"The Breakdown of Wall Street Alchemy"

Doug Noland at Prudent Bear provides a weekly Credit Bubble Bulletin which includes commentary after his extensive news digest. This week’s report was comprehensive and sobering.

While his writing style tends toward the apocalyptic, his message is clear and persuasive: the credit market crisis is worsening, damaging more and more institutions and crippling more and more markets once relied upon as important to the functioning of the real economy.

Noland argues that the amount of carnage and its implications are underreported in the media. He does a nice job of dissecting auction rate securities, which were trouble in the making (it’s not smart to put retail investors in the business of maturity transformation yet tell them that they are buying money market instruments). He believes that the “leveraged speculating community,” which I take to be hedge funds and Wall Street proprietary trading desks, perhaps also private equity players (although they would object to that label) and government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will be the next trouble spots. He points out that the markets are already on to this, that agency yields are at unprecedented spreads relative to Treasuries.

From Prudent Bear:

This week provided further confirmation of ongoing momentous Credit market developments. From today’s article by the Financial Times’ Michael Mackenzie:

The auction-rate securities market, a $330bn slice of the municipal bond sector, could disappear if the credit squeeze remains entrenched, analysts warn. ‘The auction-rate securities market is unwinding and most of the market will enter a failed state,’ said Alex Roever, fixed-income strategist at JPMorgan. ‘The lack of confidence is the contributing factor and there is a risk this type of structure will go away.’ Like the asset-backed commercial paper market that was popular with structured investment vehicles until last summer, auction-rate securities, a form of rolling short-term funding for long-term municipal commitments, have become fashionable in recent years.

“Auction-rate securities” has joined the beleaguered ranks of “subprime,” “asset-backed commercial paper,” “SIVs,” and the “monolines” – financial structures that flourished during the prolonged Credit Bubble but no longer pass market muster in today’s Post-Bubble Risk Revulsion Backdrop. This week’s “unwinding” of the “auction-rate” market and the blowing out of Credit spreads should be seen as an escalation of the ongoing unwind of “Contemporary finance” and its many avenues of Risk Intermediation.

On numerous fronts, the markets and economy confront a Highly Problematic Breakdown in “Wall Street Alchemy” – the disintegration of key processes that had for some time transformed ever-increasing quantities of risky loans into perceived safe and liquid debt instruments that enjoyed insatiable demand in the marketplace. In the case of the “auction-rate securities,” it was a clever restyling of long-term and generally illiquid municipal debt (as well as student loans and other borrowings) into perceived liquid securities that could be easily sold at regularly recurring auctions (every one to a few weeks). With scores of flush corporate treasury departments and wealthy clients (managing huge Credit Bubble-induced cash-flows) keen to earn extra (after-tax) yield on “cash equivalents,” the Wall Street firms had been diligent in ensuring (making markets for clients, when necessary) a highly liquid and enticing marketplace. Now, with the onset of Risk Revulsion and Acute Financial Sector Balance Sheet Pressures, investors are running for cover and Wall Street firms are shunning the use of their own capital to support this and other markets. Market liquidity has evaporated, confidence has been shattered, and we are witnessing yet another “run” on a previously popular risk market/asset class. The music has stopped for another game of musical chairs.

This week saw heightened systemic stress stampede toward the epicenter of the U.S. Credit system. It certainly didn’t help that insurance behemoth AIG Group reported an almost $5bn writedown of its Credit default swap portfolio or that international securities dealer behemoth UBS reported massive losses on its U.S. Credit positions. Confidence was further shaken by huge losses reported by mortgage insurers, as well the twists and turns of the “monoline” bust turned apparent bailout. In the markets, various indices of investment grade Credits widened sharply to record levels. The key “dollar swap” (interest-rate derivative hedging) market saw spreads widen sharply. Agency spreads also widened significantly. Benchmark Fannie Mae MBS spreads widened a remarkable 20 bps against 10-year Treasuries, while agency debt spreads widened a noteworthy 12.5 basis points to 69.5 bps (high since November). The Breakdown of Wall Street Alchemy is now pushing the Credit Market Dislocation uncomfortably close to the core of our monetary system.

I’ll return to financial aspects of this crisis, but I definitely feel the economic ramifications of the unfolding Credit Crisis are receiving short shrift in the media. This week saw parts of the municipal debt market grind to a virtual halt and the corporate debt market take another significant blow. Investment grade debt issuance has now slowed markedly after beginning the year at near record pace. At this point, the junk, CDO, ABS, “private-label” MBS, muni, and even investment grade debt markets are all somewhere between impaired, dislocated and completely dysfunctional. There is no mystery behind the recent string of abysmal economic reports.

The preliminary reading on February University of Michigan Consumer Confidence dropped 8.8 points to the lowest level since the 1992 recession. The Economic Conditions index sank and the Economic Outlook index plunged, while one-year Inflation Expectations rose from 3.4% to 3.7%. The Economic Outlook has sunk a remarkable 22 points since July. Falling national home prices are clearly wearing on confidence. This week, Dataquick reported that home sales throughout much of California have collapsed to more than 20-year lows, while home price declines accelerate. This is a huge unfolding issue/debacle for the MBS, agency, mortgage insurance, CDO, and Credit derivatives markets, not to mention the U.S. banking system and real economy. Countrywide Financial reported delinquencies on its $1.5 TN mortgage servicing portfolio had jumped to 7.47%, up from the year ago 4.32%. The New York “Empire” Manufacturing index sank to the lowest levels since April 2003.

