Thursday, August 9, 2007

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 important role. Quasi-banks like hedge funds and CDOs take in money (investments instead of deposits) and use it to fund the purchase of assets, while introducing additional credit in the form of leverage as part of the process. These hedge fund and CDO positions have been used as collateral for further loans, increasing total debt in the system to absurd levels.

Over the last several weeks, there has been a collective recognition of the inherent riskiness of using illiquid, volatile and hard to value paper as collateral for lending. The lenders are requiring either much more (paper) or better (cash) collateral to secure the loans. The result is the global "Dash for Cash" that we've seen recently. Cash is King again and the scramble to come up with it resulted in huge spikes in overnight lending rates. The injection of $150 billion into the system was designed to bring the rates back down to the ECB and Fed targets of 5.25% and 4.0% respectively.

Had the CBs not acted, there would have been massive forced selling of the illiquid paper, demonstrating it to be nearly worthless. Now that would only formally recognize a situation that already exists in reality but as long as the banks can pretend that it's worth face value, they can continue to make loans and prop up consumption. This is a classic example of Gresham's Law - to oversimplify "Bad money drives out good money." When dodgy paper assets are treated nearly the same as cash, nobody is going to put up cash.

We are reverting from this state to more normal relative valuation. As part of that process, the value of cash - as measured by interest rates is rising. The CB action is intended to suppress this normal market mechanism and keep cheap credit flowing. Unfortunately for their plan, market participants have correctly diagnosed this as a last-ditch effort born of panic. The price of money (the interest rate) has risen dramatically in commercial paper, where the free market still largely determines prices.
Commercial Paper Yields Soar to Highest Since 2001

Which brings us back to the Legions of the Damned. The commercial paper market which is tightening up is part of the same bond market that has kept these companies on life support for several years. The same bond market that is refusing to fund risky mortgages and risky leveraged buyouts. The plug has been pulled and the life support is shutting down. Is anyone listening?