Weekend EditionMarch 29 / 30, 2008
Slip Sliding Away
Bernanke's Next Big Bail Out Plan
By MIKE WHITNEY
The Federal Reserve is presently considering an emergency operation that is so risky it could send the dollar slip-sliding over the cliff. The story appeared in the Financial Times earlier this week and claimed that the Fed was examining the feasibility of buying back hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) with public money to restore investor confidence and clear the struggling banks' balance sheets. The Fed, of course, denied the allegations, but the rumors abound. Currently the banking system is so clogged with exotic investments, for which there is no market, it can't perform its main task of providing credit to businesses and consumers. Bernanke's job is to clear the credit logjam so the broader economy can begin to grow again. So far, he has failed to achieve his objectives.
Since September, Bernanke has slashed interest rates by 3 per cent and opened various auction facilities (Term Securities Lending Facility, the Term Auction Facility, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, and the new Term Securities Lending Facility) which have made $400 billion available in low-interest loans to banks and non banks. He has also accepted a "wide range" of collateral for Fed repos including mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) which are worth considerably less than what the Fed is offering in exchange. But the Fed's injections of liquidity have not solved the basic problem which is the fall in housing prices and the persistent downgrading of mortgage-backed assets that investors refuse to buy at any price. In fact, the troubles are gradually getting worse and spreading to areas of the financial markets that were previously thought to be risk-free. The credit slowdown has also put additional pressure on hedge funds and other financial institutions forcing them to quickly deleverage to meet margin calls by dumping illiquid assets into a saturated market at fire-sale prices. This process has been dubbed the "great unwind".
In the last six years, the mortgage-backed securities market has ballooned to a $4.5 trillion dollar industry. The investment banks are presently holding about $600 billion of these complex debt instruments. So far, the banks have written down $125 billion in losses, but there's a lot more carnage to come. Goldman Sachs estimates that banks, brokerages and hedge funds will eventually sustain $460 billion in losses, three times greater than today. Even so, those figures are bound to increase as the housing market continues to deteriorate and capital is drained from the system.
The Fed has neither the resources nor the inclination to scoop up all the junk bonds the banks have on their books. Bernanke has already exposed about half ($400 billion) of the Central Bank's balance sheet to credit risk. But what is the alternative? If the Fed doesn't intervene, then many of country's largest investment banks will wind up like Bear Stearns; DOA. After all, Bear is not an isolated case; most of the banks are similarly leveraged at 25 or 35 to 1. They are also losing more and more capital each month from downgrades, and their main streams of revenue have been cut off. In fact, many of Wall Street's financial titans are technically insolvent already. The Fed is the only force keeping them from bankruptcy.
Case in point: "Citigroup may write down $13.1 billion of assets including leveraged loans and collateralized debt obligations in the first quarter..... U.S. bank earnings overall will tumble 84 percent in the quarter....``We anticipate further downside to both estimates and stock prices'' because banks will be under pressure to mark down assets to reflect falling market indexes." (Bloomberg News)
It's generally accepted that the market for mortage-backed securities (MBS) will not improve until housing prices stabilize, but that's a long way off. Mortgages are the cornerstone upon which the multi-trillion dollar structured investment market rests. And that cornerstone is crumbling. If housing prices continue to fall, the MBS market will remain frozen and banks will fail; it is as simple as that. No one is going to purchase derivatives when the underlying asset is losing value. The Bush administration is pushing for a "rate freeze" and other clever ways to keep homeowners from defaulting on their mortgages. But it's a hopeless cause. The clerical work needed to change these complex mortgages is already proving to be a daunting task. Plus, since 60 percent of these mortgages were securitized, it is nearly impossible to change the terms of the contracts without first getting investor approval.
Also, the tentative plans to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so they can absorb larger mortgages (up to $729,000 jumbo loans) is putting an enormous strain on the already-overextended Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs; financial services corporations created by the United States Congress. By attempting to reflate the housing bubble, the administration will only increase the rate of foreclosures and put the two mortgage behemoths at risk of default without any clear sign that it will revive the market.
Yesterday's release of the Case/Schiller Index of the 20 largest cities in the country, shows that housing prices have slipped 10.7 per cent in the last year while sales were down 23 per cent year over year. That means that retail equity of US homes just took a $2 trillion haircut. Still, prices have a long way to go before they catch up to the 50 percent decline in sales from the peak in 2005. From this point on, prices should fall and fall fast; following a trajectory as steep as sales. Many economists expect housing prices to drop at least 30 per cent, which means that $6 trillion will be shaved from aggregate home equity. In a slumping market, many homeowners will be better off just "walking away" from their mortgage instead of making payments on an asset of steadily decreasing value. Who wants to make monthly payments on a $500,000 mortgage when the current value of the house is $350,000? It's easier to pack the kids and vamoose then waste a lifetime as a mortgage slave. Besides, the Bush administration has no interest in helping the little guy stay out of foreclosure. It's a joke. All of the rescue plans are designed with just one purpose in mind; to save Wall Street and the banking establishment.
The Fed chairman has simply responded to events as they unfold. The collapse of Bears Stearns came just weeks after the SEC had checked the bank's reserves and decided that they had sufficient capital to weather the storm ahead. But they were wrong. The bank's capital ($17 billion) vanished in a matter of days after word got out that Bear was in trouble. The sudden run on the bank created a risk to other banks and brokerages that held derivatives contracts with Bear. Something had to be done; Rome was burning and Bernanke was the only man with a hose.
