Now that many of the banks with some losses in the US sub-prime area have reported it may be a good time to look back at what has happened and then look forward to what is likely to happen over the next 6 to 12 months.
Looking back, I am glad to be able to say that, at least on a macro-economic scale. None of the bigger international banks have had any real problems – with most not even having this problem to cause them to drop into losses for the year, even though some have reported losses (after full write-downs) for the quarter.
Northern Rock was the only bank outside the US to suffer real problems and this was a liquidity issue – not a capital one. Inside the US several smaller banking institutions have failed, but these have been quite small banks that were heavily involved in the lending.
In Australia, again, none of the banks, building societies or credit unions have had any real problems and, after a few weeks of liquidity problems, we have largely returned to business as usual.
The ones that have had problems are the non-banks that have relied on wholesale funds to keep their businesses afloat – Rams Home Loans being a perfect example. Rams, as a business, did not fail, but they have been unable to secure funding to keep it going and had to be, effectively, rescued by one of the banks (Westpac).
Really, what this "crisis" has done is what any instability should do – prune out the weaker players and allow the well-managed and run (or just the lucky) to continue. The ones that have failed were the ones with a business model that was too reliant on other players in the market and / or had poor timing on their fund raisings. When there was instability they were the ones sitting there exposed. Again – the strong survive and the weak perish. If a firm cannot go for a few weeks without external funding then, honestly, why should they be able to survive?
As banking crises go, though, this was a puppy – if a bit of a vicious puppy.
The Medium Term
As the remainder of the US sub-prime stuff reprices over the next 6 to 12 months, though, will it get worse? In short, the answer is no. The bulk of it is still to re-price, but most of the banks that have reported have written down their entire sub-prime holdings, not just the stuff that has repriced already. The reason for this is clear – it is both prudent, and required, for them to do so.
A quick look at IAS 39 and FAS 133 (the relevant accounting standards for most of the banks) says that they have to write their assets down as soon as it looks like they have lost value. In the case of the sub-prime stuff this has already happened. There will be some adjustments to the values over the next few months, but they can be expected to be upward revaluations as the market starts to clear of this stuff. The written down values would be the current worst case – not necessarily their expected outcome.
In situations like this banks (and other listed firms) are increasingly obeying the maxim that you get the bad news out early, and, if anything, make it look worse that it is. The reason for this is that the market hates downside surprises, but likes upside ones. Getting the bad news out early and big is better than a situation where you just gradually dribble out the bad news.
A single, big, poor number is much better than a few smaller ones.
Banks will take a good look at their counterparties and see if they need to re-visit their lending policies, but the worst of this one can now be expected to be over.
On to the next "crisis". A US recession anyone?