November 19th, 2008 4:16 PM by Lehel Szucs
Posted Nov 18 2008, 03:19 by Gary D. Halbert
IN THIS ISSUE:
We begin this week with some interesting analysis from our good friends at Stratfor.com regarding the subprime/credit crisis - how it unfolded and how it may play out from here. Following that, we'll look at the latest curve ball from Treasury Secretary Paulson who last week announced that the government will not buy up troubled mortgage securities from banks, but instead will proceed with more equity infusions for financial institutions that are in trouble.
In addition, Secretary Paulson announced that a significant part of the $700 billion rescue package - most all of which was originally intended to buy up troubled assets - will now be redirected toward consumer debt, including such things as student loans, auto loans and credit card debt. One wonders if the government really has a clue about how to resolve the financial crisis and unfreeze the credit markets.
And finally, we take a look at the current state of the economy and the recession. News continues to worsen, especially forecasts for 4Q GDP, which many economists and analysts now believe could be negative 4-5%. All of this continues to weigh on the stock markets, which as this is written, are threatening to make new lows. It's a lot of ground to cover in one E-Letter, so let's get started.
QUOTE:The root of the American credit crisis is similar to that of previous recessions. As profits pile up during economic expansions, investors eventually find it difficult to find investments that generate large returns, so they send their money after riskier prospects. In the [economic] expansion that just ended, the most important of those questionable investments was subprime mortgages, culminating in mortgage loans that required minimal to nonexistent credit checks, down payments or even proof of income. In total, some $550 billion of subprime loans (and a separate $725 billion of Alt-A loans -- the next quality step up from subprime) are currently outstanding.
The worst of these mortgages granted very low teaser interest rates that adjusted to normal rates after a period of two to five years; there were some $350 billion of these in subprime, and an additional $385 billion in Alt-A. While virtually none of these questionable-quality mortgages have been granted since the credit crunch began roughly a year ago, those resets are now weighing heavily on the housing market. As the rates reset, borrowers with questionable income and credit are often unable to meet the new, grossly enlarged payments based on the new rates. The result is a cascade of foreclosures that gluts the housing market, pushing prices down. So far $55 billion of subprime mortgages are in foreclosure, and just over another $80 billion are in severe delinquency. The numbers for Alt-A are $40 billion and $45 billion, respectively.
Under normal circumstances, this is more or less where things would have ended: A glut in regional housing stocks where subprime mortgages were most overused -- especially in the Southern California, Las Vegas and Miami regions -- would lead to a recession in those housing markets and perhaps some leakage into the broader national housing market.
But there is another step in the process that made the problem bigger. Mortgages are only rarely kept by their issuers -- instead they are bundled into packages and sold to interested investors. This serves three purposes. First, since the mortgage maker can sell his loan for a profit, he can then turn around and make another mortgage. Second, this secondary tier of investors brings an entirely new source of capital into the market. Third, these packaged mortgages can be sold to yet more investors, creating a new series of mortgage-backed assets (and securities) that can be traded abroad. Taken together, this widens and deepens the capital pool and reduces mortgage rates for everyone.
The problem is that as market players chased after ever-shrinking returns, no one treated the dubious mortgages as anything different from normal mortgages -- and that includes the ratings agencies whose job it is to evaluate products. All banks and investment houses are required to hold back a percentage of their assets in cold hard cash to keep from becoming overleveraged. This reserve percentage is based upon myriad factors, but the most important one is the risk level of the investments. Mortgage investments are -- or were, until recently -- widely considered to be among the safest investments available because homeowners will do everything they can to avoid missing payments and losing their homes.
Subprime mortgages are more likely to fall into default. But add in the impact of teaser rates -- and the fact that many of these mortgages were granted without requiring down payments so no equity was ever earned -- and essentially the effect is that time bombs were hardwired into these packages of tradable mortgages.
