Dark Forest: The Brutal Game of Modern Banking

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  1. Thanks for the apt metaphor. Investors need to remember the adjectives of hunger and desperation translate into rising funding costs, falling net interest margins, tightening lending standards and greater credit losses for those on the outside looking at the SIFI’s. The fundamentals in the modern banking world are worse, and particularly in Europe this was a very crowded long trade. It was just reported that INFLOWS into the US bank regional ETF, KRE, were a record in the past week. The muscle memory of how to invest in a ZIRP world with endless backstops hasn’t changed…yet.

  2. Love a good analogy. I enjoyed the read. Banks are suffering from what every business will suffer from eventually. Inflation created the need for interest rate hikes, and as cost structures adjust to the new inflation environment and new interest rates, all is fine as long as revenue grows in line with costs. But once pricing drops due to demand hits from fighting inflation, the lagging cost structure increases wallop the business. It already happened with used vehicles. Used car dealerships got slaughtered second half of last year because their costs (cost of inventory) adjust rapidly to the market. Automakers have a slower adjustment but are about to feel it. And banks had a surge in demand for deposits with stimulus money and did well on it, but now costs are rising but revenue is not (interest income). Every industry will have its turn, and earnings will eventually reflect it. The transition from inflation to not inflation is super damaging to businesses. What seems especially pernicious about banking is the counterparty risks between industry participants. Car dealers that go bust don’t have significant financial arrangements with other car dealers. That is where a really good analogy for the industry in real life is helpful. So, yes, the hunters with ample food are trying to lead, but how much food do those hunters have? And at what point do those hunters have to turn on the other hunters in the dark forest because the big hunters are worried about their food? I especially agree with your statement that the alternative of loosening monetary policy is just burning the forest down. The Fed knows it can’t reverse because inflation could get sticky and the Fed would lose control. Great stuff Ben.

  3. The market is grappling with how confident to be in that statement. The Fed has its political mission of keeping an eye on inflation, employment, and financial stability. It’s behind the scenes purpose is to help the banking industry. Whether that is not raising interest rates for quarters after inflation took off, not actively supervising a technically insolvent bank that had outrageous deposit growth and inadequate risk controls, or possibly blinking on the inflation mission during a bank run.

    I am not highly confident that the Fed statement and press conference messaging next Wednesday can fix all of these competing narratives at once.

  4. Taking the analogy of the ‘Dark Forest’, Ben you express the hope that you see a way out of the American Dark Forest. However, what if in this interlinked world, the American Dark Forest is possible only part of the Dark Forest? Hunters / forces from other adjacent parts of the Dark Forest (Europe?), despite the measures taken, overwhelm the place with unfortunate outcomes?

  5. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Oh that’s the risk here, for sure! Just like it was for J Pierpont Morgan in 1907 when he tried to rally his peers to prevent a rolling series of bank runs. The difference today, and I think it’s a difference that makes all the difference, is that JP Morgan didn’t have a central bank to backstop the effort in 1907 and today they certainly do.

  6. Avatar for robh robh says:

    Don’t forget fighting climate change and promoting racial justice……

  7. Can I fast forward to the end of the game and open up my bank account with Mother Nature?

  8. Perfect analogy! Going a step further – doesn’t the question of whether cash deposits are safe for all depositors have to be answered? If only systemic banks are “protected” then the hungry hunters are carrying muskets instead of center-fire rifles.

  9. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hahaha! The road to CBDC is paved with good intentions …

  10. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Yes, 100%. I’d favor insurance on all deposits up to $5m. Over that, you take counterparty risk with your bank.

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