The Largest U.S. Banks Have Repeatedly Gone Bankrupt Due to Wild Speculation, and the Fed Blessed the Speculation and then Helped Cover Up Their Bankruptcies

George Washington's picture

Washington’s Blog.

As I have previously pointed out, the New York Times wrote in February:

the 1980s, during the height of the Latin American debt crisis, the
total risk to the nine money-center banks in New York was estimated at
more than three times the capital of those banks. The regulators,
analysts say, did not force the banks to value those loans at the
fire-sale prices of the moment, helping to avert a disaster in the
banking system.

In other words, the nine biggest banks were all insolvent in the 1980s.

C. Koo - former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and
doctoral fellow with the Fed's Board of Governors, and now chief
economist for Nomura - confirmed
last year in a speech to the Center for Strategic & International
Studies that most of the giant money center banks were insolvent in the

Specifically, Koo said:

  • After the Latin American crisis hit in 1982, the New York Fed concluded that 7 out of 8 money center banks were actually "underwater"
  • All
    the foreign banks (especially the Japanese banks) had to keep their
    lending facilities open to American banks so the American banking
    system didn't collapse overtly and out in the open
  • The
    Fed knew that virtually all of the American banks were "bankrupt", but
    could not publicly discuss how bad the situation was. If went out and
    said the "American banks are bankrupt", the next day they will go
    overtly go bankrupt. So the Fed had to come up with a lot of stories
    like "its good debt on their books"
  • Then-chairman
    Volcker instructed the banks to keep lending to the Mexican dictator so
    that the Mexican economy didn't totally collapse, because - if Mexico
    collapsed - it would become obvious that all of the U.S. banks were
    underwater, and they would immediately collapse
  • It took 13 years to manage the crisis (at another point in the talk, Koo says 15 years).
    way that Volcker approached the problem was that he allowed U.S. banks
    to keep their lending rates relatively high, while the central bank
    brought short-term rates down. The spread between the two (the "fat
    spread") became revenue for the banks, and the banks used the high fat
    spread to gradually write off problem loans and to repair their balance
  • Volcker's covert rescue of the American banks using secrecy and a high fat spread didn't cost U.S. taxpayers a cent
  • Koo points out that you can't use the fat spread approach where there are no borrowers

Lessons for Today

So what is the take-home message from all of this? What are the lessons for today?

Well, initially, it shows that it wasn't just some S&Ls, or a Long Term Capital Management or two.

all of the largest U.S. banks gamble and speculate and then all go
bankrupt. The money center banks gambled in Latin America and lost.
They went bankrupt.

Have they changed their behavior?

No. They have - with the Fed's blessing - simply changed casinos,
and for the last decade or so, have put all of their chips into CDOs,
CDS, and other leveraged and securitized bets built like a house of
cards on top of subprimes and option arms and alt-as and whatnot. Now
they've lost and gone bankrupt again.

And the Fed playbook obviously includes pretending banks are solvent when they are not Indeed, as ABC news notes

The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve lied to the
American public last fall when they said that the first nine banks to
receive government bailout funds were healthy, a government watchdog
states in a new report released today.

Fed (as well as Treasury and other agencies), have cost the American
taxpayer quite a few cents this time around - trillions of dollars. So
the Fed's approach to the current and the Latin American crisess are
completely different.

The fat spread approach can't work now,
because there has been a secular shift in borrowing habits by
Americans. the reduction in American consumer spending is a long-term trend. For example, Alix Partners finds:

American industry is struggling to get through what could become the
worst recession since the Great Depression, Americans say that even
after the recession ends, their spending will return to just 86% of
pre-recession levels, which would take a trillion dollars per year out
of the U.S. economy for years to come. According to this in-depth
survey of more than 5,000 people, Americans plan to save (and therefore
not spend) an astounding 14% of their total earnings post-recession,
with the replenishment of their 401(k) and other retirement savings
leading the way among their biggest long-term concern.

And Huffington Post notes:

will be a fundamental shift in the kind of cars we buy, a fundamental
shift in the homes we buy, and a fundamental shift in consumption
generally," says Matt Murray, an economist at the University of
Tennessee. "And that is not something that took place in the 1980s."

are hunkering down, like they did for decades after the Great
Depression, and no approach which relies on Americans increasing their
debt load will work. See this.

Moreover, as I have repeatedly argued,
Summers, Geithner and Bernanke's entire plan seems to be to restart the
great leverage machines, but that this plan is doomed to failure.

I have argued for months that the boys believe that if they can just
re-start the shadow banking system and lever the economy back up, that
all boats will be lifted, asset prices will rise (and the "toxic assets
will regain their "true" higher value), and the whole economy will be
afloat once again, so that we can go merrily sailing onto paradise.

