Re: liquidity or insolvency–does it matter?

(email with Randall Wray)

On Dec 15, 2007 9:05 PM, Wray, Randall wrote:
> By ________
> This time the magic isn’t working.
> Why not? Because the problem with the markets isn’t just a lack of liquidity – there’s also a fundamental problem of solvency.
> Let me explain the difference with a hypothetical example.
> Suppose that there’s a nasty rumor about the First Bank of Pottersville: people say that the bank made a huge loan to the president’s brother-in-law, who squandered the money on a failed business venture.
> Even if the rumor is false, it can break the bank. If everyone, believing that the bank is about to go bust, demands their money out at the same time, the bank would have to raise cash by selling off assets at fire-sale prices – and it may indeed go bust even though it didn’t really make that bum loan.
> And because loss of confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, even depositors who don’t believe the rumor would join in the bank run, trying to get their money out while they can.

If there wasn’t credible deposit insurance.

> But the Fed can come to the rescue. If the rumor is false, the bank has enough assets to cover its debts; all it lacks is liquidity – the ability to raise cash on short notice. And the Fed can solve that problem by giving the bank a temporary loan, tiding it over until things calm down.


> Matters are very different, however, if the rumor is true: the bank really did make a big bad loan. Then the problem isn’t how to restore confidence; it’s how to deal with the fact that the bank is really, truly insolvent, that is, busted.

Fed closes the bank, declares it insolvent, ‘sells’ the assets, and transfers the liabilities to another bank, sometimes along with a check if shareholder’s equity wasn’t enough to cover the losses, and life goes on. Just like the S and L crisis.

> My story about a basically sound bank beset by a crisis of confidence, which can be rescued with a temporary loan from the Fed, is more or less what happened to the financial system as a whole in 1998. Russia’s default led to the collapse of the giant hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, and for a few weeks there was panic in the markets.
> But when all was said and done, not that much money had been lost; a temporary expansion of credit by the Fed gave everyone time to regain their nerve, and the crisis soon passed.

More was lost then than now, at least so far. 100 billion was lost immediately due to the Russian default and more subsequently. So far announced losses have been less than that, and ‘inflation adjusted’ losses would have to be at least 200 billion to begin to match the first day of the 1998 crisis (August 17).

> In August, the Fed tried again to do what it did in 1998, and at first it seemed to work. But then the crisis of confidence came back, worse than ever. And the reason is that this time the financial system – both banks and, probably even more important, nonbank financial institutions – made a lot of loans that are likely to go very, very bad.

Same in 1998. It ended only when it was announced Deutsche Bank was buying Banker’s Trust and seemed the next day it all started ‘flowing’ again.

> It’s easy to get lost in the details of subprime mortgages, resets, collateralized debt obligations, and so on. But there are two important facts that may give you a sense of just how big the problem is.
> First, we had an enormous housing bubble in the middle of this decade. To restore a historically normal ratio of housing prices to rents or incomes, average home prices would have to fall about 30 percent from their current levels.

Incomes are sufficient to support the current prices. That’s why they haven’t gone down that much yet and are still up year over year. Earnings from export industries are helping a lot so far.

> Second, there was a tremendous amount of borrowing into the bubble, as new home buyers purchased houses with little or no money down, and as people who already owned houses refinanced their mortgages as a way of converting rising home prices into cash.

Yes, there was a large drop in aggregate demand when borrowers could no longer buy homes, and that was over a year ago. That was a real effect, and if exports had not stepped in to carry the ball, GDP would not have been sustained at current levels.

> As home prices come back down to earth, many of these borrowers will find themselves with negative equity – owing more than their houses are worth. Negative equity, in turn, often leads to foreclosures and big losses for lenders.

‘Often’? There will be some losses, but so far they have not been sufficient to somehow reduce aggregate demand more than exports are adding to demand. Yes, that may change, but it hasn’t yet. Q4 GDP forecasts were just revised up 2% for example.

> And the numbers are huge. The financial blog Calculated Risk, using data from First American CoreLogic, estimates that if home prices fall 20 percent there will be 13.7 million homeowners with negative equity. If prices fall 30 percent, that number would rise to more than 20 million.

Not likely if income holds up. That’s why the fed said it was watching labor markets closely.

And government tax receipts seem OK through November, which is a pretty good coincident indicator incomes are holding up.

> That translates into a lot of losses, and explains why liquidity has dried up. What’s going on in the markets isn’t an irrational panic. It’s a wholly rational panic, because there’s a lot of bad debt out there, and you don’t know how much of that bad debt is held by the guy who wants to borrow your money.

Enough money funds in particular have decided to not get involved in anyting but treasury securities, driving those rates down. That will sort itself out as investors in those funds put their money directly in banks ans other investments paing more than the funds are now earning, but that will take a while.

> How will it all end?

This goes on forever – I’ve been watching it for 35 years – no end in sight!

> Markets won’t start functioning normally until investors are
> reasonably sure that they know where the bodies – I mean, the bad
> debts – are buried. And that probably won’t happen until house prices
> have finished falling and financial institutions have come clean about
> all their losses.

And by then it’s too late to invest and all assets prices returned to ‘normal’ – that’s how markets seem to work.

> All of this will probably take years.
> Meanwhile, anyone who expects the Fed or anyone else to come up with a plan that makes this financial crisis just go away will be sorely disappointed.

Right, only a fiscal response can restore aggregate demand, and no one is in favor of that at the moment. A baby step will be repealing the AMT and not ‘paying for it’ which may happen.

Meanwhile, given the inflationary bias due to food, crude, and import and export prices in genera, a fiscal boost will be higly controversial as well.


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