GDP's Debt to Credit

The FDIC is considering tapping its emergency line of credit with the Treasury. FDIC Chair Sheila Bair recently hinted after a speech at Georgetown University that all options are on the table when it comes time to replenish the dwindling Deposit Insurance Fund. We’ll find out more in the next few weeks after the FDIC board of directors meets.

Stock market bulls aren’t concerned about the inevitable acceleration in bank failures — at least for now. Even though deposits will be insured against loss, the loss of local banks will still have a depressing effect on hundreds of small communities. These communities are going to lose their only access to business credit when their local zombie banks — loaded with toxic construction or commercial real estate loans — are liquidated or merged into other weak banks.

Meanwhile, the latest monthly figures show that commercial bank balance sheets are shrinking at a fairly rapid rate, due to a combination of several factors: loan charge-offs, older loans are being paid back at a faster rate than new loans are being made, and regulators pressuring banks to build larger capital buffers.

So credit-fueled growth in consumption or investment is not occurring. Combine this with stagnant or declining wages and corporate profit margins and it becomes hard to imagine how GDP will rebound on a sustainable basis. GDP is the stat that every money manager fixates upon — despite the fact that GDP does not accurately measure true economic progress; it’s like evaluating a stock purely on sales growth, without thinking about what’s driving sales, and whether these sales are sustainable or accretive to wealth.

Nominal GDP is calculated as “consumption + investment + government spending + exports – imports.” Then, government statisticians subtract a highly doctored CPI figure from annualized changes in the above variables to get “real GDP growth.”

Note that all the variables in the GDP equation can be pumped up by excessive credit growth. As I mentioned in the Sept. 4 alert, if GDP is growing at the expense of degraded balance sheets, the end results are never happy. Japan’s GDP stayed higher than it otherwise would have been in the 1990s despite the incredibly wasteful spending on bridges to nowhere. Its policymakers reacted to a huge misallocation of capital into real estate in the 1980s by misallocating capital into government projects and subsidies to favored industries.

U.S. policymakers are following this playbook even faster, only without acknowledging one crucial difference: Japan had a high household savings rate to finance its government deficits, while the U.S. does not. Plus, the U.S. has already “dollarized” the rest of the world, and there are signs international demand for dollars has reached its saturation point.

The gold and commodities markets are reacting to this unpleasant reality. These markets are starting to discount the fact that the Fed will be the aggressive buyer of last resort for all types of debt securities. We’ve likely only seen the beginning of growth in the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet. As long as it can get away with it, the Fed will keep creating new money out of thin air to finance the U.S. federal deficit. Plus, via its liquidity facilities, the Fed and the megabanks will keep swapping Treasuries for legacy toxic securities marked at fantasy levels.

A few wild cards could disrupt this benign “reflationary” environment we’ve been in since the March stock market bottom, resulting in the stock market taking another nasty leg down:

  1. If the “audit the Fed” bill were to pass and result in more handcuffs on the Fed, it would help to slow the reckless debasement of the U.S. dollar. But if it put an end to the Fed’s exotic lending facilities, which would force the owners of toxic securities to retain and mark them down sooner, then we could see a return to the January-early March 2009 stock market environment — only most of the damage would be contained to the financial sector as equity of insolvent institutions gets wiped out or diluted.
  2. Contraction in the real economy and state governments could easily overwhelm expansion in the “federal government economy.”
  3. International holders of trillions in paper U.S. assets could accelerate the rate at which they diversify into real assets. That’s how we could see a spike in “money velocity” that the deflationist camp says is a necessary condition for the CPI to rise. Most of the price pressure will be felt in oil prices, especially later in 2010 and 2011, when today’s underinvestment in new oil projects leads to tight international supplies.

I’d like to bring to your attention one more thing about today’s investing climate, because it’s being used so often lately in the media to justify today’s nosebleed stock valuations: the “money on the sidelines” fallacy. Growth or contraction in the current balance of $3.5 trillion in money market funds depends on how much companies look to borrow in the commercial paper market — not on the level of the stock market, as so many seem to believe.

Those who point to the $3.5 trillion in money market funds as if it’s a bucket that can be “poured” into the stock market bucket to keep the rally going do not understand that money does not go “into” or “out of” the market, but through the market. Trader A sells every share bought by Trader B. Once this transaction settles, cash goes one way and shares the other. The price at which the transaction takes place depends on how badly Trader B wants to own shares, not how many money market shares are in his account.

