8 November 2008

Debt Trap

The economy lost 651,000 jobs in three months. Auto sales have collapsed, and retail sales have “fallen off a cliff.” And there is at this point little indication that Credit Availability will normalize anytime soon for household, corporate or municipal borrowers. While the extraordinary efforts by the Fed and global central bankers have loosened the clogged up inter-bank lending market, risk markets remain hopelessly paralyzed. The unfolding collapse of the leveraged speculating community continues to overhanging the marketplace. Securitization markets are still essentially closed for business.

We can continue to analyze developments in the context of two overarching themes: First, there is the implosion of contemporary “Wall Street finance.” Second, the bursting of the Credit Bubble has initiated what will be an arduous and protracted economic adjustment. Each week provides additional confirmation of the interplay between the breakdown of Wall Street risk intermediation and the bursting of the U.S. Bubble Economy. This process has gained overwhelming momentum.

I know some analysts are anticipating an eventual return to “normalcy.” The thought is that it is only a matter of time before “shock and awe” policymaking and Trillions of newly created liquidity entice investors and speculators back into risk assets. This view is too optimistic, and history offers an especially poor guide in this respect. By and large, the unprecedented growth in Federal Reserve and global central bank balance sheets is (scarcely) accommodating de-leveraging. Between the hedge funds, global “proprietary trading” and other leveraged speculators, it is not unreasonable to contemplate an overhang of (prospective forced and deliberate sales) of upwards of $10 Trillion.

It’s popular to label Federal Reserve operations as a massive effort to “print money.” Yet it is important to recognize that, at least to this point, the expansion of the Fed assets (“Fed Credit”) is counterbalanced by the collapsing balance sheets of leveraged financial operators. The inflationary effects – the increased purchasing power created by the expansion of Credit – occurred back when the original loan was made, securitized, and leveraged by, say, a hedge fund. Today’s ballooning central bank holdings (and TARP spending) may very well stem financial system implosion. This is, however, a far cry from engendering a meaningful increase in either the market’s appetite for risk assets or the expansion of new system Credit in the real economy.

I don’t want to imply that unprecedented monetary policy measures aren’t having an impact. Overnight lending rates (Libor) were quoted at 0.33% today, down from a spike to almost 7.00% in late September. And at 2.29%, three-month Libor has dropped from early October’s 4.82%. Other measures of systemic risk and liquidity premiums (including the 2- and 10-year dollar swap spreads) have dropped dramatically over the past month.

The problem is that the “unclogging” of inter-bank and “money” markets has had little effect on the Pricing and Availability of Credit for the vast majority of borrowers operating throughout the real economy. After ending September at about 650, junk bond spreads have surged to 950 bps. Investment-grade bond spreads are also higher today than at the end of the third quarter. Benchmark MBS spreads have changed little, while Jumbo mortgage borrowing rates remain elevated. Risk premiums for municipal borrowings have been reduced only somewhat from extreme levels. Unsound borrowers everywhere have little hope of borrowing anywhere.

There are complaints out of Washington that, despite oodles of bailout funding, the banks are refusing to lend. Well, total bank Credit has expanded $575bn over the past 10 weeks, or 32% annualized. Importantly, the asset-backed securities (ABS), collateralized debt obligation (CDO), and securitization markets generally remain closed for new business.

The heart of the matter is not so much that banks are refusing to extend Credit but that the entire mechanism of Wall Street risk intermediation has collapsed. After ballooning into multi-Trillion dollar avenues for Credit expansion, intermediation through the ABS and CDO markets is basically over. The convertible bond market has also badly malfunctioned, along with the “private-label” MBS marketplace. Wall Street’s “auction-rate securities” has ceased as a mechanism for Credit expansion, along with myriad other avenues for securitization. And, importantly, derivatives markets, having evolved into an essential element of contemporary risk intermediation and Credit expansion, have suffered a devastating crisis of confidence. Scores of leveraged strategies are no longer viable. Indeed, Monetary Processes essential for funding broad cross-sections of the economy have completely broken down.

Even if banks had a desire to make the same types of risky loans Wall Street financed throughout the boom (which they clearly don’t), it is difficult to envisage how bank Credit could today adequately compensate for the interrelated collapses in Wall Street risk intermediation and leveraged speculation. And unlike previous crises, no amount of rate cuts, liquidity injections, or policymaker jawboning will revive leveraged speculation. That historic Bubble and mania has burst, and it is now only a matter of waiting to dissect the devastation wrought by the unfolding run on the industry. A typical Federal Reserve-induced return to risk-taking in the Credit markets will be stymied for some time to come by an unrivaled inventory of debt instruments overhanging the markets.

