The Limitations of a Bailout

For about 10 years, Simon Jenkins and I were both writing columns for the London Times. Simon is still writing a column for The Sunday Times, but has shifted his weekly column to The Guardian. However, he has written something in The Sunday Times that has provoked a very interesting reply from a reader, a copy of which has been sent to me.

The reader’s letter comes from a Mr. D.P. Marchessini. I suspect that Mr. Marchessini is correct and the present credit crisis is the natural consequence of high leverage, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the creation of excessive and complex derivatives. The letter traces the sequences of events:

“In 1933, the United States passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited commercial banks from dealing in investments, and prohibited investment banks from doing commercial banking activities. This was a very sensible measure, and kept the banks in reasonable order until 1990.

“Unfortunately, in 1990, this Act was repealed — for reasons best known to the psychiatrists of the legislators. The result was that all the big Wall Street brokers became banks, as well as brokers, and the big banks started trading and speculating. This was combined with an enormous increase in “leverage” — borrowed money — by all the banks. Leverage is the ratio of a bank’s capital to its total assets.

“This used to be between five and seven times, pre-1990. But post-1990, it immediately started ballooning and, although the banks tried to keep it quiet, it was known that Merrill Lynch was more than 40 times. Goldman Sachs was 28 times, and Lehman Brothers was 30 times when it failed. Regardless what one thinks of such hair-raising tactics, the one thing that is clear is that they only work when the market is going up. Apart from their Balance Sheet, all the banks also had an enormous amount of ‘derivatives,’ which were kept off the Balance Sheet. Derivatives are an enormous cocktail of very exotic Options, on almost anything. In 1995, I was talking to someone at a dinner party, who was rich and supposedly very well connected in the financial world. I asked him what he thought the total amount of nominal value in derivatives were at that time. He said he thought perhaps $100 billion. In fact, at that time, they were $1 trillion. Today, they are $1.3 quadrillion — all off the Balance Sheet. They are also not included in any bankruptcy. Of course, this is the nominal value, and the actual amount at risk is much less. But five percent of $1.3 quadrillion is $65 trillion — still a tidy sum.”

I do not understand derivatives, certainly not at a level of $1.3 quadrillion. I am not even sure what a quadrillion is, though I assume it is 1,000 trillion. I do not feel ashamed of my inability to understand the global derivatives market, since the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, himself has said that he does not understand them. What is clear is that they have been created in very large numbers. If Mr. Marchessini’s figures are correct, the gross value of derivatives is far in excess of the capacity of all the world’s governments to bail them out. Even a net value of $65 trillion is beyond the bailout potential of the major powers.

The Secretary for the Treasury, Hank Paulson, has asked Congress to authorise $700 billion as a bailout for those banks that have invested in sub-prime mortgages and other toxic assets. This is a sum one can reasonably understand. In London there are a large number of houses worth £1,000,000 or more. A thousand such houses are worth £1 billion. That is a solid reality. The $700 billion, which Secretary Paulson is asking for, is worth about £400 billion. It is therefore equivalent to about 400,000 good town houses in London.

Plainly that would be a valuable estate, but it is conceivable. I can imagine the suburbs of London rolling out to Heathrow and the West. If one started at Canary Wharf and went on to Heathrow one could easily identify 400,000 houses worth £1 million each. If the U.S. Government chose to pledge itself for 400,000 such houses that seems reasonable. This may involve very large figures, but so does the Federal Budget.

It is the trillions that cease to be meaningful. I know several billionaires; I have certainly never met a trillionaire, let alone a quadrillionaire. If these derivatives hang over the whole banking system, then they should presumably be wound down and, over time paid off. They represent potential liabilities of the banking system, even if they are off the banks’ balance sheets. They cannot simply be consigned to a bad bank or simply be allowed to go into default. Even if Mr. Paulson gets his $700 billion, what will that do to settle the problems of quadrillions of derivatives?

Lord William Rees-Mogg
September 25, 2008