Amidst all of the tumult over the Fed bailout and the Presidential debates, not to mention a host of other events large and small, news about WaMu’s collapse has already slipped from the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Astonishingly, in one short weekend, events have superseded the largest bank failure in U.S. history.


The problem with treating this extraordinary development as just another item in the news cycle is that it could be possible, notwithstanding the magnitude of the event, to overlook its significance. Make no mistake, however; the consequences of Washington Mutual’s failure, and the specific way the J.P. Morgan buyout went down, are enormously significant, and the implications of these developments are laden with portent.



On September 25, 2008, the Office of Thrift Supervision announced (here) that it closed Washington Mutual and appointed the FDIC as the institution’s received. The FDIC announced that same day (here) that as a result of an auction process J.P. Morgan Chase had acquired Washington Mutual’s banking assets.


J.P. Morgan’s September 25, 2008 press release (here) provides further detail regarding this transaction. J.P. Morgan’s press release explains that in exchange for the payment of $1.9 billion, the company had acquired "all deposits, assets, and certain liabilities of Washington Mutual’s banking operations." The press release also states that the transaction excluded "senior unsecured debt, subordinated debt, and preferred stock" of WaMu’s banks as well as any assets or liabilities of the parent holding company or the parent holding company’s nonbank subsidiaries.


J.P. Morgan also announced that as a result of this acquisition, it "will be marking down the acquired loan portfolio by approximately $31 billion," which it said "represents our estimate of remaining credit losses related to the impaired loans."


The final step of this process followed on September 26, 2008, when the parent holding company filed a bankruptcy petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, about which refer here.


As NYU economics professor Lawrence White noted in a September 26, 2008 Forbes column (here), for its $1.9 billion investment, J.P. Morgan acquires net assets with a nominal value of $240 billion and deposit liabilities of $188 billion, suggesting a nominal acquisition value of approximately $52 billion. Of course, the planned write-downs diminish –but do not eliminate –this nominal value. Nevertheless J.P Morgan’s $1.9 billion offer was the best bid that the FDIC received.


Clearly, asset valuation uncertainty explains this apparent disparity. J.P. Morgan’s announcement of an immediate $31 billion write-down underscores the magnitude of the valuation uncertainty. But both the extent of this disparity and the magnitude of the write-downs have major implications, as discussed below.


One aspect of J.P. Morgan’s acquisition that was widely emphasized in the press reports was the FDIC’s success in completing this transaction without any losses to the deposit insurance fund. Indeed, there were reports that the FDIC’s chairman’s highest priority in the sequence of events was protecting the fund. Had the deposit insurance been called into play, the impact on the fund would have been enormous, and impact on depositors whose deposits exceeded the insurance limits also would have been significant. Nevertheless, the particular way in which the fund was protected, which left debtholders and bond investors exposed, presents its own set of issues.


Consequences and Implications

1. Valuation Issues: The massive discount on WaMu’s asset valuations implied in J.P. Morgan’s acquisition price has great significance for other institutions holding similar assets. While mortgage assets are not uniform, and the distinct characteristics are highly relevant to valuation issues, the obvious implication of the price and of J.P. Morgan’s announced $31 billion write-down is that similar assets on other institutions’ balance sheets may be overvalued.


Professor White, in the Forbes article cited above, states that these developments are "strong reinforcement for the view that lots of other institutions’ mortgages and mortgage-backed securities are also overvalued."


Indeed, the September 27, 2008 "Heard on the Street" column in the Wall Street Journal notes that "applying J.P. Morgan’s projections on other large banks implies higher losses for those with WaMu-like assets." The Journal column specifically suggests that these concerns may explain why Wachovia’s shares plunged on Friday and that rumors of Wachovia’s possible sale also immediately began circulating. Wachovia, it should be noted, like WaMu, has a significant concentration in Option ARM loans, which undoubtedly reinforce the concerns about possible future write-downs on Wachovia’s loan portfolio.


Professor White notes with respect to these valuation concerns that "most of these assets are held outside the banking system," as they are held in "investment banking firms, finance companies, insurance companies, hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, etc." All of these institutions will face valuation pressures in the wake of the WaMu takeover.


In any event, along with the possibility that other institutions’ assets may be overvalued is the consequent possibility that investors in those institutions may later claim that they have been misled about the true financial condition of those institutions. (Indeed, WaMu itself previously had been hit with a securities lawsuit in which investors claim that they were misled about the company’s exposure to Option ARM loans, as noted here.) All of which may suggest the possibility of significant additional litigation, as discussed further below.


