On June 21, 2012, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its ratings on five of the six largest U.S. banks, as measured by assets. The lower ratings will raise the companies’ borrowing costs, will affect how they raise new capital, and will deprive them of trading revenues. The banks involved are: Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase. The sixth bank, omitted from scrutiny because its investment trading section was smaller than the others, is Wells Fargo.
Five of these six large banks were essentially insolvent in September 2008, and should have been forced into liquidation. Only JP Morgan Chase was solvent and sufficiently liquid to ride out the storm. The weak – if not politically corrupt – administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama labeled the failed banks ‘too-big-to-fail’, subjected them to stress tests rigged by Treasury Secretary Geithner so that they would pass, and allowed them to continue as brain-dead dinosaurs that drag down the United States economy.
Moody’s, however, has brushed away expensive lobbying by the too-big-to-fail banks and has belatedly administered medicine that the U.S. government has corruptly evaded. The downgrades administered tell us a lot about the fragile status of the banks involved. Let us review exactly what has been imposed, bearing in mind that Ba1 designates junk status and the line down to Ba1 from where the various downgrades commenced is as follows:-
JP Morgan Chase: downgrade two notches from Aa3 to A2
Goldman Sachs: downgrade two notches from A1 to A3
Morgan Stanley: downgrade two notches from A2 to Baa1
Citigroup: downgrade two notches from A3 to Baa2
Bank of America: downgrade one notch from Baa1 to Baa2.
Note that not one of these behemoths started off anywhere near a AAA rating. Two of the five banks, Citigroup and Bank of America, are now rated by Moody’s at only two notches above junk status. Lest readers choose to believe that Moody’s has it in for these banks, I should mention that the regular markets downgraded each of these banks months ago.
Ratings derived from the banks’ credit default swap spreads – which serve as an indicator of their perceived riskiness – anticipated Moody’s downgrade by more than a full calendar year. Morgan Stanley, for example, was trading at Baa3 – below its new Moody’s rating – as early as May 2011. As usual, the markets anticipate the rating agencies.
In tomorrow’s column, I shall indicate the consequences of the federal government bailing out these loser banks for economic performance economy-wide. The only good news that I can purvey is that actions hopefully do have consequences. Obama’s bank bail-out philosophy predictably will confine him to a single term in the White House. And that will be a blessing indeed!