Michael Hudson – Why the Banking System is Breaking Up

In serving the financial sector, the Fed painted itself into a corner: What would happen when interest rates finally rose? We are seeing the answer.

Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He is the author of Killing the Host (published in e-format by CounterPunch Books and in print by Islet). His new book is J is For Junk Economics

The breakup of banks that is now occurring is the inevitable result of the way in which the Obama Administration bailed out the banks in 2008. When real estate prices collapsed, the Federal Reserve flooded the financial system with fifteen years of Quantitative Easing to re-inflate real estate prices – and with them, stock and bond prices.

What was inflated were asset prices – above all for the packaged mortgages that banks were holding, but also for stocks and bonds across the board. That is what bank credit does. It made trillions of dollars for holders of financial assets – the One Percent and a bit more. The economy polarized as stock prices recovered, the cost of home ownership soared (on low-interest mortgages) and the U.S. economy experienced the largest bond-market boom in history as interest rates fell below One Percent.

But in serving the financial sector, the Fed painted itself into a corner: What would happen when interest rates finally rose?

Rising interest rates cause bond prices to fall. And that is what has been happening under the Fed’s fight against “inflation,” by which it means rising wage levels. Prices are plunging for bonds, and also for the capitalized value of packaged mortgages and other securities in which banks hold their assets against depositors.

The result today is similar to the situation that S&Ls found themselves in the 1980s, leading to their demise. S&Ls had made long-term mortgages at affordable interest rates. But in the wake of the Volcker inflation, the overall level of interest rates rose. S&Ls could not pay their depositors higher rates, because their revenue from their mortgages was fixed at lower rates. So depositors withdrew their money.

To obtain the money to pay these depositors, S&Ls had to sell their mortgages. But the face value of these debts was lower, as a result of higher rates. The S&Ls (and many banks) owed money to depositors short-term, but were locked into long-term assets at falling prices.

This is what is happening to banks today. That is the corner into which the Fed has painted the economy. Recognition of this problem led the Fed to avoid it for as long as it could. But when employment began to pick up and wages began to recover, the Fed could not resist fighting the usual class war against labor. And it has turned into a war against the banking system as well.

Silverlake was the first to go. It had sought to ride the cryptocurrency wave, by serving as a bank for various brand names. After SBF’s vast fraud was exposed, there was a run on cryptocurrencies. Their managers paid by withdrawing the deposits they had at the banks – above all, Silverlake. It went under.

That was a “special case,” given its specialized deposit base. Silicon Valley Bank also was a specialized case, lending to IT startups. And New Republic was also specialized, lending to wealthy depositors in the San Francisco and northern California area. All had seen the market price of their financial securities decline as Chairman Jerome Powell raised the Fed’s interest rates. And now, their deposits were being withdrawn, forcing them to sell securities at a loss. Reuters reported on Friday that bank reserves at the Fed were plunging. That hardly is surprising, as banks are paying about 0.2 percent on deposits, while depositors can withdraw their money to buy two-year U.S. Treasury notes yielding 3.8 or almost 4 percent. No wonder well-to-do investors are running from the banks.

This is the quandary in which banks – and behind them, the Fed – find themselves.

The obvious question is why the Fed doesn’t simply bail them out. The problem is that the falling prices for long-term bank assets in the face of short-term deposit liabilities now looks like the New Normal. The Fed can lend banks for their current short-fall – but how can solvency be resolved without sharply reducing interest rates to restore the 15-year Abnormal Zero Interest-Rate Policy (ZIRP)?

Interest yields spiked on Friday, March 10. As more workers were being hired than was expected, Mr. Powell announced that the Fed might have to raise interest rates even higher than he had warned. Volatility increased.

And with it came a source of turmoil that has reached vast magnitudes beyond what caused the 2008 crash of AIG and other speculators: derivatives.

JP Morgan Chase and other New York banks have tens of trillions of dollars in derivatives, that is, casino bets on which way interest rates, bond prices, stock prices and other measures will change. For every winning guess, there is a loser. When trillions of dollars are bet on, some bank trader is bound to wind up with a loss that can easily wipe out the bank’s entire net equity.

There is now a flight to “cash,” to a safe haven – something even better than cash: U.S. Treasury securities. Despite the talk of Republicans refusing to raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury can always print the money to pay its bondholders. It looks like the Treasury will become the new depository of choice for those who have the financial resources. Bank deposits will fall. And with them, bank holdings of reserves at the Fed.

So far, the stock market has resisted following the plunge in bond prices. My guess is that we will now see the Great Unwinding of the great Fictitious Capital boom of 2008-2015.

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