In my May 25th blog post I wrote:

“Are the U.S. financial institutions prepared for what is happening in Greece? The answer is, “It depends on which banks you’re talking about.”  The vast majority of the American banks have no exposure whatsoever to the Greek financial crisis with the exception of our very largest banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo.  These six banks have definite exposure to what’s happening in Greece.  All reports say that their exposure to Greek insolvency is manageable.  If you want to believe what the banks are telling you then we have nothing to be concerned about.  Call me a cynic, call me a “glass half-empty type of guy, but I don’t believe it.”

Last Thursday, Moody’s cut the credit ratings of 15 of the world’s largest financial institutions including five out of the top six largest banks in the U.S. – Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.  As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” 

Why were they downgraded?  Reasons given were:

  • Marginal liquidity
  • Exposure to the European debt and banking crisis
  • Unspecified volatility and risk management problems in their capital markets activities

How will a lower credit rating affect these banks?

  • It will make it more expensive for them to borrow money.
  • It will make it more difficult to sell their commercial paper to money market funds.
  • It will likely require them to increase their capital requirements.
  • It will likely have an adverse affect on the value of their publicly traded stock.

Did Moody’s consider all 15 banks equally in trouble?  No.  Moody’s grouped the 15 institutions into three categories based on their relative credit-worthiness.

  • The strongest group had solid capital buffers and “contained” exposure to the European crisis.  J.P. Morgan Chase falls into this category.
  • The second group had varying risk factors, ranging from high dependence on capital markets operations to limited liquidity and exposure to Europe.  Goldman Sachs was in this category.
  • The weakest group had experienced problems with volatility and risk management, and in some cases had weaker buffers than their peers in the industry.  Bank of America, Citigroup & Morgan Stanley were in this category.

Bank of America and Citigroup’s credit rating are now rated two notches about junk status, while Morgan Stanley is three notches above. 

Are the credit agencies done downgrading the world’s largest financial institutions?  Not even close.  Most of the European banks have been downgraded on several occasions over the past few years and I suspect that further downgrading of our largest banks will continue unless drastic improvement occurs over the next couple of years. 

It is hard for me to believe that one or more of these major U.S. banks will not falter and eventually collapse of its own bad decision making.  The real question is not if it will happen, but when, and more importantly whether those in authority at The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department have a comprehensive plan to contain the fallout when this occurs.  I suspect that they do have a plan and I suspect that they hope that they don’t have to implement it.  That and $1.65 will get you a tall cup of coffee at Starbucks.   

Sources: Major banks downgraded by Moody’s, @CNNMoneyInvest, by James O’Toole, June 21, 2002; A Sober New Reality in Credit Downgrades for Banks, DealBook, NYTimes edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin, June 22, 2012.