Category Archives: Credit markets

Poroshenko Makes Battle of Donetsk Airport Precondition for New $50 Billion Bailout – Ukrainians Repelled in the Battle of Davos

The machinations over the next round of funding in Ukraine are wild. No one, particularly the US, wants to fund Ukraine and debt default looks likely, yet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is demanding a huge amount of additional funds. Soros is trying to end run the IMF, albeit with not much success so far.

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Benchmarking the ECB’s QE Program

The ECB is set to announce the details of its QE program tomorrow. Many analysts and investors have been trying to puzzle out how its operations might work, since those details will make a difference in what impact if any it has.

Frankly, we are hugely skeptical of this initiative. The US version, which is bizarrely touted as a success, further zombified the economy. It goosed asset prices, which widened wealth and income inequality. Now respectable economists are decrying the widening gap between rich and poor and the lack of class mobility as a brake on growth, yet they also refused to endorse debt restructuring and much more aggressive fiscal spending. And some experts contend that the reason the Fed decided to end QE last summer was that it came to recognize the costs outweighed what if anything it produced in the way of benefits. Of course, they can never admit that publicly or even privately if true.

In Europe, there is even more reason to be expect QE to be at best ineffective. Unlike the US, where as a matter of policy, a lot of financing takes place through the capital markets (for instance, credit card debt, subprime auto loans, home loans are all securitized to a large degree), in Europe, far more credit is on bank balance sheets, and small to medium sized corporate lending is far more important than in the US. Thus, while as we have repeatedly explained, putting money on sale is unlikely to result in more borrowing unless the cost of money is the biggest cost of running your business (ie, you are a bank or a speculator), in Europe you have the added layer that reducing investment yields is unlikely to change how credit officers view lending to small/medium sized enterprises (assuming they even want to borrow) in a weak, deflationary economy.

This Bruegel post describes the major options that the ECB has in designing its QE program, which will help readers benchmark tomorrow’s announcement. One might politely describe the choices as bad and less bad.

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Yanis Varoufakis: Why He is Running for Greek Parliament on the Syriza Ticket

I’m putting up the entire Boom/Bust show in which Yanis Varoufakis appears, in part because the introductory section discusses how stressed oil producers may use secured lending to borrow more money in an effort to ride out the price bust. That would lead to a further drop in the price of any junk bonds or market value of any existing loans on those companies, since the new secured borrowing would be senior to the existing debt.

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The Fed’s and Republicans’ War Against Dodd Frank and How That Preserves the Greenspan Put and Too Big to Fail

A new story by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times highlights how the Federal Reserve and the Republicans* are on a full bore campaign to render Dodd Frank a dead letter, with the latest chapter an effort to pass HR 37, a bill that would chip away at key parts of Dodd Frank. But the bigger implications of this campaign is how these efforts serve to limit the Fed’s freedom in implementing monetary policy. In other words, Fed general counsel Scott Alvarez is undermining the authority of his boss, Janet Yellen.

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Yves here. This is an important, accessible post that describes something we’ve discussed occasionally: that growth in private borrowings is a type of economic drug. While it appears salutary in the early stages, too much leads to financial instability and crises. This view is presented long-form in Richard Vague’s recent book, The Next Economic Disaster: Why It’s Coming and How to Avoid It, and we featured an excerpt from it.

This post gives a more rigorous look at the same issues and reaches similar dire conclusions.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Editor at INET. Originally published at INET

Alan Taylor, a professor and Director of the Center for the Evolution of the Global Economy at the University of California, Davis, has conducted, along with Moritz Schularick, ground-breaking research on the history and role of credit, partly funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking. He finds that today’s advanced economies depend on private sector credit more than anything we have ever seen before. His work and that of his colleagues call into question the assumption that was commonplace before 2008, that private credit flows are primarily forces for stability and predictability in economies.

If current trends continue, Taylor warns, our economic future could be very different from our recent past, when financial crises were relatively rare. Crises could become more commonplace, which will impact every stage of our financial lives, from cradle to retirement. Do we just fasten our seatbelts for a bumpy ride, or is there a way to smooth the path ahead? Taylor discusses his findings and thoughts about how to safeguard the financial system in the interview that follows.

taylor fig1

Mortgage (residential and commercial) and non-mortgage lending to the business and household sectors. Average across 17 countries.

Lynn Parramore: Looking back in history at 17 countries, you discovered something interesting about the private sector financial credit market. What did you find?

