Why the U.S. Banking System Remains in Big Trouble

Barry Ritholtz recently wrote an excellent article on why the U.S. banking system remains in a particularly unhealthy condition – contrary to the opinions of Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and apparently now Warren Buffet, after the “Oracle of Omaha’s” announcement this morning that he purchased a substantial stake in Bank of America (BAC).

Ritholtz’s article is presented below in its entirety.

Perhaps Mr. Buffet should have read this before investing in Bank of America, notwithstanding the fact that BAC stock is up considerably this morning.

Moreover, perhaps Buffet’s misguided view of the banking system helps explain his continued disdain for gold – despite the fact that it has significantly outperformed both the S&P 500 and Berkshire Hathaway’s stock over the past decade.

Big Banks: Under-Capitalized, Overexposed, Opaque

The US banking sector is not healthy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Wall Street bailouts amongst the public, and quite a few policy makers at Treasury and the Federal Reserve: Somehow, they “fixed” the banking system. All it took was few trillion dollars in liquidity and a few $100 billion dollars in recapitalization, and all is now fine (I suspect some people at the Fed know the Truth).

In fact, they did nothing of the sort. The banking system was not saved; The massive injection of liquidity temporarily salved the day-to-day operations of banks, but they did not repair what ailed our financial institutions. Indeed, pouring billions into nearly identical management teams that mismanaged the risk, over-leveraged exposure, and drove banks off the cliff in the first place was an invitation for another crisis.

And that crisis now appears to be arriving. And, its our own fault.

Consider what was actually done in 2008-09, and you will understand why none of the underlying problems have been repaired:

• Bank holdings: Remain stuffed with declining assets, primarily in Housing and Derivative holdings. Another leg down in Housing could be nearly fatal.

• Transparency: Balance sheets are unnecessarily Opaque; Eliminating Fair value accounting via FASB 157 did not fix balance sheet problems, but instead allowed banks to hide them.

• Capitalization:  Remains too thin; leverage should be mandated back to the pre-2005 rule change of no more than 12 to 1; As we have learned, management does not keep adequate capital unless mandated to do so (sufficient capital reserves cuts into profits);

• Misaligned Incentives: Compensation and bonus schemes were not significantly changed after bailouts, except during loan repayments. Thus, management and traders still have the same upside to roll the dice, but do not have the downside risks, which remains on shareholders and taxpayers;

Let’s use a counter-factual, a simple thought experiment of what would have been had we gone Swedish on banks like Citi and B of A, placing them into a prepackaged reorganization (that’s a polite phrase for “bankruptcy”).

The easy stuff: Senior management all gets fired. More than just the CEO — nearly the entire top floor at the bank, including the Board of Directors, gets canned. Equity shareholders get wiped out. Whatever is left over after all is said and done goes to the bondholders, typically, at about 25-50 cents on the dollar. (Note that in Sweden, bondholders got 100 cents on the Kroner, but that currency was significantly devalued — so the bondholders were not made whole, they lost between 50-75%).

Temporary nationalization is the play: Uncle Sam provides debtor-in-possession financing to keep operating. All of the bad holdings, mortgages, derivatives and other liabilities are pulled out, and auctioned off. This includes the REOs, the CDS/CDO book, defaulted mortgage obligations. Remember, there is no such thing as toxic assets, only toxic prices. At some valuation, these are worthwhile investments — just not 100 cents on the dollar. Let healthy buyers pay 15-30 cents.And anything that is worthless is written down to zero.

We recapitalize the parent bank, and spin off each division: IPO Merrill Lynch for $20 billion, spin out a clean  Countrywide at $8 billion, sell of all of the non depository bank pieces. What you have left over is a well capitalized bank, owned by Taxpayers, with well capitalized former divisions as stand-alone companies. All of the above have transparent balance sheets (No FASB 157 required to hide the garbage investments). Eventually, everything is spun out back to the public markets. Uncle Sam is repaid, and what is left over goes to the bondholders.

This would have created a transparent, unleveraged, adequately capitalized banking system that would be contributing to, rather than detracting from, the US economy.

But all that was a missed opportunity — for W and O alike. What we have today instead is an over concentrated set of banking behemoths, barely off life support. Many of these remain mortally wounded by the holdings — holdings that they would have to shed through a healthy reorg.

The recent downturn in the banking sector? I suspect it amounts to nothing more than a credible bet that these banks are not in any condition to withstand the next recession. (No, it was not Henry Blodget’s Fault). A rise in unemployment and another next leg down in Housing could very well be fatal.

If the banks come crawling back to Uncle Sam for another bailout, it will be proof that “rescuing” failing financial institutions that blow themselves up is the exact wrong strategy.

Real Capitalists know failure is part of the process. I suspect we may have another chance at a banking reorg. Let’s hope we do it correctly this time . . .