Too Big To Fail?: 10 Banks Own 77 Percent Of All U.S. Banking Assets

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.

It really is difficult for ordinary Americans to get a handle on just how large these financial institutions are.  For example, the “big six” U.S. banks (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo) now possess assets equivalent to approximately 60 percent of America’s gross national product.

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.

By the middle of 2009 that figure was up to 39 percent.

That is not just a trend – that is a landslide.

Sadly, smaller banks continue to fail in large numbers and the big banks just keep growing and getting more power.

Today, there are more than 1,000 U.S. banks that are on the “unofficial list” of problem banking institutions.

In the absence of fundamental changes, the consolidation of the banking industry is going to continue.

Meanwhile, the “too big to fail” banks are flush with cash and they are getting serious about expanding.  The Federal Reserve has been extremely good to the big boys and they are eager to grow.

For example, Citigroup is becoming extremely aggressive about expanding….

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.

Stagflation 2011: Why It Is Here And Why It Is Going To Be Very Painful

Are you ready for an economy that has high inflation and high unemployment at the same time? Well, welcome to “Stagflation 2011”.  Stagflation exists when inflation and unemployment are both at high levels at the same time.  Of course we all know about the high unemployment situation already.  Gallup’s daily tracking poll says that the U.S. unemployment rate has been hovering around 10 percent all year so far.  But now thanks to rapidly rising food prices and the exploding price of oil, rampant inflation is being added to the equation.  Normally inflation is a sign of increased economic activity, but when the basic commodities that we depend on to run our economy (such as oil) go up in price it actually causes a slowdown in economy activity.  When the price of oil goes up high enough, it fundamentally changes the behavior of individuals and businesses.  Suddenly certain types of economic activities that were feasible when oil was very cheap are not profitable any longer.  When the price of oil rises to a new level and it stays there, essentially what is happening is that more “blood” is being drained out of our economy.  Our economy will continue to function when there are higher oil prices, it will just be a lot more sluggish.

In some way, shape or form the price of oil factors into the production of most of our goods and services and it also factors into the transportation of most of our goods and services.  A significant rise in the price of oil changes the economic equation for almost every business in the United States.

Today, the price of WTI crude soared past 100 dollars a barrel before closing at $98.10.  The price of Brent crude increased 5.3 percent to $111.25.  The protests in Libya are certainly causing a lot of the price activity that we have seen over the past few days, but the truth is that oil has been going up for a number of months.  Right now we are only seeing an acceleration of the long-term trend.

Things are likely to get far worse if the “day of rage” planned for Saudi Arabia next month turns into a full-blown revolution.  Up to this point, the revolutions that have been sweeping the Middle East have been organized largely on Facebook, and now there are calls all over Facebook for the “Saudi revolution” to start on March 20th.

That date is less than 4 weeks away.  If Saudi Arabia plunges into chaos, the price of oil is going to go through the roof.

A rapidly rising price for oil is really bad news for the U.S. economy, because it is going to mean lots of inflation.  Unfortunately, this also comes at a time when the economy is also feeling the inflationary effects of more quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve.

So if rising oil prices are going to cause more inflation and if rising oil prices are also going to cause our economy to become even more sluggish, what does all of that add up to?

It adds up to stagflation.

Wikipedia defines stagflation in the following manner….

In economics, stagflation is the situation when both the inflation rate and the unemployment rate are persistently high.

This is going to rapidly become the “new normal” for America.  High oil prices are going to cause the cost of just about everything to go up, and high oil prices are also going to cause the economy to slow down thus making the unemployment numbers even worse.

It is going to be just like the 1970s all over again.

Only worse.

Economists differ as to how much rising oil prices affect U.S. GDP, but almost all of them agree that rising oil prices do cause a decline in U.S. GDP at least to some extent.

If American families have to spend $10 or $20 more each time they visit a gas station, that means that they are going to have less discretionary income.  They won’t be able to spend as much at the stores.

Not only that, but since the price of oil affects the price of almost everything else, Americans will find that their dollars have reduced purchasing power.

An oil crisis would force American families to stretch their already overburdened budgets even farther.

So where is the price of gasoline going from here?  Well, the average price of gasoline in the United States is rapidly sneaking up on the $3.20 a gallon mark.  Almost everyone believes that it is going to be going significantly higher.

Tom Kloza, the chief analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, was recently quoted in USA Today as saying that he believes that the average price for gasoline in the United States will reach somewhere between $3.50 and $3.75 a gallon by April.

