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 CBs can do nothing to restore this confidence but that hasn't kept them from trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The massive and fully justified loss of confidence has nothing to do with the Fed; it is in the credibility of Wall Street, housing collateral, ratings agencies, credit derivatives and complex financial structures generally. During the boom, the opaque, complex vehicles didn't matter as everything was going up. As things got shaky, the lack of transparency served as a smokescreen to hide the losses and keep the public in the dark.

As the scale of the problem has come to light, trust and confidence in everyone involved has tanked as it should. They have sustained or abetted a fraud against investors and should not be trusted. Given the reluctance to lend, it's clear that many financial institutions don't trust each other. The Fed can flood the markets with credit to temporarily stabilize the system but they can't undo the series of frauds and resulting rational distrust that has spread through the financial world like a virus.

The alphabet soup of complex and opaque credit derivatives helped to hide the damage for a long time. They continue to mask the full extent of the losses and the identity of the losers. But belated recognition by investors has changed the default setting. Previously, they assumed everything was fine unless specific problems were identified. Now, the problems are known if not truly understood, so the assumption is that risk portfolios are in trouble unless proven otherwise. The lack of transparency that was previously helpful is now a gigantic ball and chain.

It can't be undone now. It will take months to find who is holding all of the toxic waste and how much they are holding. Until then, all financial institutions are guilty until proven innocent. Lending will continue to be frozen by the high risk of losses. Humpty Dumpty can't be repaired even by "all the king's horses and all the king's men."

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