Citigroup collapses! Banking Shutdown Possible (plus how to protect yourself)
It pains me deeply to announce that, despite the massive government rescue, yesterday’s collapse of Citigroup could ultimately lead to a shutdown of the global banking system.
For many years, I hoped this would never happen, and I thought we might be able to avoid it.
Indeed, that’s why, my firm, Weiss Research, first began rating the safety of the nation’s banks in the early 1980s, and why I later founded Weiss Ratings, a separate subsidiary dedicated exclusively to safety ratings — on thousands of banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, mutual funds and stocks.
I subsequently sold the Weiss Ratings subsidiary to Jim Cramer’s organization, TheStreet.com; and today, my former company is called TheStreet.com Ratings. I continue to own and run Weiss Research, Inc., the publisher of Money and Markets. Moreover, Weiss Research continues to review all financial institutions for their safety; and to support that effort, we acquire TheStreet.com’s ratings and data for our analysts.
For you, the benefit is that you can now get these independent and accurate ratings for free on the Internet. Plus, you can check our free updated lists of the strongest and weakest bank and insurance companies on our Money and Markets website.
My philosophy was that, to find safety, your primary task was to identify the weak institutions, move your money to the strong ones, and then monitor them periodically to make sure your money was still safe. If all of us — savers, investors, bankers and banking regulators — used this kind of objective data to make rational, informed decisions, we would reward the safest institutions and help prevent the growth of the riskiest. Not only would we be safer individually, but our banking system as a whole would be more solid.
Unfortunately, however, that’s not how history has unfolded.
Few people were interested in bank ratings; they blindly assumed all banks were safe. And over the years, regulators have followed a parallel path. Rather than proactively restrict or shut down the weakest, large institutions, they have encouraged their massive growth, making it very difficult for the smaller, safer institutions to compete.
More recently, in the wake of the biggest financial failures in history — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Wachovia and others — rather than liquidate the failed firms’ bad assets, the authorities have been engineering shotgun mergers. The end result is that they have been sweeping most of the bad assets under the carpet of larger banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase, each of which already had abundant bad assets of its own. Adding insult to injury, Treasury Secretary Paulson’s decision this month — not to buy up the bad assets from many of these banks — has only heightened this concern. Rather than dispose of the toxic waste, the regulators have been rolling up the garbage to the larger banks.
And now, here we are, nearing the end of the road with the largest banks of all endangered and with no larger bank that can swallow them up. It’s a day of reckoning that leaves me no choice but to issue this three-part warning:
Despite the U.S. government’s massive Citigroup bailout, it is going to be difficult for the global banking system to survive the shock to confidence for very long.
Even if insured depositors do not pull out their funds, uninsured institutional investors are likely to run with their money, threatening to bring the system down.
And alas, even if you have your money in a safe bank with full FDIC coverage, you could be adversely impacted.
How will the events unfold? That’s a massively complex question that demands an extremely cautious and thoughtful answer. That’s why, this past August, we devoted a full hour to this question in our “X” List video, naming the most likely candidates for bankruptcy. So let me review its primary conclusions and then take this discussion to the next level.
Most prominent on our August “X” List was Citigroup, America’s second largest banking conglomerate with over $2 trillion in total assets. The bank was already suffering crushing losses in mortgages. But at mid-year, it still had close to $200 billion in other mortgages on its books, denoting the strong possibility of many more to come.
In addition, Citigroup had a massive portfolio of credit cards — 185 million accounts worldwide — that we felt could be the final nail in its coffin. Even before the most recent episode of the global financial crisis, Citigroup’s losses on bad credit cards had surged by 67% from a year earlier. Worse, the number of credit cards 90 days past due was going through the roof, foreshadowing more large losses on the way. All of these weaknesses were detailed in Citigroup’s financial statements. Not detailed, however, was …
The Highly Dangerous Derivatives
Derivatives are bets made mostly with borrowed money. They are bets on interest rates, bets on foreign currencies, bets on stocks, bets on corporate failures, even bets on bets. The bets are placed by banks with each other, banks with brokerage firms, brokers with hedge funds, hedge funds with banks, and more.
They are often high risk. And they are huge. According to the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), on June 30, 2008, U.S. commercial banks held $182.1 trillion in notional value (face value) derivatives.1 And, according to the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), which produced a tally six months earlier for the entire world, the global pile-up of derivatives, including institutions in the U.S., Europe and Asia, was more than three times larger — $596 trillion.2
That was ten times the gross domestic product of the entire planet … more than 40 times the total amount of mortgages outstanding in the United States … nearly 60 times greater than the already-huge U.S. national debt.snip