Economy & Nation Exclusive
Zombie banks: Unintended consequence of government stimulus

To fend off recessions, depressions, deflation and downturns, central bankers around the world have been providing “monetary morphine” in all shapes and forms. This will have unintended consequences

Recessions, depressions, deflation and downturns are reckoned to be bad things by economists and central bankers. So bad, in fact, that they are willing to do just about anything to avoid them. To fend off these demons central bankers around the world have been providing “monetary morphine” in all shapes and forms. From the low interest rates and QEs (quantitative easing) by the United States’ Federal Reserve, to the LTROs (Long Term Refinancing Operations) of the European Central Bank, to the unlimited loans provided by Chinese state-owned banks. The question is whether this monetary largess comes at a price? Certainly, massive interventions in the markets by governments always have unintended consequences. Many think that the eventual result will either be inflation, asset bubbles or both, but there is something else. The life support maintains the living dead. It creates the dreaded zombie bank!
Right now the markets do not seem afraid. Like the attractive heroine in a horror movie, they go along blissfully unaware of the dread threatening them. Stock prices of Chinese state-owned banks have outperformed the Hang Seng index by 10% and their profits have grown by 25% to 30%. Not to be outdone, share prices of European banks have also increased by 30% since the introduction of the LTROs.
The happiness in the market may ultimately be short-lived. The stimulus creates a paradox. Stimulus meant to delay financial contraction until an economy recovers actually prevents the growth necessary to solve the problem.
The recent history of bad banks started with the Japanese banks in the 1990s. Western and Chinese policymakers learned from Japan and acted swiftly to provide large stimulus. But they did not learn the next lesson, that more stimulus did not force the Japanese to solve their real problem—the recognition of bad loans.
The reason that all the governments have avoided the pain is simple. Forcing weak banks to write off large portions of their dud loans would make weak banks weaker and lead to bank failures. It certainly has an effect on their share prices. Last November the Italian bank, UniCredit, decided to bite the bullet and recognize its bad losses. It also raised additional capital, but its stock dropped 39%.
Such dramatic drops in the value of banks are not pretty. So to avoid such messy creative destruction of capitalism, central bankers provided them with cheap loans. The cheap loans do provide time, but they do not necessarily provide the thing that the financial systems need most— growth.
Non-performing loans, until recognized, represent a bleeding ulcer. The real purpose of banks is to efficiently allocate capital. If they have no incentive to do so, the economy cannot grow. If the banks seem healthy, the governments assume that that the crisis is over and have no incentive to reform other parts of their economies.
For example, one of the major problems of the Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Greek economies is that they have laws that create very inflexible labour markets that favour older workers in the organized and state sector as opposed to younger workers, small businesses and entrepreneurs. The result is a lack of growth that has brought all of their sovereign debt to the brink of default and pushed Greece over.
The liquidity crises last fall might have been sufficient incentive for reform, but the new money from the LTRO has delayed the need. Instead banks in Spain and Italy have used the cheap money in a carry trade to buy their own government’s bonds. Spanish banks increased their holdings of Spanish bonds by 29% while their Italian counterparts increased their holdings of Italian paper by 13%. Now weak banks are tied ever more closely to weak government finance.
The Chinese have a different but similar issue. Their state-owned banks are theoretically safe. Although they are still awash in bad debts, some left over from ten years ago, they are protected in two ways. First, the government simply allows the banks to roll over the bad debt. Second, the banks have a monopoly on their financial system, so depositors are forced to subsidize profits by accepting low rates. The system allowed state-owned banks to lend to inefficient state-controlled enterprises and insolvent local governments while the most efficient sector or the economy, small to be medium sized businesses, were forced into the risky underground financial system.
Last week the Chinese government finally gave grudging approval to the informal lenders in the city of Wenzhou, but instead of solving the problem it will probably make it worse. Legalising private lenders will only increase the flood of money away from state-owned banks forcing them to hoard ever more funds.
The recent market rally implies that the financial system is alive and well. The reality is that it is part of the undead.