Beginning in late 2006, these teaser rates began to adjust to normal rates and the bombs started going off. That decreased the value of the mortgage-backed assets directly by their affiliation with subprime in specific, and indirectly via their affiliation with property in general. Suddenly, anyone holding the weakening mortgage-backed securities found themselves needing to use those cash reserves to rebalance their asset sheets. As the price drops intensified, anyone who might have been willing to purchase or trade these mortgage-backed securities suddenly lost interest. The holder then held an asset of questionable value that he could not unload.
As the cash crunch of individual firms increased, two things happened. First, investment houses started snapping like twigs because they are uniquely vulnerable to credit crunches. Banks, unlike investment houses, are required to hold a certain percentage of their deposits back to cover their losses should disasters strike; right now that percentage is 10 percent. The major investment houses, however -- which are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission instead of the Treasury -- are only required to set aside a minuscule amount of cash, which comes out to less than 1 percent of their total asset list and therefore provides them with a smaller cushion than banks.
By the end of September, the major Wall Street investment houses had been broken (Bear Stearns), gone bankrupt (Lehman Brothers) or were forced to recategorize themselves as banks, thus submitting themselves to the regulatory authority of the Fed (Goldman Sachs). In a few short months, everything on Wall Street changed.
Second, banks also needed to rationalize their balance sheets by dipping into their reserves. Luckily, since banks have a 10 percent reserve ratio, they have much more room to maneuver than investment houses (although some, such as Washington Mutual, still cracked under the pressure).
It is at this point that Stratfor gets interested in the economics of the issue, because it is at this point the problem transforms from angst for Wall Street into a danger for the broader system.
When an investment house faces a credit crunch (or goes under) the impact is rather limited -- the only entities that are truly hurt are those that purchased shares in the house itself -- but when a bank faces a crunch, the impact is much greater. The best means that banks have of rebuilding their emergency reserves after a write-down is to reduce lending and hoard their income until their reserves are built up again. Such actions immediately reduce the availability of credit for everyone across the entire economy -- homebuyers cannot get mortgages, companies cannot borrow to fund expansions, credit card rates go through the roof. Voila, a Wall Street crisis becomes a national economic crisis.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's $700 billion bailout plan is an attempt to address the problem at its source: the nonliquidity of the mortgage-backed securities. The government will offer to exchange these securities for cold, hard cash. In one fell swoop, banks can rid themselves of untradable assets of questionable value while recapitalizing their reserves. Flush with cash and sporting newly healthy asset sheets, this should unfreeze the credit picture and allow banks to get back into the business of banking -- most notably lending. END QUOTE
I am forced to depart from Stratfor's analysis of the credit crisis at this point for one important reason (we will revisit Stratfor below). On Wednesday of last week, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson made it official that the government is abandoning the original plan to spend $700 billion to buy up troubled mortgage assets from financial institutions.
The next phase of the Treasury's $700 billion "Troubled Asset Relief Program" (TARP), according to Paulson, would have the government continue to take equity stakes in banks and financial institutions vis-à-vis more cash infusions in exchange for stock, rather than buying up their bad mortgage-related assets and taking them off their books.
This seems like an odd turn of events given that the credit markets are still more or less frozen and we are in a recession that is looking more and more severe. Yet Paulson defended the latest swerve in the TARP mission by noting that some of the $700 billion needs to be redirected at increasing the availability of student loans, auto loans and credit cards.
Some analysts viewed the Treasury's latest redirection of TARP funds as merely the recognition that the Bush Administration has finally realized that some of the TARP billions needs to be spent directly on consumers. Clearly, the public perception is that the TARP is simply a bailout of banks and Wall Street financial institutions. Some analysts welcomed the latest announcement.
Your editor has a different take on the latest announcement by Treasury Secretary Paulson. First, I have to question whether the Bush Administration and the Treasury Secretary know what they are doing. The original $700 billion rescue plan, which was hastily passed by Congress, was intended specifically to: 1) buy up troubled mortgage-related assets from banks and others; 2) hold those assets on the Treasury's books until the housing slump subsided; and 3) eventually sell those assets back into the market when it was expedient to do so.
