17 September 2008

No light at the end of tunnel

Below is a repeat of detailed summary of the reasons for my views (as presented on this forum last month) that this will turn out to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the worst US recession in decades (hyperlinks to my relevant recent writings are provided for each argument). As I wrote in August:

This is by far the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, not as severe as the Great Depression but second only to it.

At the end of the day this financial crisis will imply credit losses of at least $1 trillion and more likely $2 trillion. The financial and banking crisis will be severe and last several years leading to a severe and persistent liquidity and credit crunch.

This is not just a subprime mortgage crisis; this is the crisis of an entire subprime financial system: losses are spreading from subprime to near prime and prime mortgages including hundreds of billions of dollars of home equity loans that are worth little; to commercial real estate; to unsecured consumer credit (credit cards, student loans, auto loans); to leveraged loans that financed reckless debt-laden LBOs; to muni bonds that will go bust as hundred of municipalities will go bust; to industrial and commercial loans; to corporate bonds whose default rate will jump from close to 0% to over 10%; to CDSs where $62 trillion of nominal protection sits on top an outstanding stock of only $6 trillion of bonds and where counterparty risk – and the collapse of many counterparties – will lead to a systemic collapse of this market.

Hundreds of small banks with massive exposure to real estate (the average small bank has 67% of its assets in real estate) will go bust.

Dozens of large regional/national banks (a' la IndyMac) are also effectively insolvent given their extreme exposure to real estate and will also eventually go bust. Most of these regional banks – starting with Wachovia and Washington Mutual – look like walking zombies in the same way IndyMac was.

Even some major money center banks are also semi-insolvent and while they are deemed too big to fail their rescue with FDIC money will be extremely costly. In 1990-91 at the height of that recession and banking crisis many major banks – in addition to 1000 plus S&L's that went bust – were effectively insolvent, including, as it was well known at that time, Citibank. At that time the Fed and regulators used instruments similar to those used today – easy money and steepening of the intermediation yield curve, aggressive forbearance, creative – i.e. liar – accounting, etc. – to rescue these major financial institutions from formal bankruptcy. But at that time the housing bust and the ensuing decline in home prices was much smaller than today: during that recession home prices – as measured by the Case-Shiller/S&P index – fell less than 5% from their peak. This time around instead such an index has already fallen 18% from its peak and it will most likely fall by a cumulative 30% before it bottoms sometime in 2010. If a 5% fall in home prices was enough to make Citi effectively insolvent in 1991 what will a 30% fall in home prices – and massive defaults on many other forms of credit (commercial real estate loans, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home equity loans, leveraged loans, muni bonds, industrial and commercial loans, corporate bonds, CDS) - do to these financial institutions? It challenges the credulity of even spin masters to argue that financial firms are not in worse shape today than they were in 1990-91 when a significant number of major banks were technically insolvent. So, not only hundreds of small banks and a significant fraction of regional banks but also some major money center banks will become effectively insolvent during this crisis.

In a few years time there will be no major independent broker dealers as their business model (securitization, slice & dice and transfer of toxic credit risk and piling fees upon fees rather than earning income from holding credit risk) is bust and the risk of a bank-like run on their very short term liquid liabilities is a fundamental flaw in their structure (i.e. the four remaining U.S. big brokers dealers will either go bust or will have to be merged with traditional commercial banks). Firms that borrow liquid and short, highly leverage themselves and lend in longer term and illiquid ways (i.e. most of the shadow banking system) cannot survive without formal deposit insurance and formal permanent lender of last resort support from the central bank.

The FDIC will for sure run out of money as hundreds of banks will go bust and their depositors will have to be made whole given deposit insurance. With funds of only $53 billion, already up to 15% of such funds will be used to rescue the depositors of IndyMac alone. Thus, the FDIC is already requesting to Congress that the deposit insurance premia should be raised to compensate for this shortfall of funding. Too bad that this increase in insurance premia – that should be high enough in advance (not ex-post) to ensure that deposit insurance is incentive-compatible and not leading to gambling for redemption via risky lending in banks – is now too little and too late and is requested when the damage is already done as the biggest credit bubble in U.S. history is now going bust. Also the FDIC has done a mediocre job at identifying which banks are at risk. So far there are only about 90 banks on its watch list; and IndyMac was not put on that list until last month! So if the FDIC did not even identify IndyMac as in trouble until it was too late, how many other IndyMacs are out there that that the FDIC has not identified yet? Certainly a few hundred but such honest analysis of banks at risk is nowhere to be found.

