The Mechanics of a Bond Market and its Impact on the Banking Crisis

10 April by Michael Hudson

Why the Bank Crisis is Not Over
The crashes of Silvergate, Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and the related bank insolvencies are much more serious than the 2008-09 crash. The problem at that time was crooked banks making bad mortgage Mortgage A loan made against property collateral. There are two sorts of mortgages:
1) the most common form where the property that the loan is used to purchase is used as the collateral;
2) a broader use of property to guarantee any loan: it is sufficient that the borrower possesses and engages the property as collateral.
loans. Debtors were unable to pay and were defaulting, and it turned out that the real estate that they had pledged as collateral Collateral Transferable assets or a guarantee serving as security against the repayment of a loan, should the borrower default. was fraudulently overvalued, “mark-to-fantasy” junk mortgages made by false valuations of the property’s actual market price and the borrower’s income. Banks sold these loans to institutional buyers such as pension funds Pension Fund
Pension Funds
Pension funds: investment funds that manage capitalized retirement schemes, they are funded by the employees of one or several companies paying-into the scheme which, often, is also partially funded by the employers. The objective is to pay the pensions of the employees that take part in the scheme. They manage very big amounts of money that are usually invested on the stock markets or financial markets.
, German savings banks and other gullible buyers who had drunk Alan Greenspan’s neoliberal Kool Aid, believing that banks would not cheat them.

Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) investments had no such default risk. The Treasury always can pay, simply by printing money, and the prime long-term mortgages whose packages SVP bought also were solvent. The problem is the financial system itself, or rather, the corner into which the post-Obama Fed FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank :
has painted the banking system. It cannot escape from its 13 years of Quantitative Easing without reversing the asset Asset Something belonging to an individual or a business that has value or the power to earn money (FT). The opposite of assets are liabilities, that is the part of the balance sheet reflecting a company’s resources (the capital contributed by the partners, provisions for contingencies and charges, as well as the outstanding debts). -price inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. and causing bonds, stocks and real estate to lower their market value.

In a nutshell, solving the illiquidity crisis of 2009 that saved the banks from losing money (at the cost of burdening the economy with enormous debts), paved away for the deeply systemic illiquidity crisis that is just now becoming clear. I cannot resist that I pointed out its basic dynamics in 2007 (Harpers) and in my 2015 book Killing the Host.

Accounting fictions vs. market reality
No risks of loan default existed for the investments in government securities or packaged long-term mortgages that SVB and other banks have bought. The problem is that the market valuation of these mortgages has fallen as a result of interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
being jacked up. The interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. yield Yield The income return on an investment. This refers to the interest or dividends received from a security and is usually expressed annually as a percentage based on the investment’s cost, its current market value or its face value. on bonds and mortgages bought a few years ago is much lower than is available on new mortgages and new Treasury notes and bonds. When interest rates rise, these “old securities” fall in price so as to bring their yield to new buyers in line with the Fed’s rising interest rates.

A market valuation problem is not a fraud problem this time around.

The public has just discovered that the statistical picture that banks report about their assets and liabilities Liabilities The part of the balance-sheet that comprises the resources available to a company (equity provided by the partners, provisions for risks and charges, debts). does not reflect market reality. Bank accountants are allowed to price their assets at “book value” based on the price that was paid to acquire them – without regard for what these investments are worth today. During the 14-year boom in prices for bonds, stocks and real estate this undervalued the actual gain that banks had made as the Fed lowered interest rates to inflate asset prices. But this Quantitative Easing (QE) ended in 2022 when the Fed began to tighten interest rates in order to slow down wage gains.

When interest rates rise and bond Bond A bond is a stake in a debt issued by a company or governmental body. The holder of the bond, the creditor, is entitled to interest and reimbursement of the principal. If the company is listed, the holder can also sell the bond on a stock-exchange. prices fall, stock prices tend to follow. But banks don’t have to mark down the market price of their assets to reflect this decline if they simply hold on to their bonds or packaged mortgages. They only have to reveal the loss in market value if depositors on balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. withdraw their money and the bank actually has to sell these assets to raise the cash to pay their depositors.

