There’s way more chaff than wheat in the air when it comes to understanding what’s wrong with the bank. Because of this it can be easy to get caught up in jargon and sound-bites and lose track of what the issues really are.
Two National Public Radio entities are doing a superb job at managing the noise-to-signal ratio. One is the show This American Life and the other is the blog/podcast Planet Money (the Planet’s pieces are also heard on regular NPR news shows). The two shows frequently team up and their latest look at the the big picture – entitled Bad Bank — is particularly worth listening to.
In the episode, Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg explain in an easy-to-understand-without-being-stupid way exactly what went wrong. They also make a strong case for some very simple solutions. Not fun. Not easy. Just simple. These solutions are simple enough that it is also easy to see exactly why no one in power is yet willing to initiate them.
Alex Blumberg: If you want to understand this crisis right now, this banking crisis, you need to understand this one thing. And it’s one thing, Adam, that the mainstream media is afraid to touch.
Adam Davidson: They’re afraid because they think it’s really boring.
Alex Blumberg: Right because, what this central thing is, this thing that we need to discuss right is a bank balance sheet.
Adam Davidson: But please, do not despair, because we think we’ve come up with a way to explain this to you, and we actually think it will be pretty enjoyable. So, to begin, let’s imagine the simplest bank in the world. I would like to call it Adam’s Bank.
The pair then go on to explain the basics of mortgages and how banks work and make a profit in an amusing and interesting way. They do this by using an imaginary mortgage on an imaginary dollhouse and with the help of various experts like Columbia Business School professor David Beim.
Alex Blumberg: David Beim is saying, you don’t want to mark it to market. Mark to market, that’s another phrase you might have heard. And it applies to exactly the situation Adam is in right now. He’s got a dollhouse on his books for 100, but if he had to sell it now, he could only get 50 – that’s the market price, what he could get right now. Marking it to market means Adam would have to enter the market price – 50 dollars – or 20 dollars – or whatever it really is – into his books.
BEIM: And the bankers have all been saying ‘please don’t make me do that,’ because if you do, I’ll be declaring bankruptcy. If I show all those, the reduction from 100 all the way down to 20, you’ve just wiped out my entire capital and more, I’m going to have to go to the government and say, close me down, I’m broke. And bankers find that hard to do. and furthermore, regulators don’t want it to happen to all the banks at once. Certainly not all the big ones.
Alex Blumberg: Now obviously, in the real world, the assets that the banks have on their books are more complicated than dollhouses. But, if the banks had to sell them now, in today’s market, they’d almost certainly take a huge loss. A loss big enough to wipe out their capital and shut them down.
Also helping out is a former IMF economist named Simon Johnson and it is Johnson who lays it all out in language so clear even a politician, CEO or journalist can understand it.
JOHNSON: You know, what would the U.S. tell the IMF to do if this were any country other than the U.S.? If you covered up the name of the country, and just showed me the numbers, just show me the problems, talk to me a little about the politics in a generic way. With the financial system, you have a boom, and then the crash, what would the U.S. tell the IMF to do, I know what we would do, I know what the advice would be, and that would be, take over the banking system. Clean it up, re-privatize it as soon as you can.
Account for the bad debts, throw out the bad management, take the hit and move on. That really is the only way out of this mess. Until that happens – and it doesn’t matter if you call it nationalization or some other euphemism – nothing will change. Keep that in mind when listening to the chattering classes and it becomes quite easy to know when you are being lied to.