Showing posts from 2008

Asian Flu

In the past few days we have received confirmation that our thesis regarding Asia is playing out rapidly. The data come from Japan and Korea - both heavily industrialized exporters and relatively open societies. While we have been very bearish on Asian economies here at Financial Jenga, the rapid pace of the implosion even surprises us.

Japan will soon report 4th quarter GDP and the estimates are moving fast - an in a really frightening manner. Bloomberg reports that Barclays now is estimating that Japan's economy contracted at over 12% annualized in Q4. This would be the worst result since the Arab oil embargo of 1974. Korea reported a similarly disastrous result for November industrial production. The YoY decline of 14.1% was the worst on record - with data going back to 1970. Understand that the textbook definition of depression is a 10% fall in GDP - and both Japan and Korea are already on pace to do so in a year or less.

We do not yet have any numbers this bad from China but we…

Submerging Market Update

note: This post was begun some time ago and the date-time stamp reflects the initial draft. The bulk of the data has been added since then.

China: The Collapse Begins
Chinese exports are collapsing and industrial activity with it. Recent reports suggest that they are experiencing mass factory shutdowns with owners and manager absconding. According to the BBC, migrant workers from rural areas are returning to their homes in the countryside en masse. Those watching the media would think that an shocking collapse came out of nowhere in the last few weeks. Readers of Financial Jenga have known that this was not just possible but virtually inevitable for many months.

China could spend some of their dollars but they need to keep at least $1 trillion so the Yuan doesn't completely crash and burn. The interesting problem is the currency mismatch and "sterilization" issues. China's money supply growth is going to fall quickly as there will be fewer incoming dollars against which…

Some Key Questions

The most important question facing us today, both in the US and around the world is just how much of our supposed wealth is real and how much was part of the illusion generated by bubble-mania and the UDB. Most of the actions of various governments and CBs seem aimed at preventing us from answering this question accurately. In The Limits of Optimism we outlined the various elements of the capital structure and it should be immediately apparent why the stock market is the chosen instrument for conjuring chimeras. By coercing a larger and larger percentage of accumulated capital into stocks, Wall Street ensured a large pool of buyers to continue pushing prices higher in complete defiance of fundamentals. By allowing so much of our wealth accumulation to be attached to something so insubstantial, we have collectively ensured the destruction of much of that wealth. Something that falls as soon as anyone wants to sell isn't much of an investment.

Now we see some of the real world impact…

A Little Credit

That really is all that is available in the debt markets today and the consequences are obvious. At the same time, we'd like to claim a little credit for calling the direction and - to some extent the magnitude of this crisis. We felt that these (then pending) consequences were obvious 18-24 months ago. In fact, one of the first posts on this blog in August 2007 noted:

Today's actions by the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve confirm that the real threat is DEFLATION - not inflation. Central Banks don't pump $150 billion dollars into the banking system because they are afraid of creating too much money.Again this June:

That is where we are now. The Fed has failed. The Great Oz has been exposed a just a man behind the curtain. Prepare for severe credit deflation and falling asset prices in markets that traditionally use leverage to purchase or hold positions.For years massive credit inflation raged unchecked and asset prices soared as the pool of buying power incre…


The commercial paper market certainly appears to be critically wounded. The seasonally-adjusted amount of CP has fallen dramatically since mid-September. Per the Federal Reserve the declines over the last three weeks:

September 17: -$52.1 billion
September 24: - $61.0 billion
October 1: -$94.9 billion

Headlines emphasizing funding cutoffs to companies in the real economy, like Caterpillar and A&T are highly misleading. Non-financial CP took a single hit of $18 billion ($217 billion to $199 billion) two weeks ago and has hardly budged since. The REAL story is the collapse of CP issued by banks and other financial companies. Domestic financial paper is down by $93 billion ($590 billion to $497 billion); foreign financial paper fell $40 billion ($225 billion to $185 billion, down 20%!); asset-backed paper is off $55 billion ($780 billion to $725 billion).

We have seen record withdrawals from money market recently, which has led to falling demand for commercial paper - which is usually pur…

The Limits of Optimism

The absurd actions of our financial authorities continue to impress with the sheer hubris and vast scale of their proposals - with today's bailout attempt being the latest and greatest of many attempts. Some of the government's contortions would be impressive even for Cirque du Soleil were they not such a blatant effort to distort the market. Our nation and the world at large seem to be living out the economic equivalent of a Kafka novel today. Yet even here we see the boundaries of government interference and the limits of (unjustified) optimism. As advocates of the free market and rule of law, we have been constantly appalled. A nominally Republican administration continually interferes with market forces and changes investment rules in the middle of the game. How did we come to such a sad pass?

Like many children, yours truly had a favorite word for much of his childhood - "Why?" Eventually, I stopped bothering Mother but never stopped asking the question. It is …

Shadow Banks, Shadow Government

Here at Financial Jenga, we don't often comment directly on politics - being much more inclined towards economics. We are also equally skeptical of both groupthink and conspiracy theories - which tend to be opposite sides of the same psychological coin. However, the sheer scale of the current crisis and many of the proposed solutions make this problem inherently political. It would also appear that many of the "fixes" being bandied about won't actually fix anything but WILL benefit certain politically-connected parties.