Fannie and Freddie are insolvent and the Treasury bailout plan (the mother of all moral hazard bailout) is socialism for the rich, the well connected and Wall Street; it is the continuation of a corrupt system where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. Instead of wiping out shareholders of the two GSEs, replacing corrupt and incompetent managers and forcing a haircut on the claims of the creditors/bondholders such a plan bails out shareholders, managers and creditors at a massive cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Massive amount of creative accounting and other forms of balance sheet window dressing is occurring to prevent banks from recognizing their true losses. First, most financial institutions are putting increasing numbers of assets in the illiquid buckets of Level 2 and Level 3 assets. While FASB 157 should prevent manipulation of the valuation of such illiquid assets, forbearance by the SEC, the Fed and other regulators allows a massive amount of fudging. An insider told me that in a major financial institution the approach is as follows now: top management decide in advance what the announced writedowns should be and folks dealing with the toxic/illiquid assets come up with totally ad hoc assumptions to make sure that such illiquid assets are valued consistently with the decided-in-advance amount of writedowns and losses. This is not earnings smoothing; this is active manipulation and falsification of financial results aimed at creating even more obfuscation of the true state of financial institutions. This obfuscation is actively abetted by the SEC, the Fed and all other regulators that are now in forbearance crisis management stage where the objective is to avoid at any cost anything that may trigger a financial meltdown. Thus, most of these earnings reports are not worth the paper they are written off.

Additional earnings manipulation occurs in a variety of ways. First, ad hoc assumptions still used to value and write down level 2 and level 3 assets. Second, banks are leaving aside less reserves for loan losses that are much less than necessary; they do that by using ad hoc assumptions about future losses on mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home equity loans and other commercial real estate loans and industrial and commercial loans. Reserves for loan losses have been sharply lagging actual and expected losses, thus padding earnings as decided by the financial institutions' managers. Third, there is disposal of illiquid and toxic assets in ways that misleadingly reduces the amount of actual writedowns. An example is as follows: suppose a bank wants to dump illiquid MBS or leveraged loans that are worth – mark to market – 70 cents on the dollar rather than 100 cents on the dollar. Then, instead of selling these at a price of 70 and showing a 30% writedown these are sold to hedge funds and other investors to a price closer to par – and thus showing in the balance sheet a smaller writedown – by providing a subsidy to the buyer of the security: so a hedge fund will buy such toxic securities at 80 or 90 cents and receive a loan to finance the transaction at an interest well below the borrowing costs for the funds. Thus, writedowns are then shown smaller than the true underlying loss on the asset and the bank finances that fudged transaction with earning less revenues than otherwise on its credit portfolio. This is an accounting scam that auditors and regulators are abetting on a regular basis. An example of such a scam is the recent Merrill Lynch transaction with Lone Start to “sell” its exposure to CDOs.

The bailout plan of Fannie and Freddie implies a direct bailout of financial institutions and helps them to report better than expected earnings in two ways. First, since these financial institutions hold massive amounts of agency debt the government bailout of the holders of such unsecured debt props the market price of the agency debt (reduces its spread relative to Treasuries) and thus allows financial institutions and investors to report less mark to market losses on the values of such assets. Second, after the bust of subprime, near prime and prime mortgage markets the market for private label MBS is dead with absolutely no origination of new MBS. Thus, today – as senior mortgage market participant put it – Fannie and Freddie are “THE mortgage market” as the only institutions that securitize and guarantee mortgages are Fannie and Freddie. Without the government bailout plan that last channel for mortgage securitization and insurance would be frozen and the ability of banks to originate even prime and conforming mortgages would be serious hampered and its cost sharply increased. Thus, the Fannie and Freddie bailout is actually a bailout of the mortgage market and of every institution that holds agency debt or the MBS issued by the two GSES and of every institution that is in the mortgage origination business. On top of this Fannie and Freddie have also been used as tools of public policy in order to further grease the mortgage market and the banks originating mortgages: their portfolio limits were increased; their capital requirement reduced; and the limit for what a conforming loan – the only ones that Fannie and Freddie can securitize – increased from about $420K to over $720K.

