Capital Losses

| Sun Nov. 23, 2008 3:39 PM EST

CAPITAL LOSSES.....This post is a couple of months old, but John Hempton says that our ongoing financial crisis is not a problem of bank capitalization:

Nobody I know calculates the total system losses plausibly above 2 trillion dollars....If I add the private equity disasters, GSE losses and things like car loans to [all the mortgage losses] I still can't get end credit losses above 1.5 trillion.

That is a vast amount of money — enough for instance to solve most of Africa's education and water problems. But in the context of the huge industry that is America's finance system it is just not that big.

So far financial institutions have raised (well) above 400 billion in fresh capital – its probably nearing 500 billion. The Federal Government has absorbed losses through the takeover of Fannie, Freddie, contingent liabilities on Wachovia, AIG and others of maybe 50-200 billion (lets use the low number).

The pre-tax, pre-provision operating profit of S&P financials used to be above 400 billion and is probably still above 350 billion. Two years of that and there is another 700 billion.

The banks had some capital to start with — in some cases excess capital against regulatory standards.

All up — we have almost certainly raised or passed to the government — or within two years will have earned — something approaching 1.5 trillion.

There is no capital shortage. Get used to it.

Mark Thoma says of this, "I don't agree with his diagnosis of the fundamental problem," but doesn't explain further. I myself don't have the smarts to either agree or disagree. Still, Hempton's observation here is one that's been bugging me for a while. It's true that in this particular post he doesn't seem to be taking account of forced selling and systemic deleveraging, which would be causing problems even if overall capitalization were adequate. What's more, even if overall capitalization were OK, it might still be the case that the capitalization of the big money center banks is inadequate, and those banks occupy a special place in our financial system.

So I'm not sure. But I'd still like to have some idea — even a vague, provisional idea — of just what the experts think the capital position of the American banking system is right now. How big are the losses so far? How much uncertainty is there in these estimates? Why? Is it because banks don't provide the needed information, even to regulators, or because it's fundamentally difficult to calculate regardless? As a layman, it's been pretty eye opening over the past few months to realize just how little even the experts seem to know about what's really going on and what the scope of our current problems are, but certainly a basic understanding of the scale of banking system losses is an absolute minimum piece of information we need before we can figure out what to do next. Isn't it?

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