The too big to fail banks are now much, much larger than they were the last time they caused so much trouble. The six largest banks in the United States have gotten 37 percent larger over the past five years. Meanwhile, 1,400 smaller banks have disappeared from the banking industry during that time. What this means is that the health of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley is more critical to the U.S. economy than ever before. If they were “too big to fail” back in 2008, then now they must be “too colossal to collapse”. Without these banks, we do not have an economy. The six largest banks control 67 percent of all U.S. banking assets, and Bank of America accounted for about a third of all business loans by itself last year. Our entire economy is based on credit, and these giant banks are at the very core of our system of credit. If these banks were to collapse, a brutal economic depression would be guaranteed. Unfortunately, as you will see later in this article, these banks did not learn anything from 2008 and are being exceedingly reckless. They are counting on the rest of us bailing them out if something goes wrong, but that might not happen next time around.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, our politicians have been running around proclaiming that they will not rest until they have fixed “the too big to fail problem”, but instead of fixing it those banks have rapidly gotten even larger. Just check out the following figures which come from the Los Angeles Times…
Just before the financial crisis hit, Wells Fargo & Co. had $609 billion in assets. Now it has $1.4 trillion. Bank of America Corp. had $1.7 trillion in assets. That’s up to $2.1 trillion.
And the assets of JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank, have ballooned to $2.4 trillion from $1.8 trillion.
We are witnessing a consolidation of the banking industry that is absolutely stunning. Hundreds of smaller banks have been swallowed up by these behemoths, and millions of Americans are finding that they have to deal with these banking giants whether they like it or not.
Even though all they do is move money around, these banks have become the core of our economic system, and they are growing at an astounding pace. The following numbers come from a recent CNN article…
-The assets of the six largest banks in the United States have grown by 37 percent over the past five years.
-The U.S. banking system has 14.4 trillion dollars in total assets. The six largest banks now account for 67 percent of those assets and the other 6,934 banks account for only 33 percent of those assets.
-The five largest banks account for 42 percent of all loans in the United States.
As I discussed above, without these giant banks there is no economy. We should have never, ever allowed this to happen, but now that it has happened it is imperative that the American people understand this. The power of these banks is absolutely overwhelming…
One third of all business loans this year were made by Bank of America. Wells Fargo funds nearly a quarter of all mortgage loans. And held in the vaults of JPMorgan Chase is $1.3 trillion, which is 12% of our collective cash, including the payrolls of many thousands of companies, or enough to buy 47,636,496,885 of these NFL branded toaster ovens. Thanks for your business!
A lot of people tend to focus on many of the other threats to our economy, but the number one potential threat that our economy is facing is the potential failure of the too big to fail banks. As we saw in 2008, when they start to fail things can get really bad really fast.
And as I have written about so many times, the number one threat to the too big to fail banks is the possibility of a derivatives crisis.
Former Goldman Sachs banker and best selling author Nomi Prins recently told Greg Hunter of USAWatchdog.com that the global economy “could implode and have serious ramifications on the financial systems starting with derivatives and working on outward.” You can watch the full video of that interview right here.
And Nomi Prins is exactly right. Just like we witnessed in 2008, a derivatives panic can spiral out of control very quickly. Our big banks should have learned a lesson from 2008 and should have greatly scaled back their reckless betting.
Unfortunately, that has not happened. In fact, according to the OCC’s latest quarterly report on bank trading and derivatives activities, the big banks have become even more reckless since the last time I reported on this. The following figures reflect the new information contained in the latest OCC report…
Total Assets: $1,948,150,000,000 (just over 1.9 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $70,287,894,000,000 (more than 70 trillion dollars)
Total Assets: $1,306,258,000,000 (a bit more than 1.3 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $58,471,038,000,000 (more than 58 trillion dollars)
Bank Of America
Total Assets: $1,458,091,000,000 (a bit more than 1.4 trillion dollars)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $44,543,003,000,000 (more than 44 trillion dollars)
Total Assets: $113,743,000,000 (a bit more than 113 billion dollars – yes, you read that correctly)
Total Exposure To Derivatives: $42,251,600,000,000 (more than 42 trillion dollars)
That means that the total exposure that Goldman Sachs has to derivatives contracts is more than 371 times greater than their total assets.
How in the world can anyone say that Goldman Sachs is not being incredibly reckless?
