Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Went Wrong ?

Finally there is a 100% consensus between economists, experts, journalists, and government officials that restoring interbank lending will restore the stability of the financial system and will reignite economic growth. Too bad, the consensus has gotten again all wrong. This is a pure myth and nothing can be further from the truth.
The grim reality is very different and already forgotten. The reality is that most markets for the majority of financial instruments have collapsed completely and reviving interbank lending will not resurrect any of those markets. In other words, resolving the problem of interbank lending will not help the economy in any way. It is like an air balloon that has deflated and we desperately need to reflate it again with helium, but we are told that even ordinary cold air will lift it off the ground; since the balloon is stubbornly stuck on the ground, we are told we simply need more air!
I offer little new here, but a precious history of how the tentacles of the Credit Crisis are reaching more and more segments of the financial markets. No amount of interbank lending will recover meaningfully most segments from the firm grip of those tentacles.

The Causes of the Financial Crisis
I do not attempt to explain the fundamental causes of the current Credit Crisis. No doubt that in coming decades tomes will be written on the subject. Nevertheless, the basics are simple – America borrowed and spent for decades driving its savings rate to nil, while printing trillions of dollars in attempt to sustain the (unsustainable) global imbalances caused by its own profligacy and saddling the rest of the world with trillions of bad debt.

The Trigger of the Financial Crisis
The trigger of the crisis can be attributed to the decreased confidence in the markets for mortgage-backed securities following the August 2007 collapse of two Bear Stearns' hedge funds that were heavily exposed to subprime mortgages. Resetting of teaser rates and adjustable-rate mortgages triggered an avalanche of defaults. Once default rates started rising, many institutional investors, both U.S. and global, began to realize that the MBS's and CDO's in their portfolios might not be worth what they initially thought. Investment banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, and hedge funds alike began recognizing losses related to their holdings of mortgage-backed securities. Confidence was shaken. Margin calls forced further liquidations of those mortgage-backed securities, but as few were standing ready to buy, prices dropped even further, invoking even more margin calls. It was a death-spiral. The resulting losses just went snowballing. As a result, the markets for those structured financial products froze up and liquidity suddenly dried up. The Credit Crisis reared its ugly head.

1. Subprime Mortgages
The first indicator signaling the Subprime Meltdown surfaced in February 2007 “when scores of mortgage originators went bust amid rising defaults and tightening lending standards” . In mid-June, a second significant sign of financial collapse became evident as two CDO-focused Bear Stearns hedge funds blew up. Those hedge funds were too big and distracted investors' attention from another smaller in proportions, but still significant bankruptcy - California based brokerage firm Brookstreet Securities. This was the early beginning of the crisis.
In the second week of July 2007, Moody's and Standard & Poor's announced downgrades on billions of bonds backed by subprime mortgages. Though the downgrades did not reveal the unsoundness of the bonds, it signaled the demise of the Ponzi mortgage investment market backed by inflated real estate.
In early August the looming Credit Crunch could already be felt. Several of Wall Street's biggest foreign customers announced enormous losses on their holdings of mortgage backed securities. Once the “teaser rates” began to reset, mortgage defaults spiked. Foreign investors realized that the bond collateral fell short of the bond principal, in banker-speak, the LTV exceeded 100%. Home equity vanished and mortgage payments shot up. Dwindling foreign lending was a sure sign of the impending crisis.
At the end of August many financial institutions began to sense the looming disaster. Calls for various government bailout schemes for homeowners were only meant to bail the lenders out. Amidst the unraveling of the subprime crisis, the Fed responded by aggressively cutting interest rates. However, tightening lending standards, widening credit spreads, and rising down payments exacerbated default rates and mounted further losses for the Leveraged Speculator Community, aka, hedge funds. A common sense of mistrust gripped the markets. Confidence evaporated, and so did liquidity. The subprime market was terminally ill – no amount of Fed cutting and liquidity injections could ever possibly revive it again! This market has been dead for more than year.
2. Jumbo Mortgages
With the meltdown of subprime mortgages, the tentacles of the Credit Crunch began to take firm hold of other sectors of the financial system. The next victim was the market for jumbo mortgages – mortgages of high denominations, technically above $417,000 at the time. Further tightening of lending standards and more realistic perceptions of the underlying risk of those mortgages basically froze the market for Jumbo MBS. The major force behind the inflating California and Florida real estate bubbles was inanimate. Now these markets were set for a spectacular bust; the government's attempt to resurrect the Jumbo market (by raising the limit to $730,000) miserably failed. This market has been comatose for well over a year and jumbo rates remain stubbornly high. No amount of liquidity or interbank lending will revive the Jumbo market any time soon!
