The Ides of March–The Dreaded Margin Calls Have Begun at Banks and Hedge Funds

This week the news wires were abuzz about the Bear Stearns bailout. It all started with a margin call.

An investment banking insider tipped me that there will be perhaps as many as five more “margin calls that can’t be answered” next week. Three names mentioned as possibly getting the dreaded call are Goldman Sachs on Tuesday and both Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers on Wednesday–on the same day that each reports their first quarter earnings. The word on the street is that all three may need to be bailed out, to varying degrees. Who is standing in the wings to bail some of them out? Credit Suisse and some other big European banks. At the end of next week there may be even more unanswerable margin call news, for US Bank and Washington Mutual. Oh yes, and rumor also has it that Wells Fargo sold some its tangible assets–including some that date back to the 1850s–in order to meet its margin call on Friday.

To meet these margin calls, most of the troubled banks will in turn be making margin calls of their own, to their hedge fund buddies.This, I believe, will cause dozens of hedge funds to go belly up, since most hedge funds have already been under redemption pressure from individual investors. Many hedge funds are using high leverage with their trading portfolios. This makes them unlikely to be able to meet their margin calls. The end result? Look at least for suspension redemption notices from a good portion of American and European hedge funds, and possibly bankruptcy announcements, soon after. A lot of investors are going to lose every penny.

And if all of the preceding weren’t bad enough, think about one other big piece of fallout: Derivatives. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of over the counter Credit Default Swaps (CDSes) in play, folks. Many of the banks and hedge funds are party to these CDSes. If a an institution goes belly up, then the full value of the CDS contracts on their books must be covered! Remember what I wrote a couple of months ago about Bank of America (BofA) bailing out Countrywide Financial? They didn’t do so because they were nice guys, or even because it was a “good investment.” They did so because that by acquiring Countrywide, they in effect became both party and counterparty to several large CDS derivatives. So magically, Poof! The derivative exposure disappeared. BofA simply “did the math” and realized that it would be less expensive to simply buy out Countrywide and zero out those derivatives, rather than having to fulfill them. Based on this recent experience, I predict that there will be dozens of mergers and acquisitions that come out of this banking and hedge fund crisis. We might even read of some acquisitions that will get us scratching our heads. Why would a major pension fund, an insurance company, or a money center bank buy a controlling interest in a hedge fund or an boutique bank? Watch for such oddities in the headlines in the months to come. You’ll know why…

You may ask, “What does all this high finance news mean to me? I don’t have any money in hedge funds or investment banks.” This bad news means that not only will there likely soon be some big bank runs, but also there will be The Mother of All Bailouts, in which the US taxpayers will foot the bill to bail out boutique investing banks, possibly a few big money center banks, and dozens of hedge funds. We are talking about hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars that don’t exist. Read: monetization. So get ready for mass inflation of the US Dollar!

OBTW, I think Ben Bernanke needs to record a new greeting for his telephone voice mail [Insert imitated voice of the late actor John Houseman]: “Ben Bernanke isn’t here. He’s out making money the old fashioned way. He’s printing it!

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