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And, yes, I DO take it personally: Some perspective on the meltdown of the global financial markets and the FRB
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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Some perspective on the meltdown of the global financial markets and the FRB

from what i understand, nouriel roubini, the author of this piece, is a well-respected economist who publishes his insights on his weblog, Nouriel Roubini's Global EconoMonitor... he offers a very detailed perspective of what's going on in the u.s. economy at present and how it's likely to continue to ripple out across the world... neither being an economist nor having an interest in learning the details of the workings of global financial markets, roubini nevertheless confirms what i have been feeling intuitively, and it ain't pretty...
To understand the Fed actions [easing the Fed Funds rate by a whopping 125bps in eight days] one has to realize that there is now a rising probability of a "catastrophic" financial and economic outcome, i.e. a vicious circle where a deep recession makes the financial losses more severe and where, in turn, large and growing financial losses and a financial meltdown make the recession even more severe. The Fed is seriously worried about this vicious circle and about the risks of a systemic financial meltdown.

That is the reason the Fed had thrown all caution to the wind - after a year in which it was behind the curve and underplaying the economic and financial risks - and has taken a very aggressive approach to risk management; this is a much more aggressive approach than the Greenspan one in spite of the initial views that the Bernanke Fed would be more cautious than Greenspan in reacting to economic and financial vulnerabilities.

To understand the risks that the financial system is facing today I present the "nightmare" or "catastrophic" scenario that the Fed and financial officials around the world are now worried about. Such a scenario - however extreme - has a rising and significant probability of occurring. Thus, it does not describe a very low probability event but rather an outcome that is quite possible.

Start first with the recession that is now enveloping the US economy. Let us assume - as likely - that this recession - that already started in December 2007 - will be worse than the mild ones - that lasted 8 months - that occurred in 1990-91 and 2001. The recession of 2008 will be more severe for several reasons: first, we have the biggest housing bust in US history with home prices likely to eventually fall 20 to 30%; second, because of a credit bubble that went beyond mortgages and because of reckless financial innovation and securitization the ongoing credit bust will lead to a severe credit crunch; third, US households - whose consumption is over 70% of GDP - have spent well beyond their means for years now piling up a massive amount of debt, both mortgage and otherwise; now that home prices are falling and a severe credit crunch is emerging the retrenchment of private consumption will be serious and protracted. So let us suppose that the recession of 2008 will last at least four quarters and, possibly, up to six quarters. What will be the consequences of it?

Here are the twelve steps or stages of a scenario of systemic financial meltdown associated with this severe economic recession...

ok... and those would be...?
  • First, this is the worst housing recession in US history and there is no sign it will bottom out any time soon. At this point it is clear that US home prices will fall between 20% and 30% from their bubbly peak; that would wipe out between $4 trillion and $6 trillion of household wealth.
  • Second, losses for the financial system from the subprime disaster are now estimated to be as high as $250 to $300 billion. But the financial losses will not be only in subprime mortgages and the related RMBS and CDOs. They are now spreading to near prime and prime mortgages as the same reckless lending practices in subprime (no down-payment, no verification of income, jobs and assets (i.e. NINJA or LIAR loans), interest rate only, negative amortization, teaser rates, etc.) were occurring across the entire spectrum of mortgages; about 60% of all mortgage origination since 2005 through 2007 had these reckless and toxic features.
  • Third, the recession will lead - as it is already doing - to a sharp increase in defaults on other forms of unsecured consumer debt: credit cards, auto loans, student loans. There are dozens of millions of subprime credit cards and subprime auto loans in the US. And again defaults in these consumer debt categories will not be limited to subprime borrowers.
  • Fourth, while there is serious uncertainty about the losses that monolines will undertake on their insurance of RMBS, CDO and other toxic ABS products, it is now clear that such losses are much higher than the $10-15 billion rescue package that regulators are trying to patch up. Some monolines are actually borderline insolvent and none of them deserves at this point a AAA rating regardless of how much realistic recapitalization is provided.
  • Fifth, the commercial real estate loan market will soon enter into a meltdown similar to the subprime one. Lending practices in commercial real estate were as reckless as those in residential real estate.
  • Sixth, it is possible that some large regional or even national bank that is very exposed to mortgages, residential and commercial, will go bankrupt. Thus some big banks may join the 200 plus subprime lenders that have gone bankrupt.
  • Seventh, the banks losses on their portfolio of leveraged loans are already large and growing. The ability of financial institutions to syndicate and securitize their leveraged loans - a good chunk of which were issued to finance very risky and reckless LBOs - is now at serious risk.
  • Eighth, once a severe recession is underway a massive wave of corporate defaults will take place. In a typical year US corporate default rates are about 3.8% (average for 1971-2007); in 2006 and 2007 this figure was a puny 0.6%. And in a typical US recession such default rates surge above 10%.
  • Ninth, the "shadow banking system" (as defined by the PIMCO folks) or more precisely the "shadow financial system" (as it is composed by non-bank financial institutions) will soon get into serious trouble. This shadow financial system is composed of financial institutions that - like banks - borrow short and in liquid forms and lend or invest long in more illiquid assets. This system includes: SIVs, conduits, money market funds, monolines, investment banks, hedge funds and other non-bank financial institutions.
  • Tenth, stock markets in the US and abroad will start pricing a severe US recession - rather than a mild recession - and a sharp global economic slowdown. The fall in stock markets - after the late January 2008 rally fizzles out - will resume as investors will soon realize that the economic downturn is more severe, that the monolines will not be rescued, that financial losses will mount, and that earnings will sharply drop in a recession not just among financial firms but also non financial ones.
  • Eleventh, the worsening credit crunch that is affecting most credit markets and credit derivative markets will lead to a dry-up of liquidity in a variety of financial markets, including otherwise very liquid derivatives markets.
  • Twelfth, a vicious circle of losses, capital reduction, credit contraction, forced liquidation and fire sales of assets at below fundamental prices will ensue leading to a cascading and mounting cycle of losses and further credit contraction. In illiquid market actual market prices are now even lower than the lower fundamental value that they now have given the credit problems in the economy.
however, as ugly as roubini's scenario is, i stick by what i've repeatedly said, most recently in the previous post... let's get this house of cards to fall down sooner rather than later... doing so will present an unparalleled opportunity for change which, if we as global citizens play our cards right, will be for the better...

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