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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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There WILL Be Another Financial Crisis

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The latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP – the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Neil Barofsky) – was released on January 26, 2011.  The report brought a mix of good and bad news.  Among the good news was this tidbit:

Where fraud has managed to slip in, SIGTARP’s Investigations Division has already produced outstanding results in bringing to justice those who have sought to profit criminally from TARP, with 45 individuals charged civilly or criminally with fraud, of whom 13 have been criminally convicted. SIGTARP’s investigative efforts have helped prevent $555.2 million in taxpayer funds from being lost to fraud.  And with 142 ongoing investigations (including 64 into executives at financial institutions that applied for and/or received TARP funding through TARP’s Capital Purchase Program [“CPP”]), much more remains to be done.

Much of the bad news from SIGTARP stems from the never-ending problem of “moral hazard” resulting from the perpetually-increasing growth of those financial institutions, which have been “too big to fail” for too long:

In short, the continued existence of institutions that are “too big to fail” — an undeniable byproduct of former Secretary Paulson and Secretary Geithner’s use of TARP to assure the markets that during a time of crisis that they would not let such institutions fail — is a recipe for disaster.  These institutions and their leaders are incentivized to engage in precisely the sort of behavior that could trigger the next financial crisis, thus perpetuating a doomsday cycle of booms, busts, and bailouts.

Worse yet, as Mr. Barofsky pointed out in a January 25 interview with the Center for Public Integrity, the system has been rigged to provide additional advantages to the TBTF banks, making it impossible for smaller institutions to compete with them:

Noting that the major financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the financial crisis, Barofsky said that the financial markets simply don’t believe that the government will allow one of these biggest banks to collapse, regardless of what they say will happen.  Those big banks enjoy access to cheaper credit than smaller institutions, based on that implicit government guarantee, he said.

As evidence, he cited the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, which recently announced its intention to add the prospect of government support into its calculation when determining a bank’s credit rating.

At 1:35 into the video clip of the Center for Public Integrity’s interview with Mr. Barofsky, he explained:

There’s going to be another financial crisis.  Of course, there is.

He went on to point out that once the next crisis begins, we will have the option of implementing the mechanisms established by the Dodd-Frank bill for breaking up insolvent banks.  The question then becomes:  Will be break up those banks or bail them out?  Barofsky suspects that the market is anticipating another round of bailouts.  He noted that “there’s a question of whether there will be the political will as well as the regulatory will to do that”.  As he pointed out on page 11 of the latest SIGTARP Quarterly Report:

As long as the relevant actors (executives, ratings agencies, creditors and counterparties) believe there will be a bailout, the problems of “too big to fail” will almost certainly persist.

Let’s not forget that most dangerous among those problems is the encouraged and facilitated “risky behavior” by those institutions, which will bring about the next financial crisis.  This is the “Doomsday Cycle” problem discussed by Mr. Barofsky.  “The Doomsday Cycle” was the subject of a paper, written last year by economists Simon Johnson and Peter Boone.

The SIGTARP Report then focused on what has been discussed as TARP’s biggest failure:

As SIGTARP discussed in its October 2010 Quarterly Report, after two years, TARP’s Main Street goals of “increas[ing] lending,” and “promot[ing] jobs and economic growth” had been largely unmet, but it is TARP’s failure to realize its most specific Main Street goal, “preserving homeownership,” that has had perhaps the most devastating consequences.  Treasury’s central foreclosure prevention effort designed to address that goal — the Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”) — has been beset by problems from the outset and, despite frequent retooling, continues to fall dramatically short of any meaningful standard of success.  Indeed, even the “good news” of falling estimates for TARP’s cost is driven in part by the ineffectiveness of HAMP and related programs, which provide for TARP-funded grants and incentives.

As we begin fighting over the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) — which investigated the causes of the financial crisis — it is important to be mindful of Neil Barofsky’s admonition that there will be another financial crisis.  If our government fails to prosecute the malfeasance that caused the crisis itself, that neglect — combined with the enhanced size of those “too big to fail” banks — could create a disaster we would have to characterize as “TBFAB” – Too Big For A Bailout.  What will happen at that point?


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