Thursday, March 16, 2023

What Do Silvergate, SVP, And Signature Bank Have In Common With The Nordstream Pipelines?

Counterpunch  |  The crashes of Silvergate, Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and the related bank insolvencies are much more serious than the 2008-09 crash. The problem at that time was crooked banks making bad mortgage loans. Debtors were unable to pay and were defaulting, and it turned out that the real estate that they had pledged as collateral was fraudulently overvalued, “mark-to-fantasy” junk mortgages made by false valuations of the property’s actual market price and the borrower’s income. Banks sold these loans to institutional buyers such as pension funds, German savings banks and other gullible buyers who had drunk Alan Greenspan’s neoliberal Kool Aid, believing that banks would not cheat them.

Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) investments had no such default risk. The Treasury always can pay, simply by printing money, and the prime long-term mortgages whose packages SVP bought also were solvent. The problem is the financial system itself, or rather, the corner into which the post-Obama Fed has painted the banking system. It cannot escape from its 13 years of Quantitative Easing without reversing the asset-price inflation and causing bonds, stocks and real estate to lower their market value.

In a nutshell, solving the illiquidity crisis of 2009 that saved the banks from losing money (at the cost of burdening the economy with enormous debts), paved away for the deeply systemic illiquidity crisis that is just now becoming clear. I cannot resist that I pointed out its basic dynamics in 2007 (Harpers) and in my 2015 book Killing the Host.

Accounting fictions vs. market reality

No risks of loan default existed for the investments in government securities or packaged long-term mortgages that SVB and other banks have bought. The problem is that the market valuation of these mortgages has fallen as a result of interest rates being jacked up. The interest yield on bonds and mortgages bought a few years ago is much lower than is available on new mortgages and new Treasury notes and bonds. When interest rates rise, these “old securities” fall in price so as to bring their yield to new buyers in line with the Fed’s rising interest rates.

A market valuation problem is not a fraud problem this time around.

The public has just discovered that the statistical picture that banks report about their assets and liabilities does not reflect market reality. Bank accountants are allowed to price their assets at “book value” based on the price that was paid to acquire them – without regard for what these investments are worth today. During the 14-year boom in prices for bonds, stocks and real estate this undervalued the actual gain that banks had made as the Fed lowered interest rates to inflate asset prices. But this Quantitative Easing (QE) ended in 2022 when the Fed began to tighten interest rates in order to slow down wage gains.

When interest rates rise and bond prices fall, stock prices tend to follow. But banks don’t have to mark down the market price of their assets to reflect this decline if they simply hold on to their bonds or packaged mortgages. They only have to reveal the loss in market value if depositors on balance withdraw their money and the bank actually has to sell these assets to raise the cash to pay their depositors.

That is what happened at Silicon Valley Bank. In fact, it has been a problem for the entire U.S. banking system.

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