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This Week's Theme: The Rot Within

Something Has Changed
  (September 19, 2007)

Frequent contributor Protagoras filed this report from the U.K. on the Northern Rock bank run.

Well, it is really strange to wake up in the morning in what is apparently the same country one has always lived in, turn on the TV while one sips gingerly at some sweet, strong black coffee....and....what is this?

This looks like pictures of a whole bunch of people standing in line in some ordinary English town. Here is another town apparently, and they are standing in line here too. Here they are in a third. This one seems to be Kingston on Thames. I know Kingston, been through there many times. A very nice restaurant there with lovely views.

I wonder what they are doing. The sound is off, because it is after all very early. In fact, its 6 or 7am. What can all those people be doing at 6 in the morning, lining up on the streets? Of Kingston no less.

Wait a minute. Here is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We had best turn up the sound. Aha. The Chancellor, a white haired well spoken Scotsman is telling us that our savings are safe in a bank called the Northern Rock, and that Gordon Brown was an excellent Chancellor before he recently became Prime Minister. And what is still more alarming, he is telling us that the British economy is sound. My goodness, has the soundness of the economy become an issue overnight?.

It seems that the Northern Rock has deposits of about 25 billion sterling, and of those about 2 billion were withdrawn on Friday and Saturday, and more look like they are going to be withdrawn today, as soon as those people who are standing in line can actually get into the branches. My goodness, if the Chancellor is telling us its safe, it must be serious. We cannot remember ever seeing people standing in line for a run on the bank in England. Our parents used to talk about such things, it seems to have happened in the thirties. In a different, a black and white country, where men in cloth caps and baggy trousers stood in line, first to take out their money, and then later for cups of soup.

We take a good draught of coffee and head over to the computer. Lets find out about Northern Rock. Well, back in the winter it seems to have traded at around 1300, but from what we see here, it last traded around 400. A few hours later it is under 300. Should we buy some, if it so sound that the Chancellor is not afraid to associate his name with it? Well, we look at the charts, and frankly, we do not have much of a head for heights. These kinds of falls are alarming to us. It looks like a straight line drop into the ravine, with a couple of bounces along the way. No, no, I don't think we will buy any just yet.

We check out some of the other banks who, like Northern, are heavily into mortgages. Yes, they too are dropping like the proverbial stones.

Its a warm, sunny day. Its time for a boiled egg and toast, or maybe a little porage. Time to mow the lawn, plant a few bulbs for the spring. We feel however a slight chill, and its not from the air. Later we go into town. The streets seem busy, people are buying all kinds of useless trinkets, and maybe some useful ones too. The masonry of the supermarket, or rather, the prefab plasterboard over extruded metal, seems as solid as ever.

Why do we have the feeling that everything has changed, and that we will remember this day, where we were when the scale of the Northern Rock debacle became apparent, for a very long time? (emphasis added--CHS)
Longtime contributor J.F.B. sent in this video of the bank run with this wry comment: "After seeing this video I am sure Europeans will be eager to buy any further debt offered by our Private Equity firms."

Let's hope they aren't that foolish....

Frequent contributor U. Doran sent in a scathing article which highlights how all the major investment banks were issuing "buy" and "overweight" recommendations on Northern Rock even as it slid down the slippery slope: Northern Rock Bust on Broker Recommendations

Correspondent Albert T. sent in links to BBC stories on the meltdown:

Market fears hit lender's shares
UK mortgage lenders are suffering from the money market crisis Shares in UK buy-to-let mortgage lender Paragon Group slumped as much as 26% as fears deepened over the ability of banks to finance their loans.

What if Northern Rock goes bust?
Customers have been forming queues at Northern Rock branches The news that the Northern Rock needs to be helped out by the Bank of England will have come as a shock to most customers.

Here is my two pence on the meaning of the Northern Rock run. Though some pundits are tsk-tsking that foolish people are following the herd in a foolish stampede, they are missing the real point: people no longer believe The Big Lie (everything is fine) or the authorities' increasingly threadbare reassurances.

Markets require confidence in the basic rules. If you have no confidence in the institutions, the rules supposedly in place or the authorities who are supposedly enforcing the rules to protect the participants--then you no longer have a market.

The depositors withdrawing their money aren't lemmings; they're trying not to be the ones sent over the cliff by slick authorities trying to prop up their banking pals who have been reaping billions.

And it may not just be depositors who no longer believe the hype, but investors, too. New correspondent Johan made these comments about the huge losses being suffered in Europe by investors who believed U.S. investment bankers' glib assurances that the subprime garbage they packaged and dumped on trusting institutions was "low-risk":

I am from Germany, been here in San Francisco for 43 years, and still speak to my countrymen and relatives in the Fatherland on a weekly basis. They are all very upset at what the USA has done, sold them a worthless bill of goods!! They are all losing a ton of money...and hate it!!
And with good reason. When you buy a risky stock or bond, that's one thing. You are risking capital to earn a higher return, knowing full well that you may lose some or all of your capital to do so. But what the U.S. investment bankers have done is present risky investments as low-risk--essentially lied about the true risks.

Will non-U.S. investors finally wake up from their trusting slumber and refuse to buy any more U.S. debt or derivatives? We can only hope so.

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