In a clear sign that the credit crunch is still affecting the nation's largest financial institutions, the Federal Reserve agreed this week to bend key banking regulations to help out Citigroup and Bank of America, according to documents posted Friday on the Fed's web site.I am not sure what this all means but I will be keeping a very close eye on the markets in the weeks ahead. Are we heading toward some financial meltdown?
The Aug. 20 letters from the Fed to Citigroup and Bank of America state that the Fed, which regulates large parts of the U.S. financial system, has agreed to exempt both banks from rules that effectively limit the amount of lending that their federally-insured banks can do with their brokerage affiliates. The exemption, which is temporary, means, for example, that Citigroup's Citibank entity can substantially increase funding to Citigroup Global Markets, its brokerage subsidiary. Citigroup and Bank of America requested the exemptions, according to the letters, to provide liquidity to those holding mortgage loans, mortgage-backed securities, and other securities.
This unusual move by the Fed shows that the largest Wall Street firms are continuing to have problems funding operations during the current market difficulties, according to banking industry skeptics. The Fed's move appears to support the view that even the biggest brokerages have been caught off guard by the credit crunch and don't have financing to deal with the resulting dislocation in the markets. The opposing, less negative view is that the Fed has taken this step merely to increase the speed with which the funds recently borrowed at the Fed's discount window can flow through to the bond markets, where the mortgage mess has caused a drying up of liquidity.
The regulations in question effectively limit a bank's funding exposure to an affiliate to 10% of the bank's capital. But the Fed has allowed Citibank and Bank of America to blow through that level. Citigroup and Bank of America are able to lend up to $25 billion apiece under this exemption, according to the Fed. If Citibank used the full amount, "that represents about 30% of Citibank's total regulatory capital, which is no small exemption," says Charlie Peabody, banks analyst at Portales Partners.The more I read, the more I see this action as a defensive measure against a banking system collapse brought about by the intermingling of traditional banking business and the more risky securities and hedge fund businesses. Although this action by the Federal Reserve is troubling, it does signify that they are aware of the problems and are doing what is necessary to avoid a financial disaster. Will their actions be enough to ward off a meltdown? Lets hope so!!
The Fed says that it made the exemption in the public interest, because it allows Citibank to get liquidity to the brokerage in "the most rapid and cost-effective manner possible."
So, how serious is this rule-bending? Very. One of the central tenets of banking regulation is that banks with federally insured deposits should never be over-exposed to brokerage subsidiaries; indeed, for decades financial institutions were legally required to keep the two units completely separate. This move by the Fed eats away at the principle.