Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Is Wells Fargo a Lehman in the Making?

Banking maven Chris Whalen has a must-read piece on the reckless real estate risk taking underway at Wells Fargo, the sanctimonious #4 bank. While I sometimes take issue with Chris on his readings on capital markets related businesses, he is solid on his knowledge of traditional banking and also has access to very good intelligence in that arena.

Thanks to the crisis just past, we tend to think of banks as creating danger to bystanders via their over-the-counter trading operations: securitizations, CDOs, derivatives, all that stuff that is now loosely termed as “shadow banking.” But the US crisis prior to that was the S&L and the less widely recognized LBO debt meltdown of the early 1990s, both traditional bank lending. Even though economists airily wave it away as damaging but not catastrophic, it didn’t look that way at the time. Citibank nearly failed and the entire banking sector was really wobbly. Greenspan engineered an extremely steep yield curve to help banks earn their way out of the hole faster.

Wells is in the awkward position of being a monster traditional bank, when its big retail bank competitors, Citi, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, also have substantial capital markets businesses. Citi has long had a leading foreign exchange and money markets business, and has a corporate cash management operation which in and of itself makes it too complicated to fail. Read More