Monday, February 21, 2011

Taxpayer Liability for Banks: the Missing Link in Balancing the Federal Budget

As if the federal budget balancing debate weren't complicated enough, a key issue is absent from the discussion. Virtually no attention is being paid to the potential budget-busting problem of taxpayer liability for the banking system. Although this is a contingent liability, it can wreak astounding havoc when the banking system hits the fan. Ireland illustrates the problem.

Like so many other nations, Ireland rode to seeming prosperity on a rising real estate market. Its banks were instrumental in financing this bubble. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, Irish banks rapidly slipped off the precipice. Their stock prices fell and a liquidity crisis loomed. The Irish government moved posthaste to stem the panic, guaranteeing some $570 billion of bank liabilities (which should be compared to Ireland's GDP of approximately $170 billion). Eventually, the Irish government nationalized one major bank, Anglo Irish. While the Irish government's direct debt is about 65% of GDP (not much different from the U.S. government's direct debt), its guarantee of bank liabilities vastly increased its potential obligations. The resulting morass was so bad that Ireland needed an EU bailout earlier this year.

The U.S. government (and American taxpayers) are on the hook for the liabilities of the largest American banks. Not officially, but we all know they'll get a bailout if they need one. In addition, taxpayers are liable for the housing banks--Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the FHA and Ginnie Mae. The amounts of all these contingent liabilities are unclear but likely very large. Illiquid real estate assets held by banks (so-called Level 3 assets) may be overvalued by hundreds of billions. Vast numbers of defaulted mortgages remain in limbo as the foreclosure mess crawls toward a resolution that will probably entail more losses for banks. The continued decline of the real estate market means more mortgages going underwater, and probably more defaults.

In addition, the largest banks have trillions of dollars of derivatives exposure. Much of the derivatives exposure is hard to see right now. Current accounting standards allow banks sometimes to net derivatives assets against derivatives liabilities. Netting means we don't see them on balance sheets. Once international accounting standards replace U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (probably within a couple of years), a lot of current netting of derivatives holdings would likely have to be unwound. Balance sheets of the largest banks could balloon by more than $7 trillion, in the aggregate. America's GDP is around $14 trillion, while annual federal spending is around $3.5 trillion. Readers may painfully recall that during the 2007-08 financial crisis, derivatives assets had a scary way of losing value while derivatives liabilities remained unwavering. Taxpayers would be on the hook for the losses. Reining in the amounts of bank derivatives exposure may be necessary to reducing the potential bite on taxpayers.

So, we can see that balancing the budget doesn't just mean getting expenditures down and government revenues up. It also means limiting contingent liabilities. Ireland's government didn't flagrantly overspend. Profligate lending by too big to fail Irish banks made it fail. Fortunately, Ireland's not too big to be bailed out by the EU. But there's no brother big enough to bail out America. Truly balancing the U.S. government's budget requires limiting taxpayer exposure to the banking system.

Progress on that front is painfully slow. The Volcker Rule is constraining some of the riskier activity. But reform of the derivatives market is hard to spot, even on sunny days at high noon. Banks remain Brobdingnagian in size, and executive compensation may soon run wild again. Implementation of the Dodd-Frank provisions for improved financial regulation is hindered by lack of funding. Fannie, Freddie and the FHA guarantee almost all new mortgages. Proposals for limiting the burdens they place on taxpayers will be obstinately contested by the real estate industry. Although neither Republicans or Democrats want to face the tough issues in balancing the budget--entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security--we will eventually have to reform those programs. But all the pain and controversy we will endure squabbling over entitlements will be for naught if there is another financial crisis. And another crisis hardly seems any less likely than the one we still haven't recovered from.

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