Alan Taylor: Our project compiled, for the first time, comprehensive aggregate credit data in the form of bank lending in 17 advanced countries since 1870, in addition to some important categories of lending like mortgages.

What we found was quite striking. Up until the 1970s, the ratio of credit to GDP in the advanced economies had been stable over the quite long run. There had been upswings and downswings, to be sure: from 1870 to 1900, some countries were still in early stages of financial sector development, an up trend that tapered off in the early 20th century; then in the 1930s most countries saw credit to GDP fall after the financial crises of the Great Depression, and this continued in WWII. The postwar era began with a return to previously normal levels by the 1960s, but after that credit to GDP ratios continued an unstoppable rise to new heights not seen before, reaching a peak at almost double their pre-WWII levels by 2008.

LP: How is the world of credit different today than in the past?

AT: The first time we plotted credit levels, well, we were almost shocked by our own data. It was a bit like finding the banking sector equivalent of the “hockey stick” chart (a plot of historic temperature that shows the emergence of dramatic uptrend in modern times). It tells us that we live in a different financial world than any of our ancestors.

This basic aggregate measure of gearing or leverage is telling us that today’s advanced economies’ operating systems are more heavily dependent on private sector credit than anything we have ever seen before. Furthermore, this pattern is seen across all the advanced economies, and isn’t just a feature of some special subset (e.g. the Anglo-Saxons). It’s also a little bit of a conservative estimate of the divergent trend, since it excludes the market-based financial flows (e.g., securitized debt) which bypass banks for the most part, and which have become so sizeable in the last 10-20 years.

LP: You’ve mentioned a “perfect storm” brewing around the explosion of credit. What are some of the conditions you have observed?

We have been able to show that this trend matters: in the data, when we observe a sharp run-up in this kind of leverage measure, financial crises have tended to become more likely; and when those crises strike, recessions tend to be worse, and even more painful in the cases where a large run-up in leverage was observed.

These are findings from 200+ recessions over a century or more of experience, and they are some of the most robust pieces of evidence found to date concerning the drivers of financial instability and the fallout that results. Once we look at the current crisis through this lens, it starts to look comprehensible: a bad event, certainly, but not outside historical norms once we take into account the preceding explosion of credit. Under those conditions, it turns out, a deep recession followed by a long sub-par recovery should not be seen as surprising at all. Sadly, nobody had put together this sort of empirical work before the crisis, but now at least we have a better guide going forward.

LP: How do your findings differ from the typical economic textbook story about the role of credit?

AT: I think it’s fair to say that most economic textbooks have had little to say about the role of credit, at least outside the traditional money and banking courses.

Certainly in most macroeconomics courses, both graduate and undergraduate, this topic got little attention before the crisis. However, the classroom approaches are certainly changing nowadays, and that’s a welcome development. It might take a bit of time to filter down into the textbooks, but it will eventually. It’s just very hard to teach a class of students about what has happened in the Global Financial Crisis, how we ended up there and how we got to where we are today, without having some basic, non-trivial understanding of the financial sector, credit, and the banking system. From a purely descriptive standpoint, our efforts to collect historical data establish many important facts that help to frame that discussion, and our statistical analysis sets out some of the key relationships that theories need to explain. But there’s obviously much more to do.

LP: How will the dramatic increase in private sector credit potentially affect our lives as we try to do things like save for retirement?

AT: In the immediate postwar era, financial crises in advanced countries were rare events, and before 1970 did not happen at all. Since then they have occurred more often, and 2008 was the most damaging of them all to date. If we have moved back to a regime of regular financial crises — like the one we had from the 1870s to the 1930s — then our economic future will be very different from our recent past.

Macroeconomic stability will be more elusive and that will affect all of our lives: from the risks many will face in childhood, to the security of employment at working age, to the challenge of accumulating for retirement. More financial instability will introduce more uncertainty all down the line, and that will be a very different world than the one we would have lived in only a couple of decades ago. But that period of calm also tells us that such instability isn’t necessarily a fact of life, and addressing that is likely to be the policy challenge going forward.

LP: Do you think there is a chance that the world might return to something like the pre-1970s historical norms, which would imply tighter credit?

AT: It’s tough to make predictions. We have never in human history seen a run-up in credit of the kind we have just witnessed in advanced economies since 1970, and we have never observed modern finance-capitalist systems operating over a sustained period at this kind of credit-to-GDP leverage ratio. So anything I have to say here is out-of-sample speculation. In fact will credit even tighten at all?

