This essay by Eric D. Wanger was originally published in a newsletter for the financial clients of the multifamily office he ran in Chicago. Nine days later, National Public Radio reported that commercial real estate executives were asking the Federal Reserve to help unfreeze credit markets.

December 13, 2008

The biggest tragedy of this year may be the good companies taken down by the lack of available credit. Unless we can meaningfully address the credit crisis in the U.S. (and most of the rest of the world), we will soon see good, solvent companies fail because they cannot refinance good, performing loans to continue their operations. The banking system is in disarray. Both the banks and their customers have responded with wave after wave of layoffs. But it won’t be enough to repair shattered bank balance sheets. With or without “mark to market” accounting, many of the biggest banks in the country are operating on equity ratios so slim that they would be considered “busted” in ordinary times.

This is no mere credit crunch. And not even the most die-hard free-marketer can simply refer to this situation as creative destruction. There is no way we are going to get through this one without an injection of public money. How for example, will commercial real estate firms operate without a well-functioning debt market? Even the best-managed operators use significant leverage and have a frequent need to “roll paper.” We’ve already seen the auction rate securities and commercial paper markets freeze over the last 6 months, which played havoc on working capital.

But what is an ordinary credit crunch and why is this situation different? Why has it become a full-fledged credit crisis?

What is a Credit Crisis?

Let’s start with the term “credit crunch.” It’s a term that Investopedia defines as:

An economic condition in which investment capital is difficult to obtain. Banks and investors become wary of lending funds to corporations, which drives up the price of debt products for borrowers. Often an extension of a recession, a credit crunch makes it nearly impossible for companies to borrow because lenders are scared of bankruptcies or defaults, resulting in higher rates.

Such a credit crunch is considered to be a manageable part of any meaningful economic trough. It’s not fun, but it is a necessary part of a healthy capitalist economy. Credit gets more expensive and marginal projects get put on hold. The free market is applying appropriate checks and balances, creative destruction, the discipline of the market, etc. Eventually, demand for credit falls and rates come down, allowing the cycle to eventually repeat.

A “credit crisis,” however, is a severe, unmanageable version of a credit crunch. A credit crisis is a situation in which the tightening of credit and the ability of firms to ride out the economic downturn goes well beyond the ability of normal market forces (and central banks) to nudge the system back in the right direction.

That seems to be where we are right now. But why aren’t the banks lending? Didn’t we just inject hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system?

Why is this Happening?

The man on the street will tell you that too many banks made too many bad loans, that the government was too lax in enforcing its rules, and that too many Wall Streeters got drunk on leverage. That all seems to be perfectly true. But what about the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP? At least $350 billion was already injected into U.S. banks to prop up shaky balance sheets and get the banks to lend—with more on the way.

Banks are faced with a fundamental problem. Despite attractive lending spreads, despite weak balance sheets, and despite short-term deflation that actually increases the real profit for lending money, banks are terrified to loan money in an environment filled with riskier and riskier credits. Who knows who will go bust next?

Spreads may be high, but credit risk appears crippling. Rapidly climbing default rates make lending a tough game for a solid bank. Weak banks simply don’t want to play. Credit standards have gone up, interest rates have gone up and the price of credit has gone up in every form. But despite seemingly huge spreads available to anyone willing to lend, good companies will still go wanting.

No, This One Really is Different

The textbooks explain how the history of banking and credit is interwoven with the history of economic cycles, macroeconomic sine waves with frequencies that can span decades. Such expansions and contractions are nothing new. As far as we know, they’ve existed as long as people have participated in credit or lending anywhere. The milder parts of the wave (lower amplitudes) are generally called “the business cycle” and the big ones (high amplitude) are called “booms and busts.” The peaks and troughs have many names: highs and lows, easy credit and tight credit, optimism and pessimism, greed and fear, etc.