The economy is now faltering badly and there is every reason to expect the downturn to gather pace – negative real interest rates compliments of the Fed and stimulus package compliments of the federal government notwithstanding. While fourth quarter data is not yet available, one can look to the first nine months of 2007 to gain important perspective. Despite the dislocation in the subprime mortgage market, Non-Financial Debt Growth accelerated from Q2’s 7.2% to Q3’s 8.9% (from the Fed’s Z.1 report). And while Household Debt Growth had slowed to a 6.9% pace, Business Borrowings accelerated to a blistering 11.9% annualized rate in the third quarter. This was the strongest corporate debt growth since the tech/telecom boom in the late nineties. Importantly, total (financial and non-financial) Corporate Debt expanded at an 11.1% rate during the first three quarters of 2007, followed by 9.3% growth in State & Local government borrowings. And while residential mortgage debt was slowing meaningfully, Commercial Mortgage Debt was expanding at an almost 13% rate.

Total (financial and non-financial) Credit expanded a seasonally-adjusted and annualized record $5.0 TN during the third quarter – as nominal GDP expanded at a 6% pace. While many trumpeted the “resiliency” of the U.S. economy in the face of mortgage and housing woes – more adept analysis would have focused on the massive Credit creation that had come to be required to sustain the Bubble Economy. Importantly, the faltering subprime market initially instigated only greater excesses throughout commercial real estate, municipal finance, M&A finance, and corporate lending more generally. The Credit Bubble was sustained at the great cost of heightened instability and weakened structures – especially throughout leveraged lending, state & local finance, and investment-grade corporate borrowings. Keep in mind that through the third quarter CDO issuance was actually running ahead of 2006’s record pace. Until the fourth quarter, record Credit growth continued to fuel the finance-driven economy. This is all now coming home to roost.

Today, with bursting bubbles in corporate and municipal finance joining the mortgage bust, the U.S. Bubble economy has quickly fallen desperately short of sufficient Credit and liquidity. And the greater the Credit market dislocation and broad-based tightness of Credit, the bleaker become economic prospects and the more intense the Revulsion to Wall Street’s Credit instruments. The days of free-flowing cheap finance for home buyers, state and local governments, LBO firms, commercial real estate speculators, college students, risky auto buyers, and high-risk Credit card holders are over – and they will not be returning for some time to come.

When I have previously underestimated the “resiliency” of the U.S. Credit Bubble and economy, it was in each instance a failure to appreciate the capability of Wall Street finance to expand to ever greater degrees of Bubble excess. Today, with “contemporary finance” mired in a historic collapse, I am confident that the Credit system is today only in a position to surprise on the downside. It is this framework that shapes my view of a rapidly escalating Credit crisis feeding an arduous economic adjustment period.

And while it could undoubtedly prod a highly speculative stock market, there is no resolution to the “monoline” dilemma that would meaningfully influence the trajectory of the unfolding Credit and economic bust. As we’ve been saying for awhile now, confidence in Wall Street finance has been irreparably shattered. Trust has been broken in “AAA” ratings, “mark-to-model,” CDO structures, myriad risk models, Credit insurance, counter-party risk, and various instruments and vehicles for intermediating risk in the markets. Moreover, old fashioned lending will not come close to sufficing the demands of a highly imbalanced Bubble economy, especially with bankers nervous and retrenching. Again, we’re witnessing nothing less than the Breakdown of Wall Street Alchemy – one that took a turn for the worst this week.

In a disconcerting development, recent market developments seem to confirm that the leveraged speculating community and the GSEs are poised as the next shoes to drop – the next Dominoes in an Escalating Contagion. Along with the “monolines” and mortgage insurers, the “Credit default swap market” and GSE mortgage Risk Intermediation were at the epicenter of the most egregious Systemic Risk Distortions and Accumulations. They are now quickly moving to the forefront of Current Acute Fragilities. Simplifying highly complex circumstances, the various risk models that empowered the greatest leveraging of risk in the history of finance no longer function as expected – or as required to maintain highly leveraged exposures to a multitude of escalating risks. And it was all just only a matter of time. The overriding flaw was to ignore that a runaway Bubble in market-based finance ensured that various market and Credit risks all coalesced into One Massive, Unmanageable, Highly Correlated, Unhedgable, Undiversifiable Association of Interrelated Systemic Risks.

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  1. James

    If you read a lot of his commentary he has been very careful not to declare an end to the credit bubble. Its only since august that he really has sounded the alarm that the bubble has burst. I was always amazed at his patience, but all along he knew the situation could go on longer than even he expected

  2. foesskewered

    sounds very doomsday like, funnily enough read a little like those moral dictum thingys popular in the 17th/18th century.

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