INSOLVENCY….Is the U.S. banking system insolvent?  John Hempton provides five different definitions of insolvency and suggests that the answer isn’t as clear as we might like:

Now when a blogger or an analyst tells you a bank or the system is insolvent then ask them what definition of insolvency they are using and test them against that definition. Then test them against others — and work out — in the context given — whether the institution is solvent against the definition appropriate for the circumstances. People who do not think clearly as to definition of insolvent are being sloppy — and that includes most the bloggers I most admire including Paul Krugman. The context in which the banking system is insolvent is that (a) it is illiquid because people don’t trust it and (b) it can’t get enough liquidity because it has to sell assets into a market in which they are trading considerably below their “yield to maturity or GAAP price” and if you sell it at that price you reveal “mark-to-market” insolvency as per Roubini. However provided the banking system could remain liquid it is unlikely it will actually be insolvent though individual banks might be. [I should note that this is a US conclusion. The UK banks started much more thinly capitalised and I think they are insolvent.]

This is what the stakes are in the (so far incompetent) government policy as to how the banking crisis is to be dealt with. What is a marginal solvency crisis (and that is all it is on a yield to maturity basis) is being turned into the mother-of-all-liquidity-and-solvency crises. Sure the banks bought in on themselves by telling so many lies in the good times (so they are never believed now). But now the problem is beyond their ability to control.

Anyway wholesale nationalisation is not the right policy per-se. It will the inevitable result of following the wrong policies. The right policies will involve selective nationalisation — what I have described in other posts as “nationalisation after due process”.

The whole post is a long one, and hinges largely on a combination of regulatory forebearance issues and questions of whether toxic assets in the banking system are valued at fire sale prices or their most likely long-term yield.  I don’t know if I agree with the whole thing or not, but I do agree that some kind of consistent and transparent test for solvency is needed to replace the ad hoc mess we’ve had up until now — and Hempton proposes one at the very end of the post.  The whole thing is educational and worth a read.


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