Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why Bennie Can't Lend

Those of us from a certain age will recall a book about the failings of the education system called Why Johnnie Can't Read. Well, we're about to see the failings of the financial system exposed in similar fashion. The Fed has gone from "savior" that will "bail out the market" to talking tough on inflation and pointedly refusing to promise further rate cuts.

So when did this happen and why? The first thing to note about the Fed is they don't actually determine interest rates. They have the ability to set the Fed Funds target rate but then they have to go out and defend it in the marketplace - just like any other private entity seeking to set an arbitrary price. The strongest tool they have in this price-fixing scheme is the aura of omnipotence that they have acquired over the years so few other players are willing to take them on. A wise Fed chairman knows this and sets the target close to the market rate to avoid a test of wills that he might lose - along with his credibility in the process.

So let's look at the resources they have available to defend their chosen target rate. The Fed began 2007 with $277 billion in Treasury bills. As of the August 23 report, that number was unchanged but things began to move quickly thereafter. From the late summer of last year the Fed reduced its T-bill holdings by $76.7 billion by the March 6, 2008 report, which works out to about $12 billion per month. This was accomplished by bills maturing and not being rolled over as they usually would, which was sufficient to fund the TAF and discount window lending. Then things changed.

Storm Warning
In March, something really bad was brewing. We would later find out that Bear Stearns, a major investment bank was in the process of going under. Demand for Fed loans picked up dramatically and maturing T-bills no longer provided enough cash to fund the demand. So, for the first time since the crisis began, the Fed began to sell outstanding Treasury debt from their own inventory in order to supply the funds for the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF) which was introduced in early March:

3/7 - $10 billion sold
3/12 - $15 billion
3/17 - $18 billon
3/19 - $15 billion
3/25 - $12 billion
3/26 - $9 billion
total - $79 billion sold in 3 weeks

Of course, that is in addition to the normal process of runoff as bills mature. The numbers can be easily confirmed with a search of the NY Fed's permanent market operations. These actions pushed the 3-month bill's yield from under 1.0% to 1.4% in a short period. In addition, the Fed also began to sell off its longer-term Treasury obligations - $35 billion worth in 7 auctions through April 3rd. This pushed the yield on the 10-year (TNX) from 3.3% to 3.6% over that time. They sold another $30 billion in May, helping to push the yield on the TNX north of 4.0%. These actions account for the entire 12-month decline in longer-term treasuries. I'm virtually certain that the initial upward push in Treasury rates was welcomed as an "end to fear" and "return to normalcy" - also helping to push down risk spread by the simple expedient of increasing the base rate. I doubt that the second surge above 4% was quite so welcome and a repeat of that right now would be quite a major problem for the Fed.

The Box
We have now seen that the Fed can move longer-term interest rates if it has the resources and is willing to suffer the consequences of those actions - just like any other private bank or bond market player. We also note that there have been no open market sales of Treasuries since late May and the accompanying spike in the 10-year rate - critical since standard fixed rate mortgages are priced off of that rate. Even without selling pressure from the Fed, the TNX is still hanging out right around 4.0%. The rise above 4.3% must have scared the Fed to death since they reversed their rhetoric and even obliquely threatened to raise the Fed Funds target. Another half-point rise in mortgage rates would be likely to finish off a housing market already on life support and Bernanke doesn't want that on his record.

The state of the bond market leaves the Fed unable to sell any of its longer-dated Treasuries without severely damaging consequences. Yet long-dated securities are essentially all they have left - Treasury notes (2-10 years) and bonds (30 years) equal $412.4 billion. That compares to only $21.7 billion of the original $277 billion worth of T-bills. This is all that the Fed can really use without inflicting damage on the bond market that will be somewhere between severe and completely counter-productive.

June 19 H.4.1 report

This is the box that Bernanke is in. He can declare a cut in the target rate but he has no ammo to defend it. $21 billion is nothing and trying to defend a lower target and failing would be the worst possible outcome. The market may eventually give the Fed room to cut another quarter point but economic conditions will have to deteriorate further before that happens. Worse yet, the market appears to know that. The one tool that can still be used is the Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF) but the Fed is growing more reluctant to lend out its remaining hoard of high-quality Treasuries in return for toxic waste from the banks and brokers.

As we have pointed out before, the Fed has always had the ability to hide problems temporarily by papering over the cracks. In this case, they lent a lot of money to the commercial and investment banks so they would be able to hold assets instead of selling and recognizing the losses. If confidence and credit growth return quickly, this can reduce the pain. However, they do not have the ability to actually solve problems in the credit market and papering things over only makes things worse if the problem does not go away on its own. That is happening now as banks that should have sold before are now going to be forced to sell at lower prices and bigger losses. By trying to avoid a "fire sale" the Fed merely created a bigger one with a bit of a delay.