Supposedly, the Treasury was busy constructing the TARP infrastructure and hiring lots of people to implement the massive buying of troubled mortgage-related debt. However, in October, the Treasury shifted its focus and allocated some $250 billion for direct equity infusion to the major banks in return for stock (warrants).
The banks that agreed to receive equity investments from the Treasury included Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. (including Merrill Lynch), Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of New York Mellon and State Street Corp. Interestingly, some of these large banks resisted the effort and opposed the cash infusion in return for equity. However, it was widely reported that Secretary Paulson made it clear that the cash infusion was not optional.
The next twist, as noted above, came last Wednesday when Paulson announced that the TARP will not purchase troubled assets from financial institutions, but instead will continue with equity infusions for banks (and non-banks) and somehow provide other TARP money for student loans, auto loans and credit card loans. This all suggests to me that the Bush Administration and the Treasury Secretary don't know what they're doing!
Obviously, the move to make TARP money available for student loans, auto loans and credit card loans is in reaction to growing pressure in Congress to make some of the money available for consumers, rather than just financial institutions. President Bush and Secretary Paulson know that they must go back to Congress for authorization of the second $350 billion installment of the TARP. But does Congress have any better idea how to spend the money than Paulson?
To me, it makes much more sense for the government to buy up the troubled assets and hold them until the housing market recovers than to buy increasing equity stakes in banks. However, in his press conference last week, Secretary Paulson said that he decided to drop the plan to buy troubled assets because it is no longer the best way to restart the credit markets. What I read that to mean is that it will take too long to buy up the troubled assets, and the banks could fail in the meantime. Thus, the decision to inject $250 billion now in return for stock was made.
Congress is quite unhappy with Secretary Paulson for not forcing banks to make new loans with the funds they have received from the TARP. Many in Congress are also unhappy that some of the TARP money has not been earmarked to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Paulson responded last Wednesday stating that, as a part of the new direction, the Treasury is looking into ways to use some of the TARP money to prevent home foreclosures. Specifically, he said they are considering a plan that has been floated recently by the FDIC, although he noted that the plan has some problems in his view.
Paulson stated in his news conference on Wednesday that the market in consumer finance "is currently in distress, costs of funding have skyrocketed and new issue activity [loans] has come to a halt." As a result, Paulson also announced that the Treasury is considering setting up a new lending facility to focus on consumer loans. Paulson said he was more interested in helping the currently stalled market for financing of credit card and auto loans, among other things.
The Treasury Department says nothing has been finalized, but reportedly Paulson and his advisers are looking into using TARP funds, along with some money from outside investors, to buy up credit card debt, auto loans and other, non-mortgage consumer debt. The financing mechanism for that type of debt, often called "securitization," has stalled like much of the rest of the banking sector. Paulson is hoping that buying up debts directly will be a better way of stimulating lending than just purchasing banks' shares and trying to force the firms to extend loans.
Interestingly, this new lending mechanism sounds a whole lot like another "Collateralized Debt Obligation" (CDO). Accordingly, one wonders why buying up credit card and auto loan debt is any better or easier to do than buying up mortgage bonds. In fact, when it comes to credit card debt, it could be an even riskier way to use taxpayer money. That's because credit card debt, unlike home mortgages, is unsecured. If a borrower defaults, there's no house to repossess. What's more, credit card debt, unlike a mortgage, can be wiped away in bankruptcy.
Pardon me, but this raises another obvious question. Would a huge new round of CDO-like securities be good for investors? I think not. We are in the midst of a massive deleveraging in the credit and investment markets. You would think that Bush advisors and Secretary Paulson would realize this.