The Fed has been actively beefing up the earnings and balance sheet of financial institutions in four major ways. First, a 325bps reduction in the Fed Funds rate sharply reduced the cost of borrowing for banks and allowed them to enjoy a nice intermediation margin (the difference between longer terms interest rates at which they lend and the much lower short term interest rates at which they borrow). This steepening of the yield curve is a major subsidy to financial institutions. Second, the Fed has created a range of new liquidity facilities – the TAF, the TSLF, the PDCF – that allow banks and now non-bank primary dealers to swap their illiquid toxic asset backed securities for liquid Treasuries and that provide access for non-banks – and now also Fannie and Freddie - to the Fed's discount window liquidity. Third, the bailout of Bear Stearns creditors – JP Morgan and many other counterparties of Bear – not only avoided a systemic meltdown and a certain run on the other broker dealers but it has led the Fed to take on a significant credit risk by taking off the balance sheet of Bear Stearns over $29 billion of toxic securities. So the Fed has directly and indirectly systemically subsidized and propped up the financial system and the earnings of bank and non-bank financial institutions. Fourth, a variety of forbearance regulatory actions – starting with the waiver of Regulation W for some major banks – have been used to beef up the profits and earnings of financial institutions and reduce their reported writedowns.

The entire Federal Home Loan Bank system – another GSE system that is another effective arm of the government - has been used to prop hundreds of mortgage lenders. The insolvent Countrywide alone received more than $51 billion of funds from this semi-public system. This is a system that has increased its lending in the last 18 months by hundreds of billions of dollars: Citigroup, Bank of America and most other US mortgage lenders have also been beneficiaries of this public subsidy to the tune of dozens of billions of dollars each.

The ability of US financial institutions to recapitalize themselves is constrained by financial protectionism: the only large players that have funds to put at work are sovereign wealth funds, especially from countries that are strategic rivals – not allies – of the US or from unstable petro-states. Thus, the backlash against such SWF will seriously limit the ability of banks and other financial institutions to recapitalize themselves.

This will be the most severe U.S. recession in decades with the U.S. consumer being on the ropes and faltering big time as soon as the temporary effect of the tax rebates will fade out by mid-summer (August). This U.S. consumer is shopped out, saving less, debt burdened and being hammered by falling home prices, falling equity prices, falling jobs and incomes, rising inflation and rising oil and energy prices.

This will be a long, ugly and nasty U-shaped recession lasting at least 12 months and more likely 18 months, not the mild 6 month V-shaped recession that the delusional consensus expects. While an L-shaped decade long economic stagnation is unlikely the recovery of the economy from this recession will be weak as the financial crisis and serious macro imbalances will lead to sub-par (below trend) economic growth for years to come.

The US recession has already started in Q1 of 2008 based on the five indicators tracked by the NBER. The Q2 rebound is only driven by the temporary tax rebates and GDP growth will slip into negative territory from Q3 2008 until at least Q2 of 2009.

Equity prices in the US and abroad will go much deeper in bear territory. In a typical US recession equity prices fall by an average of 28% relative to the peak. But this is not a typical US recession; it is rather a severe one associated with a severe financial crisis. gThus, equity prices will fall by about 40% relative to their peak. So, we are only barely mid-way in the meltdown of US and global stock markets.

The rest of the world will not decouple from the US recession and from the US financial meltdown; it will re-couple big time. Already 12 major economies are on the way to a recessionary hard landing. Indeed all of the G7 economies are now entering a recession. While the rest of the world will experience a severe growth slowdown only one step removed from a global recession. Given this sharp global economic slowdown oil, energy and commodity prices will fall 20 to 30% from their recent bubbly peaks.

