Friday, December 21, 2007

Let's end this madness: banks must take losses

End of easy cash: banks must take losses


By Charles Wyplosz

The combined central bank injection of liquidity last week was impressive. Still, more than five months after the interbank market froze, banks’ thirst for cash seems unquenchable. The central banks have done everything they can to keep financial markets orderly. They took the risk of feeding the moral hazard beast and what did they achieve? So far they have avoided the much-feared “Big Crunch”, but the end of the tunnel is not yet in sight. The time has come to ask the harder question: do commercial banks get it?

The big commercial banks hold mountains of cash, probably because they still have mountains of sickly off-balance-sheet liabilities that they are unwilling to acknowledge. Or it is because they fear that other banks are in that position and that this could trigger the Big Crunch. Or they just think that other banks think that way. Prudence is a much-needed virtue in banking, the more so because it has been forgotten in recent years.

But the further cash injection will not provide the permanent solution: the return of interbank lending. For that to happen, banks need to be reassured about each other. Recapitalisation is the only solution. Three big banks – Citibank, UBS and Morgan Stanley – have shown the way in recent days. They remind us that large losses must be financed by fresh share issuance. It matters little who provides the cash. We should not let concerns about sovereign wealth funds stand in the way of a permanent solution.

Obviously, shareholders do not like the dilution of their stakes, but this is what shareholding is all about. If a company has suffered, or is about to suffer, heavy losses, its shareholders will have to bear part of the trouble. Delaying tactics prolong the misery without solving the problem, which will not go away.

We now see that the willingness of central banks to provide liquidity at reasonably low cost is only allowing shareholders to delay the time of reckoning. There is no reason for allowing this to go on and on. Delaying tactics are, after all, what led to Japan’s lost decade, after some of the world biggest banks had suffered large losses and their shareholders rested on the authorities’ support to delay the inevitable. The inevitable eventually occurred, but meanwhile the cost to the Japanese economy was gigantic. This is a mistake that should not be repeated.

Much like in Japan then, today’s banks free-ride on the fear of a recession. They calculate that the central banks will not toughen up when credit is scarce and uncertainty huge. The central banks were right to provide banks with some breathing space, but they also have the right to ask what use has been made of this facility. With few exceptions, the answer is very little or nothing. The message must now go out: unless banks take up their losses and raise the required amount of capital, there will be no more liquidity.

It is currently far too cheap for banks to sit on cash, so the central banks must make it clear that, once the end-of-the-year settlements are passed, they will let the interbank market rates rise and rise, as high as needed to provide banks with the incentive to relinquish the vast amounts of liquidity amassed over the past few months. In short, they should call the banks’ bluff.

If you think back to what has happened, the picture becomes clear. Central banks have kept interest rates very low for many years. This has led many banks to seek juicy returns – to protect shareholder value, as they say – by taking unreasonable risks. This has also led to huge foreign exchange reserves accumulation all over the world. The great unwinding must now take place.

Risky behaviour eventually means that losses occur here and there. The losses merely make up for huge past returns. For the interbank market to be revived, these losses must now be accepted. Fortunately, the cash that found its way into excess foreign exchange reserves is now available in the form of sovereign wealth funds. The circle can be closed.

Financial protectionists will display outrage. It is never pleasant to see newcomers acquire significant shares of our biggest companies, but we must also accept that the era of easy money was a mistake. The fundamental basis of capitalism is that mistakes must be borne. Here we are. But please, bring this misery to its end.

The writer is professor of economics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva


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