I would guess three outcomes are possible. The first is that we gradually and slowly delever, and advanced economies operate at a credit-to-GDP ratio similar to the 1950s or 1960s, a period when we had strong growth and no financial crises. The puzzle then is how we redirect retirement and other desired saving currently going into credit channels, or at least outside the banking systems. We may end up with a world based more on equity than debt, or more on market debt instruments than bank intermediation; but how and why we get there is a mystery. Absent significant regulatory or tax changes, and a sharp transition could be disruptive.

A second possibility is that we stabilize at current levels of leverage, with some ups and downs, but no further rise in credit to GDP over the long run; firms and households do not lever up further and banks do not expand their balance sheets, but they are persuaded to bolster their capital and liquidity provisions for prudential reasons to mitigate the risks of operating a high leverage system.

The third possibility is that we see more and more leverage, and credit-to-GDP ratios rise once more to even higher levels; eventually the banking systems of all advanced economies reach magnitudes of 500 percent, 1000 percent or more of GDP, so that every economy starts to have financial systems that resemble recent cases like Switzerland, Ireland, Iceland, or Cyprus. That might be a very fragile world to live in.

LP: What measures can policy-makers take to restore balance and sustainability to the credit system? What do you think might be their costs and benefits?

AT: The news here is that much has changed since the crisis. The direct fiscal costs of bailouts, and the even larger indirect fiscal costs of massive recessions (unemployment, low growth, fiscal strains, etc.), have made the status quo unpalatable to governments and the taxpayers behind them. For most, another crisis like 2008 is not acceptable. Operating in this milieu, the central banks, the governments, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other parts of the macro-financial policy world are now taking a much keener interest in what the pros and cons of different financial regulatory structures and various macroprudential tools (designed to identify and lessen the risks to the financial system) might be.

Echoing many others, for example, Alan Greenspan has noted that the idea that the financial system be left to largely run itself based on enlightened self-interest is a flawed approach. But the alternative isn’t obvious. The benefits of tighter macroprudential controls on credit are, hopefully, fewer costly crises of the kind we just lived through; but a potential trade-off is there, the concern that if we tighten credit too much, we might slow down growth as the price to be paid for diminishing volatility. How to understand that set of choices, and find the best outcome, is a vexing challenge which policymakers and economists must now confront.

The CBO’s Bad Math: Putting $7 Trillion of Notional Value of Derivatives in Taxpayer-Backstopped Depositaries Will Cost Zero

So why did Elizabeth Warren lose her battle last month to stop banks from continuing to park $7 trillion notional value of risky derivatives like the credit defaults swaps in taxpayer-backstopped depositaries?

One of the less well-recognized reasons is that the CBO’s dubious analysis said it would not cost taxpayers a dime.

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How the Republican Campaign to Gut Dodd Frank is a Huge Gimmie to Banks and Private Equity Funds

The Republicans have been quick and shameless in using their control of both houses to try to crank up the financial services pork machine into overtime operation. The Democrats at least try to meter out their give-aways over time.

Their plan, as outlined in an important post by Simon Johnson, is to take apart Dodd Frank by dismantling key parts of it under the rubric of “clarifications” or “improvements” and to focus on technical issues that they believe to be over the general public’s head and therefore unlikely to attract interest, much the less ire. However, as Elizabeth Warren demonstrated in the fight last month over the so-called swaps pushout rule, it is possible to reduce many of these issues to their essential element, which is that Wall Street is getting yet another subsidy or back-door bailout.

Today’s example is HR 37, with the Orwellian label “Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act”.

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Stephen Roach Takes the Fed to the Woodshed

While the Fed appears to be getting nervous about increasing (and long overdue) criticism for its undue coziness with banks, it has for the most part ignored opponents of its aggressive monetary policies. And for good reason. Most of them have been fixated on the risk of inflation, which is not in the cards as long as labor bargaining power remains weak. There are other, more substantial grounds for taking issue with the central bank’s policies. For instance, gooding asset prices widens income and wealth inequality, which in the long term is a damper on growth. Moreover, one can argue that the sustained super-accommodative policy gave the impression that Something Was Being Done, which took the heat off the Administration to push for more spending. Indeed, the IMF recently found that infrastructure spending pays for itself, with each dollar of spending in an economy with high unemployment generating nearly $3 in GDP growth. And a lot of people are uncomfortable for aesthetic or pragmatic reasons. Aesthetically, a lot of investors, even ones that have done well, are deeply uncomfortable with a central bank meddling so much. And many investors and savers are frustrated by their inability to invest at a positive real yield without being forced to take on a lot of risk.

