30 March 2008

Commodities to stay up -Nolan

Again this week, we see one of Wall Street’s most “elder leveraged speculators” fall into serious trouble. A strategy that had worked so nicely for almost a decade turned unworkable. While sharply reducing the risk profile and degree of leverage from the LTCM days, Meriwether’s bond fund was nonetheless leveraged 14.9 to 1 (according to Jenny Strasburg’s WSJ article). As was the case with the Peloton fund and others, the most aggressive use of leverage had navigated to the perceived safest (“money-like”) instruments – “His funds’ losing positions have included mortgage securities backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, trades tied to municipal bonds and triple-A-rated commercial mortgage-backed securities”.

Understandably, most fully expect Wall Street to rebound and the leveraged speculating community to emerge from current turmoil as it did following LTCM – albeit at a more measured pace. Some assume it’s merely a case of our policymakers “playing whack a mole” until they find the requisite instrument(s) to successfully beat down the sources of financial instability. Of course, I view things very differently, instead seeing Meriwether’s predicament as emblematic of an End of an Era - with huge ramifications for both the Financial and Economic Spheres. I would expect it will be quite some time before the marketplace (investors as well as lenders) grants Mr. Meriwether or similar leveraged strategies another shot at financial genius. Indeed, there is mounting evidence supporting the Bursting Hedge Fund Bubble Thesis – from the angle of the quality of underlying assets; from the capacity to leverage; from the ability to retain investors; and from a regulatory perspective. And keep in mind that the historic ballooning in the “leveraged speculating community” has been an absolutely instrumental – and extraordinarily opaque – facet of the Bubble in Wall Street finance and the overall Credit Bubble.

I would argue forcefully that the leveraged speculating community for some years now has assumed the key role of unappreciated marginal source of demand for risk assets – risky debt instruments financing asset inflation, in particular. Over time, Wall Street “alchemy” mastered the process of transforming virtually unlimited risky loans into perceived safe and liquid securities. A sizable – and growing - chunk of these securities were then purchased on leverage by the rapidly expanding speculator community, in the process fueling an increasingly maladjusted U.S. Bubble Economy. We’re now witnessing it all beginning to wind down. End of an Era.

It is today analytically imperative to differentiate the authorities’ focus on stabilizing marketplace liquidity from the Unfolding Bursting of the Wall Street Bubble. Our policymakers may be exerting meaningful impact on the former, yet the latter remains largely out of their control - and certainly thus far impervious to their actions. Especially when it comes to the key marketplace for agency securities, policymaker efforts are directed at sustaining perceived “moneyness” - through both governmental support (tacit guarantees and Fed liquidity operations) and a renewed bid for mortgages by the GSEs (Fannie, Freddie, and the FHLB). And while such efforts have important ramifications with regard to accommodating the ongoing de-leveraging process (and averting Credit system implosion), they are at the same time completely inadequate when it comes to generating sufficient new Credit to sustain U.S. Financial and Economic Bubbles. “Moneyness” will definitely not be retained in non-agency securitizations, especially as the economy falters.

Debt problems are accelerating and expanding from mortgages to home equity, auto, Credit card, student loans, small business finance, munis and corporate Credits. At the same time, Wall Street has been significantly tightening lending requirements for the leveraging of all types of debt instruments. While the focus has been on mortgage Credit, recent deterioration in other types of loans – and, importantly, the leveraged holders of large amounts of this debt – have major consequences for Credit Availability throughout the Economic Sphere. Housing markets and foreclosures are obviously major issues. Not commonly recognized is the now virtually across the board tightening in Credit throughout the securitization markets (consumer, student, muni, corporate, etc.), exerting more expansive headwinds upon the U.S. economy than even the tightening in mortgages (that predominantly impacted transactions and home prices).