Given these potential problems, it occurs to me that Secretary Paulson may simply be talking about such consumer oriented programs to satisfy Congress, when in reality he may have no plans to actually implement these proposed new plans. These ideas may simply be lip service for the time when the Treasury has to ask Congress for the second $350 billion to fund the TARP. The TARP reportedly has only apprx. $60 billion left from the initial $350 billion allocation.
Finally, it appears to me that President Bush and Secretary Paulson have decided to simply ‘run out the clock' on the bailout and hand it over to the Obama administration (note: Paulson will not be staying on at Treasury). On Wednesday, Paulson stated that he had set no date for going back to Congress for the additional $350 billion, possibly a hint that he won't.
Paulson also said he has no plans to establish major new programs ahead of President-elect Obama's inauguration. He said, "I'm not looking to make anything more difficult by implementing programs that don't need to be implemented before they're here." Paulson also said the Treasury will likely keep the remaining $60 billion on the sidelines in case of emergencies.
So, it increasingly looks like Bush and Paulson are content to run out the clock and hand this enormous credit crisis over to the Obama team.
I will tell you that Stratfor is less pessimistic about the credit crisis and what lies ahead for the economy than numerous other sources I read. Dr. George Friedman and his staff believe that the Treasury will be successful in largely turning around the credit crisis next year. Likewise, barring any major surprises, they do not believe that the recession will be long and overly severe. I hope they are right.
QUOTEIn our analysis of the current financial crisis in the United States -- and the world as a whole -- we have sought the center of gravity of the problem. We approached that simply by asking one question: is what is going on simply another inflection point in the business cycles that have occurred since World War II, or does it represent a systemic failure such as that which happened during the Great Depression? This struck us as the urgent issue.
We noted that in the Great Depression, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by nearly 50 percent over three years. It was an unprecedented calamity. Bearing this in mind, we compared the current situation to other events since World War II to see if there was a framework for measuring it. We found that framework in the Savings and Loan crisis of 1989, when an entire sector of the U.S. financial system collapsed and the federal government intervened -- essentially guaranteeing or purchasing commercial real estate, whose price decline had triggered the crisis.
We noted that the total amount allocated by the federal government in that crisis was about 6.5 percent of the GDP (and the amount actually spent, before recouping of costs via sales, was less than 3 percent). We noted also that in the current crisis another sector of the financial system -- the investment banks -- were devastated, and that the federal government intervened, this time at about 5 percent of GDP.
Meanwhile, the equity markets had not declined as much as they did in 2000-2001, and as of the second quarter of this year the economy was still growing by more than 2 percent. From this we concluded that the U.S. economy was moving into a recession but that the recession would not break the framework of the postwar economy, although clearly the degree of government intervention will reshape the financial markets.
The United States is a $14 trillion economy with a potential problem amounting to $1-2 trillion (and probably far less than that). If the government intervenes, it will create inequities and imbalances in the system. But between the size of the economy and the government printing press, the problem will be managed -- particularly because there are underlying assets -- houses -- that can be monetized in the long run. The gridlock in the financial system will undoubtedly create a recession, but there hasn't been one for seven years and it's high time. END QUOTE
Stratfor seems to believe that the worst of the credit crisis is now behind us, barring any major surprises. They note that bank lending has increased somewhat since the $250 billion injection in October. Likewise, they believe the recession will likely end in the first half of next year.
As always, I appreciate Stratfor's insights and the ability to share them with you. I encourage you to visit their website at www.Stratfor.com and consider subscribing to their always insightful analysis. Click HERE to get a free 7-day trial subscription to Stratfor.
When Stratfor suggests above that "...the recession would not break the framework of the postwar economy...," I take that to mean that they do not believe the current recession will be worse than the recessions of 1973-74 or 1981-82, both of which lasted well over a year. Most economists seem to agree that the current recession probably began in July of this year.
In late October, the Commerce Department reported that 3Q GDP had contracted by an annual rate of -0.3%. On November 25, we will get the second estimate of 3Q GDP, and the consensus now is for a revision to -0.6%. That will not come as a surprise.