The current U.S recession and sharp global economic slowdown is combining the worst of the oil shocks of the 1970s with the worst of the asset/credit bust shocks (and ensuing credit crunch and investment busts) of 1990-91 and 2001: like in 1973 and 1979 we are facing a stagflationary shock to oil, energy and other commodity prices that by itself may tip many oil importing countries into a sharp slowdown or an outright recession. Also, like 1990-91 and 2001 we are now facing another asset bubble and credit bubble gone bust big time: the housing and overall household credit boom of the last seven years has now gone bust in the same way as the 1980s housing bubble and 1990s tech bubble went bust in 1990 and in 2000 triggering recessions. And a similar housing/asset/credit bubble is going bust in other countries – U.K., Spain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, etc. – leading to a risk of a hard landing in these economies.

But over time inflation will be the last problem that the Fed will have to face as a severe US recession and global slowdown will lead to a sharp reduction in inflationary pressures in the U.S.: slack in goods markets with demand falling below supply will reduce pricing power of firms; slack in labor markets with unemployment rising will reduce wage pressures and labor costs pressures; a fall in commodity prices of the order of 30% will further reduce inflationary pressure.

The Fed will have to cut the Fed Funds rate much more as severe downside risks to growth and to financial stability will dominate any short-term upward inflationary pressures. Leaving aside the risk of a collapse of the US dollar given this easier monetary policy the Fed Funds rate may end up being closer to 0% than 1% by the end of this financial crisis and severe recession cycle.

The Bretton Woods 2 regime of fixed exchange rates to the US dollar and/or heavily managed exchange will unravel – as the first Bretton Woods regimes did in the early 1970s – as US twin deficits, recession, financial crisis and rising commodity and goods inflation in emerging market economies will destroy the basis for its existence.

Thus, the scenario of 12 steps to a financial disaster that I outlined in my February 2008 paper is unfolding as predicted. If anything financial conditions are now much worse than they were at the previous peak of this financial
crisis, i.e. in mid-march of 2008.

This financial crisis signals the beginning of the decline of the American Empire; over time the relative economic, financial, military, geostrategic power of the US and reserve role of the US dollar will significantly decline.

This crisis also represents a Crisis of the Suburbian (“McMansions and Gas-Guzzling SUVs”) American Way of Life. The sharp rise in gasoline and energy prices and transportation costs, together with the sharp fall in home prices, will radically change the pattern of living of the typical American household.

Some of my views are fleshed out in more detail in my recent interview on Barron's and in the profile article about me recently published by the New York Times magazine.

Since I wrote those words in August financial and economic conditions are severely deteriorated; we are now closer to the financial meltdown that I described in my February paper in my “12 Steps to a Financial Disaster” . Stock prices are sharply down and there is a risk of a market crack; interbank spreads and credit spreads are wider than ever since the beginning of this crisis; Lehman and Merrill are gone and soon enough Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will also need to find a larger partner with deep pocket or risk getting in severe trouble; the biggest insurer in the world – AIG – is teetering near bankruptcy; the biggest US S&L – WaMu – is effectively insolvent and close to going bust; dozens of other banks are near bankruptcy; there is a beginning of a silent bank run as depositors are nervous about their assets; the panic is mounting in financial market; the CDS market is frozen because of the collapse of Lehman and the soon collapse of AIG, WaMu and other financial institutions; many hedge funds are now teetering as their losses are mounting; investors in fixed income – including preferred stocks – have experienced massive losses; overnight LIBOR spiked over 300bps to over 6% as panicky investors seek the safety of cash while the Fed lost control of the Fed Funds rate yesterday as the liquidity demand push such rate from the target of 2% to over 6%; the financial turmoil is becoming global with stock markets all over the world plunging.

Worst of all policy authorities are now running out of bullet and going towards desperate measures that will end up being counterproductive.