As I wrote about yesterday, there are other analysts that believe that we are going to see $4.00 gasoline in the United States by the end of the year, and there are some that believe that we could see $5.00 gasoline if revolution sweeps Saudi Arabia.

If gasoline becomes that expensive and it stays there for a while, it is going to seriously start affecting the behavior of American businesses and American consumers.

Just remember what happened back in 2008.  Andrew Busch of BMO Capital Markets recently told CNBC the following….

“Remember when oil was last at $140 (a barrel), Americans reacted and cut the amount of miles they drove.”

Can you imagine what it would do to the economy if millions of Americans start sitting in their homes instead of doing their normal amounts of driving and flying?

In addition, one of the biggest problems with a higher price for oil is that it would cause our trade deficit to explode.  According to the U.S. government, more than half of the oil that we use is imported.  So every month we send the rest of the world billions and billions of our dollars and they send us massive amounts of oil.  We rapidly consume all of the oil they send us and we continually need more.  So we keep sending larger and larger amounts of money overseas and they keep sending us larger amounts of oil.  In the process, our national wealth is being drained at an astounding rate.  It is one of the greatest transfers of wealth the world has ever seen.

When the price of oil rises substantially, the transfer of wealth accelerates.  This is a very bad thing for the U.S. economy.  For example, when oil prices were above $100 a barrel back in 2008 our trade deficit for the year was almost 700 billion dollars.

It would be great if the Middle East would settle down and oil prices would start declining because that would really help out the U.S. economy.  Unfortunately, it does not look like that is going to happen.  Instead, it appears that we are steamrolling directly towards stagflation.  Anyone that lived through the stagflation of the 1970s knows that it is not a lot of fun.

The cold, hard reality of the matter is that without cheap oil our lifestyles are going to change.  Our economy was not set up to run on expensive oil.  If oil moves well above $100 a barrel and it stays there it is going to bring about significant societal changes.

For the rest of 2011, the price of oil will be the number one economic indicator to watch.  If it gets too high it is going to be an absolute disaster for the U.S. economy.

5 Dollar Gas? Get Ready To Pay An Arm And A Leg For Gasoline

One of the quickest ways to bring down the U.S. economy would be to dramatically increase the price of oil. Oil is the lifeblood of our economic system. Without it, our entire economy would come to a grinding halt. Almost every type of economic activity in this country depends on oil, and even a small rise in the price of oil can have a dramatic impact on economic growth.  That is why so many economists are incredibly alarmed about what is happening in the Middle East right now.  The revolution in Libya caused the price of WTI crude to soar more than 7 dollars on Tuesday alone.  It closed at $93.57 on Tuesday and Brent crude actually hit $108.57 a barrel before settling back to $105.78 at the end of the day.  Some analysts are warning that we could even see 5 dollar gas in the United States by the end of the year if rioting spreads to other oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia.  With the Middle East in such a state of chaos right now it is hard to know exactly what is going to happen, but almost everyone agrees that if oil prices continue to rise at a rapid pace over the next several months it is going to have a devastating impact on economic growth all over the globe.

Right now the eyes of the world are on Libya.  Libya is the 17th largest oil producer on the globe and it has the biggest proven oil reserves on the continent of Africa.

Libya only produces 2 percent of the oil in the world, but with global supplies so tight at the moment even a minor production disruption can have a dramatic impact on the price of oil.

Before this crisis, Libya was producing approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.  Now the rest of the world is wondering what may happen if revolution spreads to other major oil producing nations such as Kuwait (2.5 million barrels of oil per day) or Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia produces 8.4 million barrels of oil a day.  It produces more oil than anyone else in OPEC.

If revolution strikes in Saudi Arabia and a major production disruption happens it could be catastrophic for the global economy.

David Rosenberg, the chief economist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates, is warning that if there is major civil unrest in Saudi Arabia we could end up seeing oil go up to $200 a barrel….

“If Libya can spark a $10-a-barrel response, imagine what a similar uprising in Saudi Arabia could unleash. Do the math: we’d be talking about $200 oil.”

200 dollar oil?

Don’t laugh – it could happen.

In fact, if it does happen the global economy would probably go into cardiac arrest.

The truth is that if the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia gets disrupted there is not enough spare capacity from the rest of the globe to make up for it.

Paul Horsnell, the head of oil research at Barclays Capital, recently said that the world does not currently have enough spare capacity to be able to guarantee that an oil “price shock” will not happen….

“The world has only 4.5m barrels-per-day (bpd) of spare capacity, which is not comfortable.”

