The stress tests are done. All is well. Green shoots are popping up all over the place. The worst is behind us. Everything is cool, right? Well…
This is how my nightmare goes. The US Government has adopted the following mantra: BUY TIME. Buy time for:
- the stock market to recover;
- sentiment to improve;
- retail demand to pick up;
- credit markets to open up;
- bank balance sheets to be rebuilt;
- banks to lend to both consumers and small businesses;
- businesses to begin hiring again;
- homeowners who were once on the edge to be able to pay their mortgages;
- real estate prices to rise;
- residential and commercial mortgage-backed security prices to rise; and
- TOXIC ASSETS TO BECOME DE-TOXIFIED.
The US Government has done everything in its power to avoid the perception that it has lost control. Statements such as “None of the largest banks will be left insolvent,” providing both direct capital injections and indirect support through the FDIC debt issuance guarantees, the AIG payouts that were funneled to Wall Street counterparties, TALF, etc. Further, the SEC and Congress were silent when FAS 157 was relaxed, providing further support to bank and insurance company balance sheets “as is.” Buying time. Congress could have forced transparency, could have let the largest banks get restructured, could have facilitated a comprehensive plan against the illiquid asset problem. But this was not the path taken. And if the stock and bond markets continue to go straight up and if risk premia fall, then the “Big Brother” approach taken could be vindicated.
But what if, just what if, the economy hasn’t turned the corner? What if job losses continue apace, residental mortgage defaults continue to rise and corporate bankruptcies spike? As defaults ripple through the system, given the lack of transparency and granular, easily accessible data around mortgage-backed security vehicles (CMBS, RMBS) and credit default swap (CDS) positions, how are we to untangle the mess in a timely and efficient manner? How are investors supposed to accurately price risk in the absence of this data? The US Government can continue its posture of uber-borrower, but this game can only go on for so long. Let’s say the Chinese government gradually reduces its net purchases of US Treasuries, and also shortens the duration of its Treasury portfolio. As the US Treasury continues to run the printing presses, the Chinese would gradually build a compelling argument (and a powerful economic position) as to why the US Dollar should no longer be the global reserve currency and the basis of exchange in oil. Profligate spending coupled with fewer willing buyers will drive up US dollar long rates, debase the currency and set off a very unpleasant inflationary cycle. With plummeting real asset values, spiking inflation and high credit costs, the US would be in a very uncomfortable position, indeed.
The Administration and Congress have clearly taken the path of least resistance. Wiping out of the stockholders and unsecured bondholders of our largest financial institutions would have been a political nightmare, but it would have enabled the market to purge the excesses that our system has wrought over the past decade. An emphasis on generating comprehensive data and full transparency around toxic asset portfolios would have also helped in the process, creating a much clearer picture of ultimate ownership and a basis for working out the problem credits (and counterparties). This wouldn’t have produced nightmares, it would have yielded wakeful pain followed by catharsis and and way forward. The path taken looks and feels good today, but potential troubles lurk just below the surface.
Is there a monster in my closet? Well, maybe…