Meredith Whitney Calls On America's Banks to Hold a Yard Sale

January 26th, 2009

America’s banks need to hold a yard sale
By Meredith Whitney

A clear lesson learnt from this credit crisis has been to sell and sell early. However, it appears as if US banks are setting out to make some of the same mistakes of the past 18 months all over again. In many instances, those mistakes determined who survived and who did not.

Throughout 2007 and 2008, when I asked managements why they were not more aggressive in disposing of assets, the common answer I received was that they believed current prices were too distressed and did not reflect the true underlying value. Unfor­tunately, the longer they waited, the less these assets were in fact worth. Such a strategy cost Merrill Lynch and Citigroup more than half of their per share capital. In the case of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, capital all but vaporised. These are just some examples but in reality this applies to too many financial institutions.

Throughout 2008, hundreds of billions of dollars were raised to recapitalise US financial institutions, but this money simply went to plug holes created by holding on to assets with declining values. Until the fourth quarter, monies were raised from willing investors. However, beginning in the fourth quarter with troubled asset relief programme capital created to recapitalise these institutions, US taxpayers became the default investors.

Now, when the average taxpayer finds him or herself overextended, he or she is forced to backtrack and, in situations of duress, sell stuff (otherwise known as a yard sale). In these cases, selling a set of snow skis for $15 or a prized record collection for $10 is not desirable but is necessary. Why should the US taxpayer be forced to fund behaviour that he or she would never have the luxury of indulging in?

Citigroup provides a prime illustration to support this argument. Last Friday, Vikram Pandit, Citigroup’s chief executive, stated: “We are not in a rush to sell assets.” This comes from a company that has incurred more than $51bn (€39bn, £36bn) in writedowns and has called upon more than $45bn in Tarp money from the taxpayer. At a minimum, this seems like a company currently operating under a different rule book from that used by taxpayers.

What is more, taxpayer dollars will have increasing demands on them. Thirty eight states are underfunded: already California and Arizona have begged for more than $10bn in federal dollars, while at least 36 more states have shortfalls in their 2009 budgets totalling more than $30bn. I believe they will be forced to sell assets such as toll roads and airports. It is worth noting that the US is well behind the rest of the world in terms of private ownership of such assets.

The fact is that there is money on the sidelines looking for opportunities to invest. One constant question I get from investors, who need somewhere to put their money, is: if I had to own something, what would it be? I am not very helpful to them at the moment as my answer is that I would own nothing. I do tell them that I believe that later in the year there will be fabulous opportunities to invest in new combinations of businesses that are currently “off the menu” to individuals. What I mean by this is that the system will eventually force disposals of assets: here I am just arguing that we need to get to it sooner rather than later.

Funding is the critical challenge to outsiders’ ability to bid more aggressively for assets. Many of these potential investors have clean balance sheets and, if provided with the appropriate funding concession (guarantees of long-term, low-cost capital from the government), could also more ably lubricate the financial system by making actual loans. These investors could be private-equity firms or existing public companies. The key here is government providing a funding concession and the banks being forced to sell assets that could raise capital and provide some tax relief to taxpayers.

No one doubts that losses will go higher, so asset sales are certain to be heavily discounted just as initial bids for collateralised debt obligations and retail mortgage-backed securities were. However, in retrospect, those “discounts” were far less than the write­downs companies took just months later. While it is never pleasant to sell one’s “crown jewels”, the strain of this credit crisis and the overextension of many bank balance sheets will require that they sell what they can and perhaps not what they would like. After all, that is what the average taxpayer would be forced to do.

The writer is managing director of Oppenheimer & Co