Goldman Sachs has raised its rating on large banks to “attractive.” In related news, Neal Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program has said that the Feds may have, er, not quite told the truth about the health of the banks receiving TARP funds. He didn’t use the word, lie though. How are these two items related? We’ll explain below.
First, Goldman’s buy on the banks seemed to buoy the market. The Dow finished up 112 points and is just under 9,600. Meanwhile, Aussie stocks shrugged off that sense of impending doom and rallied 43 points yesterday. The ASX 200 is at 4,622 and thoughts of 5,000 by the end of the year must surely be dancing like sugarplums in the heads of some investors.
Ho! Ho! Ho!
But seriously. The banks? Really? Aren’t you the least bit suspicious that Goldman is talking up the banks? Doesn’t this mean Goldman is probably already short on the banks?
We have been hanging out at what we now call the “Trading Nebula” in our new offices. Our research department is growing, so we like to drop by and see what the traders think is happening. Often, it seems nebulous to us, given the peculiar vocabulary of indicators and charts the guys are using. Hence the “Trading Nebula.”
But Murray Dawes was especially clear this morning when he told us that his screens are producing all sorts of warning signals on the banks. He is obviously running a different trading algorithm than Goldman. But then, he’s producing trading leads for our new Slipstream Trader, which is designed to produce long and short ideas on ASX 200 stocks. In our chat this morning he told me that two banks showed up, although neither were part of the big four.
If Murray is suspicious that the banks can lead the market to higher highs, at least he’s in good company. Bear heroine and noted financial analyst Meredith Whitney wrote in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that, “Anyone counting on a meaningful economic recovery will be greatly disappointed. How do I know? I follow credit, and credit is contracting.”
You don’t say?
“Access to credit is being denied at an accelerating pace,” Whitney adds. “Large, well-capitalized companies have no problem finding credit. Small businesses, on the other hand, have never had a harder time getting a loan…In the U.S., small businesses employ 50 percent of the country’s workforce and contribute 38 percent of GDP…Without access to credit, small businesses can’t grow, can’t hire, and too often end up going out of business.”
What then, has the regulatory and policy reaction actually produced? It’s propped up large institutions that still have heaps of bad assets and have used the last six months to increase their leverage. But at the regional and local level, real businesses with real customers and real capital needs can’t get credit.
To summarise: We have saved the zombie companies with zombie assets at the expense of the living, breathing engine of the free market; the small business. This leads Whitney to conclude, that “We are only in the early stages of the second half of this credit cycle…I expect another $1.5 trillion of credit-card lines to be removed from the system by the end of 2010.”
What will happen to the economy then? And what will happen to Australia then? Will it matter? The ability to extend credit to small businesses and households is concentrated in the hands of the Big Four. Does that make us safer? Or does it concentrate the risk in a few major players, jeopardising the whole system of credit?
What’s clear is that the supply of commercial credit is more concentrated now than ever before. Will the Big Four shun risk and build a capital cushion by cutting off small business credit? Will they double down on their housing lending in order to support house prices; a scheme which supports the value of the assets the banks carry on their balance sheets?
If we’re making it sound like the market and the economy are at a critical inflection point, it’s because they are. The complacency of the last six months is giving way to some real questions about what to do with troubled assets that are still troubled and bad debts that are still bad. Can a global economy really grow when the financial system is weighed down by so much debt?
Professor Michael Hudson is coming to Australia and he says “No!” If you’re interested in hearing what he has to say in person, check out his schedule here. You can RSVP for the event near you, provided seats are still available. If you can’t make it, there’s a good You Tube video of his ideas here.
We’re not familiar with everything Dr. Hudson has to say. We’re planning on catching up for lunch and will report back to you how it goes. In the meantime, he gave an interview with the folks over at Business Spectator and put his views lucidly: “There’s a basic mathematical principle; a debt that can’t be paid won’t be paid.”
Talking about the explosion in consumer debt world-wide, including here in Australia, Hudson says, “These debts are beyond people’s ability to pay and so we’re going to see breaks in the chain of payment and this means that a lot of debts are going to go bad. It means that people are going to hesitate to realise that they can’t pay, a kind of cognitive diffidence [sic] that people have about the fact that they really can’t pay their debts.”
“They’re willing to run down their savings, they’re willing to sell off their assets and do everything, but in the end they default and this is what breaks the back of an economy. The houses are defaulted on, they’re put up for sale, that crashes real estate prices all the more and, again, the commercial real estate is even in more serious condition than residential real estate right now.”
Coming back to Barofsky and Goldman then, and if Hudson is right, is this the time to buy the banks? Barofsky’s report concluded that not all nine of the banks that received $125 billion in capital infusions from the U.S. government here as “healthy” as Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson made them out to be.
The nine institutions combined had over $11 trillion in assets. But Paulson made it sound as if the capital infusion would not only stabilise the banking sector, it would prompt the resumption of credit flows in the economy. That turned out to be…not true.
So what is the truth? Well, as we suggested at the time, the TARP was just a massive delaying tactic. The capital infusions (putting aside that it wasn’t really capital but money the Federal government borrowed that must be repaid) were designed to prevent the banks from going insolvent on further asset write downs. But the whole logic of the deal was that asset values would stabilise and even improve, meaning the banks wouldn’t have to take losses or raise more capital.
Give it time baby. Time heals all asset values, right?
No. It all goes back to what you mean by “troubled.” And this is the real heart of the issue behind our mistrust of the stock market rally. There has been no real improvement in the quality of troubled assets in the last year. In fact, they are more troubled than ever. The financial system remains troubled, and not much in it has really changed.
This leaves the highly-leveraged banks in the same precarious position as they were before, albeit with slightly more confidence from a gullible public. But at the balance sheet level, have things really improved? And more importantly, have the trillions in assets in the financial system related to residential and commercial real estate really become more valuable in the last six months? Or is just a Ponzi Finance pyramid of junk waiting to go up in flames?
In our view, the last year has been a policy and regulatory sham to cover the retreat by bankers. The people heavily invested in the old system of debt-based asset appreciation are stalling for time. They hope that the passage of time will improve earnings for a quarter for two.
And if they are the religious sort, they pray that some other scheme will be established to take the troubled assets of their hands. But time cannot heal troubled asset values. Faith healing doesn’t work in financial markets. We’d humbly suggest that the day of reckoning is still out there, hiding somewhere on the calendar, waiting to rise again. Until then…
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