6 September 2007

Prepare for the credit crisis to spread

By Wolfgang Munchau

Published: September 2 2007 18:57 | Last updated: September 2 2007 18:57

“Financial operations do not lend themselves to innovation. What is recurrently so described and celebrated is, without exception, a small variation on an established design . . . The world of finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.”

A Short History of Financial Euphoria, John Kenneth Galbraith

The late John Kenneth Galbraith would have enjoyed this summer. He was no expert on modern credit markets but his analysis of historic bubbles fits our most recent boom and bust episode with uncanny precision.

All historic bubbles were accompanied by a sharp rise in leverage. A salient feature of modern bubbles is the emergence of innovative financial products. No matter whether we are talking about junk bonds or modern collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), as Galbraith has pointed out, such products boil down to variants of debt secured on a real asset.

By historic standards, our credit bubble is probably one of the largest ever, given the sheer size of the market itself and the degree of euphoria that was characteristic in the final stages of the boom. While the fallout was initially concentrated in the financial sector itself, it would be surprising if the ongoing problems did not trickle down into the real economy. The availability of credit affects house prices and numerous studies have demonstrated the interlinkages between US house prices and US economic growth.

So what should central banks do? I suspect that central banks are not going to be the main actors in any rescue operation, but rather governments. Central banks’ room for manoeuvre to cut interest rates is more constrained this time than during the most recent recession. But more important, this is not the kind of crisis that can easily be stopped by a few hasty rate cuts or bank bail-outs. If your subprime mortgage exceeds the value of your house by 10 per cent, and if the monthly payments exceed your income, no positive interest rate could bail you out. Your only hope is some serious debt relief.

The economists Dimitri Papadimitriou, Greg Hannsgen and Gennaro Zezza last week published a study* in which they demonstrated the danger to US economic growth posed by the present real estate crisis. Their policy recommendations go significantly beyond the usual bail-out calls. They argue that it is almost impossible for policymakers to stop the decline in real estate prices, but “if the Fed and Congress can work to stop any incipient recession, they will prevent job losses, which are one of the main contributors to foreclosures. An effective job-creation method could be some form of employer-of-last-resort programme that offers government jobs to all workers who ask for them”.

We should remember that the subprime market is not the only unstable subsection of the credit market. Once US consumption slows, we should prepare for a crisis in credit card and car finance CDOs. And once corporate bankruptcies start to rise again as the cycle turns down, both in the US and in Europe, we will probably hear about problems with collateralised loan obligations. The credit market is very deep and offers significant potential for contagion.

In this sense, the debate about whether this is a liquidity or a solvency crisis is beside the point. Banks may look at their CDO investments as a source of temporary illiquidity, but may sooner or later realise that they are sitting on a pile of junk. The fiscal and monetary authorities should therefore assume that they are confronted with a solvency crisis. Bailing out the odd bank, as the Germans did last month, is not going to be sufficient and perhaps not even necessary.

Instead, the monetary and fiscal authorities should stand ready to support the economy if and when needed. Lower interest rates will probably be part of any such deal, but a large part of the help will invariably come from fiscal policy. The US Federal Reserve will probably cut interest rates soon and the European Central Bank will almost certainly postpone the rate rise it unwisely preannounced only a few weeks ago. I am convinced the next interest rate movement both in the US and the eurozone will be downwards.

One of the problems the monetary authorities have to deal with is moral hazard. This is not a theoretical issue, as some suggest, but a far more immediate concern. Moral hazard is the result of asymmetric expectations, as markets expect the central bank to bail out the financial sector during a time of crisis. The problem of moral hazard is to some extent related to the monetary policy strategy of central banks, with their mechanistic focus on a single consumer price index. Such strategies often have no space for asset prices, but markets know fully well that central banks must invariably take account of asset prices during sharp downturns. One way out of this asymmetry is for central banks to include asset prices into their policy frameworks in some form or other.

This said, a bail-out of the financial system will probably become unavoidable, but it should be accompanied with structural policy changes. Tighter financial regulation is probable. The role of the ratings agencies is bound to change too. And central banks should reconsider their monetary policy frameworks. They are part of the problem.

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