3. Home Equity loans
With dying subprime and jumbo markets and tightening mortgage credit, something that for decades was believed impossible, suddenly became inevitable -- real estate prices began to fall. As a result, the tentacles of the credit crisis snatched another victim -- Home Equity Loans and Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCs). These loans, commonly referred to as “second mortgages”, allow homeowners to borrow against the value of their home equity to finance a range of expenditures, such as medical bills, home improvements, college tuitions, and well-deserved vacations. The market quickly degenerated with rapidly deteriorating LTV ratios and skyrocketing number of “underwater” mortgages. Consumers fell behind on those loans at the highest level in 15 years. No more refis for consumers who already extracted the last drop of equity. With real estate prices falling, there was equity no more, With equity gone, so were the home equity loans. We can safely say that home equity loans are now a thing of the past and no amount of government stimulus and interbank lending will revive this market for many years!
4. SIVs and Conduits
Structured investment vehicles (SIVs) played a crucial role in the historic expansion of credit. A brainchild of ingenious financial engineers, large investment banks created and sponsored these entities. They invested largely in ABSs and MBSs that were manufactured primarily by the same large investment banks. To finance these investments, they issued investment-grade commercial paper and structured notes to investors around the world. This scheme allowed large financial institutions to remove a major portion of their risk exposure off their balance sheets, while at the same time “consolidating” any profits that resulted from the SIV operations. To put it in simple terms, they kept the profits on the balance sheet, but kept the risk off the balance sheet. This was the ultimate game in finance – return without risk, converting junk into AAA, turning led into gold – this was the Magic of Wall Street, the Alchemy of Finance.
However, with SIVs and Conduits loaded up with subprime, it was only a matter of time before this alchemic dream would turn into an ugly nightmare. Rising defaults and falling real estate prices shook investors' confidence. A series of downgrades inflicted grave damages. Some very risk-averse investors reaped distressing losses. Many risk-averse pension funds and university endowments relied on the AAA ratings and treated the securities as higher-yielding alternatives to safe money-market instruments. Repricing of ABS and MBS resulted in major writedowns for those SIVs and magnified the losses of their leveraged investors. Yet another victim fell into the tentacles of the Credit Crisis. As Doug Noland has pointed out so well, “the collapse of structured investment vehicles has proven to be the ultimate failure of Wall Street Finance in its attempt on risk intermediation between highly risky mortgage-backed securities and perceived safe and liquid money market instruments”. Today, it is accepted that Alchemy doesn't work, and that SIVs were hoped to do just that -- convert led into gold. The reality is that no amount of interbank lending and liquidity injections will do that.
5. CDOs
Some of the most pervasive exposures of leveraged financial institutions have been related to CDOs backed by subprime debt. This was another creature of mad financial engineers that was destined to fall in the tentacles of the Credit Crisis. It was meant to pool dodgy debt that with proper slicing and dicing would magically turn into a AAA-asset; it turned led into gold.
The bulk of the colossal losses of large investment banks, brokerage firms, hedge funds, and other financial institutions have been related to write-downs of CDOs. Their demand stalled as some top-rated classes of mortgage-linked CDOs lost their entire value amid surging foreclosures. Series of CDO downgrades by credit rating agencies led to enormous losses for investors around the world. Top-rated CDO tranches were devalued in late October 2007 due to expectations of excessive future losses from jumbo mortgages, Alt-As and option ARMs. Following the collapse of the two Bear Stearns hedge funds that were heavily invested in subprime CDOs, the CDO market has suffered severe illiquidity and lack of confidence. In late January Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain asserted that “[The company is] not going to be in the CDO and structured-credit types of businesses”. Since then the market has been for all practical purposes dead. It is dead because the underlying assets (jumbo, Alt-A, option ARMs) were never creditworthy in first place. No amount of liquidity injections and interbank lending will make the underlying instruments more creditworthy than before, and therefore cannot resurrect this financial instrument.
6. Commercial Paper
The familiar notion of borrowing short and lending long has come into question since the Credit Crisis began. Thousands of financial institutions have previously met their demise as a result of a maturity gap. Most of the companies engaged in this business were issuing commercial paper backed by MBSs or CDOs. With the unfolding of the crisis, questions about the value of the underlying collateral became ever more pervasive and eroded confidence. As a result, the market for commercial paper (CP) has fallen into the tentacles of the Credit Crisis. The first to experience the difficulties were the investment banks, then the commercial banks, and later other financial institutions. The difficulties spread even to the best investment-grade industrial corporations. As of April 11, 2008 total outstanding commercial paper has contracted by 11.4%. This market is not dead, but on life support, as the Fed has directly intervened to monetize commercial paper. Indeed, this market desperately needs the life support by the Fed in order to stay alive. By monetizing CP, the Fed has become the Lender of Last Resort for major corporations.
