Friday, August 29, 2008

Is the FDIC another troubled monoline?

Reading Reggie Middleton’s latest blog on RGE (he looks much younger than I'd have guessed!) reminded me of a metric which is critical to assessing the velocity of a financial crisis as it affects a financial institution. In looking at American Express, he highlights (among a lot of other useful data) the extent to which charge-offs on credit cards are exceeding the growth of reserves. Both numbers are moving. Charge-offs are going up. Reserves are going up too to cover the losses from charge-offs, but are not growing as quickly.

As we all know, it is liquid reserves that enable a credit institution to cope with periods of uncertainty, underperformance and/or illiquidity. In the banking industry, the relationship between losses and reserves is referred to as the “coverage ratio” and it is a critical indicator of stress.

Those with too low reserves must borrow or recapitalise just at that point in the cycle when lenders and investors become wary sceptics as they contemplate the worsening business climate in general and deteriorating performance of the needy in particular. Those unable to secure credit or attract investment must look to official liquidity facilities, if available, and/or face forced asset liquidations and/or insolvency. Those who can secure credit or attract investment typically do so at a cost which impairs future profitability and so undermines future reserve growth (see From Capital-ist to Capital-less Economies).

It occurred to me to examine the coverage ratio in another context that I already planned to write about today: the FDIC.

For the past month or so, I haven’t been able to look at the FDIC without seeing a big, undercapitalised, monoline insurer. I didn’t want to see the FDIC that way, especially since Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England and normally a very sensible bloke, is a huge admirer of the US deposit insurance system and wants to import FDIC principles here to the UK. If the FDIC is fundamentally flawed, then the UK may once again follow the US over yet another cliff with too little reflection of our inherent self-interest in avoiding yet another public policy disaster.

Facing my fears, as we all should if we aspire to be rational and make superior judgements, requires assessing the facts.

The following excerpt from Wikipedia describes the characteristics of a monoline insurer:

Monoline insurers (also referred to as "monoline insurance companies" or simply "monolines") guarantee the timely repayment of bond principal and interest when an issuer defaults. They are so named because they provide services to only one industry.

The economic value of bond insurance to the governmental unit, agency, or company offering bonds is a saving in interest costs reflecting the difference in yield on an insured bond from that on the same bond if uninsured.

So what is the FDIC then? The FDIC “guarantee[s] the timely repayment of [deposits] when a[n insured financial institution] defaults.” The FDIC “provide[s] services to only one industry. The economic value of [FDIC deposit insurance] to the [insured banks] offering [deposit accounts and certificates of deposit] is a saving in interest costs reflecting the difference in yield on an insured [deposit] from that on the same [deposit] if uninsured.”

The similarities are too great. The FDIC is a monoline insurer in all the ways that matter.

Taking that as a starting point then, what makes the FDIC better able to withstand the rigours of a financial crisis than its private sector monoline brethren? Let’s look at the advantages the FDIC has over lesser monolines.

Regulatory Powers: The FDIC has the power to compel banks to increase their capital, limit their riskier business activity, and otherwise intervene to curb management’s rush toward bank failure.

Mandatory Participation:
American banks have no choice but to buy their deposit insurance from the FDIC, and are obligated to do so. They have no choice but to pay the premia assessed by the FDIC when due if they want to remain in business. With more than 6,000 banks participating, the risks should be diversified (except, of course, that banks are herd animals so that risk outcomes are highly correlated for the sector as a whole). Risk-Weighted Premia: Theoretically, the FDIC’s risk-based CAMELS rating system should require riskier banks to pay more. It would be interesting to apply rigorous market backtesting methodologies to see whether CAMELS is performing as expected in this downturn, or whether like so much else, CAMELS has been distorted by forbearance and crony capitalism into another tool for industry concentration and selective competitive advantage favouring well-connected big banks during the M&A boom years.

Statutory Receiver of Failed Banks: When a bank fails, the FDIC takes over the assets and liabilities, and is able to rapidly arrange for bridge banks, purchase and assumption transactions to healthy banks, and otherwise realise value from failed banks while minimising systemic disruption to retail and commercial account holders. This is a critical function as the surest way to prevent draws of deposit insurance is to compel a work out that secures depositors unimpaired access to their accounts.

Treasury Credit as a Backstop: If it runs into trouble, the FDIC can borrow from the Treasury (just like everyone else in corporate America, it seems).

This is a formidable armory of powers and privileges. And we know the FDIC is experienced at using its powers to good effect, having proven itself several times through the past 75 years. Nonetheless, these powers may be insufficient if the scale of losses insured by the FDIC overwhelm the capitalisation of the insured banks and the resources of the FDIC.

