The problem was never really liquidity.
Says Anna Schwartz, co-author of the leading book on the Great Depression, and someone who actually lived through it.
The Wall Street Journal ran an interview with Schwartz last weekend:
Most people now living have never seen a credit crunch like the one we are currently enduring. Ms. Schwartz, 92 years old [but still sharp as a tack], is one of the exceptions. She’s not only old enough to remember the period from 1929 to 1933, she may know more about monetary history and banking than anyone alive. She co-authored, with Milton Friedman, “A Monetary History of the United States” (1963). It’s the definitive account of how misguided monetary policy turned the stock-market crash of 1929 into the Great Depression.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called the 888-page “Monetary History” “the leading and most persuasive explanation of the worst economic disaster in American history.” Ms. Schwartz thinks that our central bankers and our Treasury Department are getting it wrong again.
To understand why, one first has to understand the nature of the current “credit market disturbance,” as Ms. Schwartz delicately calls it. We now hear almost every day that banks will not lend to each other, or will do so only at punitive interest rates. Credit spreads — the difference between what it costs the government to borrow and what private-sector borrowers must pay — are at historic highs.
This is not due to a lack of money available to lend, Ms. Schwartz says, but to a lack of faith in the ability of borrowers to repay their debts. “The Fed,” she argues, “has gone about as if the problem is a shortage of liquidity. That is not the basic problem. The basic problem for the markets is that [uncertainty] that the balance sheets of financial firms are credible.”
So even though the Fed has flooded the credit markets with cash, spreads haven’t budged because banks don’t know who is still solvent and who is not. This uncertainty, says Ms. Schwartz, is “the basic problem in the credit market. Lending freezes up when lenders are uncertain that would-be borrowers have the resources to repay them. So to assume that the whole problem is inadequate liquidity bypasses the real issue.”
In the 1930s, as Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Friedman argued in “A Monetary History,” the country and the Federal Reserve were faced with a liquidity crisis in the banking sector. As banks failed, depositors became alarmed that they’d lose their money if their bank, too, failed. So bank runs began, and these became self-reinforcing: “If the borrowers hadn’t withdrawn cash, they [the banks] would have been in good shape. But the Fed just sat by and did nothing, so bank after bank failed. And that only motivated depositors to withdraw funds from banks that were not in distress,” deepening the crisis and causing still more failures.
But “that’s not what’s going on in the market now,” Ms. Schwartz says. Today, the banks have a problem on the asset side of their ledgers — “all these exotic securities that the market does not know how to value.”
“Why are they ‘toxic’?” Ms. Schwartz asks. “They’re toxic because you cannot sell them, you don’t know what they’re worth, your balance sheet is not credible and the whole market freezes up. We don’t know whom to lend to because we don’t know who is sound. So if you could get rid of them, that would be an improvement.”
What are the “exotic”, “toxic” instruments Schwartz is talking about?
As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says:
Despite all the money going directly to the big banks, despite all the government guarantees and loans and special tax breaks, despite the shot-gun weddings and bank mergers, despite the willingness of the Treasury and the Fed to do almost whatever the banks have asked, the reality is that credit is not flowing.
Why? Because the underlying problem isn’t a liquidity problem. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the problem is that lenders and investors don’t trust they’ll get their money back because no one trusts that the numbers that purport to value securities are anything but wishful thinking. The trouble, in a nutshell, is that the financial entrepreneurship of recent years — the derivatives, credit default swaps, collateralized debt instruments, and so on — has undermined all notion of true value.
Many of these fancy instruments became popular over recent years precisely because they circumvented financial regulations, especially rules on banks’ capital adequacy. Big banks created all these off-balance-sheet vehicles because they allowed the big banks to carry less capital.
Banks and financial houses have indeed hidden their derivatives exposure off the balance sheets.
And remember, mortgages were repackaged into derivatives called collateralized debt obligations (or “CDO’s”) and sold to both big and regional banks and investment companies worldwide. The CDO’s were highly-leveraged — many times the amount of the actual loans. When the subprime loan crisis hit, the high leverage magnified the fallout, and huge sums of CDO derivatives became essentially worthless.
And remember, almost no one really understood derivatives:
“Not only [world's richest man] Warren Buffett, but Bond King Bill Gross, our Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the rest of America’s leaders can’t ‘figure out” the derivatives market.
According to Paul Volker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, the entire modern financial system is based upon derivatives, and the financial system today is entirely different from the traditional American or global financial system because derivatives – a relatively new concept – now underly the entire fabric of the financial system.
No one knows what their own derivatives assets and liabilities are, let alone anybody else’s (which is why Lehman’s credit default swaps have caused so much anxiety, as just one example). Every bank knows that – because of its derivatives exposure and their poor business practices – its derivatives exposure may be many times bigger than its assets. And every bank fears that the other guy’s ledger might be even worse.
As one of the leading experts on derivatives puts it:
Uncertainty about the impact of financial distress of one entity [from derivatives] on all other market participants causes trading in the inter-bank market to freeze up further increasing volatility and potentially risk of failure of weaker firms.
So its not a liquidity problem. As Schwartz says, it is an insolvency problem. Or more accurately, a lack of trust that the other guy not going to go belly up because of his derivatives liabilities.
Note: Schwartz believes that the fed should let insolvent companies which made bad decisions fail, instead of artificially propping them up. She thinks that propping them up will only prolong the crisis.
The government is not only fighting the last war, and not only failed to help solve the derivatives mess, it has made it worse. The government de-regulated derivatives (and see this) and failed to exercise any oversight in this area. In addition, the government may have allowed normal accounting principles to be totally suspended under the guise of “national security”.