The subprime mess

On Jan 5, 2008 9:40 PM, Steve Martyak wrote:
> also….
> 9/4/2006
> Cover of Business Week: How Toxic Is Your Mortgage? :.
> The option ARM is “like the neutron bomb,” says George McCarthy, a housing
> economist at New York’s Ford Foundation. “It’s going to kill all the people
> but leave the houses standing.”
> Some people saw it all coming….

The subprime setback actually hit about 18 months ago. Investors stopped funding new loans, and would be buyers were were no longer able to buy, thereby reducing demand. Housing fell and has been down for a long time. There are signs it bottomed October/November but maybe not.

I wrote about it then as well, and have been forecasting the slowdown since I noted the fed’s financial obligations ratio was at levels in March 2006 that indicated the credit expansion had to slow as private debt would not be able to increase sufficiently to sustain former levels of GDP growth. And that the reason was the tailwind from the 2003 federal deficits was winding down. as the deficit fell below 2% of GDP, and it was no longer enough to support the credit structure.

Also, while pension funds were still adding to demand with their commodity allocations, that had stopped accelerating as well and
wouldn’t be as strong a factor.

Lastly, I noted exports should pick up some, but I didn’t think enough to sustain growth.

I underestimated export strength, and while GDP hasn’t been stellar as before, it’s been a bit higher than i expected as exports boomed.

That was my first ‘major theme’ – slowing demand.

The second major theme was rising prices – Saudis acting the swing producer and setting price. This was interrupted when Goldman changed their commodity index in aug 06 triggering a massive liquidation as pension funds rebalanced, and oil prices fell from near 80 to about 50, pushed down a second time at year end by Goldman (and AIG as well this time) doing it again. As the liquidation subsided the Saudis were again in control and prices have marched up ever since, and with Putin gaining control of Russian pricing we now have to ‘price setters’ who can act a swing producers and simply set price at any level they want as long as net demand holds up. So far demand has been more than holding up, so it doesn’t seem we are anywhere near the limits of how high they can hike prices.

Saudi production for December should be out tomorrow. It indicates how much demand there is at current prices. If it’s up that means they have lots of room to hike prices further. Only if their production falls are they in danger of losing control on the downside. And I estimate it would have to fall below 7 million bpd for that to happen. It has been running closer to 9 million.

What I have missed is the fed’s response to all this.

I thought the inflation trend would keep them from cutting, as they had previously been strict adherents to the notion that price
stability is a necessary condition for optimal employment and growth.

This is how they fulfilled their ‘dual mandate’ of full employment and price stability, as dictated by ‘law’ and as per their regular reports to congress.

The theory is that if the fed acts to keep inflation low and stable markets will function to optimize employment and growth, and keep long term interest rates low.

What happened back in September is they became preoccupied with ‘market functioning’ which they see as a necessary condition for low inflation to be translated into optimal employment and growth.

What was revealed was the FOMC’s lack of understanding of not only market functioning outside of the fed, but a lack of understanding of their own monetary operations, reserve accounting, and the operation of their member bank interbank markets and pricing mechanisms.

In short, the Fed still isn’t fully aware that ‘it’s about price (interest rates), not quantity (‘money supply, whatever that may be)’.

(Note they are still limiting the size of the TAF operation using an auction methodology rather than simply setting a yield and letting quantity float)

The first clue to this knowledge shortfall was the 2003 change to put the discount rate higher than the fed funds rate, and make the discount rate a ‘penalty rate.’ This made no sense at all, as i wrote back then.

The discount rate is not and can not be a source of ‘market discipline’ and all the change did was create an ‘unstable equilibrium’ condition in the fed funds market. (They can’t keep the system ‘net borrowed’ as before) it all works fine during ‘normal’ periods but when the tree is shaken the NY Fed has it’s hands full keeping the funds rate on target, as we’ve seen for the last 6 months
or so.

While much of this FOMC wasn’t around in 2002-2003, several members were.

Back to September 2007. The FOMC was concerned enough about ‘market functioning’ to act, They saw credit spreads widening, and in particular the fed funds/libor spread was troubling as it indicated their own member banks were pricing each other’s risk at higher levels than the FOMC wanted. If they had a clear, working knowledge of monetary ops and reserve accounting, they would have recognized that either the discount window could be ‘opened’ by cutting the rate to the fed funds rate, removing the ‘stigma’ of using it, and expanding the eligible collateral. (Alternatively, the current TAF is functionally the same thing, and could have been implemented in September as well.)

Instead, they cut the fed funds rate 50 bp, and left the discount rate above it, along with the stigma. and this did little or nothing for the FF/LIBOR spread and for market functioning in general.

This was followed by two more 25 cuts and libor was still trading at 9% over year end until they finally came up with the TAF which immediately brought ff/libor down. It didn’t come all the way down to where the fed wanted it because the limited the size of the TAFs to $20 billion, again hard evidence of a shortfall in their understanding of monetary ops.

Simple textbook analysis shows it’s about price and not quantity. Charles Goodhart has over 65 volumes to read on this, and the first half of Basil Moore’s 1988 ‘Horizontalists and Verticalsists’ is a good review as well.

