Even without a knowledge of history, there was more than enough evidence to indicate that financial company write offs might get much bigger and go on for a long time. SIVs - structured investment vehicles - had already hit the news many weeks before November of 2007. These off-balance sheet items (think Enron) were so obscure that most people on Wall Street had never heard of them. Suddenly, there were an extra $400 billion of possibly bad debt that was not on the balance sheet of the banks, but would be winding up there eventually. Citibank alone had $100 billion in credit exposure to SIVs. This new wrinkle in the Subprime Crisis was viewed as so serious by the U.S. Treasury Secretary that he attempted to organize a bailout (how he had the authority to do so is unclear) by getting a number of large banks and brokers to create a pool that could buy up SIV assets and thereby support their prices. While much ballyhooed by the press, this effort went nowhere and was eventually abandoned by December.
While the Treasury Department's plans for SIVs fell through, the Federal Reserve created an alternative that could help out the big banks. It allowed them to borrow against their (highly questionable) assets, but this necessitated bringing the assets onto the books. In December, Citibank indeed brought $49 billion in SIV assets onto it balance sheet. It is presumed that the other $51 billion the Citi had originally in SIVs had disappeared because of reductions in value. Indeed, it was reported in December that the total value of SIVs was then only $298 billion (it was quite possible that even this was a significant overstatement of their actual worth). If Citi had lost approximate $50 billion in its SIV investments, it was not fully (if at all) reflected in write offs in its first quarter 2008 earnings report.
Although SIVs were considered a serious threat to the stability of the banking system, little did the public know in the fall of 2007, that they were not the sum total of all off-balance sheet items that the banks were holding. After all, why would a company have off-balance sheet items unless it wanted to hide what it was really doing? Since there purpose is secrecy, how does anyone know how many off-balance sheet items a company has, what assets they contain, and how much those assets are really worth? While it would be reasonable to assume that if there was one type of off-balance sheet item on a companies books, there could easily be others, there was little if any speculation on this matter by the financial media. Only in February of 2008 was it reported that SIVs were actually only one type of off-balance sheet items held by the banks - and the possible losses were much greater than had been previously imagined. The accountants who did Enron's book must have been envious.
Next: Mortgage Insurer Meltdown.
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