That is what happened at Silicon Valley Bank. In fact, it has been a problem for the entire U.S. banking system. The following chart comes from Naked Capitalism, which has been following the banking crisis daily:

How SVP’s short-termism failed to see where the financial sector is heading

During the years of low interest rates, the U.S. banking system found that its monopoly power was too strong. It only had to pay depositors 0.1 or 0.2 percent on deposits. That was all that the Treasury was paying on short-term risk-free Treasury bills. So depositors had little alternative, but banks were charging much higher rates for their loans, mortgages and credit cards. And when the Covid crisis hit in 2020, corporations held back on new investments and flooded the banks with money that they were not spending.

The banks were able to make an arbitrage gain – obtaining higher rates from investments than they were paying for deposits – by buying longer-term securities. SVB bought long-term Treasury bonds. The margin wasn’t large – less than 2 percentage points. But it was the only safe “free money” around.

Last year Federal Reserve Chairman Powell announced that the central bank Central Bank The establishment which in a given State is in charge of issuing bank notes and controlling the volume of currency and credit. In France, it is the Banque de France which assumes this role under the auspices of the European Central Bank (see ECB) while in the UK it is the Bank of England.

was going to raise interest rates in order to slow the wage growth that developed as the economy began to recover. That led most investors to realize that higher interest rates would lower the price of bonds – most steeply for the longest-term bonds. Most money managers avoided such price declines by moving their money into short-term Treasury bills or money-market funds, while real estate, bond and stock prices fell.

For some reason SVB did not make this obvious move. They kept their assets concentrated in long-term Treasury bonds and similar securities. As long as the bank did not have any net deposit withdrawals, it did not have to report this decline in the market value of its assets.”

However, it was left holding the bag when Mr. Powell announced that not enough American workers were unemployed to hold down their wage gains, so he planned to raise interest rates even more than he had expected. He said that a serious recession was needed to keep wages low enough to keep U.S. corporate profits high, and hence their stock price.

This reversed the Obama bailout’s Quantitative Easing that steadily inflated asset prices for real estate, stocks and bonds. But the Fed has painted itself into a corner: If it restores the era of “normal” interest rates, that will reversed the 15-year run-up of asset-price gains for the FIRE sector.

This sudden shift on March 11-12 left SVB “sitting on an unrealized loss of close to $163bn – more than its equity base. Deposit outflows then started to crystallize this into a realized loss.” SVB was not alone. Banks across the country were losing deposits.

This was not a “run on the banks” resulting from fears of insolvency. It was because banks were strong enough monopolies to avoid sharing their rising earnings with their depositors. They were making soaring profits on the rates they charge borrowers and the rates yielded by their investments. But they continued to pay depositors only about 0.2%.

The U.S. Treasury was paying much more, and on Thursday, March 11, the 2-year Treasury note was yielding almost 5 percent. The widening gap between what investors can earn by buying risk-free Treasury securities and the pittance that banks were paying their depositors led the more well-to-do depositors to withdraw their money to earn a fairer market return elsewhere.

It would be wrong to think of this as a “bank run” – much less as a panic. The depositors were not irrational or falling subject to “the madness of crowds” in withdrawing their money. The banks simply were too selfish. And as customers withdrew their deposits, banks had to sell off their portfolio of securities – including the long-term securities held by SVB.

All this is part of the unwinding of the Obama bank bailouts and Quantitative Easing. The result of trying to return to more normal historic interest-rate levels is that on March 14, Moody’s rating agency Rating agency
Rating agencies
Rating agencies, or credit-rating agencies, evaluate creditworthiness. This includes the creditworthiness of corporations, nonprofit organizations and governments, as well as ‘securitized assets’ – which are assets that are bundled together and sold, to investors, as security. Rating agencies assign a letter grade to each bond, which represents an opinion as to the likelihood that the organization will be able to repay both the principal and interest as they become due. Ratings are made on a descending scale: AAA is the highest, then AA, A, BBB, BB, B, etc. A rating of BB or below is considered a ‘junk bond’ because it is likely to default. Many factors go into the assignment of ratings, including the profitability of the organization and its total indebtedness. The three largest credit rating agencies are Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings (FT).

Moody’s :
cut the outlook for the U.S. banking system from stable to negative, citing the “rapidly changing operating environment.” What they are referring to is the plunge in the ability of bank reserves to cover what they owed to their depositors, who were withdrawing their money and forcing the banks to sell securities at a loss.

