Hundreds Of U.S. Banks Are Now Insolvent

U.S. banks’ unrealized losses actually amount to $1.75 trillion, or 80% of their capital, causing hundreds of U.S. banks to be now insolvent.

In January 2022, when yields on U.S. 10-year Treasury bonds TMUBMUSD10Y, 3.471% were still roughly 1% and those on German Bunds were -0.5%, I warned that inflation would be bad for both stocks and bonds.

Higher inflation would lead to higher bond yields, which in turn would hurt stocks as the discount factor for dividends rose. But, at the same time, higher yields on “safe” bonds would imply a fall in their price, too, owing to the inverse relationship between yields and bond prices.

This basic principle — known as “duration risk” — seems to have been lost on many bankers, fixed-income investors, and bank regulators. As rising inflation in 2022 led to higher bond yields, 10-year Treasurys lost more value (-20%) than the S&P 500  SPX, +1.44% (-15%), and anyone with long-duration fixed-income assets denominated in U.S. dollars DX00, +0.10% or euros USDEUR, -0.27% was left holding the bag.

The consequences for these investors have been severe. By the end of 2022, U.S. banks’ unrealized losses on securities had reached $620 billion, about 28% of their total capital ($2.2 trillion).

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Making matters worse, higher interest rates have reduced the market value of banks’ other assets as well. If you make a 10-year bank loan when long-term interest rates are 1%, and those rates then rise to 3.5%, the true value of that loan (what someone else in the market would pay you for it) will fall. Accounting for this implies that U.S. banks’ unrealized losses actually amount to $1.75 trillion, or 80% of their capital.

The “unrealized” nature of these losses is merely an artifact of the current regulatory regime, which allows banks to value securities and loans at their face value rather than at their true market value.

In fact, judging by the quality of their capital, most U.S. banks are technically near insolvency, and hundreds are already fully insolvent.

To be sure, rising inflation reduces the true value of banks’ liabilities (deposits) by increasing their “deposit franchise,” an asset that is not on their balance sheet. Since banks still pay near 0% on most of their deposits, even though overnight rates have risen to 4% or more, this asset’s value rises when interest rates are higher. Indeed, some estimates suggest that rising interest rates have increased U.S. banks’ total deposit-franchise value by about $1.75 trillion.

Banks borrowed a combined $164.8 billion from two Federal Reserve backstop facilities in the most recent week, a sign of escalated funding strains in the aftermath of Silicon Valley Bank’s failure.

You can read more about this topic here.

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1 COMMENT

  1. In a country where the average person’s politics centers on his/her/their pocket, I’ve always felt the “winner” of the 2020 election would envy the “loser.” In fairness to President Biden, both his most fervent backers and most bitter opponents feel that cutbacks and higher taxes are for someone else. This is precisely the outcome that Adams and Franklin feared.

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