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Time to Nationalize Insolvent Banks

NEW YORK – A year ago, I predicted that the losses of US financial institutions would reach at least $1 trillion and possibly go as high as $2 trillion. At that time, the consensus among economists and policymakers was that these estimates were exaggerated, because it was believed that sub-prime mortgage losses totaled only about $200 billion.

As I pointed out, with the United States and global economy sliding into a severe recession, bank losses would extend well beyond sub-prime mortgages to include sub-prime, near-prime, and prime mortgages; commercial real estate; credit cards, auto loans, and student loans; industrial and commercial loans; corporate bonds; sovereign bonds and state and local government bonds; and losses on all of the assets that securitized such loans. Indeed, since then, the write-downs by US banks have already passed the $1 trillion mark (my floor estimate of losses), and institutions such as the IMF and Goldman Sachs now predict losses of more than $2 trillion.

But if you think that the $2 trillion figure is already huge, the latest estimates by my research consultancy RGE Monitor suggest that total losses on loans made by US financial firms and the fall in the market value of the assets they hold (things like mortgage-backed securities) will peak at about $3.6 trillion.

US banks and broker dealers are exposed to about half of this figure, or $1.8 trillion; the rest is borne by other financial institutions in the US and abroad. The capital backing the banks’ assets was only $1.4 trillion last fall, leaving the US banking system some $400 billion in the hole, or close to zero even after the government and private-sector recapitalization of such banks.