Now that the collapse of Lehman is leading to the risk of the generalized run on the shadow banking system (the other independent broker dealers, the broker dealers that are part of larger commercial banks such as Citi and JPMorgan, hedge funds, private equity funds, the remaining SIVs and conduits, money market funds, other smaller broker dealers) the policy reaction is to try to build a new set of levies while the financial perfect storm of the century has destroyed the first sets of levies. This reaction includes the following steps.

First, the Fed is accepting even more toxic collateral for the TSLF and PDCF, including even equities; so now after having nationalized the mortgage market via the takeover of Fannie and Freddie the government is also starting to manipulate directly the stock market (a step that started with the SEC restrictions on naked short sales of the primary dealers; so the process of turning the US market system in a socialist system controlled by the government is now in full swing. And the Fed takes massive credit and now market risks by its effective purchase of equities.

Second, the Fed is waving Section 23A of the Federal Reserve Act that restricts how much commercial banks can relend liquidity to their investment banking affiliates; these restrictions are sensible prudential rules aimed at avoiding banks to subsidize their broker dealer affiliates with deposit-insured deposit. Now these sensible prudential regulations are thrown to the wind; so Citi, JPMorgan and Bank of America can happily use or raid their FDIC-insured deposit to support their bankrupt broker dealer operations. This is reckless as abuse of this new form of subsidization of near insolvent broker dealers with commercial banking deposits may eventually impair the viability and solvency of their commercial banking regulation. This is a form of connected lending that eventually led to the Japanese financial crisis and their severe banking crisis. This process of raiding FDIC insured deposits already started in 2007 when the Fed waived Regulation W for Citigroup and Bank of America when the unraveling of their toxic SIVs and conduits occurred with the roll-off of the ABCP paper. So, now all banks – not just two – can happily raid their deposits to save their broker dealers operations where funding mostly occurs with unstable reckless overnight repos. This desperate policy action shows that even the broker dealers arms of non-independent broker dealers (Citi, JPM, BofA) are now at the risk of a run on their overnight liabilities.

Third, an attempt to bail-in the private sector and provide a private lender of last resort support of the financial system is at work: ten major global banks will each fork $7 billion to create a $70 billion fund; each of these firms could borrow up to a third of such fund or $23 billion. But this private lender of last resort (LOLR) facility will not work since if any firm were to access this facility in case of a run on its liabilities panic will ensue – as the use of it will signal severe trouble - and the run will continue. The IMF created a similar facility to deal with liquidity runs on sound and solvent but illiquid countries; but no country ever used or even signed up for such facility as it would have been associated with “stigma”. Also such private LOLR facilities need to come with rules on their use (“conditionality”); otherwise an illiquid and insolvent broker dealer could access the facility with no restrictions and bankrupt the fund and the other members of the fund. But the new facility apparently does not come with any conditionality; so it is flawed in its design.

Fourth, since Lehman is bust the new line of defense was the takeover of Merrill by BofA. After taking over the insolvent Countrywide now Ken Lewis is making another reckless gamble by taking over at a vastly inflated price another distressed broker dealer. This is dangerous behavior for BofA. The lesson for Mack of Morgan Stanley and Blankfein of Goldman is that they should find a buyer today. After the collapse in six months of three major broker dealers Morgan Stanley and Goldman will be next unless they find a large financial institution with a large commercial bank that provides stable FDIC-insured deposits. As predicted here months ago no independent broker dealer will survive.

Fifth, the Fed may cut the Fed Funds rate and discount rate today. But this policy rate cut will make no difference to the fundamental solvency and credit problems of the economy. The economy does not suffer only of illiquidity; more seriously it suffers of severe credit and solvency problems that the Fed cannot address in any way.
Geez, this guy is more bearish that Rogers/Faber et al

Therefore any rally from Fed actions today will be short lived. When Bear was rescued the financial market rally lasted two months; when in July the Fannie and Freddie legislation was proposed the rally lasted a few weeks; when the actual nationalization of Fannie and Freddie occurred a week ago the rally lasted only one day. The ability of policy authorities to prop financial markets is rapidly eroding as market participants perceive that policy makers are desperate and running out of options. At this point the perfect financial storm of the century cannot be contained. The only light at the end of the tunnel is the one of the coming financial and economic train wreck.

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