Monday, September 5, 2011

A September to Remember

Three years ago, on September 7th, 2008, the federal government nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The following week, Bank of America bought a Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and AIG was bailed out by the Federal Reserve. During the next couple weeks, Washington Mutual also went belly-up, Wachovia was acquired and the remaining investment banks converted into bank holding companies. In markets, credit spreads widened drastically and equity market volatility heightened substantially, including the S&P 500’s largest loss in history of over 100 points (nearly 9%).  

This year, following a weak August, credit and equity markets have gotten off to a miserable start in September. During the first two days of trading, the S&P lost nearly 4% and at the moment is down close to 3% in the futures market. Losses in Europe are even more staggering, with several major indices already losing nearly 10% this month, following grater than 15% drops last month. Sovereign and bank credit markets, especially in Europe, are also freezing up as the crisis worsens. These are ominous early signs of another September to rival its historic predecessor.

Although only three short years have passed, the global economy appears to be following a similar pattern. After trying to kick the can down the road for more than year, numerous underlying problems are unraveling around the world in concert with one another. Each successive attempt at papering over issues has a shorter shelf-life and the time for politicians to get ahead of the troubles is rapidly decreasing. A quick tour around the world’s major economies will shed light on the ensuing global crisis.


Reminiscent of headlines in 2008, Friday witnessed new troubles stemming from apparently plagued mortgage-backed securities. From the FHFA website (

Washington, DC -- The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises), today filed lawsuits against 17 financial institutions, certain of their officers and various unaffiliated lead underwriters.  The suits allege violations of federal securities laws and common law in the sale of residential private-label mortgage-backed securities (PLS) to the Enterprises.  

Complaints have been filed against the following lead defendants, in alphabetical 
1. Ally Financial Inc. f/k/a GMAC, LLC
2. Bank of America Corporation
3. Barclays Bank PLC
4. Citigroup, Inc.
5. Countrywide Financial Corporation
6. Credit Suisse Holdings (USA), Inc.
7. Deutsche Bank AG
8. First Horizon National Corporation
9. General Electric Company
10. Goldman Sachs & Co.
11. HSBC North America Holdings, Inc.  
12. JPMorgan Chase & Co.
13. Merrill Lynch & Co. / First Franklin Financial Corp.  
14. Morgan Stanley
15. Nomura Holding America Inc.
16. The Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC
17. Société Générale  

These complaints were filed in federal or state court in New York or the federal court in Connecticut.  The complaints seek damages and civil penalties under the Securities Act of 1933, similar in content to the complaint FHFA filed against UBS Americas, Inc. on July 27, 2011.  In addition, each complaint seeks compensatory damages for negligent misrepresentation.  Certain complaints also allege state securities law violations or common law fraud.

Although the full repercussions cannot be known at this time, the fall out may prove very large. While the Obama Administration has been working hard to undermine an investigation by New York’s AG into similar matters, another part of the administration has seemingly subverted those goals. This lawsuit almost certainly dampens the Administration’s hope that the largest banks could avoid serious litigation in return for a small fee ($8.5 billion). Of the institutions listed above, several pose interesting related questions, yet the biggest questions are tied to Bank of America’s solvency.

Witnessing its stock fall more than 50% this year (shown below), Bank of America has continually denied claims about needing to raise capital. Despite these apparently false claims, the bank raised capital by selling warrants and preferred stock, along with a significant stake in the China Construction Bank, at steep discounts. Even with these actions, confidence remains fragile, as shares tumbled again on Friday.

Due to its purchases of Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, Bank of America was effectively sued in three separate claims noted above. Combining these claims generates total claims against in excess of $50 billion. However, these claims only represent a small portion of potential liabilities outstanding related to the sale of MBS and foreclosure fraud. Whether the bank ultimately settles these claims or attempts to fight in court, losses will almost certainly be significant and uncertainty regarding the outcome will weigh on the firm for some time.

Apart from unknown losses discussed above, the bank is also currently sitting on untold losses related to its own mortgage holdings, as well as European bank and sovereign debt. Thanks to the ongoing suspension of mark-to-market accounting, the actual market value of current assets is highly unpredictable. Regardless, markets are suggesting current assets should be marked down by billions of dollars and those numbers can only increase as markets weaken.

How long will the confidence last? With Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, the final straw seemed to be when institutional investors began pulling funds in mass. Considering recent votes in the US House, another TARP seems unlikely at this juncture. If Friday’s lawsuits spur another significant sell off in the bank’s stock, institutional investors may decide to seek safety elsewhere. Were a run on Bank of America to occur, it’s hard to envision several other weak banks not being targeted as well. The Dodd

Europe -

On a timeline basis, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe feels most similar to the US housing crisis. Nearly 18 months ago, problems began showing up in EU periphery countries, notably Greece. As yields widened, the country’s solvency was questioned and after ECB intervention, a bailout was concocted. Despite a couple more bailouts, Greece’s economy continues to deteriorate under the weight of austerity and a strong Euro. Over the past few days, short-term yields have exploded upwards, with the 2 year exceeding 50% (shown below). Not only are markets pricing in 100% chance of default, but far more significant losses than the most recent proposals by the EU/ECB. Apparently recognizing Greece represents a solvency issue, not liquidity problem, the IMF and several EU nations are reconsidering any further aid. 

