The dawning of a new year is supposed to be about hope, but fear remains the dominant emotion among bankers. This week saw another round of bloodletting as they grappled with the effects of the credit crunch. Barclays Capital and CIBC joined the long list of lenders to jettison senior investment bankers. And, to nobody’s surprise, Jimmy Cayne stepped down as boss of Bear Stearns, the Wall Street bank with the hedge-fund problems that arguably marked the start of the crisis last June.
Mr Cayne had been under huge pressure to go, thanks to $1.9 billion of mortgage write-downs — leading to the bank’s first-ever quarterly loss — and accusations that he had been more interested in improving his own performance at bridge and golf than shoring up his bank’s standing in the markets. He will remain as non-executive chairman, continuing to command an eight-figure salary, after Alan Schwartz, a trusted lieutenant, takes over as chief executive. Mr Cayne’s durability prompted one observer to dub him the “Harry Houdini of the boardroom”.
Bear’s problems are not limited to one-off hits. Important parts of its franchise are either suffering client defections (prime brokerage) or disappearing altogether (structured-credit products). There is speculation about a merger—although it is unclear who, among Bear’s Western peers at least, would dare to bid, given Bear’s oversized exposure to America’s slumping housing market and the welter of subprime-related lawsuits it faces. Its shares continued to fall after Mr Cayne’s (partial) resignation was announced.
Depleted though bankers’ confidence is, things could be worse. Lubricated by copious amounts of central-bank money, banks did at least make it through the year-end in one piece. Interbank lending rates, though still unusually high, are edging down, and the asset-backed commercial paper market ticked up on January 3rd after falling for 20 straight weeks. The risk of a big bank going under has receded as $27 billion (and counting) of capital has flowed into the sector from sovereign wealth funds. Recipients include Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Switzerland’s UBS (or, as wags now call it, Union Bank of Singapore). These injections may have upset existing shareholders, who have seen their stakes diluted, but they have ensured that although big lenders have wobbled, none has toppled.
At least, not yet. The shares of Countrywide fell by another 28% on January 8th, as America’s largest mortgage lender was again led to deny rumours of imminent bankruptcy. (It insists it has ample liquidity.) Far from bouncing back, banks have led the stock market down since the start of the year. Even Goldman Sachs, hitherto relatively unscathed, has suffered.
One reason for the gloom is that banks’ residential-mortgage woes are far from over. Although banks have already written off whopping sums over subprime mortgages, they are vulnerable to yet more hits. Their worldwide remaining exposure to subprime loans (excluding off-balance-sheet vehicles) is put at $380 billion; analysts think they are still only roughly two-thirds of the way through tallying their mortgage losses. When the likes of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch confess their fourth-quarter sins on January 15th and 17th respectively, they are likely to be the most shocking yet: forecasts put the two banks’ additional write-downs at $26 billion, on top of the $15 billion they have kissed goodbye so far. Market gossip points even higher.
JPMorgan Chase is expected to get away with a much smaller mortgage-related hit, probably below $2 billion. But it has other worries. It is a big holder of “hung” leveraged loans and bonds, mostly related to buy-outs agreed on in the credit bubble. The $250 billion in unsold debt on banks’ books remains a big headache.
As the leading dealer in the market for credit-default swaps (CDS), contracts used to punt on a company’s ability to repay its debt, JPMorgan Chase could find itself dragged into another maelstrom. These credit derivatives have exploded in recent years, to an outstanding notional amount of $43 trillion. So far the writers of these contracts have had little to pay out because corporate defaults have been at historic lows. But defaults are about to rise sharply, says Moody’s, a rating agency. That raises the prospect of losses for banks that entered the market but failed to lay off their risks properly. If the mortgage market is a guide, there will be plenty in that camp.
CDS contracts allow investors to take on credit risk without buying the underlying bonds. But not everyone is convinced of their usefulness. Bill Gross, founder of PIMCO, a giant fund manager, thinks they may be banks’ “most egregious” concoctions to date. If corporate-bond defaults were to climb back to historical averages, contracts worth $500 billion would become payable, he pointed out this month. John Mauldin, another influential investor, thinks counterparty risk in CDS will be one of the big stories in 2008, particularly as already-fragile bond insurers are big in that market. On January 9th MBIA, the largest such insurer, said it will raise new equity to stave off a ratings downgrade.
As fears of an American recession grow, so do worries about a general deterioration of credit. Commercial property looks more precarious by the day, as do car loans, student loans and credit-card debt (Capital One, a card issuer, cut its profit forecast on January 10th). All of these were, like residential mortgages, fed into Wall Street’s stalled securitisation machine. Many now sit in complex products with the same questionable credit ratings.
Banks have to worry about more than just the fancy asset-backed stuff. Losses on unsecuritised loans are rising faster than expected. American banks’ average net interest margin—the spread between what they pay depositors and charge borrowers—has fallen to its lowest level since 1991 as banks scramble to reduce their reliance on fickle wholesale markets by raising the rates they offer to depositors.
Investment banks, meanwhile, face a slowdown in a number of businesses, from advising on mergers to equity underwriting. Some areas remain vibrant—commodities, for example, and emerging markets—but much restructuring lies ahead. This week Citi folded several units into a new residential-mortgage business, and UBS was prompted to deny rumours that it will try to offload its investment bank.
The focus for many banks in coming months will be on conserving or bolstering capital—through share issues, dividend cuts and asset sales—as they reduce their leverage and take unwanted assets, such as those in structured investment vehicles (SIVs), back onto their books. That will enforce a more cautious attitude to lending, putting pressure on profits. Were European banks to bring their leverage back to the level of a decade ago, their return on equity would fall to 14%, compared with 21% now, reckons Citi’s Simon Samuels.
Bank shares may have further to fall. As Betsy Graseck of Morgan Stanley points out, they are still higher, relative to tangible book value, than their lowest level in the credit crunch of 1989-91. With futures markets predicting property-price falls of up to 30% and the pain spreading beyond mortgages, the bottom may be months away. As one American banking regulator puts it: “There aren’t many places to look now and feel happy.” Unless you are an escapologist of Mr Cayne’s calibre.