Showing posts from August, 2007

Ongoing Credit Implosion

The rate of implosion in the credit markets continues to accelerate. In fact, the process seems to be proceeding very rapidly and the only element missing is mass bond defaults. According to Bloomberg, the asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) market has shrunk by 20% in a mere three weeks and the total CP market is 11% smaller over that period. This type of credit has contracted by $244 billion in a very short time. For those who think the Fed can simply "print money" to revive asset inflation, $244 billion is roughly 4x the $68 billion total of all US currency in circulation today. And of course, the CP market is just one of many credit markets undergoing a buyers' strike.

Private label MBS of any kind is very hard to sell right now, which is why even Countrywide is doing almost nothing but conforming loans.

[Countrywide] says that soon about 90% of its originations will conform to either bank loan or such so-called "Government Sponsored Enterprises" standards.T…

First Principles

Well, it's been one heck of a week. With all of the insanity going on around us, sometimes it's best to take a step back and return to first principles. One of those is the Business Cycle - you know that thing that the Fed has supposedly abolished? The two questions that come to mind immediately are "why did the cycle exist?" and "how did the Fed get rid of it?"

The first one is easy. Economic cycles have existed throughout our history and always will exist as long as emotional humans are making economic decisions. The National Bureau of Economic Research has tracked US economic cycles going back to the mid-19th century. In the immediate postwar period, the cycles became more predictable as the Fed began to regulate them and induce the occasional recession to purge excesses before the market did it for them. During this period, it was discovered that the cycle could be manipulated though not controlled. The typical pattern was roughly three years of exp…

Fed Actions and Terrorist Attacks

We are beginning to see severe impairment of credit functions - the fruits of massive and long standing frauds that have recently come to light. By now, many of you are familiar with the 'mark to model' fraud, where the imaginary prices generated by a computer model are preferred over the actual prices which are being paid by actual people - especially when using the former allows firms to report gains rather than the losses they have suffered in reality. With some 'investment grade' paper trading at huge discounts to par, the rating services have a lot of explaining to do. The fee structures for structured finance create serious conflicts of interest."S&P, Moody's and Fitch have made more money from evaluating structured finance--which includes CDOs and asset-backed securities--than from rating anything else, including corporate and municipal bonds, according to their financial reports. The companies charge as much as three times more to rate CDOs than to…

Humpty Dumpty Repair

It appears that the CBs have managed to stave of an immediate disaster in the financial markets - at least for the moment. Yet any hope of a material turnaround in market conditions seems distant indeed. The entire system was built on an ever-rising tide of debt and confidence. Debt served to expand the money supply and confidence ensured that the larger pool of money would move through the economy at accelerating velocity.

Now, fears of default have undermined the willingness to lend and borrow - undermining the psychological conditions necessary to sustain debt growth. At the same time, confidence has been crushed, slowing the headlong rush of money around the globe. The sale of CDOs has fallen dramatically - 35% from June to July. These instruments epitomize both trends; they serve to direct capital into new debt deals quickly while simultaneously taking out loans themselves to leverage the profits from those deals.

Confidence has not merely broken, it is shattered. The Fed and other…

Legions of the Damned

In Leverage and Its Uses, we discussed the large and growing cohort of companies with shaky credit and bond ratings in the CCC to C range. Many of these firms are effectively bankrupt already, borrowing just to pay the interest on existing debt. Such a practice was only possible in the loose money conditions of the UDB (Universal Debt Bubble), which is now bursting with shocking speed. These companies form one one cohort within the Legions of the Damned.

Today's actions by the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve cofirm that the real threat is DEFLATION - not inflation. Central Banks don't pump $150 billion dollars into the banking system because they are afraid of creating too much money.
Central banks move to counter liquidity crunch

Central banks no longer expand the money supply by literally printing currency. They create new money by expanding credit through the financial system - mostly the banks but with other financial institutions playing an increasingly importa…

Leverage and Its Uses

During the Universal Debt Bubble (UDB), corporations borrowed a lot of money, so where did it go? Quite a bit of it went into buying other companies as worldwide buyouts reached a record $4.06 trillion in 2006, with about 40% of that in the USA. That was well above the previous record $3.3 trillion in 2000. The difference was that the M&A boom in 2000 was done largely with stock; this one is funded with debt. When things went bad in 2000, the equity didn't have to be paid back, but the debt from the current frenzy will.

While a lot of money went to buy other companies' stock, another big chunk funded companies who bought back their own stock. Naturally, all of this debt-funded stock buying has served to prop up equity prices. Many shareholders came to believe that they were in a no-lose position because of continuous demand from buybacks. And if anything went wrong, someone else would swoop in and buy the whole company as part of the M&A wave. That sort of overconfidenc…

Corporate Finance

The Universal Debt Bubble (UDB) has enabled many activities that could never be sustained in anything resembling a normal environment. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in the field of corporate finance and the related debt and equity markets. Let's look at the borrowing side first.

Just as with housing, cheap credit was widely available in the corporate sector. Anybody could borrow and at much lower than normal interest rates too.

One of the most important effects is that it was almost impossible to default on a debt. Since there was almost always another lender lined up to make a loan, companies refinanced instead of going bankrupt. This was very similar to the way homeowners refinanced instead of facing foreclosure. The magnitude of the drop in defaults was astounding. A study by Moody's showed that over 32 years the lowest rated bonds (Caa, Ca and C) averaged 23.7% defaults each year.…

Where to Start?

This is such an enormous subject, it's difficult to know where to begin. I'm going to start with the prevalence and destructiveness of excessive debt. The best illustration of that so far is in the housing market. The symptoms there are more obvious and advanced than elsewhere. So let's go to the stats.

According to the Federal Reserve mortgage lending grew from $153.8 bil in 1995 to $1,051.8 bil in 2005 - a mere 584% in 10 years.

The results were amazingly predictable: housing prices rising rapidly, with a speculative frenzy at the end. It's axiomatic that bubbles can only last as long as there is more money coming in. I'll freely admit that I expected a top in housing in 2004 as the pool of qualified buyers was drained. The lenders fooled us by making further loans to unqualified buyers to keep things going for another 15-18 months. In the end, this has only made things worse naturally.

We are at the front e…