Global financial intermediation is broken. That intricate and interdependent system directing the world’s saving into productive capital investment was severely weakened in August 2007. The disclosure that highly leveraged financial institutions were holding toxic securitised American subprime mortgages shocked market participants. For a year, banks struggled to respond to investor demands for larger capital cushions. But the effort fell short and in the wake of the Lehman Brothers default on September 15th 2008, the system cracked. Banks, fearful of their own solvency, all but stopped lending. Issuance of corporate bonds, commercial paper and a wide variety of other financial products largely ceased. Credit-financed economic activity was brought to a virtual standstill. The world faced a major financial crisis.
For decades, holders of the liabilities of banks in the United States had felt secure with the protection of a modest equity-capital cushion, allowing banks to lend freely. As recently as the summer of 2006, with average book capital at 10%, a federal agency noted that “more than 99% of all insured institutions met or exceeded the requirements of the highest regulatory capital standards.”
Today, fearful investors clearly require a far larger capital cushion to lend, unsecured, to any financial intermediary. When bank book capital finally adjusts to current market imperatives, it may well reach its highest levels in 75 years, at least temporarily (see chart). It is not a stretch to infer that these heightened levels will be the basis of a new regulatory system.
The three-month LIBOR/Overnight Index Swap (OIS) spread, a measure of market perceptions of potential bank insolvency and thus of extra capital needs, rose from a long-standing ten basis points in the summer of 2007 to 90 points by that autumn. Though elevated, the LIBOR/OIS spread appeared range-bound for about a year up to mid-September 2008. The Lehman default, however, drove LIBOR/OIS up markedly. It reached a riveting 364 basis points on October 10th.
The passage by Congress of the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Programme (TARP) on October 3rd eased, but did not erase, the post-Lehman surge in LIBOR/OIS. The spread apparently stalled in mid-November and remains worryingly high.
How much extra capital, both private and sovereign, will investors require of banks and other intermediaries to conclude that they are not at significant risk in holding financial institutions’ deposits or debt, a precondition to solving the crisis?
The insertion, last month, of $250 billion of equity into American banks through TARP (a two-percentage-point addition to capital-asset ratios) halved the post-Lehman surge of the LIBOR/OIS spread. Assuming modest further write-offs, simple linear extrapolation would suggest that another $250 billion would bring the spread back to near its pre-crisis norm. This arithmetic would imply that investors now require 14 percent capital rather than the 10 percent of mid-2006. Such linear calculations, of course, can only be very rough approximations. But recent data do suggest that, while helpful, the Treasury’s $250 billion goes only partway towards the levels required to support renewed lending.
Government credit has in effect acted as counterparty to a large segment of the financial intermediary system. But for reasons that go beyond the scope of this note, I strongly believe that the use of government credit must be temporary. What, then, will be the source of the new private capital that allows sovereign lending to be withdrawn? Eventually, the most credible source is a partial restoration of the $30 trillion of global stockmarket value wiped out this year, which would enable banks to raise the needed equity. Markets are being suppressed by a degree of fear not experienced since the early 20th century (1907 and 1932 come to mind). Human nature being what it is, we can count on a market reversal, hopefully, within six months to a year.
Though capital gains cannot finance physical investment, they can replenish balance-sheets. This can best be seen in the context of the consolidated balance-sheet of the world economy. All debt and derivative claims are offset in global accounting consolidation, but capital is not. This leaves the market value of the world’s real physical and intellectual assets reflected as capital. Obviously, higher global stock prices will enlarge the pool of equity that can facilitate the recapitalisation of financial institutions. Lower stock prices can impede the process. A higher level of equity, of course, makes it easier to issue debt.
Another critical price for the return of global financial stability is that of American homes. Those prices are likely to stabilise next year and with them the levels of home equity—the ultimate collateral for global holdings of American mortgage-backed securities, some toxic. Home-price stabilisation will help clarify the market value of financial institutions’ assets and therefore more closely equate the size of their book capital with the realities of market pricing. That should help stabilise their stock prices. The eventual partial recovery of global equities, as fear inevitably dissipates, should do the rest. Temporary public capital injections into banks would facilitate this process and arguably provide far more benefit per dollar than conventional fiscal stimulus.
Even before the market linkages among banks, other financial institutions and non-financial businesses are fully re-established, we will need to start unwinding the massive sovereign credit and guarantees put in place during the crisis, now estimated at $7 trillion. The economics of such a course are fairly clear. The politics of draining off that much credit support in a timely way is quite another matter.
Alan Greenspan was the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006. He is now president of Greenspan Associates.