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A Frightening Build-Up

A Frightening Build-Up

Courtesy of Michael Panzner at Financial Armageddon 

Although there are many reasons why it was not a good idea to keep dead and dying businesses alive, to spend and borrow hundreds of billions of dollars for ill-conceived stimulus programs and other boondoggles, to keep interest rates at record lows for an extended period of time, and to encourage people to hang on in hope that a recovery was just around the corner, the biggest issue with not facing the music early on is how daunting the problems have now become. As the New York Times notes in "Crisis Awaits World’s Banks as Trillions Come Due," the scale of short-term obligations that have built-up as a result of the decision to extend and pretend — or delay and pray — is frightening, to say the least.

FRANKFURT— The sovereign debt crisis would seem to create worry enough for European banks, but there is another gathering threat that has not garnered as much notice: the trillions of dollars in short-term borrowing that institutions around the world must repay or roll over in the next two years.

The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have all recently warned of a looming crunch, especially in Europe, where banks have enough trouble raising money as it is.

Their concern is that banks hungry for refinancing will compete with governments — which also must roll over huge sums — for the bond market’s favor. As a result, credit for business and consumers could become more costly and scarce, with unpleasant consequences for economic growth.

“There is a cliff we are racing toward — it’s huge,” said Richard Barwell, an economist at Royal Bank of Scotland and formerly a senior economist at the Bank of England, Britain’s central bank. “No one seems to be talking about it that much.” But, he added, “it’s of first-order importance for lending and output.”

Banks worldwide owe nearly $5 trillion to bondholders and other creditors that will come due through 2012, according to estimates by the Bank for International Settlements. About $2.6 trillion of the liabilities are in Europe.

U.S. banks must refinance about $1.3 trillion through 2012. While that sum is nothing to scoff at, analysts seem most concerned about Europe because the banking system there is already weighed down by the sovereign debt crisis.

How banks will come up with the money is an open question. With investors worried about government over-indebtedness in Greece, Spain, Ireland and other parts of Europe, many banks have been reluctant or unable to sell bonds, which they typically use to raise money that they lend on to businesses and households.

The financing crunch has its origins in a worldwide trend for banks to borrow money for shorter periods…

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