February California median home prices declined $20,550 to $409,240. Median prices are now down $67,140 in two months and a stunning $179,730 since August. Prices are down 32% from June’s high, and are now even 13% below the level from three years ago. Granted, these median prices are impacted by the dearth of sales at the upper-end. Yet it’s clear that the California market is in the midst of an historic crash. The Credit standing of Golden State households, businesses, and various governmental agencies now deteriorates virtually by the day. I would argue the explosion over the past three years in “private-label” mortgages, Wall Street balance sheets, hedge fund assets, and California home prices were all part of the same Bubble. This Bubble inflated largely outside the banking system and outside GSE finance – and will now prove stubbornly unaffected by policy maneuvers.

Some argue rather forcefully that we’re now immersed in “debt deflation.” I understand the basic premise, but to examine double-digit growth in Bank Credit, GSE “books of business” and money fund assets provides a different perspective. To be sure, our Credit system continues to provide sufficient Credit to finance massive Current Account Deficits. And it is this ongoing outflow of dollar liquidity that stokes both indomitable dollar devaluation and global Credit excess. Many contend that inflationary pressures are poised to wane as the U.S. economy weakens. I’ll suggest that inflation dynamics will prove much more complex and uncooperative. There is further confirmation of this view - that the bursting of the Wall Street finance Bubble will have a significantly greater impact on asset prices than on general consumer pricing pressures.

The analysis gets much more challenging in the commodities markets. The simple view holds that commodities are just another Bubble waiting their turn to burst. This thinking gained greater acceptance last week, with the sharp reversal of prices and unwind of speculative positions. And it goes without saying that major speculative excess has developed throughout the commodities complex ("par for the course"). I am as well sympathetic to the view that liquidations by the leveraged speculating community could lead to some major price instability. Yet it’s my sense that there really is much more to the commodities story – and inflation, more generally – that is not widely appreciated.

The bursting of the Wall Street finance and U.S. Credit Bubbles marks an End of an Era. But the start of a deflationary spiral? Importantly, these bursting Bubbles are in the process of consummating the demise of the dollar as the world’s functioning “reserve currency” and monetary standard. Examining global markets, I note the ongoing strength of currencies in China, Russia, Brazil, and India, for example. Considering mounting financial and economic imbalances in all these economies – not too mention histories of less than exemplary monetary management – I can state categorically that these are fundamentally very weak currencies. Today, however, it’s all relative to the sickly dollar. In the face of rampant domestic Credit growth, these currencies nonetheless attract endless global finance and appreciate.

When it comes to Ending of Eras, I am increasingly fearful that we are falling deeper into a precarious period devoid of a functioning global currency regime necessary to discipline Credit excess and restrain mounting inflationary pressures. And as long as dollar liquidity inundates the world economy, domestic Credit systems across the globe enjoy the extraordinary capacity to inflate domestic Credit and use this new purchasing power for the benefit of their citizens and economies. And, in particular because of their enormous populations, as long as the Chinese and Indian Credit system enjoy the freedom to inflate at will there will remain significant upside pricing pressure for energy, food, and various goods and commodities in limited supply – hedge fund speculative excess and/or bust notwithstanding.

I throw this analysis out as food for thought. I am increasingly of the mind that commodities should be differentiated from U.S. financial assets when it comes to the consequences from the bursting of the Wall Street finance and leveraged speculating community Bubbles. Prices will likely remain hyper-volatile but (unBubble-like) well-supported by underlying fundamental factors. Similarly, I believe general inflationary pressures may likely prove more significantly influenced by runaway global Credit excesses than by the Wall Street and U.S. asset price busts. If this proves to be the case, perhaps the greater risk is a bursting of the Treasury Market Bubble. It may take some time, but an enormous supply of government debt is in the offing and – let’s face it – these instruments will become only less appealing over time. It also begs the question as to the advisability of aggressive Fed rate cuts. They are having little influence on the bursting Wall Street Bubbles but possibly huge effects on global inflationary forces. Little wonder the ECB is so hesitant to lower rates.

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