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Global banks: Of bailouts and beggars

By Manoj Rammohan in New Delhi
December 29, 2008 14:05 IST
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Banks completed a full circle in 2008, as famed lenders from New York to Tokyo turned beggars who lined up for bailouts from their respective governments.

The over a century-old institution Lehman Brothers became almost a symbol of all that went wrong in the global financial sector, even as more than two dozen banks in the United States went belly-up.

The rescue acts for many more of them involved the governments buying stakes in the distressed banks putting to rest the talks of privatisation and globalisation.

Across the world, the governments spent in excess of 10 trillion dollars in their bailout attempts, most of which went into the coffers of the banks struggling under the debris of the global crisis -- the deepest since The Great Depression of 1930s.

Right from regulators to regulations and complex instruments to collective failures in the US, came under severe criticism. But before the blame game ended, the crisis spread across continents pushing financial institutions into the verge of collapse.

If the US saw Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual crashing, the United Kingdom witnessed the tumbling of famed names like HBOS, StanChart and Barclays.

Just a set of numbers would reflect the intensity of the turmoil: So far this year, 25 banks have gone bust in the US, whereas in the past eight years, only 52 banks went belly up in the country.

Meanwhile, in the never forgiving world of globalisation, the role of state re-emerged, pricking the over-inflated balloon of privatisation.

And the ball was set rolling by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who mooted the idea of the government buying stakes in financial institutions in exchange for bailing them out.

Then what followed is symbolic in the US federal government's mammoth $700-billion rescue package, of which $250 billion has been set apart to purchase stakes in banks.

Elsewhere in Europe, apart from the UK, Iceland bore the brunt as the country has been virtually pushed into bankruptcy following the collapse of names like Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbanki.

The American bailout plan, also known as Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), is focused on pumping in money into 'so called' healthy banks which in turn might boost consumer and business spending in the economy.

The US government, under the TARP has already bought stakes in 30 American banks for a total of $150 billion, half of which have gone into Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

Going by the data available with the Treasury Department has purchased preferred stocks worth $25 billion each in Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo -- three of the biggest banks hit by the worsening financial turmoil.

The government spent $158.56 billion for purchasing shares in the 30 banks, which included Bank of America getting $15 billion, while Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch got $10 billion each.

Ironically, the rules were bent when it came to Vikram Pandit-led Citigroup. The behemoth which almost went down in late 2007, seemed to be least affected as the turmoil pulled down many Wall Street giants including Merrill Lynch.

The perception went for a toss as Citi once again tottered on the brink of collapse in November this year.

This time, Fed came up with a massive rescue package of more than $300 billion which includes fresh capital injection and guaranteeing its toxic assets.

Indian banks too suddenly seemed shaky, as private sector ICICI Bank found itself cornered from multiple fronts plunging share prices, huge losses in derivatives investments and even fears about its liquidity position.

In late September, the scrip of ICICI Bank was battered and depositors took out their money, as rumours about the bank's health spread like wildfire.

On the other hand in Europe, as financial institutions clamoured for assistance from the administration, a handful of entities went against the tide and spurned government money.

The likes of British major Barclays and Germany's Deutsche Bank are among the prominent ones. On the contrary, the decision to refuse aid seems to be not really a show of strength since the valuation of most assets are based on the price paid for them, rather than the current market price.

As dearth of funds snuffed out many banks, the debate on complex derivatives in other words, credit-default swaps gained momentum. And the fingers were pointed out at former US Fed chief Alan Greenspan. The much-maligned 'derivative' has made legendary investor Warren Buffett a 'hero', while former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has been rendered a 'zero', by US magazine Fortune.

As the crisis continues, surely the world would have lesser number of banks to deal with in the New Year.

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    Manoj Rammohan in New Delhi
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