Stephen Roach, former chief economist of Morgan Stanley and later its chairman for Asia, offers a straightforward, sharply-worded critique: just as in the runup to the crisis of 2007-2008, the Fed’s failure to raise rates is leading to an underpricing of financial market risk, or in layspeak, to the blowing of bubbles. He argues that has to end badly.

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“Summer” Rerun: So Where, Exactly, Did Lehman’s $130 Billion Go?

Dear readers,

We reinstituting a Naked Capitalism feature, the summer rerun. The last time we reprised an archival NC post (aside from a few more recent ones by Matt Stoller) was a July 9, 2009 post that we published again on December 29, 2011.

Interestingly, picking up again from 2009 serves as a reminder of issues that were hot in the aftermath of the crisis that were not addressed adequately, if at all. Here, we discuss the mystery of the magnitude of Lehman’s losses. We pointed out that they are so large and impossible to explain that there had to be accounting fraud, but the bankruptcy overseer had its own reasons not go to there.

Note that this post was published eights months before Anton Valukus released his report on the Lehman bankruptcy, which described the Repo 105 ruse that allowed Lehman to hide over $50 billion of dodgy assets at quarter end and thus not include them in its financial reports.

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Wolf Richter: First Oil, Now US Natural Gas Plunges, “Negative Igniter” for New Debt Crisis

Yves here. Wolf has been keeping a sharp eye out on how shale gas players were junk bond junkies, and how that is going to lead to a painful withdrawal. Here, he focuses on one of the big drivers of the heavy borrowings: the deep involvement of private equity firms, who make money whether or not the companies they invest in do well, by virtue of all the fees they extract. The precipitous drop in natural gas prices is exposing how bad the downside of a dubious can be, at least for the chump fund investors.

It’s hard to imagine an industry that is a worse candidate for private equity than oil and gas exploration and production. The prototypical private equity purchase is a mature company with steady cash flow. Oil and gas development is capital intensive and the cash flows are unpredictable and volatile, because the commodity prices are unpredictable and volatile.

A less obvious issue is that it actually takes a lot of expertise to run these businesses. This is not like buying a retailer or a metal-bender. Now private equity kingpins flatter themselves into believing that experts are just people they hire, but here, the level of expertise required, and the fact that the majors are way bigger than private equity firms means that the private equity buyers don’t know enough to vet whether the guy they hire is really as good as he says he is. Like all outsiders, they are way too likely to be swayed by the sales pitch and personality rather than competence.* And even with all the money that private equity has thrown at energy plays, it’s not clear that New York commands much respect in Houston.

As one private equity insider wrote in June, ironically just before oil priced peaked:

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New York’s Benjamin Lawsky Forces Resignation of CEO of Mortgage Servicer Ocwen Over Wrongful Foreclosures, Shoddy Records and Systems

New York State Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky has forced the resignation of the chairman and CEO of a mortgage servicer, Ocwen over a range of borrower abuses in violation of a previous settlement agreement, including wrongful foreclosures, excessive fees, robosigning, sending out back-dated letters, and maintaining inaccurate records. Lawsky slapped the servicer with other penalties, including $150 million of payments to homeowners and homeowner-assistance program, being subject to extensive oversight by a monitor, changes to the board, and being required to give past and present borrowers access to loan files for free. The latter will prove to be fertile ground for private lawsuits. In addition, the ex-chairman William Erbey, was ordered to quit his chairman post at four related companies over conflicts of interest.

The Ocwen consent order shows Lawksy yet again making good use of his office while other financial services industry regulators are too captured or craven to enforce the law. Unlike other bank settlements, investors saw the Ocwen consent order as serious punishment. Ocwen’s stock price had already fallen by over 60% this year as a result of this probe and unfavorable findings by the national mortgage settlement monitor, Joseph Smith. Ocwen’s shares closed down another 27% on Monday. And that hurts Erbey. From the Wall Street Journal:

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Combatting Eurozone Deflation: QE for the People

Yves here. This post describes why having the ECB give money directly to citizens would do a better job of fighting Eurozone deflation than the US version. The author starts from the premise that QE worked in the US, when there is ample reason to believe it worked only for financial institutions and a small portion of the population. Here, the ECB would engage in what amounts to a fiscal operation, which also would have dome more to stimulate the economy than the Fed’s QEs.

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