That is where we are now. The Fed has failed. The Great Oz has been exposed a just a man behind the curtain. Prepare for severe credit deflation and falling asset prices in markets that traditionally use leverage to purchase or hold positions.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Credit Deflation

It is critically important to understand the decline in overall credit levels in order see just how powerful the emerging deflationary trend is. One of my favorite analysts is Doug Noland of Prudent Bear. His Credit Bubble Bulletin is an indispensable tool for anyone hoping to fully understand what is happening. From his latest edition:
Total Commercial Paper increased $1.1bn to $1.753 TN. CP has declined $471bn over the past 46 weeks. Asset-backed CP fell another $5.0bn last week (46-wk drop of $447bn) to $748bn. Over the past year, total CP has contracted $390bn, or 18.2%, with ABCP down $412bn, or 35.5%.
So there is a hole roughly $400 billion wide of destroyed credit in the shadow banking system of SIVs and other off-balance sheet entities. That would be pretty tough to fill. And in the immortal words of Ronco "But wait, there's more!" Bloomberg reported yesterday that CDO defaults since October now total 200, with a face value of $220 billion. Given the performance of the ABX and CMBX indexes, it seems safe to value the defaulted CDOs at 50% of face value or less. So add at least $110 billion to that already deep hole of vanishing commercial paper. This is all on top of whatever enormous losses emerge in the official banking sector.

So what new credit is being created to counteract all of this credit destruction? No help from the official banking sector, including the Fed. Back to our friend Doug Noland:

Bank Credit dropped $24.8bn to $9.339 TN (week of 6/18). Bank Credit has now expanded only $126bn y-t-d, or 2.9% annualized.
Fed Credit has increased $1.1bn y-t-d and $27bn y-o-y (3.2%).
There is very little ability to create new shadow credit now that the inherent riskiness of these absurdly complex vehicles has been exposed. A lot of investors are learning the hard way that if you can't understand it, you shouldn't buy it - a lesson that goes all the way back to the Mississippi Company and South Sea Bubbles of the early 18th century. The entire panoply of complex derivative securities is being revealed for the severely under capitalized pyramid scheme that it always was: SIVs, conduits, auction-rate securities, CDOs, CDS, asset-backed commercial paper and more.

The Universal Debt Bubble was a massive confidence scheme but the marks are now wise to the game. A whole new generation of "investors" with no memory of the current scandals will have to grow up before such a thing can be attempted again. We are witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the multi-trillion dollar shadow banking sector. With (commercial) bank credit also beginning to drop and Fed credit nearly stagnant, the supply of credit to support asset inflation is shrinking outright.

Expect more pain across all major asset classes that are typically purchased in highly leveraged transactions.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

No Credit for You!

As the Universal Debt Bubble has begun to collapse under its own weight, various portions of the shadow banking sector have come under enormous pressure. These are the non-bank lenders that have magnified a credit bubble into the UDB. Starting last summer, the initial push shattered the most egregiously complex and levered structures - the CDOs. In the Fall of 2007, the conduits and SIVs joined the tankage - along with asset-backed commercial paper, their primary funding mechanism. The worst of the hedge funds have been closing their doors at an increasing rate.

Now we are beginning to see simpler securitized products being shunned as well. From Prudent Bear's Doug Noland:

Asset-Backed Securities (ABS) issuance slowed this week to $3.3bn. Year-to-date total US ABS issuance of $104bn (tallied by JPMorgan's Christopher Flanagan) is running at 27% of the comparable level from 2007. Home Equity ABS issuance of $303 million compares with 2007's $191bn. Year-to-date CDO issuance of $14bn compares to the year ago $217bn.

Over the past year, total CP has contracted $381bn, or 17.9%, with ABCP down $402bn, or 34.8%.

Credit Bubble Bulletin

As I read it, ABS (mostly credit card and auto loans) are down 73% from last year. Securitized home equity is down 99.8%. CDOs have fallen 93%. These were key shadow banking sectors that provided trillion during the last leg as the credit bubble mutated into the UDB. Because the structures were kept off the banks' balance sheets, they almost never had proper reserve structures. With leverage ratios of 30, 50 or even 100:1, the inherent risk was high. At 30:1, your valuation assumptions only have to be wrong by 3% for the whole thing to blow up - as they are now duly exploding.

Any hope that the Fed and other central banks had of keeping the asset bubble intact is fading along with the excess credit that has supported absurd asset prices for so long. The disappearance of the shadow banks is critical to the process of deflating the bubbles. At the same time as this illegitimate source of funding is drying up, the commercial banks are being forced to recognize large losses. Now the banks must lend within the restrictions of their required reserves and capital. At the same time, that capital is being wiped away by losses far faster than it can be replaced.

The math virtually guarantees that there will be a lot less credit available for the foreseeable future. Assets and goods that are dependent on the availability of credit are likely to see sharp further price declines.