Monday, September 10, 2007

Australia Leads the Way

The race to the bottom in financial responsibility reached a new milestone today. The Reserve Bank of Australia - their equivalent to the Fed agreed to take asset-backed debt paper as collateral for repo loans to commercial banks. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning:

Banks that may be forced to assume assets from the conduits that have financing coming due could themselves face shortages of capital.

To head off such a problem, Australia's central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, has relaxed rules on collateral it will accept for short-term funding. This would enable banks to take more time to evaluate which portions of the asset-backed commercial-paper market are most affected by ailing subprime mortgages.

In doing so the Australians went beyond the Federal Reserve, which doesn't accept such paper as collateral in repo operations but did recently clarify it was willing to accept a wide variety of such paper for its lesser-used, and costlier, "discount window" loans to banks.

Basically, the RBA is willing to accept asset backed paper as collateral for loans now. The Fed will apparently do the same but only at the discount window where distressed banks come to borrow, hat in hand.

Conduits and structured investment vehicles (SIV) enabled banks to move assets off the balance sheet, where they would no longer count against their required capital. By providing these entities with a guaranteed line of credit, the bank was on the hook if investors who normally provide funding got cold feet. Of course, it was assumed that the high times would last forever so such a thing could never happen but naturally it did.

In hindsight, it can be seen that the conduits and SIVs were an attempt to evade the reserve requirements and banking regulations. These things traded on the credit and the good name of the bank but never appeared anywhere in the financial statements. Simply another clever, legalized fraud. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for this sort of gamesmanship.