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The New Bank Paradigm: Squeezing Out the Private Sector

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Because government doesn't create any real economic value, the domination of government assets on bank balance sheets in place of private sector assets spells real trouble for the future economic growth in Western economies.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Since the world adopted Basel I in 1988, it has allowed the Europeans to dictate the bank capital regime for major industrial economies. We are now in the process of adopting Basel III capital rules. Unfortunately, these rules have so biased the financial system that the private sector, the engine of job creation, has all but been squeezed out.

Under all of the Basel regimes, "sovereign" debt is considered riskless. Everything else has a varying degree of risk to it which requires a capital reserve. Loans to the private sector have the highest capital requirements. Americans have always viewed our US Treasury debt as "riskless." So, on the surface, it appears reasonable that no capital should be required, and Americans think no further. But, further thought would reveal two significant issues: 1) The "sovereign" debt of other countries may not be riskless (ask the private sector holders of Greek debt, or Jon Corzine and MF Global (MFGLQ) folks about the risks associated with Italian debt); 2) The bias imparted with this sort of capital regime makes loans to the private sector unattractive, especially in times of economic stress where bank capital is under pressure. But, it is in times of such stress that loans to the private sector are needed to create investment, capital spending, and jobs.

One of the reasons for all of the stress in Europe is the fact that their banking system holds huge amounts of periphery country debt (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy) with no capital backing. On a mark to market basis, most, if not all, of the capital of the periphery banks disappears. In fact, the European Central bank (ECB) itself is still carrying the Greek debt it holds on its books at par, as if there is no chance that they won't be repaid in full.

Since the financial crisis of '08-'09, Western banking systems have come to rely on government, at first as the capital provider of last resort, but now, at least in Greece and Spain, as the capital provider of first resort (most likely because there is no other). In a symbiotic relationship, those same governments have come to rely on the banks to purchase their excessive supply of debt. The capital rules favor this unhealthy relationship. In effect, we now have a banking DNA bias against private sector lending.

We have heard the politicians in Washington rail against the banks for not making loans to the private sector. Yet, all of the rules, regulations, and enforcement processes make it difficult, if not impossible, to do just that. The overbearing regulatory process strangles private sector lending at small community banks. And, as indicated above, the capital regime itself, which impacts all banks, discourages private sector loans. For example, a $1 million loan to the private sector requires $200,000 in capital backing plus an additional $20,000 to $30,000 in loss reserve contribution from the capital base. That same $1 million loan to the US Treasury, via purchases of Treasury securities, requires no capital or reserve contribution. The ultimate result is that, since the financial crisis when western governments found out that it was politically okay to "save" (i.e. recapitalize) large banks with public monies, they also found out that the capital and regulatory regime now made those same banks major buyers of excessive government debt.

Unfortunately, while governments like this and will continue to promote it because it keeps the cost of borrowing low and provides them with a ready market for deficit spending, government is not the economic engine. That is what the private sector is. Simply put, the banking model in the west now promotes moral hazard (banks making bets that are implicitly backed by taxpayers) and Too Big To Fail (TBTF) policies while it stifles private sector lending. The Dodd-Frank legislation has institutionalized this model with government intervention now seen as the first response to a banking issue. If it hasn't, then why did President Obama say on The View the business day after JPMorgan Chase (JPM) announced its trading loss that it was a good thing that JPMorgan had a lot of capital else the government would have had to "step in." Or why has Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan's CEO, been required to testify before both House and Senate Committees about a loss of less than 3% of the bank's $190 billion capital base? As further proof of government control of the banking system, the FDIC recently announced that, under its Dodd-Frank mandate, it is ready to take over any TBTF institution, "when the next crisis occurs." Isn't it clear that the relationship between the US federal government and the banking system is unhealthy, perhaps even incestuous, to the detriment of the private sector? That very same banking model is emerging in Europe with the emergency funding by the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) to recapitalize the Spanish banks and talk of a pan-European regulatory authority and deposit insurance.

The emerging banking model is one in which central governments and the money center banks co-exist in a mutual admiration society where government capitalizes the banks and the banks are the primary buyers of excessive government debt. Because government doesn't create any real economic value (it regulates it and transfers it from one group to another), the domination of government assets on bank balance sheets in place of private sector assets spells real trouble for the future economic growth in the Western economies.

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert Barone is a Mangaging Partner / Portfolio Manager of Universal Value Advisors.
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