Friday, 7 September 2007

Commercial paper market continues to evaporate

(click on chart for a sharper view)

The above graph courtesy of Federal Reserve website shows that a large portion of the Commerical paper market is disappearing. It the week to Sepetember 5th another $54 billion of Commerical paper was wiped away, $31 billion of that paper was of the Asset Backed variety.

The total amount of Commercial paper outstanding peaked late July at $2,225 billion, the total outstanding now stands 13.5% lower at $1,925 billion.

Asset Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP) represents around half the total however that percentage is diminishing. Total outstanding ABCP peaked early August at $1,183 billion, as at September 5th total ABCP outstanding stood at $967 billion, an 18.3% decrease.

This is one of the reasons why Nouriel Roubini of RGE monitor argues that what we have seen since early August is more than a straightforward liquidity crisis. Roubini argues that what we are seeing is an insolvency crisis. This following is an excerpt from Roubini's blog on August 9th:

Today we do not have only a liquidity crisis like in 1998; we also have a insolvency/debt crisis among a variety of borrowers that overborrowed excessively during the boom phase of the latest Minsky credit bubble.

First, you have hundreds of thousands of US households who are insolvent on their mortgages. And this is not just a subprime problem: the same reckless lending practices used in subprime – no downpayment, no verification of income and assets, interest rate only loans, negative amortization, teaser rates – were used for near prime, Alt-A loans, hybrid prime ARMs, home equity loans, piggyback loans. More than 50% of all mortgage originations in 2005 and 2006 had this toxic waste characteristics. That is why you will have hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million - of subprime, near prime and prime borrowers who will end up in delinquency, default and foreclosure. Lots of insolvent borrowers.

You also have lots of insolvent mortgage lenders – not just the 60 plus subprime ones who have already gone out of business – but also plenty of near prime and prime ones. AHM – that went bankrupt last week – was not exposed mostly to subprime; it was exposed to near prime and prime. Countrywide has reported sharp losses not only on subprime lending but also on prime ones. So on top of insolvent households/mortgage borrowers you have plenty of insolvent mortgage lenders, subprime and - soon enough - near prime and prime.

You will also have – soon enough – plenty of insolvent home builders. Many small ones have gone out of business; now it is likely that some of the larger ones will follow in the next few months. Beazer Homes – a major home builder - last week had to refute rumors of its impending insolvency; but so did AHM a few weeks before its insolvency. With orders for home builders falling 30-40% and cancellation rates above 30% more than a few home builders will become insolvent over the next year or so.

We also have insolvent hedge funds and other funds exposed to subprime and other mortgages. A few – at Bear Stearns, in Australia, in Germany, in France – have already gone bankrupt or are near bankrupt. You can be sure that with at least of $100 billion of subprime alone losses – and most losses are still hidden given the reckless practice of mark-to-model rather than mark-to-market - many more will go belly up. In the meanwhile the CDO, CLO and LBO market have completed closed down - a “constipated owl” where “absolutely nothing moves” the way Bill Gross of Pimco put it. This is for now a liquidity crisis in these credit markets; but credit events will occur given that the underlying problem was not of of liquidity but rather one of insolvency: if you take a bunch of to-be-defaulted subprime and near prime mortgages and you repackage them into RMBS and then these RMBS are repackaged into various tranches of CDOs, the rating agencies may be using magic voodoo to turn those junk BBB- mortgages into AAA tranches of CDOs; but this is only voodoo as the underlying assets are going to be defaulted on.

Moreover, the recent sharp widening in corporate credit spreads is not just a sign of a liquidity crunch; it is a sign that investors are realizing that there are serious credit/solvency problems in some parts of the corporate system. Ed Altman, a colleague of mine at Stern, is recognized as the leading world academic expert on corporate defaults and distress. He has argued that we have observed in the last few years record low default rates for corporations in the U.S. and other advanced economies (1.4% for the G7 countries this year). The historical average default rate for US corporations is 3% per year; and given current economic and corporate fundamentals the default rate should be – in his view - 2.5%. But last year such corporate default rates were only 0.6%, i.e. only one fifth of what they should be given firms' and economic fundamentals. He also noted that recovery rates - given default - have been high relative to historical standards.

