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The Leveraged Buyout of America

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Posted on Aug 26, 2013
badjonni (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Ellen Brown, Web of Debt

This piece first appeared on Web of Debt. Its author, Ellen Brown, was named Truthdig’s “Truthdigger of the Week” over the weekend.

Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?

In a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dated June 27, 2013, US Representative Alan Grayson and three co-signers expressed concern about the expansion of large banks into what have traditionally been non-financial commercial spheres. Specifically:

[W]e are concerned about how large banks have recently expanded their businesses into such fields as electric power production, oil refining and distribution, owning and operating of public assets such as ports and airports, and even uranium mining.

After listing some disturbing examples, they observed:

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According to legal scholar Saule Omarova, over the past five years, there has been a “quiet transformation of U.S. financial holding companies.” These financial services companies have become global merchants that seek to extract rent from any commercial or financial business activity within their reach.  They have used legal authority in Graham-Leach-Bliley to subvert the “foundational principle of separation of banking from commerce”. . . .

It seems like there is a significant macro-economic risk in having a massive entity like, say JP Morgan, both issuing credit cards and mortgages, managing municipal bond offerings, selling gasoline and electric power, running large oil tankers, trading derivatives, and owning and operating airports, in multiple countries.

A “macro” risk indeed – not just to our economy but to our democracy and our individual and national sovereignty. Giant banks are buying up our country’s infrastructure – the power and supply chains that are vital to the economy. Aren’t there rules against that? And where are the banks getting the money?

How Banks Launder Money Through the Repo Market

In an illuminating series of articles on Seeking Alpha titled “Repoed!”, Colin Lokey argues that the investment arms of large Wall Street banks are using their “excess” deposits – the excess of deposits over loans – as collateral for borrowing in the repo market. Repos, or “repurchase agreements,” are used to raise short-term capital. Securities are sold to investors overnight and repurchased the next day, usually day after day.

The deposit-to-loan gap for all US banks is now about $2 trillion, and nearly half of this gap is in Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo alone. It seems that the largest banks are using the majority of their deposits (along with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing dollars) not to back loans to individuals and businesses but to borrow for their own trading. Acquiring a company or a portion of a company mostly with borrowed money is called a “leveraged buyout.”  The banks are leveraging our money to buy up ports, airports, toll roads, power, and massive stores of commodities.

Using these excess deposits directly for their own speculative trading would be blatantly illegal, but the banks have been able to avoid the appearance of impropriety by borrowing from the repo market. (See my earlier article here.) The banks’ excess deposits are first used to purchase Treasury bonds, agency securities, and other highly liquid, “safe” securities. These liquid assets are then pledged as collateral in repo transactions, allowing the banks to get “clean” cash to invest as they please. They can channel this laundered money into risky assets such as derivatives, corporate bonds, and equities (stock).

That means they can buy up companies. Lokey writes, “It is common knowledge that prop [proprietary] trading desks at banks can and do invest in a variety of assets, including stocks.” Prop trading desks invest for the banks’ own accounts. This was something that depository banks were forbidden to do by the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act but that was allowed in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed those portions of Glass-Steagall. 

The result has been a massively risky $700-plus trillion speculative derivatives bubble. Lokey quotes from an article by Bill Frezza in the January 2013 Huffington Post titled “Too-Big-To-Fail Banks Gamble With Bernanke Bucks”:

If you think [the cash cushion from excess deposits] makes the banks less vulnerable to shock, think again. Much of this balance sheet cash has been hypothecated in the repo market, laundered through the off-the-books shadow banking system. This allows the proprietary trading desks at these “banks” to use that cash as collateral to take out loans to gamble with. In a process called hyper-hypothecation this pledged collateral gets pyramided, creating a ticking time bomb ready to go kablooey when the next panic comes around.

That Explains the Mountain of Excess Reserves

Historically, banks have attempted to maintain a loan-to-deposit ratio of close to 100%, meaning they were “fully loaned up” and making money on their deposits. Today, however, that ratio is only 72% on average; and for the big derivative banks, it is lower yet. The unlent portion represents the “excess deposits” available to be tapped as collateral for the repo market. 

The Fed’s quantitative easing contributes to this collateral pool by converting less-liquid mortgage-backed securities into cash in the banks’ reserve accounts. This cash is not something the banks can spend for their own proprietary trading, but they can invest it in “safe” securities – Treasuries and similar securities that are also the sort of collateral acceptable in the repo market. Using this repo collateral, the banks can then acquire the laundered cash with which they can invest or speculate for their own accounts.


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