Thursday, 2 October 2008


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 purchased by these funds. In order to stem the flight from MM funds and hide the losses in asset-backed CP, the Fed recently extended their alphabet soup yet again. The "Asset-backed commercial paper money market mutual fund liquidity facility" or ABCPM3FLC for short was instituted just two weeks ago. It's gone from zero to $152 billion in just days - $22 billion average last week, to $122 billion average this week, to $152 billion by 10/2/08. All data are from the
Fed's H.4.1 release.

Panic Lending

Actions of this magnitude clearly indicate that a major crisis is unfolding behind the scenes. The freeze in interbank lending, the explosion of LIBOR loan rates, the collapse of financial commercial paper and counter-measures taken by CBs around the world indicate that the final act of the Universal Debt Bubble may be upon us. The UDB rested entirely on confidence - and badly misplaced confidence at that. It allowed credit to be extended to those who were manifestly NOT credit-worthy and the temporarily elevated economic activity created the illusion of prosperity.

All of that is going in reverse now and the politicos don't like it. Well, unfortunately this is all necessary to return to a stable economic structure after the bankers deliberately destabilized it. One of our first blog entries was Legions of the Damned - wherein we pointed out:

Over the last several weeks, there has been a collective recognition of the inherent riskiness of using illiquid, volatile and hard to value paper as collateral for lending. The lenders are requiring either much more (paper) or better (cash) collateral to secure the loans. The result is the global "Dash for Cash" that we've seen recently. Cash is King again and the scramble to come up with it resulted in huge spikes in overnight lending rates. The injection of $150 billion into the system was designed to bring the rates back down to the ECB and Fed targets of 5.25% and 4.0% respectively.

Had the CBs not acted, there would have been massive forced selling of the illiquid paper, demonstrating it to be nearly worthless. Now that would only formally recognize a situation that already exists in reality but as long as the banks can pretend that it's worth face value, they can continue to make loans and prop up consumption. This is a classic example of Gresham's Law - to oversimplify "Bad money drives out good money." When dodgy paper assets are treated nearly the same as cash, nobody is going to put up cash.

As we surmised well over a year ago, the repricing of risk is ongoing and the current crisis is simply the big brother of the one we experienced last summer. The clearest indication of risk recognition is the explosion of spreads. Once again, according to the Fed's Commercial Paper Report, yield differentials between high-quality (AA) and lower-quality (A2/P2) commercial paper have blown out enormously - from 80 basis points (0.80%) just a few weeks ago to over 400 bp today. Then there is the spread due to implied higher risk just for being a financial company. The spread on financial vs non-financial paper has widened from 30 bp to 160 bp in just weeks. A risk that Financial Jenga readers have known about for a long time is now confirmed by the market.

Inability to borrow in the US money markets helps to explain the severe dollar starvation overseas. It is this problem that the Fed is trying to fix with the their massive dollar loans (mischaracterized as "swaps") to foreign CBs. Less than a week ago, the Fed announced a
$330 billion expansion of these loans.

The results of the dollar starvation are manifest across Europe. Huge institutions like Dexia, Fortis and Bradford & Bingley have been fully or partially nationalized within the last few days. It does not help that the leverage ratios of European commercial banks are typically much higher than their American counterparts. Not only are the commercial paper markets closing to such banks but elevated LIBOR rates cut those same banks off from cheap dollar loans from other banks. The squeeze to dress up balance sheets to make them look good for the quarter-end reports undoubtedly contributed to it but the fact that pressures have not abated much yesterday and today indicates that much more than a seasonal problem is at work here.

The "dash for cash" is on. Despite the Fed lending as fast as it can, commercial credit is being drained from risky financial institutions faster than the Fed and other CBs can pump it in. Having seen Wachovia, WaMu and a half-dozen European banks fail in the last week, we see no near-term end to the pressures or the bank failures.

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