Is My Money Safe part 5

← Back to homepage

Gaps (especially in the short term category) between the bank's assets and its liabilities are a very worrisome sign. But the bank's macroeconomic environment is as important to the determination of its financial health and of its creditworthiness as any ratio or micro-analysis. The state of the financial markets sometimes has a larger bearing on the bank's soundness than other factors. A fine example is the effect that interest rates or a devaluation have on a bank's profitability and capitalization. The implied (not to mention the explicit) support of the authorities, of other banks and of investors (domestic as well as international) sets the psychological background to any future developments. This is only too logical. In an unstable financial environment, knock-on effects are more likely. Banks deposit money with other banks on a security basis. Still, the value of securities and collaterals is as good as their liquidity and as the market itself. The very ability to do business (for instance, in the syndicated loan market) is influenced by the larger picture. Falling equity markets herald trading losses and loss of income from trading operations and so on.

Perhaps the single most important factor is the general level of interest rates in the economy. It determines the present value of foreign exchange and local currency denominated government debt. It influences the balance between realized and unrealized losses on longer-term (commercial or other) paper. One of the most important liquidity generation instruments is the repurchase agreement (repo). Banks sell their portfolios of government debt with an obligation to buy it back at a later date. If interest rates shoot up – the losses on these repos can trigger margin calls (demands to immediately pay the losses or else materialize them by buying the securities back).

Margin calls are a drain on liquidity. Thus, in an environment of rising interest rates, repos could absorb liquidity from the banks, deflate rather than inflate. The same principle applies to leverage investment vehicles used by the bank to improve the returns of its securities trading operations. High interest rates here can have an even more painful outcome. As liquidity is crunched, the banks are forced to materialize their trading losses. This is bound to put added pressure on the prices of financial assets, trigger more margin calls and squeeze liquidity further. It is a vicious circle of a monstrous momentum once commenced.

But high interest rates, as we mentioned, also strain the asset side of the balance sheet by applying pressure to borrowers. The same goes for a devaluation. Liabilities connected to foreign exchange grow with a devaluation with no (immediate) corresponding increase in local prices to compensate the borrower. Market risk is thus rapidly transformed to credit risk. Borrowers default on their obligations. Loan loss provisions need to be increased, eating into the bank's liquidity (and profitability) even further. Banks are then tempted to play with their reserve coverage levels in order to increase their reported profits and this, in turn, raises a real concern regarding the adequacy of the levels of loan loss reserves. Only an increase in the equity base can then assuage the (justified) fears of the market but such an increase can come only through foreign investment, in most cases. And foreign investment is usually a last resort, pariah, solution (see Southeast Asia and the Czech Republic for fresh examples in an endless supply of them. Japan and China are, probably, next).

In the past, the thinking was that some of the risk could be ameliorated by hedging in forward markets (=by selling it to willing risk buyers). But a hedge is only as good as the counterparty that provides it and in a market besieged by knock-on insolvencies, the comfort is dubious. In most emerging markets, for instance, there are no natural sellers of foreign exchange (companies prefer to hoard the stuff). So forwards are considered to be a variety of gambling with a default in case of substantial losses a very plausible way out.

Banks depend on lending for their survival. The lending base, in turn, depends on the quality of lending opportunities. In high-risk markets, this depends on the possibility of connected lending and on the quality of the collaterals offered by the borrowers. Whether the borrowers have qualitative collaterals to offer is a direct outcome of the liquidity of the market and on how they use the proceeds of the lending. These two elements are intimately linked with the banking system. Hence the penultimate vicious circle: where no functioning and professional banking system exists – no good borrowers will emerge.