There is considerable evidence that the proposed $700 billion bailout of Wall Street will do little to fix the credit problems. One of the key arguements used by supporters is that banks don't have enough money to keep lending. This is simply a lie. The latest Fed H.3 report shows that excess reserves in the banking system were $68.8 billion as of 9/24/08. This is 1400% above any other datapoint for the past year and more than 2000% higher than the…

Frederick the Great vs. Hank Paulson

This is total panic time. They're now firing off everything that they have after the first several attempts at an options expiration week stick save failed badly. Basically, the Treasury is guaranteeing virtually everything now with backstops for money market mutual funds and a new super SIV for bad assets. But as Fredrick the Great said: "He who defends everything, defends nothing!" This was a simple acknowledgement of military reality - concentrate on protecting the most important assets. Spreading yourself too thin invites defeat in detail and the destruction of your forces. Then the enemy can loot at leisure.

The government seemingly doesn't understand this but they will. There simply isn't the money to do everything and in their arrogance the Fed and Treasury have over-reached badly. By trying to save all of the bankrupt financial companies, they are weakening the defenses of the strategic key - Treasury debt. The bond market is already demanding 50 basis poi…

The Fed is Broke

Three months ago we published Why Bennie Can't Lend, detailing the Fed's balance sheet and the limitations they were up against. We contended that they were out of cash and unable to sell their bond holdings without serious consequences. That is why their incremental actions have been limited to the TSLF, where they loan out the actual bonds rather than cash. Today, the Fed admitted that we were right all along by arranging for the US Treasury to raise more money for them so they can keep lending via the alphabet soup of liquidity facilities.

The Federal Reserve has announced a series of lending and liquidity initiatives during the past several quarters intended to address heightened liquidity pressures in the financial market, including enhancing its liquidity facilities this week. To manage the balance sheet impact of (ed. - ie. pay for) these efforts, the Federal Reserve has taken a number of actions, including redeeming and selling securities from the System Open Market…

MBS Deep Freeze

According to various sources, the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been buying somewhere between eighty and ninety percent of all mortgages recently. This has led to very rapid growth of their mortgage portfolios. Just a few weeks ago, this report appeared in Newsday:
Fannie Mae, the largest provider of funding for U.S. residential mortgages, on Wednesday said it grew its investment portfolio in June at the fastest annualized rate in nearly five years.

Fannie Mae's mortgage portfolio increased at a 22.8 percent annualized rate to $749.6 billion in June, from $736.9 billion in May, the Washington-based company said in a statement.

The government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) has been boosting growth in its investments since its regulator earlier this year began easing requirements on capital it must hold against the assets. Lawmakers consider such purchases by Fannie Mae and rival Freddie Mac as playing a key role in supporting the U.S. housing market that is going through a wrenc…


We turn to Europe in this commentary as important events are occurring there behind the scenes and Asia has gotten the lion's share of the attention recently. The mariner's distress call actually comes from French, where "m'aidez" simply means "help me." We thought that would be a particularly appropriate title as Europe's financial system is starting to show signs of severe distress. From the actions of the CBs over there, we can infer that the problems there may be significantly worse than here in the US. Current open market operations show that the ECB has 451 billion Euros (about $640 billion) outstanding. This dwarfs the Fed total of just over $300 billion - including all liquidity facilities. It's pretty clear that there are many European banks in deep, deep trouble.

Starving for Dollars
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the European financial system has a desperate shortage of dollars. Since much of the debt outstanding is …

UDB meltdown

We have often spoken of the UDB (Universal Debt Bubble) and how it had permeated nearly every asset class and geography. It's existence is the reason that we have often chided believers in economic "decoupling" as fantasists. We wrote about the structural weaknesses of the Asian economies in China Syndrome and Silent Scream. The trend has been quite clear lately as India teeters on the edge of recession and Japan's trade surplus collapses. Today we receive additional confirmation (as if any were needed).

The last bastion of the "decoupling" fantasy is China. Yes OPEC and Russia can remain strong as long as oil prices stay high but that scenario rests on the further assumption of nearly unlimited demand growth out of Asia (especially China). Chinese growth had continued to be high even as it trended down for 5 consecutive quarters. Now we see a report that the industrial sector is SHRINKING outright over there. Bloomberg reports that Chinese PMI fell…

The FDIC and You

Well friends it's time to talk about bank failures and wealth preservation. We have talked about insolvent banks on multiple occasions before but the threat of large banks failing is now imminent. Countrywide was saved from such a fate by Bank of America. Now IndyMac is right on the edge. They're not officially dead yet - only mostly dead but there's no Miracle Max in sight.

Their recent letter to stakeholders reads like a death certificate:
regulators involvedprohibited from getting brokered depositscan't sell stock (no buyers)asset sales would deplete capital (tacit admission of mis-valuation)===> must stop making loans The FDIC has been bulking up for months now, anticipating a wave of bank failures. So far it's been a few small banks but now it's the big boy's turn. So how secure are bank deposits and and how much can the insurance fund really cover? For now, it looks like the answers are pretty safe (as long as you're under the $100,000 limit) and …

China Syndrome

Today we turn our attention to China - certainly the most celebrated economy in the world today and possibly the most celebrated ever. Yet China's contemporary economy may be the most unbalanced in the history of the planet.