7. Private-Label MBS
The market for private-label MBS, which has been central to the creation of easily-available cheap credit, has suffered from a severe liquidity seizure, falling into the tentacles of the Financial Crisis. By securitizing mortgage loans, Wall Street was able to provide endless amounts of credit to homebuyers and homeowners, which led to the inflation of a real estate bubble of extreme proportions. Escalating home prices, in turn, made it possible for mortgage lenders to extend even more credit to borrowers with questionable credit history, without having to worry about being repaid, On the way up, it was a well-oiled Ponzi scheme; on the way down – an unmitigated disaster. The scheme depended crucially on rising real estate prices; once the prices stagnated or began to fall, no amount of liquidity injections or interbank lending could potentially revive this market.
8. Leveraged Loans
The loan market for Private Equity and Leveraged Buyouts (LBOs) is not functioning. Those loans that finance Private Equity deals or LBOs are known as “leveraged loans”. The tentacle of the credit crisis has gripped this market too. As the real economy has suffered a serious slowdown and plunges into a recession, the rate of corporate bankruptcies has been soaring. As a result, in October 2007 some of the major banks, such as Bank of America, Citigroup and JP Morgan, had to write down $2.5 Billion in loans for LBOs. These losses prompted most of the big players to slash their LBO loans. Some estimates indicate that only the very best deal can possibly get any financing; the volume has fallen almost 10 times. With an economy in recession, no amount of liquidity injections and interbank lending can revive this market.
9. Alt-A Mortgages
The Alt-A mortgage sector has not escaped the tentacles of the credit crisis. In a manner quite similar to Subprime and Jumbo mortgages, this market has slowed to a trickle. However, with the nationalization of the GSEs, the government is attempting to revive this market by forcing the GSEs to purchase more of these mortgages. As the GSEs themselves are now “owned” and guaranteed by the Treasury, this is tantamount to the Treasury buying up Alt-A mortgages. Given that the Treasury itself is financed mostly through monetization of the Fed, the ultimate effect is that this market is supported, just like the commercial paper market, with the printing press. The economic interpretation is that of a classic government subsidy financed by an inflation tax – redistributive, inefficient, and replete with moral hazards that sets up the system for a spectacular blowup down the road.
10. Prime Mortgages
The next victim in the tentacles of the Credit Crisis became the prime mortgages. Already in deep trouble, the financial system damaged even its healthiest credit market instrument. Reacting to the defaults in subprime and Alt-A mortgages, investors were compelled to manage risk more carefully. Practically, all sorts of loans became inaccessible for any borrower. This dried the liquidity, further causing huge bankruptcies of the borrowers who cannot refinance their loans. The prime residential mortgage market has been revived with the spectacular “bankruptcy” and subsequent nationalization of the GSEs, backed directly by the Treasury and indirectly by the Fed.
11. Commercial Mortgages
The commercial mortgage market has been practically frozen for many months. As the debacle in subprime, jumbo, Alt-A, and prime mortgages has unfolded, investors turned their attention to commercial mortgages. Over time, it became clear that investing in commercial mortgages is fraught with risk. The first obvious risk was overvaluation. The second obvious risk was a decelerating economy. The evolution of the Credit Crisis introduced a well-forgotten type of risk – liquidity risk. Investors saddled with heavy losses from other mortgage instruments decided to withdraw and stay on the sidelines. This, coupled with shaken confidence was enough to choke this market. Risk premiums have skyrocketed as the perceived risks of commercial mortgages have realigned with reality. Recession has exposed the fundamental weaknesses of many projects. The private sector wants none of this market. The Credit Crisis has extended its tentacles to commercial mortgages. No amount of liquidity injections and interbank lending can revive this market; only a direct intervention by the Treasury can do the trick.
12. Auction-Rate Securities
An auction-rate security is technically a debt instrument, typically a municipal bond, with a long nominal maturity, for which the interest rate is regularly reset through an auction, usually on a weekly basis. One economic interpretation of this concept is that of a fund borrowing with low short-term interest rates and lending to long-term municipal bonds, passing on the low interest rate to the municipal borrower. The other economic interpretation is that illiquid municipal bonds are securitized and transformed into liquid securities that are regularly traded at auctions. As deleveraging tightened its vice grip on the credit market in February 2008, liquidity evaporated from the credit system and the auction-rate securities suddenly crashed out of the blue. It was another nail in the coffin of Wall Street Structured Finance and another victim in the tentacles of the Credit Crisis. This market has been dead for half a year and nothing short of extraordinary amount of liquidity coupled with government guarantees has the potential of reviving it.
