Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Monster in the Closet

It is again rumored that there IS a monster in the closet, and this one is bigger and badder than any previously imagined. The monster is in the form of bad debts on bank balance sheets -- creating an insolvent US banking system with "$2.5 trillion" worth of bad debt. I'd say that's a scary situation to be in.

There are a number of potential remedies to dealing with the monster -- the UK may choose to go the route of nationalization, which is apparently favored by Shelia Bair (currently head of the FDIC). The danger of nationalization is the destruction of shareholder value that would ensue and the further loss of investor confidence.

In anticipation of this worst-case scenario, today we saw the stock market acting as if nationalization were likely to occur - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of plunging share and asset prices, which itself increases the risk of banking collapse. Such psychological positive feedback loops don't stop unless some signal is given by the government (or a credibly strong authority) that nationalization is not likely to occur. Because we're in the midst of a momentous political transition, such information probably won't come this week. Which sets us up for a very volatile week.

Psychologically speaking, there are a few things we can do when we think there's a $2.5 trillion monster in the closet, which roughly parallel the "freeze, fight, or flight" response:

1. FREEZE: We can hide under the covers and hope it goes away (hasn't worked so far).
2. FIGHT: We can grab a baseball bat and run into the closet swinging. (This seems to be the TARP method, but too many blows have missed the monster and hit us on the other arm -- ouch - which makes parents (i.e. taxpayers) angry and reduces our monster-fighting motivation).
3. FLIGHT: We can jump out of the bed, sprint to the light switch with a pounding heart, fumble to find the switch in a panic, turn on the light, and slowly turn to face the monster. (Just shedding light on the monster reduces the uncertainty and fear we feel.) If instead of turning on the light we fled from the house, then we'd be homeless and the monster would get our Serta, which isn't tolerable for most of us.

Right now we're hiding under the covers, and the monster has been growing bigger and more bold.

I'm concerned that in the next rescue - Part 4 - the government may destroy shareholder value via nationalization. To do so would further undermine confidence in the stock market, at a delicate time, and in my opinion it could delay the economic recovery. The lower asset prices go due to nationalization, the more forced liquidations and underfunded pensions we'll see. That may be inevitable in the course of this unwinding, but it's not economically desirable.

If we turned the light on the monster, had a long honest talk with it, gave it it's own bedroom (the "good bank, bad bank" method), and let it find a job on its own time, then we might make it through without being eaten. Seems like the best option so far.

We may have to live with a stinky expensive monster for a while, but that's better than ignoring it and having crippling anxiety attacks and insomnia which ultimately undermine our ability to get on with life.

And don't forget that the banking system was insolvent in the early 1980s as well, and it made it through that storm intact.


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