By now, everyone knows that the subprime crisis started with non-existent lending standards which resulted in the large numbers of foreclosures we are seeing today. Those foreclosures will be rising throughout the year. We are not near anything like the top of the rising number of foreclosures. Ben Bernanke said last July that losses from the subprime would be in the $100 billion dollar range. True confession. I think I wrote six months earlier that it would be $200 billion. I point that out to make the point that I am an optimist by nature. The latest “bidding war” number for the amount of total losses is about $500 billion from Goldman Sachs, and a neat $1 trillion from uber-bear Nouriel Roubini.
Add in hundreds of billions from losses which are piling up in other credit markets and you can easily get to $1 trillion in losses which are going to have to be eaten by all sorts of financial institutions, without being all that pessimistic.
Banks are being forced to reduce their loan and margin books in order to get the necessary capital required by regulatory authorities. Plus, credit is now more expensive as risk premiums rise from absurdly low levels in what more than one authority called a “new era of finance.” Turns out it was just normal old era greed.
It is not just the mortgage market. It is commercial mortgages, safe municipal bonds, credit card debt, student loans and a host of credit that is under fire and cannot find a buyer at what should be a realistic price.
We should not be surprised at the lack of liquidity in the credit markets. We have essentially vaporized 60% of the buyers of debt in the last six months. The various alphabet of SIVs, CLOs, CDO, ABS, CMBS, and their kin that were the real shadow banking system are either gone or on life support. It took decades to build these structures and it is not realistic to think we can replace them in six months. This is going to take some time.
And time is what the Fed has bought this week by offering to take AAA mortgage paper and swap it for T-bills. They will start with $200 billion on offer. Remember you read it here first that that number will be increased and increased again. From the markets initial euphoric response, you would think the problems have been solved and banks will once again start lending. Sadly, this is probably not true.
This is similar to the action by the bank regulators in 1980, when nearly every major bank had losses that were greater than their capital on Latin American loans which had defaulted. The Fed, with a wink and a nod, allowed the banks to carry these worthless loans on their books at full face value. It took six years before they started to actually write them down. But without that measure, every major bank in the US would have gone bankrupt. And technically, they were for several years. But the Fed action simply bought the banks time to re-liquefy. It was the right thing to do.
This week’s action by the Fed is essentially the same thing. It buys time. This 28 day auction will be around for a long time. If the banks had to write down the potential losses on their AAA Fannie Mae paper and other similar assets, it could have brought the banking system to its knees. Eventually, we will get a market clearing price for all this paper, but the key word here is eventually. We are going to see foreclosures and losses for another 18 months. It is going to take a long time to know exactly what the losses will be.
I think the losses on many of the various forms of debt have been marked down way too far by the various derivative markets. (I would hasten to add this does not include the subprime markets, as many of those assets are going to zero.) I doubt the loss in a lot of the debt paper will be nearly as much as the current credit default swaps prices indicate. For instance, some municipal bond debt is priced for 10-15% losses, when losses of less than 0.5% are normal. When there is a buyers strike, prices fall, and sometime to quite low levels. In the fullness of time, the price of these bonds will rise back to “normal” levels. There is a reason Bill Gross is buying municipal bonds by the train car load. Many are simply at the best prices we will see in my lifetime.
But if that debt is now on a bank’s capital books, they have to write it down to the latest mark-to-market. The Fed’s move simply allows the banks to move what will eventually (or maybe the better word is should eventually) be marked back to reasonable values. It avoids a crisis today.
The next crisis? I read a very chilling piece from Michael Lewitt this morning. He speculates on what if the rumors were true that Bear Stearns is basically bankrupt. Bear is in the “too big to fail” category. They are at the heart of the chain of Credit Default Swaps which run like fault lines throughout the world’s financial system. If Bear were allowed to collapse, it would simply cascade throughout the world so fast it would truly make the current level of the credit crisis seem small potatoes.
So, why can I be so sanguine? Because the regulators (the Fed and the SEC) would step in and whatever large bank was failing would be merged or bought very fast. Liquidity and assets would be provided. The Fed and the rest of the world’s central banks get that we are in a crisis. They will do what is necessary. Those of us sitting in the cheap seats in the back of the plane may not like it, as it will look like a bailout of the big guys who caused the problem, but you have to maintain the integrity of the system. A hedge fund here or there can go, but not one of the world’s premier banks.
I wrote the above paragraphs on Thursday, and sure enough, the NY Fed and JP Morgan stepped in to bail out Bear. This will not be the only time or bank. The regulators may have been asleep, but the depth of this crisis has awakened them.
But this is a boost for my contention that we will be in a Muddle Through Economy for a long time. This latest Fed actions simply draw out the time over which the market will correct. But that is a good thing, as a too swift, dead drop correction could spawn a very deep recession, destroying vast amounts of capital, which would take much longer to come out of.