One key feature of these cycles is that they are irregular and unpredictable, both in magnitude and duration. Many statistical tools have been developed to measure them (GNP, GDP, CPI, M1, M2, unemployment rate, etc.), and many regulatory and governmental tools have been developed to try to mitigate them (central banks, reserve ratios, government lending and borrowing, wealth redistribution, various forms of fiscal stimulation, etc.) Yet the business cycle is still considered as basic to capitalism as fleas to a dog.

This credit crunch has broken out of the amplitude range we associate with a normal, even deep trough. This crisis started with the popping of the biggest housing and credit bubble in history. America’s home prices are down by more than 21% since their peak in 2006. (Source: Case-Shiller housing index). Many analysts expect another 10% drop across the country, which would bring the cumulative decline in nominal house prices close to that during the Depression. Worldwide losses on debt originated in America (primarily related to mortgages) are expected to exceed $1.4 trillion. Statistics from 2008’s third quarter showed that $760 billion had been written down by the banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and others that own the debt. The IMF’s base case is that American and European banks will shed some $10 trillion of assets, equivalent to 14.5% of their stock of bank credit in 2009. (Source: Economist and IMF.)

It’s going to take a long time to get ourselves out of this one. But nearly every pundit we see has come to the same conclusion: This banking crisis cannot be solved without public money. Whether we choose to continue recapitalizing banks through brute-force federal investment or use some Resolution Trust Corp.-style “bad bank” scenario, decisive government action will be required to minimize the damage to the economy. This one really is different.


It’s not the credit spreads: A bank generates loan profits from the spread or difference between the interest it pays on deposits and funding sources vs. the interest it receives from lending. Banks can currently make plenty of money loaning to customers who will pay it back. (Source of data: Bloomberg.)

Eric has nearly 30 years of experience as a creative and entrepreneurial professional in roles ranging from general management, team leadership and project management to technical rolls in IT, software development financial services and law. He has run business units, managed teams and delivered projects for established global enterprises and as the founder of a number of startups. Over his nearly 30 years at work, his job titles have included Board Member (public, private and non-profit), President, Founder, Chief Operating Officer, Director of Research, Chief Investment Officer, Fund Manager, Software Developer, Securities Analyst, Web Designer, Systems Integrator, Investment Advisor, Fundraiser, Consultant and Attorney. As a software consultant, cloud based, mobile app software as a consultant to one of the world’s leading electronic medical records companies (Cerner). As Chief Investment Officer and Director of Research for a startup financial services firm (Wanger OmniWealth, LLC), he developed a proprietary, risk-based holistic reporting platform for wealthy families and a set of allocation models based on it. He has developed automated trading systems for equity and equity ETF's. Between 2002 and 2013, Eric served as a portfolio manager of the Long Term Opportunity fund (small/micro-cap equities), the Alternative Fixed Income Fund (blend of exchange traded and privately negotiated debt) and as the strategist and founder (with Ralph Wanger) for the Income and Growth Fund (multi-asset class dividend strategy). Eric was a senior investment analyst at Barrington Research Associates (Chicago) covering technology and business services. Prior to that, Eric was a software, communications, and technology analyst for the Edgewater Funds, a private equity/venture capital firm with over $1 billion under management. Before joining Edgewater funds in 2000, Eric worked in Silicon Valley providing consulting, training, and software development to early-¬stage firms. Between 1991 and 1996, Eric was a principal consultant at EDW, Ltd, a firm he founded to provide software development, training in rapid software development techniques (NeXT), and systems interoperability consulting services for large multi-vendor and distributed computer networks. EDW's clients included such companies as Fannie Mae, MCI, Swiss Bank Corp (UBS), Chrysler, Merrill Lynch, Apple Computer, Stanford University, and The Acorn Funds. Eric received his J.D. from Stanford Law School and is a member of the California Bar. He was co-founder and managing editor of the Stanford Technology Law Review. Eric was awarded a National Merit Scholarship in 1981. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-¬Champaign and received a Chartered Financial Analyst designation in 2005. Eric lives in Chicago with his three children and a fat English Labrador retriever named Casper. He enjoys classical and jazz piano, hiking and aviation. He is an instrument rated pilot. Eric serves as a trustee for the Acorn Foundation and is active at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

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