The Problem
Though it is hard to find reliable numbers, most sources agree that capital investment in China accounts for over 40% of GDP. Frankly, this is a terrifying and unprecedented number. For reference, Japan during their boom years was typically around 30% of GDP and never exceeded 35% for long. During the Roaring Twenties, fixed investment in the US economy averaged less than 20%. Looked at a bit differently, about 42% of China's economy is based on ------ the expansion of the economy. This creates tremendous momentum but also huge potential for disaster. Essentially, everything will be fine as long as everyone there believes the economy will continue to expand at a breakneck pace and invests accordingly. This is virtually the definition of a…

Silent Scream

(editor's note - This blog entry was completed and posted on July 4. The entry date is showing as July 1, as the software uses the date on which the first draft was saved.)

Marc Faber was on Bloomberg TV today and he mentioned that the higher reported consumer inflation rates in Asia were a function of lower per capita GDP and a higher proportion of income spent on food and fuel - which are nearly the only prices that are rising aggressively. Common sense right? But of course that really made me start thinking - always a dangerous prospect.

Asia, Inc.

So Asia's consumer "basket" looks a lot different than that of the average American or Western European. But there are other differences as well. Many Asian nations are resource-poor, major importers of either food, raw materials or both and they depend upon exports of manufactured goods to pay for those imports. Now, let's look at the situation from a slightly different perspective. The industrial sectors of Asian ec…

Why Bennie Can't Lend

Those of us from a certain age will recall a book about the failings of the education system called Why Johnnie Can't Read. Well, we're about to see the failings of the financial system exposed in similar fashion. The Fed has gone from "savior" that will "bail out the market" to talking tough on inflation and pointedly refusing to promise further rate cuts.

So when did this happen and why? The first thing to note about the Fed is they don't actually determine interest rates. They have the ability to set the Fed Funds target rate but then they have to go out and defend it in the marketplace - just like any other private entity seeking to set an arbitrary price. The strongest tool they have in this price-fixing scheme is the aura of omnipotence that they have acquired over the years so few other players are willing to take them on. A wise Fed chairman knows this and sets the target close to the market rate to avoid a test of wills that he might lose …

More Credit Deflation

It is critically important to understand the decline in overall credit levels in order see just how powerful the emerging deflationary trend is. One of my favorite analysts is Doug Noland of Prudent Bear. His Credit Bubble Bulletin is an indispensable tool for anyone hoping to fully understand what is happening. From his latest edition:
Total Commercial Paper increased $1.1bn to $1.753 TN. CP has declined $471bn over the past 46 weeks. Asset-backed CP fell another $5.0bn last week (46-wk drop of $447bn) to $748bn. Over the past year, total CP has contracted $390bn, or 18.2%, with ABCP down $412bn, or 35.5%.So there is a hole roughly $400 billion wide of destroyed credit in the shadow banking system of SIVs and other off-balance sheet entities. That would be pretty tough to fill. And in the immortal words of Ronco "But wait, there's more!"Bloomberg reported yesterday that CDO defaults since October now total 200, with a face value of $220 billion. Given the performance of …

No Credit for You!

As the Universal Debt Bubble has begun to collapse under its own weight, various portions of the shadow banking sector have come under enormous pressure. These are the non-bank lenders that have magnified a credit bubble into the UDB. Starting last summer, the initial push shattered the most egregiously complex and levered structures - the CDOs. In the Fall of 2007, the conduits and SIVs joined the tankage - along with asset-backed commercial paper, their primary funding mechanism. The worst of the hedge funds have been closing their doors at an increasing rate.

Now we are beginning to see simpler securitized products being shunned as well. From Prudent Bear's Doug Noland:

Asset-Backed Securities (ABS) issuance slowed this week to $3.3bn. Year-to-date total US ABS issuance of $104bn (tallied by JPMorgan's Christopher Flanagan) is running at 27% of the comparable level from 2007. Home Equity ABS issuance of $303 million compares with 2007's $191bn. Year-to-date CDO issu…

A Child's Perspective

The UDB grew until it encompassed virtually all asset classes and nearly every nation around the world. Many markets and countries have now fallen off the former trend but the consequences are just starting. In covering something this large and complex, we tend to use a lot of statistical analysis here at Financial Jenga. But occasionally, a simpler perspective can be really helpful.

I occasionally play babysitter for my young nieces on weekdays and they sometimes overhear my phone conversations with friends and colleagues. Yesterday, they were here and overheard me ranting about the bankers' attempt to get even looser accounting treatment. Right afterwards, the 5 year old said: "Those must be really bad people if they lie so much."

She made me think a bit. We've always known that the only way to offset a bubble bursting is to inflate an even bigger bubble somewhere else. And most of us learned from our parents that if you lie, you'll just have to make up bi…