But if Americans don't want to borrow more, and if trust in the entire economic system has collapsed, then how can the boys restart the shadow banking system and re-lever up the economy?

Isn't that like trying to re-start a car after the engine has been removed?

And if those who claim that we are in Minsky moment of crushing debt overhang are right (and everyone
- from Federal Reserve governors to Nobel prize winning economists -
are dusting off their history books and studying Minsky right now),
re-levering simply won't work.

Finally, the big banks are much bigger than they were in 1982.  See this and this. What may have worked for 1982-sized banks won't necessary work for the current behemoths.

The above-referenced statements by Koo start at about 30 minutes into the talk. If you have trouble playing the audio, download it and then play it from your computer.

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Anonymous's picture

Lending is not down because of any new found urge to save from ordinary americans. It is because banks have decided that they wont lend anymore if you do not have stellar credit. All the banks need to do is to throw this new found caution to the winds. Gear up those 0 interest, 0 down , no income verification loans and we will be golden yet again !

Anonymous's picture

more top quality american government.
what a bunch of thieves

Anonymous's picture

Ah, you are referring to the Plaza accord and its aftermath?

I was but a child then playing w/my GI Joe dolls but I do have a taste for history.

Anonymous's picture

See, Volker is also one of them, he started this whole bailout shit, he is now shouting because he is no more part of the new game. Greenspan used the same interest-rate cutting shit in 1987 crash, again in 1998 LTCM, again in 2000 crash, and Mr benmonkey is copying both of them.

glenlloyd's picture

prior consumption levels were nothing more than bubblicious fallacy, it wasn't real, none of it was real, so trying to reflate in order to get everyone back into lala land is a waste of time and (our) money...which by the way is losing value.

albion402's picture

Remember those international suits, big expense accounts, entire write-up three sentences....BINGO! They got a bonus and paraded around the department as the go-to contacts.  Phoey!  Argentina went bust....not their problem!

Anonymous's picture

Hey shit buddy...

You young guys don't know history like those of us who lived it...

You are just figuring out what we have been saying and writing for 18 months...and what we witnessed first hand 23 years ago...

But hey, at least you figured it out...

They should require writers to know these things already...not have some recent NYT article suddenly get you all hot and bothered...

Are you even 30 yet?

Anonymous's picture

FAIL! Who's this "WE" you refer to? If you were half the shiznitz you imagine, then this article would be both redundant and obvious. It's not. And yeah - I pumped gas on EVEN days only.

Anonymous's picture

Lotta good your generation's experience has done us. Thanks for nothing.

Anonymous's picture

Nice analogy!

Engine = Consumer spending
Drive Train = Employment
Steering = Sorry, busy texting
Blended Fuel = capital + debt
Rims = Technology
Tires = BRIC
Brakes = We don't need no stink'n brakes
Economy = A pothole filled very hilly road
Double Yellow Line: Excitement/Profit

As always:
You = Bug
Market = Windshield

putbuyer's picture

Very clever - love it!

Anonymous's picture

Hmm, 1982 + 15 years = 1997 = Asian Currency crisis. Always amusing to see the banksters help eachother cover up their pyramid scheme.

Tipo anónimo's picture

Thanks GW!


I would beg to differ with the Hon. Dr. Koo. "Volcker's covert rescue of the American banks using secrecy and a high fat spread didn't cost U.S. taxpayers a cent."


If I remember - the fat spread gets paid by...... oh that's right.  You and me.


So instead of investors, bond-holders and customers of those 9 large banks paying a price for their stupidity, greed, or innocuous blindness toward corruption on the boards and leadership of these fine banks, the pain got spread around.

Anonymous's picture

Fool US once, shame on Uncle.
Fool US twice, shame on US.
Anyone keeping dollars in one of the big banks dwarfed
by $426 T in hidden derivatives devouring the world,
has been on repeated notice.
Recall asking Wells top economist at World Affais re
bad LDC Loans.
"No problem, they will be repaid" he said.
Repaid by US taxpayers at the urging of criminal
political appointments...

snorkeler's picture

Uh Huh, the old taxpeayer gets it one way or the other.

How can we counter this effect????

Will you need Turbo Tax or a paid preparer this coming April????  Or just a blank 1040 and a big fat Sharpie?

Anonymous's picture

So are big bucks for bank execs hush money?

And our dollars lost value in purchase power terms. Plus I doubt all the money was made back with the spread - a lot of that bad debt got washed by the FEd and turned back into liquid dollars to ramp our stock market.