Horsnell also said that even in the midst of potential supply problems, the global demand for oil continues to grow at a very robust pace….

“In just two years, the world has grown so fast as to consume additional volume equal to the output of Iraq and Kuwait combined.”

For now, Saudi officials are saying all the right things.  They say that there will be no revolution in Saudi Arabia and that there are not going to be any supply problems.

For example, Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi recently announced that the rest of the world should not worry because his country is definitely going to be able to make up for any shortage in the global supply of oil….

“What I would like you to convey to the market: right now there is absolutely no shortage of supply.”

But what happens if revolution comes to Saudi Arabia?

Suddenly the whole game would change.

But even with a peaceful Saudi Arabia the price of gasoline in the United States is already rising to alarming levels.

The average price of gasoline in the United States reached $3.14 a gallon last week.  This closely mirrors what happened back in 2008.  Three years ago at this time the average price of gasoline was right around $3.13 a gallon.

Let’s certainly hope that we don’t see a repeat of what happened to oil prices back in mid-2008.  The price of oil reached an all-time record of $147 a barrel and gas prices in the United States absolutely skyrocketed.

So how high will the price of gas in the U.S. go in 2011?

We haven’t even come close to 4 dollar gas yet, but a large number of analysts believe that it is coming this summer.

Is there even a possibility that we could see 5 dollar gas in America at some point in the next couple of years?

Well, there are some in the oil industry that are convinced that it could actually happen.  Just consider the following quotes….

Darin Newsom, senior analyst at energy tracker DTN….

“If this thing escalates and there’s a good chance that there’d be a shift in supplies, $5 gas isn’t out of the question.”

Peter Beutel, president of energy adviser Cameron Hanover….

“If you are looking at the disruption of movement and production in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, you’re easily talking $5 gas.”

John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, on his belief that we could see 5 dollar gas by 2012….

“I’m predicting actually the worst outcome over the next two years which takes us to 2012 with higher gasoline prices.”

So why is everyone so concerned about gas prices?

Well, because it affects the price of almost everything else in the economy.

David Wyss, the chief economist at Standard & Poor’s, says that every extra dollar that is spent on gasoline is a dollar that will not be spent somewhere else….

“The money that you spend filling up your car is money you don’t have to spend at the shopping mall.”

Not only that, but when gasoline costs more it has a negative effect on economic growth.  Almost all economic activities involve the use of oil in one form or another.  When the price of oil starts getting really high it motivates people to start cutting back on many of those activities.

The truth is that our whole economic system is based on the ability to use massive amounts of very cheap oil.  Now that the price of oil is rapidly rising again, many economists are becoming very alarmed.

Nobuo Tanaka, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, recently told CNBC that his organization is extremely concerned about what high oil prices could do to the global economy….

“That is our concern, regardless of the margins of disruption, if the $100 per barrel of oil is continued in 2011, the burden of oil to the global economy is as bad as 2008.”

So what was so bad about 2008?  Well, the price of oil soared to $147 a barrel in mid-2008 and this was a huge factor in the financial collapse that happened a few months later.  Now oil prices are returning to levels that we have not seen since 2008….

So if the price of oil breaks the all-time record this year will we see another global financial crisis?

It is hard to say.  But what almost everyone agrees on is that it will not be good for the global economy at all.

In addition, a higher price for oil will also have a huge impact on the trade deficit.  Because oil prices were at such a high level back in 2008, oil imports actually made up almost 50 percent of the U.S. trade deficit that year.

In 2010, the U.S. trade deficit was just a whisker under $500 billion.  If the price of oil gets up to 140 or 150 dollars a barrel we could easily see the U.S. trade deficit explode to 700 or 800 billion dollars in 2011.

That would be really, really bad for the U.S. economy.

So where are oil prices going next?

Well, if you could predict that with 100 percent certainty you could make a whole lot of money.  Nobody knows for sure.

But almost everyone believes that the price of oil is going to go up.  In fact, a lot number of investors have been making some very large bets that the price of oil is going to go up very significantly this year.

Recently, large numbers of investors have been betting that the price of oil will rise to $125 a barrel by May.  Shockingly, some investors have even been betting that the price of oil will rise to $250 a barrel by next December.

Let us hope that the price of oil does not rise that rapidly, but as the past couple of months have demonstrated, the world is becoming a very unstable place.   Just about anything is possible at this point.

If the price of oil rises significantly above $100 a barrel and it stays there for an extended period of time, it is going to be absolutely devastating for the U.S. economy.

So what do you all think is going to happen to the price of oil in 2011?  Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts below….