Act now or forever hold your (b)-piece, Obama
It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington.
Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the perilous state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”.
The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shock the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems banks have now rather simply obsess about those they may or may not encounter in the future.
The global banking system may well need some kind of Volcker-esque guidelines to curb the next generation of excessive risk-takers but critics say Obama is putting the cart before the horse in his efforts to haul the economy back on track.
Certainly, the U.S. government has toiled long and hard to stabilise the U.S. housing market, like propping up Fannie and Freddie and their dysfunctional offspring, but the subprime mess has distracted attentions from the toxic commercial market, where the clean-up task is no less important.
Warren reckons there is about $1.4 trillion worth of outstanding commercial real estate loans in the U.S that will need to be refinanced before 2014, and about half of them are already “underwater,” an industry term that refers to loans larger than the property’s current value.
But some believe bank brains are wasting too much time figuring out how the so-called “Volcker rule” might affect their operations and future profitability, instead of getting their arms around the real estate loans that could snap their institutions in two long before the anti-risk measures even take hold.
Obama’s challenge to Wall Street’s investment autonomy, which he says cultivated the collapse of banks like Lehmans, is seen like suturing a papercut while your jugular gapes wide open.
Maybe now, as Warren’s report hammers home the threat posed by unperforming commercial real estate debt, Obama and his policymakers will refocus on the “now” and worry about “tomorrow”, tomorrow.