Is a full-blown global banking meltdown in the offing?

Financial crashes like revolutions are impossible until they are inevitable. They typically proceed in stages. Since central banks began to increase interest rates in response to rising inflation, financial markets have been under pressure.

In 2022, there was the crypto meltdown (approximately $2 trillion of losses).

The S&P500 index fell about 20 percent. The largest US technology companies, which include Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon, lost around $4.6 trillion in market value  The September 2022 UK gilt crisis may have cost $500 billion. 30 percent of emerging market countries and 60 percent of low-income nations face a debt crisis. The problems have now reached the financial system, with US, European and Japanese banks losing around $460 billion in market value in March 2023.

While it is too early to say whether a full-fledged financial crisis is imminent, the trajectory is unpromising.

The affected US regional banks had specific failings. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (“SVB”) highlighted the interest rate risk of financing holdings of long-term fixed-rate securities with short-term deposits. SVB and First Republic Bank (“FRB”) also illustrate the problem of the $250,000 limit on Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) coverage. Over 90 percent of failed SVB and Signature Bank as well as two-thirds of FRB deposits were uninsured, creating a predisposition to a liquidity run in periods of financial uncertainty.

The crisis is not exclusively American. Credit Suisse has been, to date, the highest-profile European institution affected. The venerable Swiss bank — which critics dubbed  ‘Debit Suisse’ — has a troubled history of banking dictators, money laundering, sanctions breaches, tax evasion and fraud, shredding documents sought by regulators and poor risk management evidenced most recently by high-profile losses associated with hedge fund Archegos and fintech firm Greensill. It has been plagued by corporate espionage, CEO turnover and repeated unsuccessful restructurings.

In February 2023, Credit Suisse announced an annual loss of nearly Swiss Franc 7.3 billion ($7.9 billion), its biggest since the financial crisis in 2008. Since the start of 2023, the bank’s share price had fallen by about 25 percent. It was down more than 70 percent over the last year and nearly 90 percent over 5 years. Credit Suisse wealth management clients withdrew Swiss Franc 123 billion ($133 billion) of deposits in 2022, mostly in the fourth quarter.

The categoric refusal — “absolutely not” — of its key shareholder Saudi National Bank to inject new capital into Credit Suisse precipitated its end. It followed the announcement earlier in March that fund manager Harris Associates, a longest-standing shareholder, had sold its entire stake after losing patience with the Swiss Bank’s strategy and questioning the future of its franchise.

While the circumstances of individual firms exhibit differences, there are uncomfortable commonalities – interest rate risk, uninsured deposits and exposure to loss of funding.

Banks globally increased investment in high-quality securities — primarily government and agency backed mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”). It was driven by an excess of customer deposits relative to loan demand in an environment of abundant liquidity. Another motivation was the need to boost earnings under low-interest conditions which were squeezing net interest margin because deposit rates were largely constrained at the zero bound. The latter was, in part, driven by central bank regulations which favour customer deposit funding and the risk of loss of these if negative rates are applied.

Higher rates resulted in unrealised losses on these investments exceeding $600 billion as at end 2022 at
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation-insured US banks. If other interest-sensitive assets are included, then the loss for American banks alone may be around $2,000 billion. Globally, the total unrealised loss might be two to three times that.

Pundits, most with passing practical banking experience, have criticised the lack of hedging. The reality is that eliminating interest rate risk is costly and would reduce earnings. While SVB’s portfolio’s duration was an outlier, banks routinely invest in 1- to 5-year securities and run some level of the resulting interest rate exposure.

Additional complexities inform some investment portfolios. Japanese investors have large holdings of domestic and foreign long-maturity bonds. The market value of these fixed-rate investments have fallen. While Japanese short-term rates have not risen significantly, rising inflationary pressures may force increases that would reduce the margin between investment returns and interest expense reducing earnings.

It is unclear how much of the currency risk on these holdings of Japanese investors is hedged. A fall in the dollar, the principal denomination of these investments, would result in additional losses. The announcement by the US Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) of coordinated action with other major central banks (Canada, England, Japan, Euro-zone and Switzerland) to provide US dollar liquidity suggests ongoing issues in hedging these currency exposures.

Banking is essentially a confidence trick because of the inherent mismatch between short-term deposits and longer-term assets. As the rapid demise of Credit Suisse highlights, strong capital and liquidity ratios count for little when depositors take flight.

Banks now face falling customer deposits as monetary stimulus is withdrawn, the build-up of savings during the pandemic is drawn down and the economy slows. In the US, deposits are projected to decline by up to 6 percent. Financial instability and apprehension about the solvency of individual institutions can, as recent experience corroborates, result in bank runs