Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Liquidity v Solvency again

One man's assistance is another man's bailout...

In the world of bank recapitalisations little is clear and labels are important as substance.  Of the many banks which imploded or suffered from the ongoing implosion in Europe, a vast number had been given a clean bill of health by the European Banking Agency during post-2007 stress tests.  In fairness the tests were focussed on liquidity management (liquidity strain being identified as the immediate cause of failures of banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman which kicked off the crisis), while as many now know (except it seems the heads of the EU and the ECB, the crisis has morphed into one of solvency - banks just don't have enough capital in general (as opposed to immediate funds to hand and agreed credit lines to see off a sharp rise in demand for return of funds).

And so it is that the same debate is playing out in Australia in respect of its new bank liquidity facility.  As noted several times in this blog, this has been characterised as a backstop, a safety measure which should not have to be used, or if used, only to cover temporary liquidity demands.  Taking this at face value there are fair questions to answer, but interestingly Michael West had an article out where he disputes the purpose - that the facility is in fact, simply a bailout fund from the RBA - with the suggestion being that Australia's banks are much weaker than they represent.

Over to Michael:

...Glenn Stevens doesn't think it's a bailout fund. It's a Committed Liquidity Facility - the $380 billion in Reserve Bank rescue money, sorry ''liquidity'' that is, which the banks can access should they find themselves in strife....Under this thingamajig, one must select one's words with care, if you are a bank and you are about to bite the dust then you can forget about a bailout. If you are even tempted to whisper the word bailout, snap out of it!...
...If, however, you encounter ''an acute stress scenario'', why not shimmy on down to Martin Place - but only if you need a little something to facilitate your liquidity in a committed kind of way - flop out the old paw for a spot of lazy taxpayer liquidity, say $20 billion, and Bob's your uncle. Or rather Glenn's your lender. This is no freebie. You will pay dearly - a heinous 40 basis points over the official cash rate....
...Yes, you can only access this exciting opportunity if you are a bank and you are ''illiquid'', but not ''insolvent''. It is beyond this mere chronicler to explore the fathomless schism between a bank that finds itself illiquid and one that finds itself insolvent....(here)
This is not too different from some schemes tried elsewhere and the main message from the crisis in other jurisdictions is that early recognition and writedown of bad banks is necessary (this is the difference between the US and EU response).  Given that thanks to the EU, we are now in a world of depositor bail-ins (with New Zealand and Canada indicating they are considering such contributions so that bondholders, depositors and all sorts of creditors likely to be hit if a bank fails), the strong suspicion is that, notwithstanding the arrangements discussed beforehand, any stress at a major Australian bank will be messy.

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