Is the financial collapse of Italy going to be the final blow that breaks the back of Europe financially? Most people don’t realize this, but Italy is actually the third largest debtor in the entire world after the United States and Japan. Italy currently has a debt to GDP ratio of more than 120 percent, and Italy has a bigger national debt than anyone else in Europe does. That is why it is such a big deal that Italian voters have just overwhelmingly rejected austerity. The political parties led by anti-austerity candidates Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo did far better than anticipated. When you combine their totals, they got more than 50 percent of the vote. Italian voters have seen what austerity has done to Greece and Spain and they want no part of it. Unfortunately for Italian voters, it has been the promise of austerity that has kept the Italian financial system stable in recent months. Now that Italian voters have clearly rejected austerity, investors are fearing that austerity programs all over Europe may start falling apart. This is creating quite a bit of panic in European financial markets right now. On Tuesday, Italian stocks had their worst day in 10 months, Italian bond yields rose by the most that we have seen in 19 months, and the stocks of the two largest banks in Italy both fell by more than 8 percent. Italy is already experiencing its fourth recession since 2001, and unemployment has been steadily rising. If Italy is now “ungovernable”, as many are saying, then what does that mean for the future of Italy? Will Italy be the spark that sets off financial armageddon in Europe?
All of Europe was totally shocked by the election results in Italy. As you can see from the following excerpt from a Bloomberg article, the vote was very divided and the anti-austerity parties did much better than had been projected…
The results showed pre-election favorite Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house with 29.5 percent, less than a half a percentage point ahead of Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-premier fighting a tax-fraud conviction. Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, got 25.6 percent, while Monti scored 10.6 percent. Bersani and his allies got 31.6 percent of votes in the Senate, compared with 30.7 percent for Berlusconi and 23.79 percent for Grillo, according to final figures from the Interior Ministry.
So what do those election results mean for Italy and for the rest of Europe?
Right now, there is a lot of panic about those results. There is fear that what just happened in Italy could result in a rejection of austerity all over Europe…
“I think the election results (or lack thereof) are a negative for the euro, which will likely keep the currency pressured for some time,” Omer Esiner, chief market analyst for Commonwealth Foreign Exchange, told me. But it’s not just the political uncertainty in Italy, he adds. “The shocking gains made by anti-establishment parties in Italy signal a broad-based frustration with austerity among voters and a decisive rejection of the policies pushed by Germany in nations across the euro zone’s periphery. That theme revives unresolved debt crisis issues and could threaten the continuity of reforms across other countries in the euro zone.”
And the financial markets have clearly interpreted the election results in Europe as a very bad sign. Zero Hedge summarized some of the bad news out of Europe that we saw on Tuesday…
Swiss 2Y rates turned negative once again for the first time in a month; EURUSD relatively flatlined around 1.3050 (250 pips lower than pre-Italy); Europe’s VIX exploded to almost 26% (from under 19% yesterday); and 3-month EUR-USD basis swaps plunged to their most liquidity-demanding level since 12/28. Spain and Italy (and Portugal) were the most hurt in bonds today as 2Y Italian spreads broke back above 200bps (surging over 50bps casting doubt on OMT support) and 3Y Spain yields broke above 3% once again. The Italian equity market suffered its equal biggest drop in 6 months falling back to 10 week lows (and down 14% from its end-Jan highs). Italian bond yields (and spreads) smashed higher – the biggest jump in 19 months as BTP futures volume exploded in the last two days.
Not that things in Europe were going well before all this.
In Spain, a major real estate company, Reyal Urbis, collapsed last week, leaving already battered banks on the hook for millions of euros in losses. Meanwhile, the government faces a corruption scandal and a steady stream of anti-austerity demonstrations. Thousands of people took to the streets again on Saturday, protesting deep cuts to health and other services, as well as hefty bank bailouts.
Life is no better in a large swath of the broader EU. In Britain, Moody’s cited the continuing economic weakness and the resulting risks to the government’s tight fiscal policy for its rating cut. In Bulgaria, where the government fell last week and the economy is in a shambles, rightists who joined mass demonstrations across the country burned a European Union flag and waved anti-EU banners. Other austerity-minded governments in the EU face similar murky political futures.
At this point, Europe is a complete and total economic mess and things are rapidly getting worse.
And that is really bad news because Europe is already in the midst of a recession. In fact, according to the BBC, the recession in the eurozone got even deeper during the fourth quarter of 2012…
The eurozone recession deepened in the final three months of 2012, official figures show.