2. The Insurance Fund is Safe. Bond Investors? Not So Much: J.P. Morgan’s September 25 press release carefully isolated the liabilities it was not acquiring as part of the transaction. While the company cheerfully acquired WaMu’s bank deposit liabilities, other liabilities were left behind.


As detailed in a September 25, 2008 Seattle Times article (here), J.P. Morgan’s $1.9 billion payment will go into a fund for WaMu’s creditors. The only creditors likely to get anything out of the fund are the holders of WaMu’s $7 billion senior unsecured debt, who possible will get not more than 27 cents on the dollar. Holders of over $11 billion of WaMu subordinated debt and preferred stock will get nothing, as will other WaMu debtholders. The total amount of WaMu’s debt outstanding may be as much as $28 billion.


Among others that will be left out in the cold is the private equity fund TPG (formerly known as the Texas Pacific Group), which pumped $1.3 billion into WaMu as one of several investors that invested $7 billion into WaMu just five months ago. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its September 27, 2008 article entitled "WaMu Fall Crushes TPG" (here), these "losses illustrate the peril of investing in distressed banks and financial companies."


These losses are significant in two particular ways. First, WaMu’s collapse has thrown off significant losses for bond investors, many of whom are already reeling from earlier collapses of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As these losses continue to filter out into the investment community and the larger economy, the cumulative effect potentially could be staggering (especially in combination with equity investment losses, discussed below).


These losses may also have important implications for other troubled banks’ capital raising prospects. The FDIC may well have succeeded in protecting the insurance fund in this instance. However, the incentives for any investors to consider pumping additional capital into banking institutions have been undermined. Certainly, the likelihood of another TPG-like capital infusion for another troubled bank would seem increasingly improbable in light of these developments.


By its unwillingness to liquidate WaMu now, a move that might have salvaged something for bond investors, the FDIC potentially could have set up further problems down the road. If investors are unwilling to risk investments in floundering financial institutions, additional bank failures could follow. The losses to the insurance fund potentially could be even greater.


3. "I awoke last night to the sound of thunder/ How far off I sat and wondered": The reverberations from the WaMu collapse will ripple through the economy, with many effects near and far, for months to come. Some, like the ones described above, may be readily apparent. Others will be more remote and will take longer to emerge.


Take, for example, the recondite world of collateralized debt obligations, already the subject of much scrutiny due to CDO investment in subprime mortgages. According to a September 26, 2008 Bloomberg article (here), WaMu’s collapse could also have a "significant" impact on CDOs.

According to the Bloomberg article, 1,526 synthetic CDOs sold default protection on WaMu. The CDOs sold notes to investors that are repaid using proceeds of credit default swap premiums. As a credit default swap seller, the CDOs must pay the buyers face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent after a bankruptcy filing.


In other words, as a result of WaMu’s collapse, the CDOs are likely to sustain enormous losses. CDO investors and noteholders, whose investments were already hit by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, will see the value of their investments fall even further.


The realization and assessment of these and other more remote consequences of WaMu’s failure, as well as other tumultuous events in the financial marketplace, may take time to emerge. It will likely be a considerable time before all of these consequences have surfaced.


4. A Billion Here, A Billion There: In the last year, WaMu’s market capitalization declined over $80 billion. In isolation, this is significant. Taken collectively with other market losses, the aggregate impact is staggering. Collectively, the failures of WaMu, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac represent roughly a $230 billion loss in market capitalization from a year ago.


Nor is that all. If you add in the market capitalization loss in the last year at AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Bank of American and Citigroup, the aggregate market capitalization decline in the last year is nearly $700 billion (just about the size of the Treasury bailout, by coincidence).


These stocks were largely held by institutional investors. The aggregate losses on these investments significantly affect the value of these institutions’ holdings, with significant implications for these institutions’ beneficiaries, investors and other stakeholders.


5. Knock-on Effects: One consequence of these circumstances in our blame-centric culture is that as these losses surface and become more apparent, litigation seems virtually inevitable. I have already noted (here and here) how Lehman Brothers’ failure has been significant factor in recent litigation against other companies. Similar litigation consequences from WaMu’s collapse seem likely. The wide dispersion of the consequences from WaMu’s failure raises the significant possibility that the litigation effects will not be limited to the financial sector alone.


Commercial Irony: Although ironic now with the benefit of hindsight, Washington Mutual consciously built its identity on its willingness to lend to those unable to borrow from others. The thrift built this identity with a series of commercials that remain amusing, although for some reasons now perhaps different than at the time the commercials were first created. I have linked a particularly amusing example below, which I commend for its entertainment value. (Hat tip to the Wall Street Fighter blog, here, for the video link.) Note the ironic symbolism of the disfavored borrower popping a balloon at the start of the commercial.