President Biden’s deceptive cover-up
President Biden is trying to confuse voters by assuring them that the “rescue” of uninsured wealthy SVB depositors is not a bailout. But of course it is a bailout. What he meant was that bank stockholders were not bailed out. But its large uninsured depositors who were saved from losing a single penny, despite the fact that they did not qualify for safety, and in fact had jointly talked among themselves and decided to jump ship and cause the bank collapse.

What Biden really meant was that this is not a taxpayer bailout. It does not involve money creation or a budget deficit, any more than the Fed’s $9 trillion in Quantitative Easing for the banks since 2008 has been money creation or increased the budget deficit. It is a balance-sheet exercise – technically a kind of “swap” with offsets of good Federal Reserve credit for “bad” bank securities pledged as collateral – way above current market pricing, to be sure. That is precisely what “rescued” the banks after 2009. Federal credit was created without taxation.

The banking system’s inherent tunnel vision
One may echo Queen Elizabeth II and ask, “Did nobody see this coming?” Where was the Federal Home Loan Bank that was supposed to regulate SVB? Where were the Federal Reserve examiners?

To answer that, one should look at just who the bank regulators and examiners are. They are vetted by the banks themselves, chosen for their denial that there is any inherently structural problem in our financial system. They are “true believers” that financial markets are self-correcting by “automatic stabilizers” and “common sense.”

Deregulatory corruption played a role in carefully selecting such tunnel-visioned regulators and examiners. SVB was overseen by the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB). The FHLB is notorious for regulatory capture by the banks who choose to operate under its supervision. Yet SVB’s business is not home-mortgage lending. It is lending to high-tech private equity Equity The capital put into an enterprise by the shareholders. Not to be confused with ’hard capital’ or ’unsecured debt’. entities being prepared for IPOs – to be issued at high prices, talked up, and then often left to fall in a pump and dump game. Bank officials or examiners who recognize this problem are disqualified from employment by being “over-qualified.”

Another political consideration is that Silicon Valley is a Democratic Party stronghold and rich source of campaign financing. The Biden Administration was not going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of campaign contributions. Of course it was going to bail out the bank and its private-capital customers. The financial sector is the core of Democratic Party support, and the party leadership is loyal to its supporters. As President Obama told the bankers who worried that he might follow through on his campaign promises to write down mortgage debts to realistic market valuations in order to enable exploited junk-mortgage clients to remain in their homes, “I’m the only one between you [the bankers visiting the White House] and the mob with the pitchforks,” that is, his characterization of voters who believed his “hope and change” patter talk.

The Fed gets frightened and rolls back interest rates
On March 14 stock and bond prices soared. Margin buyers made a killing as they saw that the Administration’s plan is the usual one: to kick the bank problem down the road, flood the economy with bailouts (for the bankers, not for student debtors) until election day in November 2024.

The great question is thus whether interest rates can ever get back to a historic “normal” without turning the entire banking system into something like SVB. If the Fed really raises interest rates back to normal levels to slow wage growth, there must be a financial crash. To avoid this, the Fed must create an exponentially rising flow of Quantitative Easing.

The underlying problem is that interest-bearing debt grows exponentially, but the economy follows an S-curve and then turns down. And when the economy turns down – or is deliberately slowed down when labor’s wage rates tend to catch up with the price inflation caused by monopoly prices and U.S. anti-Russian sanctions that raise energy and food prices, the magnitude of financial claims on the economy exceeds the ability to pay.

That is the real financial crisis that the economy faces. It goes beyond banking. The entire economy is saddled with debt deflation, even in the face of Federal Reserve-backed asset-price inflation. So the great question – literally the “bottom line” – is how can the Fed maneuver its way out of the low-interest Quantitative Easing corner in which it has painted the U.S. economy? The longer it and whichever party is in power continues to save FIRE sector investors from taking a loss, the more violent the ultimate resolution must be.

Michael Hudson

is a professor of economics at University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is author of Super Imperialism and …and forgive them their debts.

Other articles in English by Michael Hudson (7)



8 rue Jonfosse
4000 - Liège- Belgique

00324 60 97 96 80