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Tracking the consumer evolution of financial services

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Comment on “Beyond the age of leverage: new banks must arise” | Niall Ferguson


Niall Ferguson nails the ultimate irony in the world today.  Every government is set on increasing debt as a means to solve the current crisis, however the reality is that they are potentially sending good money after bad, and not addressing the core issue. (emphasis mine)

Beyond the age of leverage: new banks must arise | ft.com

Call it the Great Repression. The reality being repressed is that the western world is suffering a crisis of excessive indebtedness. Many governments are too highly leveraged, as are many corporations. More importantly, households are groaning under unprecedented debt burdens. Worst of all are the banks. The best evidence that we are in denial about this is the widespread belief that the crisis can be overcome by creating yet more debt.

He goes on to offer specific ideas on how the great deleveraging could manifest:

  • bank debt write offs with terms designed to give banks time to sort themselves out within a fixed time – he proposes 10 years.

“There are precedents for such drastic action, notably the response to the Swedish banking crisis of the early 1990s. The critical point is to avoid the nightmare of a state-dominated financial sector. The last thing America needs is to have all its banks run like the rail company Amtrak or, worse, the Internal Revenue Service. State life-support for moribund dinosaur banks is an expedient designed to avert the disaster of a generalised banking extinction not a belated victory for socialism. It should not and must not impede the formation of new banks by the private sector. So recapitalisation must be a once-only event, with no enduring government guarantees or subsidies. There should be a clear timetable for “reprivatisation” within, say, 10 years.”

  • “The second step we need to take is a generalised conversion of American mortgages to lower interest rates and longer maturities.”  He goes on to highlight systemic changes to debt and terms of debt contracts over the last 150 years that were used as vehicles to bring the economy back in line.

Point for economists and Keynes.  Ferguson says:

Today’s born-again Keynesians seem to have forgotten that their prescription of a deficit-financed fiscal stimulus stood the best chance of working in a more or less closed economy. But this is a globalised world, where unco-ordinated profligacy by national governments is more likely to generate bond market and currency market volatility than a return to growth.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

All in all another thoughtful piece directed at broad based solutions that deleverage the world.  His argument that the approach of all world governments to borrow and create government based stimulus is not directed at the problem crisis symptoms, and sounds common sense.  When asset values have collapsed in the world by 40 – 50% and debt remained unchanged, how is more debt a solution?

It strikes me there is an opportunity here for banks’ to consider new and innovative products that alter terms, conditions and rates of existing debt that relieves pressure as suggested in Fergusons 2nd point above.  I would add that not just ‘New banks must arise” per Ferguson’s title, but that financial alternatives must arise too.

Bank capital, economy, debt, and the true meaning of Jubilee


On the topic of Bank capital this chart embedded in Greenspans article shows just how much banks business model has evolved.  In economic terms this is the corollary to extreme business and personal debt.

In the years following 1840 when bank capital was approaching 60%, as banks made loans, the borrower bought things that resulted in bank deposits which can then be lent again, and again.  The velocity of capital as it is know increased dramatically until 1940 and largely remained there – till now.  As banks re-capitalise the preachings of government to lend more is the ultimate paradox.

Banks need more capital | Alan Greenspan | The Economist

bank-capital-1834

On the other hand this piece from Niall Ferguson takes the opposite view that we may have reached a point with consumer debt that is irreversible, requiring a Jubilee (debt forgiveness).  Niall writes:

jubilee1

Excessive debt is the key to this crisis; it is the reason we are confronting no ordinary recession, curable by a simple downward adjustment of interest rates. It is the reason we still have to fear, if not a second Great Depression, then very likely the biggest recession since the 1930s. We are living through the painful end of an age of leverage which saw total private and public debt in the US rise from about 155 per cent of gross domestic product in the early 1980s to something like 356 per cent by the middle of this year.

With estimates of total losses on risky assets now ranging from $2,800bn (£1,850bn, €1,960bn) to $6,000bn, a chain reaction is under way that will leave no sector of the world economy untouched. The American economy is contracting at an annualised rate of 5 per cent. Commercial property is following the residential market into freefall. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is down 43 per cent since its peak in October last year. The market for credit default swaps is pointing to a surge in defaults on corporate bonds. The automotive industry is already (against the will of Congress and the original intention of the Treasury) on life support. The US is at the centre of the crisis but Europe and Japan may suffer even larger aftershocks. As for the much feted emerging market “Brics” – Brazil, Russia, India and China – their stock markets have been dropping like, well, bricks.

He develops the case for debt forgiveness as the only way to break the logjam. He mentions this option:

….  as recently suggested by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein. (In his scheme, the government would offer any homeowner with a mortgage the option to replace 20 per cent of the mortgage with a low-interest loan from the government, subject to a maximum of $80,000. The annual interest rate could be as low as 2 per cent and the loan would be amortised over 30 years.

The Greenspan article is generally positive while the Ferguson one is more pragmatic.    More and more it is clear that the state of the economy, GDP and the matters of recession/ depression/ growth/ inflation/ deflation lie in Government hands.

Relevance to Bankwatch:

Despite all this, Banks have an opportunity to get creative and innovative in how they participate in the development of the new economy.  They must do more than merely become financial conduits funnelling government policy to the proletariat.  The opportunity lies in development of new models of service that are more reflective of the new economy as we dither between welfare state (old and unaffordable) and market state. (my latest study)

Written by Colin Henderson

December 20, 2008 at 14:25

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