What is much more worrisome is the outlook for the 4Q. Economists and analysts are downgrading their estimates for 4Q GDP. I am hearing increasing forecasts of a 4-5% drop in GDP for the 4Q! We won't get the first estimate of 4Q GDP until late January, so it will be interesting to see what the consensus is after the first of the year. Suffice it to say, it will be ugly.
Retail sales fell a record 2.8% in October, and retail chains are bracing for the worst holiday shopping season in years. Best Buy now expects its sales to fall 8% for the year. What a shift - in early September, Best Buy was forecasting a sales increase of 3% for the year. Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson said, "Since mid-September, rapid, seismic changes in consumer behavior have created the most difficult climate we've ever seen." Best Buy rival CircuitCity filed for bankruptcy last week.
Economists and analysts are increasingly forecasting that the recession will last at least until late next year. If that is true, the current recession would be on par with the recessions of 1973-74 or 1981-82. And it could be worse.
Most forecasters now expect the US unemployment rate to climb to at least 8% sometime next year, with many expecting that to occur in the first half of next year. Over a half a million jobs have been lost in the US in the last two months alone, driving the unemployment rate to 6.5%, a 14-year high. 8% unemployment would be the highest in 25 years.
Everywhere I go, people ask me the same question: What's it gonna take for this crazy stock market to find a bottom? I don't tend to talk about my business or investments to people in my personal life, but people who have never inquired before are asking me for advice now - family, friends and even people who don't know me well but know I work in the investment industry.
The fact is, no one knows when this bear market will end. If someone tells you they know when the bear market will end, keep one hand on your wallet!
One thing is clear, however. The stock markets have consistently reacted negatively to the government's massive $700 billion bailout plan. Let's take a look at recent market action. Treasury Secretary Paulson submitted the huge bailout plan - which was intended to fix the credit crunch and stabilize the market - to Congress on Saturday, September 20. Take a look at what happened thereafter. The stock market tanked.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged from above 11,000 on September 22 to below 8,000 on October 11 at the low. Certainly not the reaction that Bush, Paulson & Company had expected. The equity markets do not like uncertainty and were shocked at the massive size of the requested bailout - we all were.
The stock market tried to bounce back from the low, but on October 14 Secretary Paulson announced that on the prior day he had met with the nation's largest banks and had informed them of the government's plan to take equity stakes totalling $250 billion in their companies. You can see in the chart above that the stock markets declined sharply once again to near the October 11 low.
The markets once again tried to recover, climbing back above 9,500 in the Dow. Then last Wednesday, November 12, Secretary Paulson announced that the Treasury would not buy any of the banks' troubled assets and would only take equity positions in their stock. Now, we find the equity markets back near their October lows and threatening to make new lows as this is written.
It remains to be seen if the stock markets are in the process of forming a bottom. From a technical perspective, if the Dow can hold above the October lows once again in the next few days, that would be very encouraging (triple bottom), and we could see a much overdue strong rally in this bear market. If not, and we make new lows, expect another round of aggressive selling to follow.
I know that many of my readers are opposed to the government bailout of financial institutions. I assume that many of you will also be opposed to the latest plan to spread some of the bailout money to consumer loans. In normal times, I would agree - just let the chips fall.
However, the current credit crisis is unprecedented and the consequences of letting America's largest banks and financial institutions fail would virtually ensure a depression and a Japan-style debt deflation that could last for a decade or longer.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the government bailout plan will work. But most of my trusted sources agree that some kind of large government rescue plan was required, since letting the credit system go down the tubes would have resulted in financial Armageddon.
Personally, I believe the government will have to resort to buying up many of the toxic mortgage-related securities and taking them off the market before this crisis abates. But based on the hints and inuendo from Secretary Paulson, it seems that President Bush has decided to leave that decision to his successor, Barack Obama. I would not want to be in his shoes.