The US banking system’s terrifying balance sheet

By Felix Salmon
April 8, 2009

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This is a spectacularly good piece of information design, from Tyler at Zero Hedge. It repays a lot of looking at, and manages to encapsulate both the scale of the US banking system and the scale of the solutions which have been announced or implemented to date.

On the asset side of the US banking system’s balance sheet, the $4.8 trillion in mortgages is a problem — but there’s another $3.1 trillion in bank loans and consumer credit which is looking increasingly shaky. Against that there’s less than $1 trillion in common stock, supporting over $12 trillion in liabilities.

Meanwhile, Tyler has neatly lined up the government’s support programs along with the relevant parts of the right-hand side of the banking system’s balance sheet. Add them all up, and they come to just over $9 trillion, or 67% of the banking system’s total assets. It’s an absolutely astonishing amount of support, and it brings home the scale of the problem facing the government.

In a nutshell, the problem is the classic one: on the left-hand side nothing is right, and on the right-hand side nothing is left, at least absent government intervention. Says Tyler:

As the government has the best information about the true sad state of affairs, it is likely that as more and more information about the weakness of the financial system comes to light, more of these support guarantees will become utilized to their full extent. This also means that the asset side of the balance sheet is potentially “inflated” by almost 75% and the net result could be the most dramatic collapse in a banking system’s assets in recorded history as over $8 trillion in “assets” are reevaluated.

This doesn’t need to be probable to be terrifying: it just needs to be possible. And Tyler’s point is that the government has put all of these programs in place precisely because it’s possible. So: fear is entirely rational here.

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