I did not go into banks and do an audit. Neither did I do an in-depth analysis of the current banking industry dilemma. I wrote this piece, however, just to explain in simple terms, how a bank can become insolvent because of poor credit policies and over-inflated assets.
Banks make money by making loans to people. The largest loans most consumers will ever take are home loans. The more home loans banks make, the more profit they make.
When a bank loans money — for example, $100,000 — to a consumer to buy a home, that loan is carried as an asset on the bank’s balance sheet. The value of the loan is the loan, plus the interest. This seems simple, but there is one more fact that has to be calculated in. Not everyone is going to repay their loan. So, the value of the loan is discounted by the percentage chance that the person won’t pay it back.
Simple English: (This is a simplified example and doesn’t reflect real life numbers or factors such as the time value of money, or the rate and or schedule of repayment. It is only an illustration of how credit worthiness affects the value of a loan.)
Mr. Mork wants to buy a house. He applies to the bank for a $100,000 mortgage.
The bank evaluates Mr. Mork’s credit and deems him 80% likely to repay the loan. The bank has a policy that says they can only loan money to people who are 80% likely or more. So, Mr. Mork qualifies.
The bank loans Mr. Mork $100,000. With all of the interest that Mr. Mork will pay over the life of the loan, the loan is worth $150,000. (These are not real numbers.) The value of the loan on the balance sheet, however, has to be discounted by 20%. So, it doesn’t go on the books as $150,000. It goes as $120,000.
The bank makes a profit of $20,000.
The more loans the bank makes, the more money they make. So, it is in the bank’s interest to make more loans.
Mr. Warf and Mr. Data also apply for $100,000 bank loans. The bank does a credit check and deems them 70% likely to repay the loans. So, they are denied.
The bank CEO wants to make a larger profit. His annual bonus and compensation package is based on a percentage of the total revenue of the bank as well as his annual performance. So, he wants to loan more money. He is not permitted to loan money to people with a 70% likelihood of repayment, because this is set in the bank charter (or other public document). He can’t change this policy because when the shareholders bought shares, they understood that this bank was only going to make loans to people who were 80% likely to repay. If the CEO started loaning money to un-creditworthy people, he would be violating that agreement.
Luckily, someone at the bank has an idea. They decide that their current credit evaluation procedures are too stringent. So, although they won’t loan money to anyone who is less than 80%, they will reduce the requirements to reach the 80% bracket. They reevaluate all of the loan applications from last year and under the new credit evaluation procedures, a number of people suddenly jumped to the 80% grid.
The CEO goes before the board and says, “My revolutionary new credit procedure will allow us to make three times the loans we made last year. So, our profit will increase 300%. And, I am happy to reassure you that we won’t be loaning money to anyone lower than 80%.”
Most of the board likes it. They don’t really understand what changes are being made behind the scenes, but they like it. A few board members have degrees in accounting. They see through this suicidal procedure and try to convince the others to block it.
The CEO or his PR people go before the shareholders. Before the meeting, they have already gone to the worst ghetto or trailer park imaginable. They come back with a poor, but honest, hard-working family, who “deserve” a place of their own.
“Would you deny Jorge and Roselda a decent house and a good school for little Pablo and Conchita? You fatcats sit back in your beautiful homes in suburban America. Your kids go to private schools. You sit back and collect dividend checks based on the sweat and labor of thousands of people like Jorge and Roselda, but now you are denying them a home.” If the shareholders are not in tears yet, he begins quoting Jimmy Stewart, from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It is people like Jorge and Roselda who do most of the working, and, paying and dying in this town. Is it too much to ask that they do it in four decent rooms with a bath?”
The credit evaluation policies are changed. The bank makes three times the number of loans they did the previous year. Two thirds of those loans would not have qualified the previous year. The CEO triples the income of the bank. He gets a huge bonus. Often, new policies are accompanied by a “golden parachute.” There is a fear that a CEO is will not try anything new, because if it fails, he could be left with nothing. So, to encourage executives to think out of the box and try to pioneer new policies and lines of business, risky businesses are often accompanied by a “golden parachute.” Basically this is an incredibly lucrative compensation package paid to an executive if his “brain-child” revolutionary new idea fails.
There are other financial analysis that come into play here, but these are technical details. So far, this has been a simplified version of the problem. One more detail is this. People who default on home loan don’t usually miss their first or second monthly payment. The credit analysts would know, with some certainty, when a particular person would likely default. Maybe, for example, the average loan will default after four years or five years. So, the CEO announces that this last major program is the crowning achievement of his career. He will oversee it for five years and then go into retirement. At which point, he will collect his percentages for the brilliant increase in the bank’s revenues.
The problem worsens.
What is an overvalued asset?
The banks borrow money from a central bank, in order to loan money to the public. They also sometimes sell debts to outside companies, in order to get cash to loan to other people. Banks, like everyone else, have to qualify as being credit-worthy. So, when a bank wants to borrow money, they have to show their assets listed on their balance sheet.
