The Fed's Game Of "Make Believe" Comes To An End

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Monday, Apr 29, 2024 - 09:00 PM

Authored by James Hickman via,

It’s barely been a year since the 2023 bank crisis in which several large banks, including Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, failed.

At the time, I wrote that the bank failures weren’t over, and that there would be more.

But it’s been quiet for most of the last year; the banking system has been pretty calm thanks in large part to an emergency program that the Federal Reserve created to bail out other troubled banks.

They called it the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP), and it essentially expired a few weeks ago. In other words, no more emergency lending to troubled banks.

Barely a month later, we have already witnessed our first casualty: Pennsylvania-based Republic First (not to be confused with First Republic, which failed last year) was shut down by regulators on Friday afternoon.

Republic First had the same issues as the others that failed last year — too many ‘unrealized bond losses’ on their balance sheet.

Just like Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank, etc. last year, Republic First had used their customers’ deposits to buy US Treasury bonds in 2021 and 2022, back when bond prices were at all-time highs.

By early 2023, the situation had reversed. Bond prices had plummeted; even supposedly ‘safe’ and ‘stable’ US Treasury bonds had fallen substantially in price, and banks were sitting on huge losses.

Remember that bond prices fall when interest rates rise. So when the Fed jacked up interest rates from 0% to 5% in an attempt to control inflation, they were simultaneously creating huge losses in the bond market… which also meant huge losses for banks.

Silicon Valley Bank was just the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of other banks (including Bank of America) had racked up enormous bond losses. In fact the total unrealized losses in the banking sector last year amounted to a whopping $620 billion.

The Fed knew they had an enormous problem on their hands. So they created this Bank Term Funding Program, which was basically a giant game of ‘make believe’.

Through the BTFP, banks were allowed to borrow money from the Fed using their cratering bond portfolios as collateral. But instead of valuing the bonds at the actual market price, everyone simply pretended that the bonds were still worth 100 cents on the dollar.

In other words, the banks just made up prices for their assets, and the Fed allowed them to do it.

(It’s ironic that a certain former President is on trial in New York City for inflating the value of his assets, even though banks were inflating the value of their bonds through the BTFP.)

The Fed managed to prevent any further embarrassing bank failures last year by sprinkling this magical fairy dust across the banking system.

But now that the BTFP has expired, it has become obvious that problems in the banking system haven’t gone away. Republic First’s failure a few days ago is just one symptom.

Think about it: Bond prices are still down (because interest rates remain much higher than they were in 2021-2022). Banks are still sitting on massive unrealized losses.

And now that the Fed has stopped playing ‘make believe’, the bank failures have started up again.

It’s not to say that ALL banks are in terrible shape; some banks wisely used the last twelve months to get their financial houses in order.

Unfortunately most didn’t… which is why there’s still more more than HALF A TRILLION dollars in unrealized losses in the US banking system. This means that Republic First probably won’t be the only failure, unless the Fed steps in with its magical fairy dust again.

Also bear in mind that losses from their US Treasury portfolios aren’t the only problem in the banking system; for example, plenty of banks are sitting on huge potential losses from loans they made on office properties.

I don’t think the scope of this problem is anywhere near the 2008 financial crisis, which brought down some of the world’s largest banks. Not even close.

But the reality is that there are still a lot of banks with a lot of unrealized losses. And the biggest one of all happens to be the Federal Reserve.

According to its own financial statements, just released last month, the Fed’s total unrealized losses are almost $1 TRILLION — $948.4 BILLION to be more precise. And the vast majority of those unrealized losses come from US Treasuries.

So just like Silicon Valley Bank, Signature, First Republic, and now Republic First, the Federal Reserve has rendered itself completely insolvent.

In fact, total Federal Reserve capital is just $51 billion… versus $948 billion in losses. This means the Fed is insolvent 19 times over.

Think about that: the largest, most important central bank in the world… the steward of the global reserve currency… is completely insolvent on a mark-to-market basis.

You’d think that would be front page news. But no one ever talks about it. No one even wants to talk about it.

Of course plenty of people will insist that it doesn’t matter, just like they insist that the national debt doesn’t matter.

But this is yet more absurd fantasy; just look at the facts:

  • The FDIC’s published reports show more than $500 billion in unrealized losses in the US banking sector.

  • The Federal Reserve, which in theory would bail out the banking sector, is itself insolvent by $900 billion.

  • The US government, which would bail out the Fed, is insolvent by more than $50 trillion.

It’s just debt on top of debt on top of debt. Losses on top of losses on top of losses.

Just like the BTFP, everyone wants to play a giant game of ‘make believe’ and pretend that the Fed’s solvency is not a problem, that the US government’s enormous debt is not a problem.

On the contrary, they’re huge challenges. And the ultimate consequence is going to be the loss of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.