5 biggest banks face huge loss risk

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Greg Gordon and Kevin G. Hall report for McClatchy Newspapers Regulatory reports show 5 biggest banks face huge loss risk:

WASHINGTON — Five of America's largest banks, several of which already have received $145 billion in taxpayer bailout dollars, still face potentially catastrophic losses from exotic investments if economic conditions substantially worsen, their latest financial reports show.

Citibank, Bank of America, HSBC Bank USA, Wells Fargo Bank and J.P. Morgan Chase reported that their "current" net loss risks from derivatives — insurance-like bets tied to a loan or other underlying asset — surged to $587 billion as of Dec. 31. Buried in end-of-the-year regulatory reports that McClatchy has reviewed, the figures reflect a jump of 49 percent in just 90 days.

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The banks' potentially huge losses, which could be contained if the economy quickly recovers, also shed new light on the hurdles that President Barack Obama's economic team must overcome to save institutions it deems too big to fail.

While the potential loss totals include risks reported by Wachovia Bank, which Wells Fargo agreed to acquire in October, they don't reflect another Pandora's Box: the impact of Bank of America's Jan. 1 acquisition of tottering investment bank Merrill Lynch, a major derivatives dealer.

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With 12.5 million Americans unemployed and consumer spending in a freefall, fears are rising that a spate of corporate bankruptcies could deliver a new, crippling blow to major banks. Because of the trading in derivatives, corporate bankruptcies could cause a chain reaction that deprives the banks of hundreds of billions of dollars in insurance they bought on risky debt or forces them to shell out huge sums to cover debt they guaranteed.

The biggest concerns are the banks' holdings of contracts known as credit-default swaps, which can provide insurance against defaults on loans such as subprime mortgages or guarantee actual payments for borrowers who walk away from their debts.

The banks' credit-default swap holdings, with face values in the trillions of dollars, are "a ticking time bomb, and how bad it gets is going to depend on how bad the economy gets," said Christopher Whalen, a managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics, a company that grades banks on their degree of loss risk from complex investments.

J.P. Morgan is credited with launching the credit-default market and is one of the most sophisticated players. It remains highly profitable, even after acquiring the remains of failed investment banker dealer Bear Stearns, and says it has limited its exposure. The New York-based bank, however, also has received $25 billion in federal bailout money.

Gary Kopff, president of Everest Management and an expert witness in shareholder suits against banks, has scrutinized the big banks' financial reports. He noted that Citibank now lists 60 percent of its $301 billion in potential losses from its wheeling and dealing in derivatives in the highest-risk category, up from 40 percent in early 2007. Citibank is a unit of New York-based Citigroup. In Monday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Citigroup shares closed at $1.05.

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett, a revered financial guru and America's second wealthiest person after Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, ominously warned that derivatives "are dangerous" in a February letter to his company's shareholders. In it, he confessed that he cost his company hundreds of millions of dollars when he bought a re-insurance company burdened with bad derivatives bets.

These instruments, he wrote, "have made it almost impossible for investors to understand and analyze our largest commercial banks and investment banks . . . When I read the pages of 'disclosure' in (annual reports) of companies that are entangled with these instruments, all I end up knowing is that I don't know what is going on in their portfolios. And then I reach for some aspirin."

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While Bank of America advised shareholders that its risks from these instruments are no more $13.5 billion, Wachovia last year similarly said it could overcome major risks. In reporting a $707 million first-quarter loss, Wachovia acknowledged that it faced heavy subprime mortgage risks, but said it was "well positioned" with "strong capital and liquidity." Within months, losses mushroomed and Wachovia submitted to a takeover by Wells Fargo, which soon got $25 billion in federal bailout money.

Trading in credit-default contracts has sparked investor fears because they are bought and sold in a murky, private market that is largely out of the reach of federal regulators. No one, except those holding the instruments, knows who owes what to whom. Not even banks and insurers can accurately calculate their risks.

"I don't trust any numbers on them," said David Wyss, the chief economist for the New York credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's.

The risks of these below-the-radar insurance policies became abundantly clear last September with the collapse of investment banker Lehman Brothers and global insurer American International Group, both major swap dealers. Their insolvencies threatened to zero out the value of billions of dollars in contracts held by banks and others.

Until then, "we assumed everyone makes good on the contracts," said Vincent Reinhart, a former top economist for the Federal Reserve Board.

Lehman's and AIG's failures put in doubt their guarantees on hundred of billions of dollars in contracts and unleashed a global pullback from risk, leading to the current credit crunch.

The government has since committed $182 billion to rescue AIG and, indirectly, investors on the other end of the firm's swap contracts. AIG posted a fourth quarter 2008 loss last week of more than $61 billion, the worst quarterly performance in U.S. corporate history.

The five major banks, which account for more than 95 percent of U.S. banks' trading in this array of complex derivatives, declined to say how much of the AIG bailout money flowed to them to make good on these contracts.

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In their reports, the banks said that their net current risks and potential future losses from derivatives surpass $1.2 trillion. The potential near-term losses of $587 billion easily exceed the banks' combined $497 billion in so-called "risk-based capital," the assets they hold in reserve for disaster scenarios.

Four of the banks' reserves already have been augmented by taxpayer bailout money, topped by Citibank — $50 billion — and Bank of America — $45 billion, plus a $100 billion loan guarantee.

The banks' quarterly financial reports show that as of Dec. 31:

_ J.P. Morgan had potential current derivatives losses of $241.2 billion, outstripping its $144 billion in reserves, and future exposure of $299 billion.

_ Citibank had potential current losses of $140.3 billion, exceeding its $108 billion in reserves, and future losses of $161.2 billion.

_ Bank of America reported $80.4 billion in current exposure, below its $122.4 billion reserve, but $218 billion in total exposure.

_ HSBC Bank USA had current potential losses of $62 billion, more than triple its reserves, and potential total exposure of $95 billion. HSBC was not eligible for government bailout because it is foreign-owned.

_ San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which agreed to take over Charlotte-based Wachovia in October, reported current potential losses totaling nearly $64 billion, below the banks' combined reserves of $104 billion, but total future risks of about $109 billion.

Kopff, the bank shareholders' expert, said that several of the big banks' risks are so large that they are "dead men walking." [i.e., "zombie banks"]

The banks' credit-default portfolios have gotten little scrutiny because they're off-the-books entries that are largely unregulated. However, government officials said in late February that federal examiners would review the top 19 banks' swap exposures in the coming weeks as part of "stress tests" to evaluate the institutions' ability to withstand further deterioration in the economy.

2 responses to “5 biggest banks face huge loss risk

  1. Stephen:

    There are 65 Trillion In Credit Default Slots World wide; these were derived from less than 100 Billion in sub-prime loans originally.
    Since the CDS have no regulator or a real insurance value they(the Federal Reserve; not the taxpayers) should have addressed the 100 billion in bad loans FIRST last year and we would not be at 10 Trillion and counting on bank bailouts with no end in sight.
    Treason in high places has taken over our Government on both sides of the aisle and its time the F.B.I. start doing what it did to the Keating 5!
    The longer Goldman Sachs COE’s are serving as Treasurers the worse this gets!
    Rubin under Clinton; Paulson;and now the tax cheat!
    I want to see some one go to jail; and I don’t think its to much to ask.
    Paulson is living in a Mansion outside of Chicago and his son just bought a Seatle Sports Team for 109 million dollars Folks!

  2. Ban CDSs going forward. Even Ben Stein is suggesting that one.

    I’d suggest we declare all current CDSs held or issued by any government backed financial institution to be invalid.

    Let the banks wipe that garbage off their books & they would have more incentive to modify any of their loans heading toward default.