Now, Jorge and Rosalinda’s mortgage was $100,000 and they were meant to repay $150,000 with a 20% probability of failure to repay, so their home loan is valued at $120,000 on the bank’s balance sheets. So, they borrow money accordingly. But, according to last year’s policies. This loan would not have been made, because Jorge and Rosalina were only deemed 70% likely to repay the loan, which means the real value of the loan is only $105,000. So, the bank is over-extended. It can’t make good on the money it borrowed.
Now, consumers are asking: “How do these guys live with themselves? It is so obvious that this is a Ponzi scheme which will eventually explode.”
Well, maybe not so obvious.
One of the reasons that the bank executives were willing to lower the credit requirements of consumers was that they knew the average person wouldn’t default for five years (five years is just an example). At that time, the bank would take possession of the house, and resell it, to recoup its losses. By that time, the bank would have collected five years of mortgages plus the value of the resale of the house. So, the money could be repaid.
The bank calculated the probability of selling the house, and what the value would be, and it looked like a safe bet. If Jorge and Rosalinda defaulted, there would be 100 other buyers, willing to buy the house at its appreciated value. The banks bets were covered.
This next bit is an extremely simplified example, so if you know deeper economic theory and banking procedures, please don’t rip me apart. This is just a way of explaining it so everyone can understand it.
Five years down the road, the CEO retired, taking his millions with him. Jorge and Rosalinda defaulted on their mortgage, and the bank took control of their house. Jorge and Rosalinda lived in a housing development which was all financed under the same set of loans, with the same diluted credit policies as Jorge and Rosalinda’s house. So, the same week, 70% of the houses in the development defaulted. Now the bank is sitting on a ton of foreclosed houses.
They try to sell the houses, but in the mean time, the convenience store, the auto-repair shop, the restaurants…every business which was serving the housing development has closed because 70% of the people are gone. Prospective home buyers drive out, take one look at a deserted neighborhood, with no businesses close by, and they decide not to buy. So, the houses get harder to sell.
Let’s say that they do decide to buy anyway. They apply for a loan. Since the bank is getting slammed with foreclosures and lack of income, they decide to raise their internal credit policy back up to the previous, more stringent rules. Now, instead of 100 qualified buyers for these houses, they only find 10. So, 90 homes are now on the bank’s balance sheets. They are unsellable assets. The laws of capitalism basically say, if you can’t find buyers at $100,000 you drop the price to $90,000 and then to $80,000… The price of the house keeps dropping till it finds a market of buyers willing to buy it.
Now, remember that these houses were being carried on the bank’s balance sheet to secure major loans the bank took. But, the houses are steadily dropping in value. In a simplified example: The bank carried a house at $120,000 and borrowed $120,000. Now the house is only worth $90,000. The bank’s creditors come in and say, “You have to give us $30,000 in cash to make up for the shortfall of your collateral.” The bank doesn’t have $30,000. So, they can’t pay their creditor.
The creditor can take the house from the bank, but the creditor will now have a loss of $30,000. And remember this didn’t happen on one home loan or in one bank. It was across the industry, which means the companies who extended credit to the banks are now in danger of collapse. The banks are also in danger of collapse.
The buyout package which has been in the news, from what I can see, will be loaned to banks, to pay their creditors, so banks and their creditors can stay in business.
How does this affect you?
If you have large amounts of cash in a bank, FDIC insurance will protect up to $100,000 worth of cash. So, if the bank went belly up, your $100,000 would still be safe.
IMPORTANT! Not all money stored at banks is FDIC insured. If you have mutual funds, IRAs, or money markets they will probably not be covered. Check with your banker and make sure your money is in an FDIC insured account.
As a side note: credit unions and S&Ls are not banks. They often are not covered by banking regulations and are not FDIC insured. If you have money at those types institutions, or money in a cash account at a brokerage house, check with your representative and find out if you are covered under FDIC.
If your money is FDIC insured and the bank dies, your money should be fine. BUT if there is a credit crunch, which there is, this means that some banks are failing and others have no money to lend, this will send ripples through the whole economy. Certain types of business can only stay open if they have access to nearly unlimited credit. For example, a car dealership or a taxi company, or car rental business often does not own the cars on the lots, they are all financed. If there is no cash available in the finance system, these businesses cannot buy or lease cars, which will ultimately mean they will have to close.
The employees will lose their jobs. So, if you are an employee of these types of firms you will be directly effected. If you work for a company which sells services to these types of firms, you will eventually be effected, because your company will lose its customers.
Construction, real-estate, and land development is another sector which is completely dependent on the availability of credit. If credit dries up, all of these employees stand to lose their jobs. People who sell good and services to these industries or their employees will lose their customers and possibly have to close.
All of these employees will suddenly lose their income, which will mean defaulting on their personal debt and home mortgages…
On a global note: The US is one of the largest consumer nations in the world. If millions of Americans lose their jobs and lose their access to credit, they will stop their consumer spending. There are entire manufacturing companies in China, for example, who only sell products to Wallmart. Any foreign country with a positive trade balance with the US (meaning countries selling products to the US) will lose their customers, and eventually have to close.
The flutter of a butterflies wings in New York becomes a typhoon in Asia.