Wednesday, 21 October 2009

NAMA. "It's about getting liquidity flowing"

I was in Cork yesterday attending the Chamber of Commerce conference there. One phrase that was oft repeated was that we needed to "get the liquidity flowing from banks again". That doesn't really make a lot of sense from an economics point of view. Liquidity in the strict sense of the banking system related to the workings of the money market; being that market for short-term lending (under 30 days by general convention). This is dominated by banks that use it balance their immediate needs for funds - say to fund withdrawals of deposits.

But I think what everyone meant was that they didn't think that banks were lending large enough sum to enough companies - my general impression was that this included any company that wanted/needed it.

A couple of observations on that line of thinking that seems to be too prevalent and, in my opinion, likely to meet a sudden stop against the cold hard facade of reality.

Firstly and briefly, should banks be lending? No. Banks should be managing risk. If a loan, line of credit or overdraft does not make commercial sense from a risk and expected return basis, it should not lend.

Secondly, what is likely to happen when the Irish banks wend their way to the ECB and exchange their NAMA bonds for some freshly minted Euros? As some commentators have already indicated, the likely outcome is that they will pay down some of their liabilities. They will shrink their balance sheets.

Why would they do this? Simple. Because their balance sheets are too large. Don't tell me you have forgotten already how we came to be in this mess? Let me remind you. We (the collective people of Ireland) borrowed until we had put into hock virtually all our future income earning potential. And then we borrowed some more. That, dear readers was the expansion of the balance sheets of Irish banks.

And flowing directly from that, we have our present economic obstacle. Too much debt - synonymously bank balance sheet are too large.

And flowing from that is the unavoidable economic correction that needs to take place. A contraction in the balance sheets of Irish banks.

The following things will cause this to happen:
  • Writing off bad debt/defaulting on some liabilities starting from the top and moving down the capital structure (e.g. shareholders' equity, unsecured bond holders etc.).
  • Use any excess liquid assets (thank you NAMA/ECB) to retire short-term laibilities

The following things would not allow this to happen:

  • Increased growth in lending

And are you curious about how big the balance sheets of Irish financial institutions became of recent years? Here is a handy comparison. The UK is considered one of the more leveraged countries in the world. Total assets held against residents (i.e. outstanding lending to UK residents) reached 1.9 times annual GNP at the end of 2008. The equivalent for Ireland was around 2.5 times annual GNP. For the US the ratio is about 0.6.

People really need to be told. There is too much debt, which means banks will be taking every opportunity to shrink their balance sheets. That means no free money.

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