According to the UK Telegraph:
"Bear Stearns had total (derivatives) positions of $13.4 trillion. This is greater than the US national income, or equal to a quarter of world GDP - at least in 'notional' terms. The contracts were described as 'swaps', 'swaptions', 'caps', 'collars' and 'floors'. This heady edifice of new-fangled instruments was built on an asset base of $80bn at best.
"On the other side of these contracts are banks, brokers, and hedge funds, linked in destiny by a nexus of interlocking claims. This is counterparty spaghetti. To make matters worse, Lehman Brothers, UBS, and Citigroup were all wobbling on the back foot as the hurricane hit.
"' Twenty years ago the Fed would have let Bear Stearns go bust,' said Willem Sels, a credit specialist at Dresdner Kleinwort. 'Now it is too interlinked to fail.'"
Bernanke felt he had no choice but to step in and try to minimize the damage, but the outcome was disappointing. Bernanke and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson worked out a deal with JP Morgan that committed $30 billion of taxpayer money, without congressional authority, to buy toxic mortgage-backed securities from a privately-owned business that was failing because of its own speculative bets on dodgy investments. The only people who made out were the investors who were holding derivatives contracts that would have been worthless if Bear went toes up.
Still,the prospect of a system-wide derivatives meltdown left Bernanke with few good options, notwithstanding the moral hazard of bailing out a maxed-out, capital impaired investment bank that should have been fed to the wolves.
It is worth noting that derivatives contracts are a fairly recent addition to US financial markets. In 2000, derivatives trading accounted for less than $1 trillion. By 2006 that figure had mushroomed to over $500 trillion. And it all can be traced back to legislation that was passed during the Clinton administration.
"A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like stocks, bonds and futures contracts.Supported by Phil Gramm, then a Republican senator from Texas and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, the legislation was a 262-page amendment to a far larger appropriations bill. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton that December." ("What Created this Monster" Nelson Schwartz, New York Times)
The Fed chief is now facing a number of brushfires that will have to be put out immediately. The first of these is short term lending rates, which have stubbornly ignored Bernanke's massive liquidity injections and continued to rise. The banks are increasingly afraid to lend to each other because they don't really know how much exposure the other banks have to risky MBS. This distrust has sent interbank lending rates soaring above the Fed funds rate to more than double in the past month alone. So far, the Fed's Term Auction Facility (TAF; under the Term Auction Facility (TAF), the Federal Reserve will auction term funds to depository institutions) hasn't helped to lower rates, which means that Bernanke will have to take more extreme measures to rev up bank lending again. That's why many Fed-watchers believe that Bernanke will ultimately coordinate a $500 billion to $1 trillion taxpayer-funded bailout to buy up all the MBSs from the banks so they can resume normal operations. Of course, any Fed-generated scheme will have to be dolled up with populous rhetoric so that welfare for banking tycoons looks like a selfless act of compassion for struggling homeowners. That shouldn't be a problem for the Bush public relations team.
The probable solution to the MBS mess is the restoration of the Resolution Trust Corp., which was created in 1989 to dispose of assets of insolvent savings and loan banks. The RTC would create a government-owned management company that would buy distressed MBS from banks and liquidate them via auction. The state would pay less than full-value for the bonds (The Fed currently pays 85 per cent face-value on MBS) and then take a loss on their liquidation. "According to Joseph Stiglitz in his book, Towards a New Paradigm in Monetary Economics, the real reason behind the need of this company was to allow the US government to subsidize the banking sector in a way that wasn't very transparent and therefore avoid the possible resistance."
The same strategy will be used again. Now that Bernanke's liquidity operations have flopped, we can expect that some RTC-type agency will be promoted as a prudent way to fix the mortgage securities market. The banks will get their bailout and the taxpayer will foot the bill.
The problem, however, is that the dollar is already falling against every other currency. (On Wednesday, the dollar fell to $1.58 per euro, a new record) If Bernanke throws his support behind an RTC-type plan; it will be seen by foreign investors as a hyper-inflationary government bailout, which could precipitate a global sell-off of US debt and trigger a dollar crisis.
Reuter's James Saft puts it like this:
"It is also hugely risky in terms of the Fed's obligation to maintain stable prices.... it could stoke inflation to levels intolerable to foreign creditors, provoking a sharp fall in the dollar as they sought safety elsewhere." (Reuters)
Saft is right; foreign creditors will see it as an indication that the Fed has abandoned standard operating procedures so it can inflate its way out of a jam. According to Saft, the estimated price could be as high as $1 trillion dollars. Foreign investors would have no choice except to withdraw their funds from US markets and move them overseas. In fact, that appears to be happening already. According to the Wall Street Journal:
"While cash continues to pour into the U.S. from abroad, this flow has been slowing. In 2007, foreigners' net acquisition of long-term bonds and stocks in the U.S. was $596 billion, down from $722 billion in 2006, according to Treasury Department data. From July to December as jitters about securities linked to US subprime mortgages spread, net purchases were just $121 billion, a 65% decrease from the same period a year earlier. Americans, meanwhile, are investing more of their own money abroad." ("A US Debt Reckoning" Wall Street Journal)
$121 billion does not even put a dent the $700 billion the US needs to pay its current account deficit. When foreign investment drops off, the currency weakens. It's no wonder the dollar is falling like a stone.
Mike Whitney can be reached at email@example.com