial interests associated with these investment banks. It is true that the people who held shares in Bear Stearns have lost money due to declining share prices but there is little the government can do about that. But by guaranteeing the value of the mortgage collateral, it bought those investors some time
So rather than seeing capitalism in practice what we have is capitalism in theory but a perverse socialism in practice, where the risk is borne by all taxpayers but the benefits in the form of profits accrue to just a few. All those people in government and business who preach financial discipline to the poor and say that people should be held accountable for their decisions, tend to conveniently change their tune when it is themselves or their friends who are affected.
I have shown this clip by British comedians John Bird and John Fortune before but I am showing it again because they describe precisely how we got into this mess and mention by name Bear Stearns and discuss the two funds owned by them that lie at the heart of their problems.
It is unnerving that two comedians in another country in October 2007 could finger the problem that is just now rocking the financial markets in the US.
Once again, I am not an economist so people who are more knowledgeable can chime in with corrections.