Also, money market fund balances represent very liquid short-term loans; they reflect an amount of money that’s already been spent in the economy and will be paid back over a very short time frame. John Hussman — one of the best mutual fund managers, in my view — refutes the “cash on the sidelines” fallacy best. It’s worth reading and remembering the next time you hear a talking head arguing that the rally can keep going because of liquidity.

Washington Federal Closes Offering; Now We Wait for Earnings

Yesterday, Washington Federal (WFSL) announced that its secondary stock offering would generate net proceeds of $333 million. This works out to a per share price of $13.79, including underwriting discounts and expenses and assuming full exercise of the underwriter’s overallotment. Here is an example of cash going “into” stocks, because these are newly issued, rather than existing, shares in the secondary market.

As I noted in Monday’s flash alert, I expect the offering will be necessary to absorb a mounting wave of net charge-offs in the future. It’s possible that this offering plan became a necessity after a friendly suggestion from regulators to raise more capital.

On Wednesday, WFSL stock rallied on high volume, but did not reflect organic demand for the stock. JP Morgan was the sole book-running manager for the Washington Federal offering. Knowing that it would likely receive a few million WFSL shares as a form of compensation in the underwriters’ overallotment, JPM’s trading desk probably established a short position that it plans to cover by delivering the shares it will receive upon the closing of the deal. This likely explains the bizarre trading moves in the stock this week: When institutions were more interested than expected, resulting in a higher offering price of $14.50, JPM likely covered some of their short position.

As for the analyst reaction to the offering, the two analyst notes I saw might as well be corporate press releases, because they expect this new capital to be deployed into an FDIC-assisted rollup of lots of zombie banks in the Pacific Northwest. Also, these analysts cite WFSL’s “strong” capital ratios without adjusting for future credit losses. One might suspect that these analysts have not even read the asset quality footnotes in Washington Federal’s SEC filings.

The big losses WFSL will take on construction loans are obvious, no matter how long management claims it will be able to sit on them. But what’s not obvious to the market — yet — is the rapid future loss formation in its $6.7 billion mortgage book. Management has set aside practically zero allowance for loan losses against its mortgage book. See the chart below for the allocation of WFSL’s allowance by loan type.

WFSL carries a mere $18.8 million loss allowance against its $6.7 billion book of mortgages — a ratio of just 0.28% of assets. The harsh reality of the mortgage crisis tells us that this $6.7 billion asset value is overstated, along with capital ratios (or equity); it should be marked down by far more than $18.8 million. Yet WFSL’s accounting translates as follows: Management does not expect more than $18.8 million in cumulative credit losses in mortgages (defaults, net of recoveries after foreclosure) through the rest of this credit cycle, despite the fact that the majority of these mortgages are now underwater and the job market remains weak.

As you can see in the chart, the ratio of loss allowance to nonperforming loans (by category) has shrunk dramatically. In December 2007, WFSL’s residential mortgage loss allowance was $13 million, and its nonperforming mortgages were also $13 million. As of June 30, this loss allowance had been built up to $18.8 million, but nonperforming mortgages had grown to $119 million (and will keep growing). This loss coverage ratio has shrunk from 100% to 16% over the past six quarters (as shown in the chart’s blue line) and needs to be built back up to a respectable level. And the only way for WFSL to build it up is to book large credit provision expenses in future income statements.

Washington Federal’s “strong” capital ratios are a function of hopeful accounting. I expect the market to come around to this view — not only for WFSL, but also for the entire banking sector. Ever since the loosening of mark-to-market accounting rules last April, the creators and users of financial statements have collectively chosen to deny reality and bury their head in the sand about the future direction of market values for collateral backing loans — and the value of the loans themselves.

Everyone is waiting and hoping for a miraculous rebound in housing prices and the labor market, when we have yet to see the bottom in either. When reality sets in, this will not end well for owners of bank stocks, REITs, and other financial stocks. These stocks are claims on assets that are marked to fantasy levels.

Mark-to-market suspension has slowed the rate at which losses are recognized, but this self-delusional accounting practice cannot make the losses disappear, and will likely make these cumulative, stretched-out losses even bigger in the future by rationing credit to the healthier parts of the economy.

Dan Amoss

September 23, 2009