The failure of Lehman surprised the markets more than it should have, and left many investors nervous about bank shares and much else.
It followed hard on the heels of the nationalisation of Freddie and Fannie, and should be seen as part of the US Treasury Secretary’s strategy to get the western economies and the banking system through the troubles of the credit bubble.
The US authorities have always been sharper and more realistic about the aftermath of the bubble than the other jurisdictions of the world. They were the first to cut interest rates, the first to lend big money to ailing institutions and the first to use a tax cutting package to stimulate demand.
Many see this as primarily a US problem, with its origins in the US housing market and the sub prime crisis. It is true that the US has a big and bad version of the problem, true that the US has many of the largest financial companies that did well out of the credit boom, and was the first into the downturn. The reason markets fell around the world, is the realisation that this is not just a US problem, but a global one.
Big banks from the EU and Asia as well as the USA increased their lending and ballooned their activities in a similar way. Bankers around the world lent money to people who will find it difficult to repay in these more hostile conditions – for residential homes in Spain and the UK, for highly indebted businesses the world over, for expensively valued commercial property in a variety of jurisdictions. Banks worldwide bought as well as sold the new highly leveraged products of the Credit Boom era. When one of the big players like Lehman goes down, there are understandable fears about losses around the world from banks and financial companies trading with them, who also own similar pieces of paper to Lehman.
The Treasury Secretary seems to have decided that he will use the huge resources of the US taxpayer to stabilise the US front line large banks serving the general public, and to try to breathe some life into the mortgage market. He has rightly decided that even the long pocket of Uncle Sam cannot credibly underpin the whole shaky edifice of post bubble finance. He has concluded that it is safe to let a large financial institution like Lehmans file for bankruptcy protection, speeding up the revaluation of the complex financial instruments that made its fortune on the way up and proved its ruin on the way down. He understands that a lot of wealth has been destroyed and the system has to adjust to that. He is trying to work out which institutions are too important to the system to be allowed to go under. He shows a certain political understanding in an election year that using taxpayers money to put some floor under US house prices is the best combination of political shrewdness and help to the overall banking system.
Will it work? Let’s hope so. The Treasury Secretary is the most important person in the economic and financial world today. The Fed is taking a backseat, and the President is delegating it to an old wall Street pro. The other governments and Central Banks are bystanders, watching as the world’s biggest economy throws its might behind some of the shaky parts of the financial structure, and allows controlled demolition of other parts. It is the best strategy we have got, and we are not in a position to force another one. It would be wrong to let everything shaky collapse at the same time, and folly to suppose the US taxpayer can prop everything up as if nothing had happened. It does look as if the US are aware of the dangers, the complexities and the size of the task. It is clear they are learning on the job and are prepared to be flexible, as no-one has been here before. This crisis is on a different scale to other credit bubbles post 1945. We will find out in the days ahead if the line between institutions to be saved and institutions to be left to their own devices has been drawn sensibly. It is a line which may be redrawn by events.
Amongst the politicians it is popular to blame greedy bankers. Jealousy is a powerful political emotion. The fabulous incomes of some “bankers” in recent years is an easy target. No doubt we could all point to a few greedy bankers or dealers, just as no doubt there are a few greedy footballers. What really annoys people who watch the gyrations of the markets from afar is just how much money the system allowed its practitioners to make, only to discover that the business they were doing was not stable. The politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will blame the bankers and then demand more or different regulation, not pausing to reflect on the irony that this was the most regulated of industries, where many of the schemes and money making practises were devised to stay within the complex rules the regulators had imposed.
Mc Cain and Obama are united once again, this time in condemning Wall Street and its excesses, and demanding unspecified changes to the regulatory structure. They both must be hoping that the Bush men have bottomed this crisis by the end of the year.
The mood seems to be inclining to require a return to “traditional” banking, where more of the advances made stay on the balance sheet of the bank making the loan. This will reduce the total amount of credit that can be extended, and cut out the employment of many of those who made a great living out of creating , trading and investing in packages of loans made by the banks. Allowing Lehman to go under implies the authorities do not value the clever work of the intermediaries and professional market makers. When it comes to lending people a mortgage, they do want to stand behind Fannie and Freddie and help them in the short term make more loans available to customers.
This distinction seems popular and fair until you look a little more closely at it. On both sides of the Atlantic many more people got mortgages only because there were clever intermediaries and professional traders prepared to package loans and take them off the books of a Northern Rock or a Freddie and Fannie. If some or all of this comes to an end there will be further falls in house prices, which in turn undermines the favoured banks as well as the smart dealers and intermediaries. It is all more joined up and complex than some reformers would like.
The US authorities could also cut interest rates. Rates in the market have shot up as banks and others react badly to the news of real risk in lending and trading with other financial institutions. This would be a good moment to cut the Fed rate. There is no danger of inflation taking off or of too much credit in this environment!