Monday, September 22, 2008

"It Was Leverage Killed the Beast"

Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group, the remaining independent Wall Street brokerages, threw in the towel today and converted to traditional bank holding companies, placing themselves under the regulatory supervision of numerous federal regulatory agencies. Instead of being overseen just by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley will now face much stricter oversight from numerous federal agencies. The Federal Reserve will regulate the parent companies, the Comptroller of the Currency will oversee the national bank charters, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will likely play a bigger role because the companies are expected to seek much higher volumes of federally backed deposits, and the entities may seek to take customer deposits, instead of depending on short-term borrowing to finance their investments.

The firms will reduce their leverage ratios -- a measure of a firm's risk in relation to the equity on its balance sheet -- over the next two years from current levels to something more in line with that at commercial banks. Investment bank ratios now stand above 20, with commercial banks closer to 10. The combination of easy money, interest rates kept lower than the real inflation rate by the Fed after the dot com bust, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac incentives to make housing affordable to more Americans, and finally the housing bubble burst, at the core of the problems, that all contributed to the rapid deleveraging of investment banks as their underlying assets crashed in value.

Quarterly Leverage Ratios Trend for Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers

Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers had leverage ratios above 30 in Q1 2008, while Goldman Sachs had a leverage ratio of 27. For comparison purposes, Bank of America has a leverage ratio of 11, giving it far more assets to back up any troubled investments it makes. Having more assets on their balance sheets allowed the commercial banks to ride out the storm, since they had more resources to fall back on, without having to raise more capital, as their investments declined in value. Much of the investments banks out-sized profits came from this leverage - investing borrowed money in the hopes of getting a great return before having to pay it back. This fueled the out-sized returns of the investment banks during their salad day, and fuled their death pyres during the housing crash. They will be safer in the future, but also have smaller returns, as their ability to bet large amounts of someone else's money has now come a'cropper.

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