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?
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?
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.
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.