The ECB’s actions indicate they understand it. Their ‘TAF’ operation set the interest rate and let the banks do all they wanted, and over 500 billion euro cleared that day. And, of course- goes without saying- none of the ‘quantity needles’ moved at all.

In fact, some in the financial press have been noting that with all the ‘pumping in of liquidity’ around the world various monetary
aggregates have generally remained as before.

Rather than go into more detail about monetary ops, and why the CB’s have no effect on quantities, suffice to say for this post that the Fed still doesn’t get it, but maybe they are getting closer.

So back to the point.

Major themes are:

  • Weakness due to low govt budget deficit
  • Inflation due to monopolists/price setters hiking price

And more recently, the Fed cutting interest rates due to ‘market functioning’ in a mistaken notion that ff cuts would address that issue, followed by the TAF which did address the issue. The latest announced tafs are to be 30 billion, up from 20, but still short of the understanding that it’s about price, not quantity.

The last four months have also given the markets the impression that the Fed in actual fact cares not at all about inflation, and will only talk about it, but at the end of the day will act to support growth and employment.

Markets acknowledge that market functioning has been substantially improved, with risk repriced at wider spreads.

However, GDP prospects remain subdued, with a rising number of economists raising the odds of negative real growth.

While this has been the forecast for several quarters, and so far each quarter has seen substantial upward revisions from the initial forecasts, nonetheless the lower forecasts for Q1 have to be taken seriously, as that’s all we have.

I am in the dwindling camp that the Fed does care about inflation, and particularly the risk of inflation expectations elevating which would be considered the ultimate Central Bank blunder. All you hear from FOMC members is ‘yes, we let that happen in the 70’s, and we’re not going to let that happen again’.

And once ‘markets are functioning’ low inflation can again be translated via market forces into optimal employment and growth, thereby meeting the dual mandate.

i can’t even imagine a Fed chairman addressing congress with the reverse – ‘by keeping the economy at full employment market forces will keep inflation and long term interest rates low’.

Congress does not want inflation. Inflation will cost them their jobs. Voters hate inflation. They call it the govt robbing their
savings. Govt confiscation of their wealth. They start looking to the Ron Paul’s who advocate return to the gold standard.

That’s why low inflation is in the Fed’s mandate.

And the Fed also knows they are facing a triple negative supply shock of fuel, food, and import prices/weak $.

While they can’t control fuel prices, what they see there job as is keeping it all a relative value story and not ‘monetizing it into an
inflation story’ which means to them not accommodating it with low real rates that elevate inflation expectations, followed by
accelerating inflation.

There is no other way to see if based on their models. Deep down all their models are relative value models, with no source of the ‘price level.’ ‘Money’ is a numeraire that expresses the relative values. The current price level is there as a consequence of history, and will stay at that level only if ‘inflation expectations are well anchored.’ The ‘expectations operator’ is the only source of the price level in their models.

(See ‘Mandatory Readings‘ for how it all actually works.)

They also know that food/fuel prices are a leading cause of elevated inflation expectations.

In their world, this means that if demand is high enough to drive up CPI it’s simply too high and they need to not accommodate it with low real rates, but instead lean against that wind with higher real rates, or risk letting the inflation cat out of the bag and face a long, expensive, multi year battle to get it back in.

They knew this at the Sept 18 meeting when they cut 50, and twice after that with the following 25 cuts, all as ‘insurance to forestall’ the possible shutdown of ‘market functioning’.

And they knew and saw the price of this insurance – falling dollar, rising food, fuel, and import prices, and CPI soaring past 4% year over year.

To me these cuts in the face of the negative supply shocks define the level of fear, uncertainty, and panic of the FOMC.

It’s perhaps something like the fear felt by a new pilot accidentally flying into a thunderstorm in his first flight in an unfamiliar plane without an instructor or a manual.

The FOCM feared a total collapse of the financial structure. The possibility GDP going to 0 as the economy ‘froze.’ Better to do
something to buy some time, pay whatever inflation price that may follow, than do nothing.

The attitude has been there are two issues- recession due to market failure and inflation.

The response has been to address the ‘crisis’ first, then regroup and address the inflation issue.

And hopefully inflation expectations are well enough anchored to avoid disaster on the inflation front.

So now with the TAF’s ‘working’ (duh…) and market functions restored (even commercial paper is expanding again) the question is what they will do next.

They may decide markets are still too fragile to risk not cutting, as priced in by Feb fed funds futures, and risk a relapse into market dysfunction. Recent history suggests that’s what they would do if the Jan meeting were today.

But it isn’t today, and a lot of data will come out in the next few weeks. Both market functioning data and economic data.

Yes, the economy may weaken, and may go into recession, but with inflation on the rise, that’s the ‘non inflationary speed limit’ and the Fed would see cutting rates to support demand as accomplishing nothing for the real economy, but only increasing inflation and risking elevated inflation expectations. The see real growth as supply side constrained, and their job is keeping demand balanced at a non inflationary level.

But that assumes markets continue to function, and the supply side of credit doesn’t shut down and send GDP to zero in a financial panic.

With a good working knowledge of monetary ops and reserve accounting, and banking in general that fear would vanish, as the FOMC would know what indicators to watch and what buttons to push to safely fly the plane.

Without that knowledge another FF cut is a lot more likely.

more later…