Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Breakdown of Wall Street Alchemy:

(Prudent Bear) This week provided further confirmation of ongoing momentous Credit market developments. From today’s article by the Financial Times’ Michael Mackenzie:

“The auction-rate securities market, a $330bn slice of the municipal bond sector, could disappear if the credit squeeze remains entrenched, analysts warn. ‘The auction-rate securities market is unwinding and most of the market will enter a failed state,’ said Alex Roever, fixed-income strategist at JPMorgan. ‘The lack of confidence is the contributing factor and there is a risk this type of structure will go away.’ Like the asset-backed commercial paper market that was popular with structured investment vehicles until last summer, auction-rate securities, a form of rolling short-term funding for long-term municipal commitments, have become fashionable in recent years.”

“Auction-rate securities” has joined the beleaguered ranks of “subprime,” “asset-backed commercial paper,” “SIVs,” and the “monolines” – financial structures that flourished during the prolonged Credit Bubble but no longer pass market muster in today’s Post-Bubble Risk Revulsion Backdrop. This week's “unwinding” of the “auction-rate” market and the blowing out of Credit spreads should be seen as an escalation of the ongoing unwind of “Contemporary finance” and its many avenues of Risk Intermediation.

On numerous fronts, the markets and economy confront a Highly Problematic Breakdown in “Wall Street Alchemy” – the disintegration of key processes that had for some time transformed ever-increasing quantities of risky loans into perceived safe and liquid debt instruments that enjoyed insatiable demand in the marketplace. In the case of the “auction-rate securities,” it was a clever restyling of long-term and generally illiquid municipal debt (as well as student loans and other borrowings) into perceived liquid securities that could be easily sold at regularly recurring auctions (every one to a few weeks). With scores of flush corporate treasury departments and wealthy clients (managing huge Credit Bubble-induced cash-flows) keen to earn extra (after-tax) yield on “cash equivalents,” the Wall Street firms had been diligent in ensuring (making markets for clients, when necessary) a highly liquid and enticing marketplace. Now, with the onset of Risk Revulsion and Acute Financial Sector Balance Sheet Pressures, investors are running for cover and Wall Street firms are shunning the use of their own capital to support this and other markets. Market liquidity has evaporated, confidence has been shattered, and we are witnessing yet another “run” on a previously popular risk market/asset class. The music has stopped for another game of musical chairs.

This week saw heightened systemic stress stampede toward the epicenter of the U.S. Credit system. It certainly didn’t help that insurance behemoth AIG Group reported an almost $5bn writedown of its Credit default swap portfolio or that international securities dealer behemoth UBS reported massive losses on its U.S. Credit positions. Confidence was further shaken by huge losses reported by mortgage insurers, as well the twists and turns of the “monoline” bust turned apparent bailout. In the markets, various indices of investment grade Credits widened sharply to record levels. The key “dollar swap” (interest-rate derivative hedging) market saw spreads widen sharply. Agency spreads also widened significantly. Benchmark Fannie Mae MBS spreads widened a remarkable 20 bps against 10-year Treasuries, while agency debt spreads widened a noteworthy 12.5 basis points to 69.5 bps (high since November). The Breakdown of Wall Street Alchemy is now pushing the Credit Market Dislocation uncomfortably close to the core of our monetary system.

I’ll return to financial aspects of this crisis, but I definitely feel the economic ramifications of the unfolding Credit Crisis are receiving short shrift in the media. This week saw parts of the municipal debt market grind to a virtual halt and the corporate debt market take another significant blow. Investment grade debt issuance has now slowed markedly after beginning the year at near record pace. At this point, the junk, CDO, ABS, “private-label” MBS, muni, and even investment grade debt markets are all somewhere between impaired, dislocated and completely dysfunctional. There is no mystery behind the recent string of abysmal economic reports...

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