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When “extend and pretend” becomes “delay and pray”

May 29, 2012

When banks have non-performing loans, they sometimes don’t want to admit it. So instead of calling it a loss, because the debtor can’t pay, they simply rewrite the contract so that it has been extended. This way the debtor is not technically behind in payments and the creditor can pretend that the corresponding debt on their books is worth something. It’s called extend and pretend, and it’s not new.

And actually, this ploy sometimes works. After all, sometimes the debtor just needs a bit more time – they could be temporarily unable to pay for whatever reason. Indeed it would be a convenient option for people who are just in need of a few more months to get back on their feet and not lose their house (typically this offer is not extended to individuals, since their loans are too small to fret over).

Make no mistake: there is a real incentive for the banks to do this. Currently the worst example of this method is in Spain, where the banks are finding it politically impossible to admit their losses. The government doesn’t want to hear it, because they will need to bail them out, and their borrowing costs are already precariously high. The Eurozone leaders don’t want to think Spain is as bad off as Greece, because they can’t handle that kind of problem. The investors don’t want to hear it because their investments will be worth less once the news comes out (an example of asymmetric information if there ever was one – shouldn’t investors already know how much extending and pretending is really going on?). And of course the lenders themselves don’t want to admit they are working at an insolvent institution, especially when they probably each know other institutions that are even more insolvent.

What are the chances that this method of delay and pray will work for Spain? With an enormous housing bubble and 24% unemployment, not good. Most of the bad loans that have been extended after non-payment are housing market related. Half of the lenders are zombie, which means insolvent but still technically open for business. Essentially the numbers are just too high and now everybody knows it (see this Bloomberg article for the low-down on Spain).

So what should Spain be doing?

I like to point to the example of Iceland, which admitted its debts early on (although it has to be admitted they didn’t have much of a choice), defaulted on a bunch of international debt, bailed out their citizens from onerous home debt, and is recovering nicely (see this Bloomberg article for more on Iceland).

Oh, and let me add that they (Iceland) are indicting and jailing the bankers who got them into the mess, to the tune of 200 indictments. Considering the U.S. has a population 981 times as large, that would be equivalent to us indicting 196,341 bankers. In fact we’ve indicted no top bank executive, although everyone will be relieved to know the SEC “sanctioned” 39 people for the housing market debacle. Phew!

Unfortunately, it would be tough for Spain to repeat that act- it depended on the fact that Iceland has control over its economic choices, but Spain is part of the Eurozone and as such is embedded in a huge network of agreements and debts and currency with the other Eurozone nations.

In some sense, Spain is being forced into the zombie bank situation by a lack of options. Unless I’m missing something – would love to be wrong!

Categories: finance
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