The economy of the 17 nations in the euro shrank by 0.6% in the fourth quarter, which was worse than forecast.
It is the sharpest contraction since the beginning of 2009 and marks the first time the region failed to grow in any quarter during a calendar year.
But this is just the beginning.
The truth is that government debt is not even the greatest danger that Europe is facing. In reality, a collapse of the European banking system is of much greater concern.
Why is that?
Well, how would you feel if you woke up someday and every penny that you had in the bank was gone?
In the U.S. we don’t have to worry about that so much because all deposits are insured by the FDIC, but in many European countries things work much differently.
For example, just check out what Graham Summers recently had to say about the banking system in Spain…
It’s a little known fact about the Spanish crisis is that when the Spanish Government merges troubled banks, it typically swaps out depositors’ savings for shares in the new bank.
So… when the newly formed bank goes bust, “poof” your savings are GONE. Not gone as in some Spanish version of the FDIC will eventually get you your money, but gone as in gone forever (see the above article for proof).
This is why Bankia’s collapse is so significant: in one move, former depositors at seven banks just lost virtually everything.
And this in a nutshell is Europe’s financial system today: a totally insolvent sewer of garbage debt, run by corrupt career politicians who have no clue how to fix it or their economies… and which results in a big fat ZERO for those who are nuts enough to invest in it.
Be warned. There are many many more Bankias coming to light in the coming months. So if you have not already taken steps to prepare for systemic failure, you NEED to do so NOW. We’re literally at most a few months, and very likely just a few weeks from Europe’s banks imploding, potentially taking down the financial system with them. Think I’m joking? The Fed is pumping hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars into EU banks right now trying to stop this from happening.
Like Graham Summers, I am extremely concerned about the European banking system. Europe actually has a much larger banking system than the U.S. does, and if the European banking system implodes that is going to send huge shockwaves to the farthest corners of the globe.
But if you want to believe that the “experts” in Europe and in the United States have “everything under control”, then you might as well stop reading now.
After all, they are very highly educated and they know what they are doing, right?
But if you want to listen to some common sense, you might want to check out this very ominous warning from Karl Denninger…
I hope you’re ready.
Congress has wasted the time it was given by the Europeans getting things “temporarily” under control. But they didn’t actually get anything under control, as the Italian elections just showed.
Now, with the budget over there at risk of being abandoned, and fiscal restraint being abandoned (note: exactly what the US has been doing) the markets are recognizing exactly the risk that never in fact went away over the last couple of years.
It was hidden by lies, just as it has been hidden by lies here.
Bernanke’s machinations and other games “gave” the Congress four years to do the right thing. They didn’t, because that same “gift” also destroyed all market signals of urgency.
As such you have people like Krugman and others claiming that it’s all ok and that we can spend with wild abandon, taking our fiscal medicine never.
They were wrong. Congress was wrong. The Republicans were wrong, the Democrats were wrong, and the Administration was wrong.
Congress is out of time; as I noted the deficit spending must stop now, irrespective of the fact that it will cause significant economic damage.
For the past couple of years, authorities in the U.S. and in Europe have been trying to delay the coming crisis by kicking the can down the road.
By doing so, they have been making the eventual collapse even worse.
How would you feel if someone told you that one of the largest banks on Wall Street makes more money whenever the number of Americans on food stamps goes up? Unfortunately, this is something that is actually true. In the United States today, one out of every seven Americans is on food stamps. In fact, the number of Americans on food stamps has increased by a whopping 14 million since Barack Obama entered the White House. All of this makes JP Morgan very happy, because JP Morgan has been making money by the boatload on food stamps. Right now, JP Morgan Chase issues food stamp debit cards in 26 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The division of JP Morgan Chase that issues these debit cards made an eye-popping 5.47 billion dollars in net revenue during 2010. JP Morgan is paid per customer, so when the number of Americans on food stamps goes up, they make more money. But doesn’t this give JP Morgan an incentive to try to keep the number of Americans on food stamps as high as possible? Of course it does. JP Morgan is interested in making money as rapidly as possible. If JP Morgan can get more Americans enrolled in the food stamp program and keep them enrolled in it for as long as possible, that is good for business.
And the Obama administration is certainly doing what it can to help out. Even though a whopping 46 million Americans are now on food stamps, the Obama administration plans to give out large amounts of money to organizations that are able figure out ways to get even more people enrolled in the program….