After Greece, Portugal and Ireland also fell victim to economic deterioration and questions regarding their own solvency. These countries have been locked out of credit markets for more than a year now. Having also received bailouts for austerity measures, economic performance has not turned around and debt levels have worsened. Resolutions involving some form of default still appear almost certain.

While most market participants expected Spain to become the next casualty of bond vigilantes, markets surprisingly leap frogged Spain, instead attacking Italy. Starting in July, 10 year yields quickly spiked from under 5% to early 6.5% (shown below). Fearful of the consequences, the ECB once again stepped in to purchase Italian and Spanish debt to stem the rising yields. After successfully pushing yields back below 5%, the markets have once again responded, sending Italian yields back above 5.5% today. 

The recent rise comes after Italy’s government attempted to roll back various austerity measures. As Kiron Sarkar notes in a post on The Big Picture (

The Italians better reconsider their recent attempts to backslide from their commitments – they have a large debt maturity this week – some E14.6bn and E62bn by the end of September (the highest ever in a single month). In total, Italy must roll over E170bn by end December – Whoops.”  

Trying to sell that amount of debt may generate a further sell off in Italian debt, for which the ECB and EU appear unprepared.

Sovereign debt problems are on the verge of spiraling out of control, which is especially scary considering the lack of political unity in Europe. Time is running out on a grand solution and if politicians are forced into a reactive resolution, markets and economies will likely pay the price. As sovereign debt continues to be repriced lower, the resulting market losses are weighing heavily on European banks.

Stock prices of European banks have been falling precipitously over the past couple months. After a brief reprieve due to several countries banning short-selling on the securities, prices are once again falling. As I detailed in Europe Revives Failed Policies of 2008, these measures have been proven to fail and may even worsen the situation. Currently, credit spreads for interbank lending are showing significant strain and approaching levels last witnessed during the crisis of 2008 (shown below, top). Credit default swaps (CDS) on many banks are also reaching new records, potentially stemming from banks trying to hedge counter party risk (shown below, bottom).

Given the global nature of banking, credit problems in Europe may leak into US markets.  Once again, the ECB and Fed (primarily) will be forced to provide liquidity to the financial system. Similarly to the US, if one major bank faces a run, several others are likely to follow. With most of Europe already either in recession or experiencing sub-1% growth, the entire EU risks falling into another recession by year end. Risks are now increasing at a rapid pace, hence the next few weeks promise to be very interesting.

Asia -

After suffering a horrendous earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese economy fell back into recession. While trying to rebuild, global economic fear has sent cash flocking to the safe-haven Yen. Recently hitting all-time highs against the dollar (shown below), a strong Yen has caused exports to falter and hindered the economic recovery. Attempts by the BOJ to intervene in exchange markets have proved woefully unsuccessful. Further hurting the potential for recovery has been an unwillingness to increase deficit spending, which could generate internal demand and weaken the currency. 

As for China, the country has been fighting inflation by raising reserve requirements. History shows that this measure is not particularly successful in reigning in inflation. Recent moves to let the Yuan float higher are more encouraging. China also faces trouble relating to a fixed investment rate near 50%, potential housing bubble and rapidly increasing bad bank debt. Regardless of specific measures taken to thwart these issues, history suggests the most likely outcome is a “hard landing,” which could represent GDP growth below 5%.

For both of these export driven countries, weakening demand from US and Europe will pose significant problems on top of those already established. As the financial crises of 2008 displayed, global economies are very intertwined in today’s world and the troubles of one large nation will exert pressure upon the others. With equity markets in both these counties having already joined Europe in bear market territory, the immediate future is not looking promising (shown below: Hang Seng, Nikkei, Shanghai).

Over the past two years, markets have responded positively to a stimulus led economic recovery across developed nations. Weakening within credit markets has been largely written off as excessive caution. As credit markets weaken further and economic recoveries falter, it appears this time is not different. Equities have been moving quickly to catch up with credit markets on the way down, however the remaining spread still seems quite wide. Unfortunately the global financial system is practically no more transparent than several years ago, which means questions of solvency, plaguing the market, will be hard to defend against. Measures taken in 2008 to provide liquidity and capital will also be significantly harder to pass in a world concerned with sovereign debt and monetary devaluation.

US and German 10 year yields have now joined Japan in the sub-2% club (shown below), which suggests a lengthy period of minimal economic growth and inflation. As equity markets price in a similar outcome, I expect much further declines. A focus on individual companies with strong balance sheets and high dividends should offer great relative value. As for the dollar, equity weakness, global risk and ultimately an interest rate cut by the ECB will likely provide strength. There are times to seek a return on capital and times to seek the return of capital, I believe now is the latter.

Only three years ago, the global economy witnessed the worst recession since the Great Depression. Few people imagined so short a time could pass before the world was once again faced with such enormous challenges. Back then, September marked the period where issues started to really unravel. Could September once again witness the unfolding of historical events? Only time will tell, but based on the first few days, it certainly appears this will be another September to remember.

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