This is where Reggie’s test of losses relative to reserve growth becomes a telling indicator of future problems.

Looking at the most recent Quarterly Banking Profile from the FDIC, we see an ugly picture:

Net Charge-Off Rate Rises to Highest Level Since 1991

Loan losses registered a sizable jump in the second quarter, as loss rates on real estate loans increased sharply at many large lenders. Net charge-offs of loans and leases totaled $26.4 billion in the second quarter, almost triple the $8.9 billion that was charged off in the second quarter of 2007. The annualized net charge-off rate in the second quarter was 1.32 percent, compared to 0.49 percent a year earlier. This is the highest quarterly charge-off rate for the industry since the fourth quarter of 1991. At institutions with more than $1 billion in assets, the average charge-off rate in the second quarter was 1.46 percent, more than three times the 0.44 percent average for institutions with less than $1 billion in assets.

Note that big banks – those presumably with favourable CAMELS ratings in years past, allowing them to gobble up their less favourably rated peers – have much worse charge-offs than smaller banks.

Large Boost in Reserves Does Not Quite Keep Pace with Noncurrent Loans

For the third consecutive quarter, insured institutions added almost twice as much in loan-loss provisions to their reserves for losses as they charged-off for bad loans. Provisions exceeded charge-offs by $23.8 billion in the second quarter, and industry reserves rose by $23.1 billion (19.1 percent). The industry's ratio of reserves to total loans and leases increased from 1.52 percent to 1.80 percent, its highest level since the middle of 1996. However, for the ninth consecutive quarter, increases in noncurrent loans surpassed growth in reserves, and the industry's "coverage ratio" fell very slightly, from 88.9 cents in reserves for every $1.00 in noncurrent loans, to 88.5 cents, a 15-year low for the ratio.

I had to smile at the heading. The clumsy phrasing of “Does Not Quite Keep Pace” has been carefully drafted in preference to the less wordy but more apt “Lags”.

The bottom line is that the “coverage ratio” is worsening for the FDIC flock, and the coverage ratio for the FDIC is not looking too healthy either. At the end of the second quarter, the FDIC reserve fund was down to a mere $45.2 billion after just 9 bank failures this year. While it does not publish a coverage ratio in respect of itself, IndyMac alone will require an estimated $8.9 billion of FDIC reserves to resolve, almost twenty percent of remaining reserves. The FDIC intends to raise reserves through a premium increase in October, but a lot can happen in two months in these febrile times.

So the FDIC may well become yet another troubled monoline insurer. Indeed, Sheila Bair, serial forbearance artiste chairman of the FDIC (formerly a Treasury official and Republican congressional aide), conceded as much when she raised the possibility this week that the FDIC might be joining the queue for a Treasury hand out to see it through short term liquidity problems.

"I would not rule out the possibility that at some point we may need to tap into [short-term] lines of credit with the Treasury for working capital, not to cover our losses," Bair said in an interview.

The FDIC is too critical to the fabric of the US banking system to become another monoline casualty of the forbearance backlash crippling the banking industry. If there ever was a case for “systemic risk” deserving a bailout, the FDIC would get my vote (and presumably every Congressman’s too). But an FDIC bailout would be yet another signal to international creditors of America that the financial methods and models so widely exported and extolled over the past quarter century were fundamentally misguided and dangerous.

If the FDIC model fails, then what are the alternatives for deposit insurance? An intriguing idea floated in the Financial Times a couple weeks ago was to partially privatise deposit insurance through the excess liability reinsurance markets, allowing Warren Buffett to run his sliderule over the regulatory and risk management profile of banks to set a market price for insuring a failure.

Excess liability insurance would spread deposit insurance risk beyond the UK banking sector to global catastrophe insurance markets, reducing the pro-cyclical liquidity impact of any deposit insurance claim. In normal circumstances it should cover the risk of a large UK bank failure at a cost well below pre-funding, particularly in upswings of the economic cycle, while spreading the costs in a managed way if claims are sustained during downswings. Periodic tendering would ensure that market pricing reinforces discipline in the banking sector toward better management throughout the business cycle, co-operation on rescues of troubled banks and efficient resolution processes. The capital efficiency of these flexible arrangements should give UK banks a competitive edge.

In globalised markets, with globalised banks, perhaps globalised deposit insurance through excess liability insurance and/or catastrophe bond finance is not such a bad option. It may not be popular, however, with the crony capitalists and their political clientele who prefer the cheaper option of socialising losses via the Treasury to taxpayers and global public creditors, but at least it’s an alternative to the US model for the UK and others to consider.

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