Despite the historic rise in food stamp use, however, the Obama Administration believes not enough people are receiving food stamps who should be and is offering $75,000 grants to groups who devise “effective strategies” to “increase program participation” among those who have yet to sign up.
In fact, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that if we can get even more Americans enrolled in the food stamp program, that will be a great way to “stimulate the economy“.
Of course JP Morgan just loves all of this. The more people they have in the system the better.
Christopher Paton, the managing director of JP Morgan’s “Treasury Solutions” business, made the following statement about the “food stamp business” that his firm is engaged in during an interview with Bloomberg Television….
“This business is a very important business to JPMorgan. It’s an important business in terms of its size and scale…Right now, volumes have gone through the roof in the past couple of years. The good news, from JPMorgan’s perspective, is the infrastructure that we built has been able to cope with that increase in volume.”
You can see more of the interview with Paton in the video posted below….
As the interview above noted, more than 40 percent of all food stamp recipients in the United States actually have a job.
Back in 1980, less than 30% of all jobs in the United States were low income jobs. Today, more than 40% of all jobs in the United States are low income jobs. This trend is perfect for JP Morgan because it means that the number of low income workers that are eligible for food stamps is going to keep increasing.
And what makes all of this even sadder is that JP Morgan has outsourced many of the customer service jobs for its food stamp program to India.
Yes, you read that correctly.
When Americans that can’t find a decent job need help with their food stamps there is a good chance that they will be talking to a customer service representative sitting in India.
Isn’t that crazy?
When ABC News confronted JP Morgan about this, JP Morgan would not tell ABC which states have customer service calls sent to India and which states have them handled inside the United States….
JP Morgan is the only one today still operating public-assistance call centers overseas. The company refused to say which states had calls routed to India and which ones had calls stay domestically. That decision, the company said, was often left up to the individual states.
But JP Morgan doesn’t just handle food stamps. JP Morgan also issues child support debit cards in 15 states and unemployment insurance debit cards in 7 states.
Of course JP Morgan is not the only big bank involved in this kind of business. Several others are also making money in massive quantities on the backs of the poor.
Shawana Busby does not seem like the sort of customer who would be at the center of a major bank’s business plan. Out of work for much of the last three years, she depends upon a $264-a-week unemployment check from the state of South Carolina. But the state has contracted with Bank of America to administer its unemployment benefits, and Busby has frequently found herself incurring bank fees to get her money.
To withdraw her benefits, Busby, 33, uses a Bank of America prepaid debit card on which the state deposits her funds. She could visit a Bank of America ATM free of charge. But this small community in the state’s rural center, her hometown, does not have a Bank of America branch. Neither do the surrounding towns where she drops off her kids at school and attends church.
She could drive north to Columbia, the state capital, and use a Bank of America ATM there. But that entails a 50 mile drive, cutting into her gas budget. So Busby visits the ATMs in her area and begrudgingly accepts the fees, which reach as high as five dollars per transaction. She estimates that she has paid at least $350 in fees to tap her unemployment benefits.
There is something about all of this that just seems very, very wrong.
When we have good jobs, the big banks hit us with outrageous bank fees and they try to get us enslaved to credit card debt.
Back during the financial crisis of 2008, the American people were told that the largest banks in the United States were “too big to fail” and that was why it was necessary for the federal government to step in and bail them out. The idea was that if several of our biggest banks collapsed at the same time the financial system would not be strong enough to keep things going and economic activity all across America would simply come to a standstill. Congress was told that if the “too big to fail” banks did not receive bailouts that there would be chaos in the streets and this country would plunge into another Great Depression. Since that time, however, essentially no efforts have been made to decentralize the U.S. banking system. Instead, the “too big to fail” banks just keep getting larger and larger and larger. Back in 2002, the top 10 banks controlled 55 percent of all U.S. banking assets. Today, the top 10 banks control 77 percent of all U.S. banking assets. Unfortunately, these giant banks are also colossal mountains of risk, debt and leverage. They are incredibly unstable and they could start coming apart again at any time. None of the major problems that caused the crash of 2008 have been fixed. In fact, the U.S. banking system is more centralized and more vulnerable today than it ever has been before.
These huge banks are giant financial vacuum cleaners. Over the past couple of decades we have witnessed a financial consolidation in this country that is absolutely unprecedented.
This trend accelerated during the recent financial crisis. While the big boys were receiving massive bailouts, the hundreds of small banks that were failing were either allowed to collapse or they were told that they should find a big bank that was willing to buy them.