(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages. Mr Gamble can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected]).


Markets lost Rs10 lakh per trading second in FY12

In terms of the cumulative market value of all listed companies, the total investor wealth saw an erosion of Rs6,21,937 crore during the fiscal ended 31 March 2012

More than Rs10 lakh went down the drain at Dalal Street in every second of trade during the fiscal year 2011-12, on an average, as headwinds from abroad tapered the growth momentum of Indian economy and sent the stock markets into a tailspin.

In terms of the cumulative market value of all listed companies, the total investor wealth saw an erosion of Rs6,21,937 crore during the fiscal ended 31 March 2012.

Taking into account a total of 248 trading sessions during the year, the average loss for a day was about half a billion dollars (Rs2,508 crore), while the same for one second of trading stood at about Rs10.7 lakh.

An analysis of market valuation figures for the past decade shows that the losses during the last fiscal, erases almost the entire gains from the previous year.

The losses in last fiscal came after two straight years of gains -- Rs6.7 lakh crore in FY11 and Rs30.8 lakh crore in FY10 -- and were the second highest in over a decade.

During the last 13 financial years, the overall investor wealth of Indian markets has dipped only four times, but the losses were higher only during FY08-09 (Rs20.5 lakh crore).

The losses stood at about Rs4 lakh crore in fiscal 2002-03 and Rs3.4 lakh crore in the fiscal 2000-2001.

In percentage terms, the dip in the investors' wealth, as also the market barometer Sensex, was about 10% during FY11-12. The Sensex lost over 2,000 points in the fiscal, while it fell by about eight points a day, on an average.

The experts feel that headwinds from overseas markets, mostly fuelled by debt crisis in Europe, were the major triggers for the stock market plunge in India. The country's economic growth rate also slowed down to near 6% and the corporate profitability took a hit as well.

The flight, of foreign investors' money, was a key factor, behind Indian markets' downtrend. Given the sharp decline in the rupee value, the losses for overseas investors were, in fact, much higher than the same for domestic entities.

The rupee depreciated by over 14% during FY012, taking the losses for overseas investors to about 22% for the year. The only saving grace for the investors during the year was gold, which appreciated by over 33%.

The silver prices, however, closed the year with a marginal decline of about 0.2% after highly volatile moves throughout the fiscal.

The losses in stock market could have been much higher, but for a smart rally towards the end, especially during January-February 2012. Heavy sell-off by foreign investors caused some jitters and limited the recovery in March.

After a plunge of over 20% in first nine months till December 2011, the Sensex recovered by about 15% between January and February of 2012. It lost the steam in March, but rallied smartly by over 300 points on the last day of the month and the fiscal on 31 March 2012.


Need for greater focus on state finances: RBI study

“There is a need for greater focus on structural issues confronting state finances, particularly for those states that could not undertake rule-based fiscal corrections prior to the crisis years of 2008-09 and 2009-10,” an RBI study said.

As part of fiscal transparency initiatives, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has called for greater attention on structural issues confronting state finances in the country.

“There is also need for greater focus on structural issues confronting state finances, particularly for those states that could not undertake rule-based fiscal corrections prior to the crisis years of 2008-09 and 2009-10,” a RBI study said.

The state governments, it said, need to ensure that their finances capture both explicit and implicit liabilities associated with certain off-budget activities, including project financing undertaken through special purpose vehicle (SPV) or public-private partnership (PPP) mode.

The study also highlighted several issues of significance and concern for the state governments. “Although all the states except Goa have amended their fiscal responsibility and budget management (FRBM) Acts or Rules, most of them do not include provisions for additional disclosures for enabling transparent assessment of state finances.”

According to the RBI, the recommended restructuring of the public expenditure system would enable better management of outlays for effective outcomes.

The report also emphasised on the issues on debt liabilities of distribution utilities and the revision of power tariffs. Besides state finances, the study also referred to issues regarding fiscal consolidation, decline in key expenditure ratios that raises concern on the quality of fiscal adjustment and states’ overall debt-GDP ratio.


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