Edge: Zombie Banks
At the market highs, banks gorged themselves on assets, lending and loading their balance sheets in an era of cheap money and robust valuations. As asset prices drop, these same companies find their balance sheets functionally impaired and in some cases insolvent. They are able to stay alive with substantial help from the central bank but require ongoing support. This support and an unhealthy balance sheet preclude them from fulfilling their role in the economy.
We are describing, of course, the situation in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when banks lent freely, and companies purchased both real estate and equity at the market highs. When the central bank tightened monetary policy and the stock market tanked, many firms became distressed and had to rely on support from the central bank to stay afloat. But with sclerotic balance sheets, they were unable to thrive, leading to the “lost decade” (or two or three) of anemic growth.
While there are substantial parallels between the U.S. today and Japan of three decades ago, there are differences as well. Firstly, the U.S. has a dynamic non-bank sector that can fill typical roles of lending and financial intermediation. And second, much of the bank impairment comes from Agency MBS, which slowly, but surely, will prepay and relieve pressure on their HTM assets.
How fast will these passthroughs pay off? It will vary greatly from bank to bank and depends on their mix of passthroughs and their loan rates relative to current market rates, what MBS traders call “refi incentive” or “moniness.” It is helpful to remember that incentive also matters to housing turnover, which is a form of mortgage prepayment. For example, a borrower with a note rate that is 100bp below prevailing rates is much more likely to move to a new house than a borrower with a note rate that is 200bp out of the money, a trait that mortgage practitioners call “lock-in”.
As a proxy for the aggregate bank’s balance sheet, we look at the universe of conventional and GNMA passthroughs and remove the MBS held by the Federal Reserve.1 The Fed’s most substantial purchases flowed from their balance sheet expansion during COVID, when mortgage rates were at all-time lows. Consequently, the Fed owns a skew of the MBS market. Two-thirds of the Fed’s position of 30yr MBS have a note rate of 3.25% or lower. In contrast, the market ex Fed has just under 50% of the same note rates.
From here, we can estimate prepayments on the remaining universe. Prepay estimates from dealers and analytics providers like RiskSpan vary, but generally fall in the 4 to 6 CPR range for out-of-the-money coupons. This, coupled with scheduled principal amortization of roughly 2-3% per annum means that for this level in rates, runoff in HTM MBS should occur around 8% per annum — slow, but not zero. After five years, approximately 1/3 of the MBS should pay off. Naturally, the pace of runoff can change as both mortgage rates and home sales change.
While the current crisis contains echoes of the Japanese zombie bank crisis of the 1990s, there are notable differences. U.S. banks may be hamstrung over the next few years, with reduced capacity to make new loans as MBS in their HTM balance sheets run off over the next few years. But they will run off — slowly but surely.