Friday, December 21, 2007

Before commercial-paper rescue, remember how we got here

(Montreal Gazette) Imagine going to a bank machine and not being able to take out cash, even if your bank account appears to show you've got plenty of money.

That's how a lot of frustrated investors are feeling now that the so-called Montreal Protocol looks to be in a heap of trouble.

The agreement signed here last August was an attempt to defuse the credit crisis caused by the collapse of the $35-billion market for non-bank, asset-backed commercial paper.

The Montreal Protocol called for a temporary freeze on trading while holders of the securities worked out a way to restructure them into medium-term paper that could trade in a more liquid market.

But after four months of talking, there's still no solution in sight.

And that's raising alarming talk that the Bank of Canada might force the chartered banks, who mostly weren't responsible, to rescue the ABCP market. There might even be pressure for a government bailout from Ottawa.

Before ABCP investors are rescued with other people's money, it's worth remembering how we got here.

The credit crisis was sparked by troubles in the U.S. lending market. Subprime mortgages had been packaged into securities that were then sold to investors as a cash equivalent yielding more than government paper.

When the bottom fell out of the U.S. housing market, holders of these securities couldn't roll them over or cash them in.

As one investment manager told me, it was all about yield. People buying this stuff believed it was safe, chose to ignore the risk, or simply assumed the market would not be allowed to fail.

That was their business decision, one for which they should be held accountable.

I've got a few investments in my own account that I'm not too happy with. I don't see anyone offering to help.

This gets back to the old "moral hazard" argument.

According to The Economist's definition: "Moral hazard means that people with insurance may take greater risks than they would do without it because they know they are protected."

The "insurance," in this case, comes from the assumption that, when pushed, authorities will always backstop the market to prevent a financial crisis.

That kind of attitude leads investors who might normally weigh risks more carefully to throw caution to the wind. It's a remarkably prevalent mindset.

As confrere Terence Corcoran pointed out in a recent Financial Post column, even Caisse de dépôt chairman Henri-Paul Rousseau seems to have assumed there would be other people's money to backstop the caisse's $13-billion holding in ABCP.

In his recent appearance before a Quebec National Assembly committee, Rousseau said: "Canadian banks were expected to provide the necessary liquidity to the market in such a situation, which they did not do."

Rousseau went on to say the caisse was "convinced" that the "Bank of Canada would provide liquidity not only to the Canadian banks but also to the entire market."

It didn't turn out that way. Rousseau's educated guess was wrong and the caisse is in the hole for at least $500 million in write-offs, maybe more.

That's the way investing works. You size up the situation and you make a decision. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not.

But investors aren't going to learn anything about risk if they believe they'll be protected from their own mistakes.

Of course, the counter-argument here is that the entire commercial credit market in Canada is seizing up because of the ABCP crisis.

The Bank of Canada would like a deal worked out so that normal lending can resume.

Then, there's the political element. A lot of those ABCP investors happen to be in Quebec, including the caisse, the National Bank and a bunch of its corporate customers.

Add a Tory government currying favour in this province and you've got the ingredients for a rescue package.

There are a lot of reasons to act - except that it would be the wrong thing to do.

What would happen if there was no rescue?

Bank credit might be tighter for a while, but there's enough outstanding debt in our economy as it is.

Investors buying exotic commercial paper might do more homework before risking their money next time. And issuers might find it tougher to sell paper that people don't easily understand.

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