iOS app Android app More

Sheldon Filger

Sheldon Filger

Posted: April 22, 2009 05:22 PM

U.S. Banks Doomed to Fail


Within days after the legalized accounting fantasy masquerading as first quarter earnings for several of America's largest banks and financial institutions were released, the markets began to catch on. After several days of a sucker's rally on Wall Street, the Dow Jones went into retreat as more savvy investors caught on to the charade. That is when Timothy Geithner, U.S. Treasury Secretary, ran to the rescue, ready-made script in hand.

In advance of the so-called "stress test" that is supposed to establish the fiscal health of U.S. banks, Geithner released a sneak preview. "Currently, the vast majority of banks have more capital than they need to be considered well capitalized by their regulators," boasted Obama's Treasury Secretary. With Pavlovian instincts, the market bought Timothy Geithner's fiscal fantasy, at least for a day.

A few weeks before these antics a more sober assessment of America's banking health was delivered at the National Press Club in Washington by Dr. Martin D. Weiss, the head of Weiss Research, a global investment research firm. Previously, Weiss had accurately forecast the demise of Bear Stearns and the implosion of the U.S. investment-banking sector. However, at the National Press Club he offered a more chilling prediction: 1,568 U.S. banks and thrifts risk failure. Included in that number are several of the largest American banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Sun Trust Bank and HSBC Bank USA. The numbers and depth of the banking problem highlighted by Dr. Weiss are far larger and much more ominous than has been portrayed by the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and FDIC. He backed up his dire analysis with documentation and precise mathematical modeling. For example, he refers to the government's justification for a hideously expensive taxpayer bailout of AIG, based on the firm's exposure to the fragile investment vehicles known as Credit Default Swaps, or CDS. The policymakers maintain that AIG's $2 trillion in CDS exposure represented an unacceptable systemic risk, meaning AIG was "too big to fail." However, Weiss points out that Citigroup alone holds a portfolio of $2.9 trillion in Credit Default Swaps, while J.P. Morgan Chase possesses a staggering $9.2 trillion of these toxic instruments, about five times the exposure that led AIG to demand that the government rescue it, or see the global financial system implode.

The essential point Dr. Weiss made at his press conference is that the degree of exposure U.S. banks have to a variety of toxic assets is beyond what the U.S. government and, by extension, the American taxpayer is financially capable of rescuing. Continued bailouts of insolvent banking institutions will not repair a broken financial order, but may very well cripple the overall economy.

Earlier, NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini had already gone on record as declaring that much of the U.S. banking sector was functionally insolvent, and that bailing out zombie financial institutions would only replicate the Japanese "lost decade" of the 1990s, when Tokyo's preference for keeping alive insolvent banks instead of closing them down led to a prolonged L-shaped recession. Roubini and other critics of both Bush and Obama administration policies on bank bailouts have looked to the Swedish model for resolving a profound banking crisis, which involved temporary short-term nationalization, closing down insolvent banks, while those banks that can be salvaged are cleaned up of their toxic assets, recapitalized and then sold back to the private sector. "You have to take them over and you have to split them up into three or four national banks, rather than having a humongous monster that is too big to fail," Nouriel Roubini has argued.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the global financial and economic crisis has already created more than $4 trillion in credit losses due to toxic assets. If nothing else, the IMF estimate on the scale of the economic and financial disaster thus far should compel the Washington political establishment to face the painful yet necessary truths regarding America's precarious situation. However, it appears that fantasy is preferred over reality within the corridors of power.

The procrastination of policymakers in Washington in facing dark reality, and preference to avoid any public takeover of troubled banking institutions while simultaneously subsidizing these financial dead men walking with almost unlimited taxpayer funds, at the same time maintaining the fiction, as Timothy Geithner has just done, that all is basically fine with the "vast majority" of U.S. banks, is to insure the inevitability of a systemic banking collapse in the United States. The conglomeration of reckless, greed-induced banking practices by the oligarchs of finance and inept, reality-denying policymakers is sending much of the American banking sector on a Wagnerian death ride into a financial apocalypse. Many of the U.S. banks are in fact doomed to fail, and no contrived stress test or Geithner speech can alter that outcome. And that isn't even the worst part. For when mass banking failures occur in the United States and overseas, a global economic depression will be an irreversible outcome.

Follow Sheldon Filger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/EconomicCrisis