As a group, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo held approximately 22 percent of all banking deposits in FDIC-insured institutions back in 2000.
Citigroup has been hiring dozens of investment bankers, dialing up advertising and drawing up plans to add several hundred branches worldwide, including more than 200 in major cities across the United States.
Hopefully the big banks will start lending again. The whole idea behind the bailouts and all of the “quantitative easing” that the Federal Reserve did was to get money into the hands of the big banks so that they would lend it out to ordinary Americans and get the economy rolling again.
Well, a funny thing happened. The big banks just sat on a lot of that money.
In particular, what they did was they deposited much of it at the Fed and drew interest on it.
Since 2008, excess reserves parked at the Fed have grown by nearly 1.7 trillion dollars. Just check out the chart posted below….
The American people were promised that TARP and all of the other bailouts would enable the big banks to lend out lots of money which would help get the economy going for ordinary Americans again.
Well, it turns out that in 2009 (the first full year after Congress passed the bailout legislation) U.S. banks posted their sharpest decline in lending since 1942.
Lending has never fully recovered since the crash of 2008. The big financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase have been able to get all the cash that they need, but they have not passed that generosity along to ordinary Americans.
In fact, the biggest U.S. banks have actually reduced small business lending by about 50 percent since the crash of 2008.
That doesn’t sound like what we were promised.
These “too big to fail” banks have been able to borrow gigantic amounts of money from the Fed for next to nothing and yet they still refuse to let credit flow to local communities. Instead, the big banks have found other purposes for all of the super cheap money that they have been getting from the Fed as Ellen Brown recently explained….
It can be very profitable indeed for the big Wall Street banks, but the purpose of the near-zero interest rates was supposed to be to get banks to lend again. Instead, they are, indeed, paying “outrageous bonuses to their top executives;” using the money to engage in the same sort of unregulated speculation that nearly brought down the economy in 2008; buying up smaller banks; or investing this virtually interest-free money in risk-free government bonds, on which taxpayers are paying 2.5 percent interest (more for longer-term securities).
What makes things even worse is that these big banks often pay next to nothing in taxes.
For example, between 2008 and 2010, Wells Fargo made a total profit of 49.37 billion dollars.
Over that same time period, their tax bill was negative 681 million dollars.
Do you understand what that means? Over that 3 year time period, Wells Fargo actually got 681 million dollars back from the U.S. government.
Isn’t that just peachy?
Meanwhile, the big financial giants have not learned their lessons and they continue to do business pretty much as they did it prior to 2008.
The big banks continue to roll up massive amounts of risk, debt and leverage.
Today, Wall Street has become one giant financial casino. More money is made on Wall Street by making side bets (commonly referred to as “derivatives“) than on the investments themselves.
If the bets pay off for the big financial institutions, mind blowing profits can be made. But if the bets go against the big financial institutions (as we saw in 2008), firms can collapse almost overnight.
In fact, it was derivatives that almost brought down AIG. The biggest insurance company in the world almost folded in 2008 because of a whole bunch of really bad bets.
The danger from derivatives is so great that Warren Buffet once called them “financial weapons of mass destruction”. It has been estimated that the notional value of the worldwide derivatives market is somewhere in the neighborhood of a quadrillion dollars.
The largest banks have tens of trillions of dollars of exposure to derivatives. When the next great financial collapse happens, derivatives will almost certainly be at the center of it once again. These side bets do not create anything real for the economy – they just make and lose huge amounts of money. We never know when the next great derivatives crisis will strike. Derivatives are essentially like a “sword of Damocles” that perpetually hangs over the U.S. financial system.
When I start talking about derivatives I get a lot of people in the financial community mad at me. On Wall Street today you can bet on just about anything you can imagine. Almost everyone in the financial world has gotten so used to making wild bets that they couldn’t even imagine a world without them. If anyone even tried to put significant limits on futures, options and swaps it would cause Wall Street to throw a hissy fit.
But someday the dominoes are going to start to fall and the house of cards is going to come crashing down. It is an open secret that our financial system is fundamentally unsound. Even a lot of people working on Wall Street will admit that. It is just that people are so busy making such big piles of money that nobody wants the party to stop.
It is only a matter of time until some of these big banks get into a huge amount of trouble again. When that happens, we might really find out whether they are “too big to fail” or whether we could get along just fine without them.