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Satyajit Das on Nuclear De-Leveraging

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It’s one thing when journalists and analysts offer worrisome forecasts about the markets, quite another when someone with good inside knowledge sounds an alarm. Satyajit Das, an expert in derivatives and risk management, best known as the author of Traders, Guns & Money, looks over the financial landscape and does not like what he sees.

Reader CR sent me a copy of Das’ latest piece on nuclear de-leveraging, which he also posted at Eurointelligence. Das works thought an example of how deleveraging feeds on itself and discusses how it will progress:

The first phase of de-leveraging is focused on financial markets. Banks have suffered losses in excess of US$200 billion (with more possible). Approximately US$1 trillion of assets have returned onto bank balance sheets…. An additional unknown amount of assets will return onto bank balance sheets as hedge funds gradually de-leverage.

Banks require funding and capital to cover losses and returning assets (christened IAG (involuntary asset growth). High inter-bank rates and the deceleration in bank lending reflect, in part, banks husbanding their cash resources to accommodate the involuntary increase in assets.

They have been raising money both via “helpful” central banks and in the market. Major financial institutions have issued substantial volumes of term debt at very high credit spreads….

Banks will also need substantial new capital to cover losses and the regulatory capital required against returning assets as follows:

Losses: US$ 200 to 400 billion

Additional Capital: US$ 100 to 300 billion (calculated as 10% (the Basel minimum is 8% but few banks operate at that level) of returning assets)

For bank’s operating under Basel 2, probabilities of default in credit models will increase resulting in regulatory capital increases….The capital required is around 15-25% of total global bank capital….

It is not clear how this capital requirement will be meet. Initially new capital was supplied by sovereign wealth funds (“SWFs”) and Chinese banks. Given that most investors have (sometimes) significant losses on their investment, this source of capital is less likely to be available in the near term. Banks have resorted to “hybrid” capital issues such as perpetual preference shares. The major attraction for investors has been the high income. Investors, especially retail investors, may not understand the equity risk in these structures. Rating agencies have expressed concern about the increasing level of hybrid securities in the capital structure of many banks.

Other sources of capital include asset sales. The current state of asset markets makes this problematic. Asset sales will put further pressure on available liquidity and prices.

One bright spot is investment in emerging market banks; for example, investments in Chinese State banks….Many banks see disposition of these shareholdings as an attractive source of capital….

The new capital noted above will merely restore bank balance sheets. Growth in lending and assets will require additional capital. The banking system’s ability to supply credit is significantly impaired and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Credit is clearly being rationed in the global financial system. If the banks are not able to re-capitalise, then the contraction in credit supply will be sharper.

In recent years, off-balance sheet vehicles – ABS CP conduits, SIVs, CDOs and hedge funds (collectively known as the “shadow banking” system) – provided additional leverage. These vehicles relied extensively on bank funding or support. The withdrawal of this support means that these vehicles are also de-leveraging rapidly.

ABS CP conduits, SIVs and CDOs are being gradually dismantled and the assets returning onto bank balance sheets. Hedge funds have been forced to reduce leverage by between a third and a half times. Prime brokers and banks have significantly tightened credit, increasing the level of collateral needed even against high quality assets. Each 1 times leverage reduction in hedge fund leverage represents in excess of US$2 trillion of assets. This accelerates the de-leveraging process.

The next phase of de-leveraging will focus on the real economy….

High quality corporations with maturing debt face face higher borrowing costs. For companies with less than stellar business outlook and credit quality, refinancing may prove difficult. Some US$150 billion + of leveraged loans comes due in 2008. A similar amount also must be refinanced in 2009.

Non-investment grade bond issuance over the last few years was concentrated in the weaker credit categories and is vulnerable to deterioration in economic conditions. Standard & Poor’s rating agency estimates that Two-thirds of non-financial debt issuing companies are junk-rated currently, compared with 50 per cent 10-years ago and 40 per cent 20 years ago. In recent years, around half of all high yield bonds issues were rated B- or below. These borrowers will face refinancing challenges.

Personal balance sheets will also de-leverage. Consumers in the USA and to a lesser degree in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have used borrowings (against inflated real estate values) to offset a reduction in real incomes. Falling real estate prices and the reduced availability of “easy” credit will force de-leveraging.

Inflation is also a factor in the de-leveraging in personal balance sheets. Higher prices for the necessities of life reduce cash flow available to support debt….

An economic slowdown will exacerbate the de-leveraging…..In the US economy, the household, housing and financial sectors constitute over half of all economic activity. A (perhaps protracted) slowdown may be difficult to avoid. US demand is a significant driver of global activity. Recent reductions in global growth forecasts reflect these concerns….

There has been a systemic “financialisation” of corporate balance sheets. Changes in financial markets will have a significant impact on many companies that now rely on “financial engineering” rather than “real engineering”. The problems of GE may not be isolated.

For personal borrowers reduced personal income and unemployment will sharply accelerate the de-leveraging. Uncertainty about the future and market volatility will also accelerate the de-leveraging as companies and consumers reduce debt and aggressively save.

De-leveraging in the real economy may result in increasing defaults. Firms and individuals with unsustainable borrowings will fail. This will result in further losses to financial institutions setting off negative feedback loops as both asset prices and the level of aggregate leverage adjusts.

Central banks and governments actions have been directed at maintaining liquidity and (increasingly) directly supporting the financial sector. In the US and Spain, direct fiscal stimulus is already being administered.

These actions are designed to prevent a catastrophic collapse in the financial sector. They are also designed to help maintain a normal supply of credit to creditworthy business and individuals. These actions are designed to help the real economy from slowing down to a degree that the de-leveraging accelerates further. At best, these actions will smooth the inevitable de-leveraging and adjustment to financial asset prices.

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4 comments

  1. Anonymous

    If Basel requires 8% regulatory capital why are the UK banks basing their capital raising on 6%?

  2. Anonymous

    “These actions are designed to help the real economy from slowing down to a degree that the de-leveraging accelerates further”

    The Fed is so busy eating our seed corn in support of the insolvent MBS market that the cupboard may be bare when the real economy needs it most.

  3. Anonymous

    The fed lowers rates and yet rates are now much higher across the board than they were before the Bear Stearns debacle. The end result is real money has been ripped out of the system. Therefore interest rates will rise. Preservation of capital is now the name of the game. The hyper inflation that some are looking for can only come after the destruction of money and credit. Interestingly, Gold has yet to recover from its pre Bear Stearns levels.

  4. Anonymous

    I have come to the conclusion that the bail out is more about the our government representitives saving themselves since they know none of them have a job if the average joe looses a boat load in thier 401K. While it will be painful it will be best to let the market clean up this mess. Those who made bad choices/decisions should shoulder the cost…..not the tax payer.

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