13. Corporate Debt
The Credit Crisis has extended its tentacles to the corporate bond market. Credit spreads of investment-grade corporate bonds have been steadily rising and are much higher than even two months ago. Credit spreads for junk bonds have surged from 650 basis points at the end of September 2008 to 950 basis points at the beginning of November. Yes, credit is available to corporations, but the cost is becoming prohibitive. The tentacles have reached the corporate market and are beginning to strangulate it. Just like the market for auction-rate securities, this market desperately needs a torrent of liquidity to overcome the strangling tentacles. A Bloomberg story from October 31 tells the sorry tale of this market: “Corporate debt markets in the U.S. and Europe endured their worst month as the credit crisis spread beyond financial firms to industrial companies amid the prospect of a global recession. Corporate industrial bonds in October are set to post their steepest monthly loss on record, while the gaps between yields on those bonds and government debt soar by the most ever.”
14. Credit Default Swaps
The US monolines are on the verge of bankruptcy as more and more of the credit that they insure defaults. They initially encountered difficulties in the beginning of January 2008. Indices of corporate credit risk widened, showing that the tentacles of Credit Crisis have reached the corporate bond market. The price of credit protection soared.
The monolines staggered because some major insurers were downgraded as investors questioned their ability to perform. Investors' minds were suddenly preoccupied with another well-forgotten risk – counterparty risk. A vicious spiral gripped the monolines -- CDSs lost their attractiveness, resulting in less cash inflows for monolines, which in turn decreased their ability to provide adequate credit risk insurance, lowering in turn their ability to sell CDSs… And another victim fell prey into the tentacles of the Credit Crisis.
The CDS market has not collapsed completely. However, its imminent collapse will indirectly affect international finance. Inability to hedge with CDS will eventually destabilize the US financial system. Many corporate borrowers will be unable to borrow, which in turn will result in higher corporate defaults, and another vicious cycles will inevitably take hold of the financial system.
15. Letters of Credit
The tentacles of the Credit Crisis have recently taken another victim: Letters of Credit. A Bloomberg story from October 29 explains this ugly turn for the worse: the Credit Crisis spreads beyond the financial sector and into the real economy. Do you remember the good old days when Bernanke and Paulson assured us that the Credit Crisis is contained? Here is the Bloomberg story:
“Richard Burnett's lumber company had started loading wood onto ships heading for China. More was en route to the docks. It was all part of an order that would fill 100 40-foot cargo containers. Then Burnett got a call from his buyer at Shanghai VIVA Wood Products Co. The deal was dead. He told Burnett… he couldn't get a letter of credit to guarantee payment for at least six months. ‘It was like a spigot got cut off,' Burnett said… The inability of buyers in China and Vietnam to get letters of credit has cost his company as much as $4 million this year, a third of projected revenue, forcing him to lay off 15 of 35 employees, he said. Suppliers of oil, coal, grains and consumer products from Chicago to Mumbai are losing sales as the credit crisis spreads beyond financial institutions, and banks refuse financing or increase the fees for buyers.”
16. Credit Card Loans
In October 2008 another market has fallen into the tentacles of the Credit Crisis: the market for credit card loans. Credit card companies usually do not retain most of their credit card debt on their balance sheet; instead, they securitize it and sell it. The latest data from Dealogic indicates that the consumer-based securitization market has shrunk in October to $500 million from $50 billion previously. This means that the ability to securitize and sell consumer-based loans has fallen almost 100 times in one year. The implication is clear – credit card companies will be forced to cut consumers from credit card debt. This will bring the American consumer to his knees and means the end of the Consumer Economy. No wonder that in the last three months the media frequency of the word “Depression” has increased hundred-fold.

Going Forward
No amount of interbank lending and liquidity injections will revive most of the markets for various financial instruments. No amount of monetary and fiscal policy can resurrect genuine productive lending in the economy. The tentacles of the Credit Crisis have spread to every sector of the financial markets. The “Real Estate Economy” is dead; the “Financial Economy” is dead; the “Consumer Economy” is dying; and the “Service Economy” is dying. Enter the Depression Economy! Or shall I say, “Enter the Zimbabwe Economy”!?

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