The critical issue then becomes how the system can generate sufficient new Credit to keep our asset markets and Bubble economy from completely imploding. Well, we can assume at this point that the Fed will continue to accommodate de-leveraging through the ballooning of its balance sheet. At the same time, the federal government will soon be running Trillion dollar annual deficits. GSE balance sheets will likely commence a period of aggressive expansion. And, importantly, the banking system will have no alternative than to expand rapidly. At this point, timid banks equate to a Bubble Economy spiraling into depression.

If the markets cooperate, perhaps over the coming months the now breakneck economic contraction will somewhat stabilize. I fear, however, that current dynamics are setting the stage for yet another stage of this vicious crisis. Some analysts believe – and certainly it is the Fed’s intention – for ultra-low interest rates to assist in the recapitalization of the banking system. The early 1990’s provides a nice example: aggressive rate cuts and a steep yield curve provided a backdrop for troubled banks to quietly convalesce by raising cheap deposits and sitting on a safe portfolio of longer-term government debt securities. Why can’t a similar operation bail the banks out of their current predicament?

One should note the stark contrasts between today’s environment and that from the early nineties. First of all, 10-year government yields averaged about 7.8% in the three years 1990 through ’92. Bond markets back then were commencing a historic bull run and, strangely enough, the price of government debt ran higher in the face of huge deficits. There are reasons these days to fear an emergent bond bear. Second, from the Fed’s “flow of funds” report, we know that “Total Net Borrowing and Lending in Credit Markets” averaged $770 billion annually during the ’90-’92 period. “Total Net Borrowing…” last year approached a staggering $4.40 TN. The important point is that today’s Bubble Economy Dynamics were not in play in the early nineties. Sustaining the system required a fraction of today’s Credit creation, thus there was little prevailing pressure on the banks back then to lend amid their “convalescing.”

Indeed, banking system impairment and resulting Fed policymaking engendered the emergence of Wall Street finance in the early nineties – from the Wall Street firms, the GSEs, securitizations, derivatives and leveraged speculation. All were more than happy to take up the slack in bank Credit creation – relating both the overall and banking systems.

With the Bursting of the Bubble in Wall Street Finance, the banking system will today have no alternative than to lend and expand Credit aggressively. The banks provide the only hope for reflation, and there will be no room for nineties-style risk-free spread government carry trades. Instead, it will now be the banking system’s role to take up enormous systemic Credit slack and rapidly expand its portfolio of risk assets. Especially at this precarious stage of the Credit cycle, the banking system’s predicament ensures the ongoing need for hugely expensive government funded industry recapitalizations.

In today’s interest rate and market environment, massive government deficits don’t worry the bond market. I view the marketplace as quite complacent when it comes to the scope of unfolding Treasury and agency debt issuance. Actually, the Treasury, the GSEs and the banking system have in concert succumbed to Debt Trap Dynamics. With Wall Street risk intermediation now out of the equation, the system is down to four principal sources of “money” creation – the Fed, Treasury, GSEs and the Banks. It’s that old “inflate or die” dilemma that’s already smothered Wall Street finance.

The good news is these sources of Credit creation do today retain the capacity to somewhat stabilize financial and economic systems. The bad news is that going forward all four must expand aggressively – in collaboration - to forestall acute systemic crisis. All four must expand aggressively to bolster a highly maladjusted economic system, in the process sustaining confidence in the value of their liabilities. At some point, one would expect a crisis of confidence with respect to the quality of these Credit instruments. And, you know, the way things have unfolded, Murphy’s Law would only seem to dictate a destabilizing jump in market yields.


1 comment:

Randeg said...

Yes, the financial crisis has fallen unto our laps. The bailout could work but it has to be closely monitored. I read yesterday about a bit of news that after the bailout money, some banks may not extend credit to those who need it so they heard an earful from someone in the higher government position who is probably overseeing the bailout program. Let us all do our share and be vigilant over things like this because the government cannot do it all so I am glad about this article of yours.

Evelyn Guzman

http://www.debtchallenges.com (If you want to visit, just click but if it doesn’t work, copy and paste it onto your browser.)