These low default rates are driven in part by solid corporate profitability and improved balance sheets. In Altman’s view, however, they have also been crucially driven - among other factors - by the unprecedented growth in liquidity from non traditional lenders, such as hedge fund and private equity. Until recently, their demand for corporate bonds kept risk spreads low, reduced the cost of debt financing for corporations and reduced the rate of defaults. Earlier this year Altman argued that this year "hot money" from non traditional lenders could move to other uses for a number of reasons, including a repricing of risk. If that were to occur, he argued that the historical patterns of default rates - based on firms’ fundamentals - would reassert itself. I.e. we are not in a new brave world of permanently low default rates. He said: "If we observe disappointing returns to highly leveraged and rescue financing packages, some of the hedge funds may find it difficult to cover their own loan requirements as well as the likely fund withdrawals. And broker-dealers who are not only providing the leverage to the hedge funds but whom are also investing in similar strategy deals will recede from these activities." The same could be said of the consequences of the unraveling of some leveraged buyouts. Altman suggested that triggers of the repricing of credit risk could also be "disappointing returns to highly leveraged and rescue financing packages". So he argued that the unraveling of the low spreads in the corporate bond market could occur even in the absence of changes in US and/or global liquidity conditions.

Thus, until recently the insolvent firms in the corporate sectors included corporations that could service their debt only by refinancing such debt payments at very low interest rates and financially favorable conditions. Many firms, under normal liquidity conditions, would have been forced into distress and debt default (either of the Chapter 7 liquidation form or Chapter 11 debt restructuring form) but were instead able to obtain out-of-court rescue and refinancing packages because of the most easy credit and liquidity conditions in bubbly markets. Now that we are observing a liquidity and credit crunch and a vast widening of credit spread you will observe a sharp increase in corporate defaults and a further risk in corporate risk spreads.

Insolvent and bankrupt households, mortgage lenders, home builders, leveraged hedge funds and asset managers, and non-financial corporations. This is not just a liquidity crisis like in the 1998 LTCM episode. This is rather a liquidity crisis that signals a more fundamental debt, credit and insolvency crisis among many economic agents in the US and global economy. Liquidity runs can be resolved by the liquidity injections by a lender of last resort: in the cases of the liquidity crises of Mexico, Korea, Turkey, Brazil that international lender of last resort was the IMF; but in the insolvency crises of Russia, Argentina, and Ecudaor the provision of the liquidity by the lender of last resort – the IMF – only postponed the inevitable default and made the eventual crisis deeper and uglier. And provision of liquidity during an insolvency crisis causes moral hazard as it creates expectations of investors’ bailout. Thus, while the Fed and the ECB had no option today but to provide massive liquidity in the presence of a most severe liquidity crunch and run, they should not delude themselves that this liquidity injections can resolve the deep insolvency problems of many overstretched borrowers: households, financial institutions, corporates. Insolvency/credit crises lead to financial and economic distress – hard landing of economies – and cannot be resolved with liquidity injections by a lender of last resort. And now the vicious circle of a weakening US economy – with a housing recession getting worse and a fatigued consumer being at the tipping point - and a generalized credit crunch sharply has increased the probability that the US economy will experience a hard landing. We are indeed at a "Minsky Moment" and this recent financial turmoil is the beginning of a much more serious and protracted US and global credit crunch. The risks of a systemic crisis are rising: liquidity injections and lender of last resort bail out of insolvent borrowers - however necessary and unavoidable during a liquidity panic- will not work; they will only pospone and exacerbate the eventual and unavoidable insolvencies.

This is why I believe the Fed will prove how irrelevant they really are in the coming months despite whatever they do to prop up a slowing economy.