Friday, April 1, 2011

The Health of the Banking Systems in Europe and the United States

What still bothers me is that governments in both the United States and Europe have not resolved their problems with the solvency of their banking systems.

The question remains about how long these problems are going to be carried along.

This morning we read, “Ireland’s Largest Banks Given Failing Grades.” It is assumed that the government is going to take over the banks and the price tag is going to be a minimum of about $35 billion. (

Following up on this there is the article about the bank problems in Spain, “Spain May Take Over CAM as Deal Talks Fail.” Here again we have the possibility of nationalizing another bank. Moody’s Investors Service estimates that the minimum needed to get the Spanish savings banks adequately capitalized at between €40 billion to €60 billion. (

On a smaller scale, we have another fiscal crisis in Portugal as it became known that the government’s financial figures were incorrect and that budget matters are worse than was expected. This news came a few days after Portugal’s credit rating had been downgraded once again. This, and the concern that Portugal may not be able to meet bond repayments falling in April and June, has raised new issues about the solvency of the Portuguese banking system.

In addition, we are still awaiting the results of the recently administered “stress tests” of European banks. There is substantial concern about what these “tests” might show.

And, question marks still hang over the health of the smaller banks…that is smaller than the biggest 25 commercial banks…in the United States banking system. The number of commercial banks on the FDIC’s list of problem banks was just under 900 on December 31, 2010. In all of 2010, 157 commercial banks failed while mergers occurred for 197 other banking organizations, many of them not exactly healthy.

This means that almost 12 percent of the commercial banks of the United States are on the problem list of the FDIC. Some put the number of commercial banks that are facing severe operating difficulties at 40 percent of the banking system.

I have argued that a major reason for the quantitative easing on the part of the Federal Reserve is to provide sufficient liquidity for the “smaller”, “troubled” commercial banks so that the FDIC can close or arrange mergers for as many of these banks as possible in an orderly fashion.

The concern over the health of the commercial banks in American and Europe is real.

And, now we are seeing just how extensive the financial crisis was in both Europe and the United States in 2008/2009. These banking systems collapsed together. And, the banking systems have continued to fail to resolve their issues together.

The release of the Federal Reserve statistics on borrowings from the Fed’s discount window, “Fed Kept Taps Open for Banks in Crisis”, is amazing in many respects. Some of the biggest borrowers, it turns out were from Europe. The Fed certainly became the worldwide “lender of last resort.” And, the Fed added large amounts of “junk” in the process. (

The problems arose from real estate lending and the problems that continue are related to real estate lending.

The question that remains concerns the depths of the problems that still exist in the European and United States banking systems.

People I know are still in shock over the sale of the Wilmington Trust Company in early November 2010, a bank that everyone thought was in pristine shape. (

This subject came up again in discussions I was a part of during the past weekend.

The concern? How many more situations like that of the Wilmington Trust Company are there “out there”?

This is the worry that we cannot seem to shake.

And, the debate always seems to come back to one thing: Why is the Federal Reserve acting in the way it is? Injecting $1.5 trillion of excess reserves into the banking system does not make a lot of sense…unless the banking system is less solvent than we are being told.

There is a lot of discomfort… in both Europe and the United States…when it comes to looking at the banking system. Unfortunately, we may never understand how bad off the banks have been until we get more and more information in bits and pieces as things work themselves out.

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