The financial crisis
Wall Street's bad dream
Sep 18th 2008 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
A nightmare that seems like it will never end
THE carnage of the past fortnight may have an unreal air to it, but the damage is all too tangible—whether the seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by their regulator, the record-breaking bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (and the sale of its capital-markets arm to Barclays), Merrill Lynch’s shotgun marriage to Bank of America or, most shocking of all, the government takeover of a desperately illiquid American International Group (AIG).
Contagion has spread far and wide, on Thursday September 18th central banks launched a co-ordinated attempt to pump $180 billion of short-term liquidity into the markets. HBOS, Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, also sold itself to Lloyds TSB, one of the grandfathers of British banking, for £12.2 billion ($21.9 billion) after its share price plunged. The government was so anxious to broker a deal that it was expected to waive a competition inquiry.
The rescue of AIG was justified on the grounds that letting it fail would have been catastrophic for financial markets. As it happened, even AIG’s rescue did not stop the bloodletting. On Wednesday shares in Morgan Stanley and the other remaining big investment bank, Goldman Sachs, took a hammering. Even though both had posted better-than-expected results a day earlier, confidence ebbed in their stand-alone model, with its reliance on flighty wholesale funding. An index that reflects the risk of failure among large Wall Street dealers has climbed far above its previous high, during Bear Stearns’s collapse in March (see chart).
It is a measure of the scale of the crisis that, by the evening of Wednesday, all eyes were on Morgan Stanley, and no longer on AIG, which only 24 hours before had thrust Lehman out of the limelight. After its share price slumped by 24% that day, and fearing a total evaporation of confidence, Morgan attempted to sell itself. Its boss, John Mack, reportedly held talks with several possible partners, including Wachovia, a commercial bank, and Citic of China.
Though officials are putting on a brave face, they could be forgiven for feeling at a loss as one great name buckles after another and investors flee any financial asset with the merest whiff of risk. Even the politicians have been stunned into inactivity. Congress probably will not pass new financial legislation this year, admitted Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, because “no one knows what to do.”
At times, the responses appear alarmingly piecemeal. Amid a fresh clamour against short-sellers—Morgan Stanley’s Mr Mack accused them of trying to wrestle his stock to the ground—the Securities and Exchange Commission, America’s main markets regulator, brought back curbs on “naked”, or potentially abusive, shorts. It also rushed out a proposal forcing large investors, including hedge funds, to disclose their short positions. Calstrs, America’s second-largest pension fund, said it would stop lending shares to “piranhas”.
As in August 2007, when the crisis began in earnest, money markets were this week seizing up. The price at which banks lend each other short-term funds surged, leaving the spread over government bonds at a 21-year high. A scramble for safety pushed the yield on three-month Treasury bills to its lowest since daily records began in 1954—the year President Eisenhower introduced the world to domino theory.
Aptly enough, the crisis is spreading from one region to the next. Asian and European stockmarkets suffered steep falls. Another weak spot is the $62 trillion market for credit-default swaps, which has given regulators nightmares since the loss of Bear Stearns. It did not fall apart after the demise of Lehman, another big dealer. But it remains fragile; or, as one banker puts it, in a state of “orderly chaos”.
Consumers are already twitchy in America, where bank failures are rising and the nation’s deposit-insurance fund faces a potential shortfall. The failure of Washington Mutual (WaMu), a troubled thrift, could at the worst wipe out as much as half of what remains in the fund, reckons Dick Bove of Ladenburg Thalmann, a boutique investment bank. WaMu was said this week to be seeking a buyer.
No less worrying are the cracks appearing in money-market funds. Seen by small investors as utterly safe, these have seen their assets swell to more than $3.5 trillion in the crisis. But this week Reserve Primary became the first money fund in 14 years to “break the buck”—that is, to expose investors to losses through a reduction of its net asset value to under $1—after writing off almost $800m in debt issued by Lehman.
Any lasting loss of confidence in money funds would be hugely damaging. They are one of the last bastions for the ultra-cautious. And they are big buyers of short-term corporate debt. If they were to pull back, banks and large corporations would find funds even harder to come by.
At some point the Panic of 2008 will subside, but there are several reasons to expect further strain. Banks and households have started to cut their borrowing, which reached epic proportions in the housing boom, but they still have a long way to go. Furthermore, it is far from clear, even now, that banks are marking their illiquid assets conservatively enough.
The pain is only now beginning in other lending. “We may be moving from the mark-to-market phase to the more traditional phase of credit losses,” says a banker. This next stage will be less spectacular, thanks to accrual accounting, in which loan losses are realised gradually and offset by reserves. But the numbers could be just as big. Some analysts see a wave of corporate defaults coming. Moody’s, a rating agency, expects the junk-bond default rate, now 2.7%, will rise to 7.4% a year from now. Like many nightmares, this one feels as if it will never end.
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