The subprime black hole

Black holes are an apparently empty region of space, with the power to destroy anything that comes too close. The US subprime crisis seems to be turning into their financial equivalent. It never seems to get resolved. It just gets worse. The last few days have demonstrated this key learning once again.
One might have thought that the departure of CEOs at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, plus multi-billion dollar write-offs, might have marked the end of the story. But it seems that the more we learn about subprime lending, the more uncertain it all becomes.
The underlying issue is that there is no transparency about what has been happening. Most of the lending activity has been taking place ‘off-balance sheet’. And where this lending has been reported, it is only in obscure footnotes to regulatory filings. Even then, it has been subject to massive revision.
Consider the following table, which has been put together by the Financial Times in an excellent piece of analysis. This apparently represents Citigroup’s ‘off-balance sheet liabilities’. And just look at the numbers:
At the end of last year, Citi apparently told the US Securities & Exchange Commission in its 10Q filing that it had $228bn of such liabilities. Then it revised the number to $294bn, by deciding to include its Asset Backed Commercial Paper liabilities (ABCP). By September this year, the total figure had risen to $343bn, with increases in all categories apart from ‘Others’.
Even the FT gives up, however, when it comes to telling us what this might mean for Citi’s published balance sheet in due course. But it does comment that ‘There are questions to be raised about whether maximum loss exposure figures are set to keep rising for some banks.’
SIVs are ‘Structured Investment Vehicles’ that make loans that don’t tie up a banks regulatory capital. ABCP conduits do the same for ‘Asset Backed Commercial Paper’. The * indicates the restated numbers for December 2006.

1 thought on “The subprime black hole”

  1. Point of information, black holes only look empty, they are incredibly full, incredibly small and so incredibly dense that their gravity is too strong for light to escape them… Some might argue that these off-balance sheet arrangements have similar characteristics. They are so dense and impenetrable to the layperson that they actually absorb the (rather dim) light that conventional accounting sheds on on-balance sheet deals.

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