Global Credit Crisis Takes a Toll on Former Titans of Banking

By Jennifer Yousfi
Managing Editor
Money Morning

It takes more than a globally competitive economy to have a sound banking system.

For the third straight year, the United States finds itself at the top of the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as part of its annual Global Competitiveness Report.

"Once the global economy emerges from the current financial crisis, which it will, the countries that do well on our index are those that are best prepared to bounce back and perform well in the longer term," Jennifer Blanke, director of the WEF's global competitiveness network told The Financial Times.

And the United States is at the top. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the safety of U.S. banks dropped to 40th this year from 26th in the WEF's 2007 – 2008 report.

"Despite rising concerns about the soundness of the banking sector and other macroeconomic weaknesses, the country's many other strengths continue to make it a very productive environment," the report said of the United States.

But such a fall in the rankings for bank safety is a bit frightening for U.S. banking customers already spooked by the collapse of investment bank such as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (OTC: LEHMQ) and regional banks such as IndyMac Bancorp Inc. (OTC: IDMC).

Summing a Country's Competitive Balance Sheet

The WEF analyzes 110 economic indicators in 12 different categories for each of 134 countries to come up with its overall GCI ranking. One of those 12 areas is financial market sophistication, which is made up of factors such as "venture capital availability," "strength of investor protection" and even "regulation of securities exchanges."

But perhaps the most important factor in this category is the soundness of banks.

Confidence in a nation's banks is what keeps citizens from stuffing dollars under a mattress. Banks need deposit assets to keep the wheels of U.S. industry turning, as deposit assets are used to fund the short-term credit markets that are so vital to the daily operations of many corporations.

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And it's an area where the United States ranks a disappointing 40.

Coming in behind such well-developed nations as Canada, which tops the list, or even Hong Kong in the 11th spot, might not seem so bad. But even the small African nation of Namibia ranks in at 17, illustrating the United States has some definite room for improvement.

While there are plenty of surprises at the type of the bank safety list, there aren't many such surprises at the bottom. Algeria comes in dead last with Libya just above it.

Of the "BRIC" nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – most moved up the list this year against better-developed nations. China landed in the top 30 for the first time as it moved up four spots to reach 30, but China's banking system is still near the bottom of the list at 108. India, however, slipped two spots to 50 from 48 due to a widening budget deficit. India's banks also slipped, falling to 51 from 46. 

Meanwhile, Brazil was the biggest mover with an eight-spot jump to 64 on the overall list, and also tops the United States when it comes to the soundness of its banks with its 24th spot on the banking safety list. Oil revenues gave Russia a gain of seven to move to 51 from 58 the year prior, but Russia's banks clocked in at 107 on the soundness rankings.

Slipping Bank Titans?

The United States wasn't the only nation to find its ranking slipping in the bank safety category. The United Kingdom made a stunning plunge from 4th in the 2007 – 2008 survey, to 44th in the current one, after the emergency nationalization of banks such as Northern Rock PLC (PINK: NHRKF).

Even Switzerland, synonymous with banking to many, was hit hard by the global banking crisis, as it slipped from its top spot in last year's banking soundness rankings to 16th this year. Swiss giants such as UBS AG (UBS) got caught with over-exposure to U.S. subprime mortgage-backed securities that necessitated government intervention while #2 rival Credit Suisse Group AG (ADR: CS) was forced to raise fresh capital.

Nations from Sweden to the United Kingdom to the Netherlands have all introduced government-sponsored packages to help support ailing domestic banks and avoid the fate of nearly bankrupt Iceland and Pakistan.

The United States $700 billion bailout package is by far the largest, but even that might not be enough to return the domestic banking industry back to safety.

The U.S. financial landscape has been changed forever as firms such, as Lehman Brothers – old enough to have weathered the Great Depression – toppled under the crushing weight of a credit market. The strong – Bank of America Corp. (BAC), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) – have bought out the weak.

Bank of America bought both mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. (CFC) and former standalone investment bank Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. (MER). JPMorgan bought both regional bank Washington Mutual Inc. (OTC: WAMUQ) and the failed Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. Wells Fargo is buying Wachovia Corp. (WB).

But in the wake of such massive acquisitions, the United States is left with huge nationwide banking complexes dangerously close to the 10% regulator's cap any one bank is allowed to have of domestic market share. 

And with 117 financial firms on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s (FDIC) "Problem List" at the end of the second quarter, more bank acquisitions and rescues could be on the way. The FDIC's list for the third quarter won't be published until November.

The FDIC's coffers have already taken a hit from the rescue of IndyMac and with the recent bailout law raising the cap for FDIC-insured deposits, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine the nation's banking insurance coming up short if one of the largest banks were to fail.

Bank Safety Plays

The FDIC doesn't publish the names of the banks on its watch list, but luckily there are some simple ways to help ensure your banking deposits are safe. Here are three quick and easy steps from Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald that you can take to determine if your bank is safe or not:

  1. Click over to Bankrate.com's Safe & Sound ratings page. There you can plug in your bank's name and see how it scores on the basis of 22 objective measures designed to gauge the capital adequacy, asset quality, profitability and liquidity of thousands of banks. "If your bank doesn't make the cut with a higher rating, then switch to one that does," says Fitz-Gerald.
  1. Use the FDIC's electronic deposit insurance estimator to see if your assets are covered in full. With the recent signing of the bailout legislation into law, the FDIC now covers accounts up to $250,000 at any one bank in any single account or $250,000 per co-owner for joint accounts. Traditional and Roth IRAs, SEPS and other retirement accounts on deposit at an FDIC-insured bank or savings institutions are insured up to $250,000 separately from any other deposits you may have at the same institution. "But remember," said Fitz-Gerald, "this is mainly deposit accounts and doesn't include stocks, bonds, mutual funds or life insurance policies."
  1. Double-check your ownership. If a portion of your assets is uninsured, getting full coverage may just be a matter of changing ownership or spreading out your accounts to different banks. "Like most things the government doesn't make this easy, so that means more paperwork," Fitz-Gerald said.

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