Saturday, March 15, 2008

Roubini: Step 9 of Financial Meltdown

Step 9 of the Financial Meltdown: "one or two large and systemically important broker dealers" will "go belly up"

Nouriel Roubini | Mar 14, 2008
In my February 5th piece on 12 Steps to a Financial Disaster I predicted - as Step 9 of the meltdown - that "one or two large and systemically important broker dealers" will "go belly up" and that other members of the "shadow financial system" - i.e. non-bank financial institutions that look like banks in terms of liquidity/rollover risk - will also go bankrupt. As I put it then:

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. All these institutions are subject to market risk, credit risk (given their risky investments) and especially liquidity/rollover risk as their short term liquid liabilities can be rolled off easily while their assets are more long term and illiquid. Unlike banks these non-bank financial institutions don’t have direct or indirect access to the central bank’s lender of last resort support as they are not depository institutions. Thus, in the case of financial distress and/or illiquidity they may go bankrupt because of both insolvency and/or lack of liquidity and inability to roll over or refinance their short term liabilities. Deepening problems in the economy and in the financial markets and poor risk managements will lead some of these institutions to go belly up: a few large hedge funds, a few money market funds, the entire SIV system and, possibly, one or two large and systemically important broker dealers. Dealing with the distress of this shadow financial system will be very problematic as this system – stressed by credit and liquidity problems - cannot be directly rescued by the central banks in the way that banks can. [bold added]

And today the first one of these large broker dealers - Bear Stearns - in on the verge of bankruptcy. Let us be clear: given its massive exposure to toxic MBS and ABS product Bear Stearns is insolvent; the decision by the NY Fed to try to bail out Bear Stearns would make sense if this firm was only illiquid; the trouble that it is insolvent and thus such attempted bailout is altogether inappropriate. It is true that Bear is a large broker dealer; but its systemic importance is much smaller than that of much larger institutions. The world and financial market can survive if Bear disappears.

So the only possible justification for such Fed action is to engineer an orderly rather than a disorderly shutdown of this institution. But unfortunately the Fed is behaving as if Bear Stearns is illiquid but solvent. That is delusional and the official sector support of an otherwise insolvent institution will end up - like many other recent Fed actions - being paid for by the US tax-payer.

As discussed months ago in this column non-banks institutions don't have access - based on the Federal Reserve Act - to the lender of last resort support of the Fed unless a very special and unusual procedure and vote is taken. So for the first time in decades - possibly since the Great Depression - the Fed had to rely on this exceptional rule to bail out a non-bank financial institution. So what is next? Bailing out hedge funds, bailing out money market funds, bailing out SIVs? When is enough enough? This when the Fed has already committed this week to swap 60% ($ 400 bn) of its balance sheet of Treasuries for mortgage backed securities of dubious quality and value.

And Bear is only the first broker dealer to go belly up. Rumors had been circulating in the market for days that the exposure of Lehman to toxic ABS/MBS securities is as bad as that of Bear: according to Fitch at the beginning of the turmoil Bear Stearns had the highest toxic waste ("residual balance") exposure as percent of adjusted equity on balance sheet; the exposure of Bear was 54.5% while that of Lehman was only marginally smaller at 53.3%; that of Goldman Sachs was only 21%. And guess what? Today Lehman received a $2 billion unsecured credit line from 40 lenders. Here is another massively leveraged broker dealer that mismanaged its liquidity risk, had massive amount of toxic waste on its books and is now in trouble. Again here we have not only a situation of illiquidity but serious credit problems and losses given the reckless exposure of this second broker dealer to toxic investments.

We will leave aside for today the fact that a growing number of members of the "shadow financial system" have gone belly up in the last month alone: the entire SIV scheme is being wound down and brought back on balance sheet; a few hedge funds are now closing shops (for details see the web site The Hedge Fund Impode-O-Meter) ); a few money market funds that had exposure to toxic MBS have experienced runs and had to be bailed out; a highly leveraged private equity bond fund has gone belly up; a major near prime mortgage lender is bankrupt. In all these cases a poisonous combination of liquidity risk and credit risk was exacerbated by reckless leverage.

So the question is: if Bear Stearns screwed up big time - as it did - with huge leverage, reckless investments, lousy risk management and massive underestimation of liquidity risk why should the US taxpayer bail out this firm and its shareholders? First fully wipe out those shareholders, then fire all the senior management and have the government take over such a bankrupt institution before a penny of public money is wasted in bailing it out. Instead now the use of public money to bail out financial institutions is spreading from banking ones to non banking ones. The Fed should at least give a clear and public explanation of why such extremely exceptional - and almost never used - intervention was justified.

Unless public money is used on a very temporary basis to achieve an orderly wind-down or merger of Bear Stearns this is another case where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. By having thrown down the drain the decades old doctrine and rule that the Fed should not lend or bail out non-bank financial institutions the Fed has created an extremely dangerous precedent that seriously aggravates the moral hazard of its lender of last resort support role. If the Fed starts on the slippery slope of providing massive liquidity support to non-bank financial institutions that have recklessly managed their risks it enters into uncharted territory that radically changes its mandate and formal role. Breaking decades-old rules and practices is a radical action that seriously requires a clear public explanation and justification.

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