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Credit Storm in Europe

by MIKE WHITNEY

Credit market turmoil in the Eurozone has ignited frenzied trading on global markets. On Tuesday, shares tumbled nearly 300 points on the Dow Jones before launching an unconvincing 257-point late-day comeback. Wednesday the mayhem continued; all the major indexes seesawed wildly as positive news on durable goods was nixed by  reports on wobbly EU banks. Erratic selling pushed the S&P down to 1,067 while the Dow slipped below 10,000 for the first time since February 7.   The rise in Libor (the London Interbank Offered Rate) is increasing volatility, a red flag indicating trouble in interbank lending. Banks are wary of each other’s collateral as Greece and other underwater Club Med members appear to be headed for debt-restructuring. Libor is not yet at pre-Lehman levels, but the rate that banks charge each other for short-term loans has rocketed to a 10-month high. Improving economic data have not eased fears of another meltdown or removed the rot at the heart of the system. The banks are still loaded with loans and assets that are losing value. The credit system is breaking down.

When banks post collateral overnight for short-term loans, the collateral is effectively downgraded, limiting the banks’ access to capital. This is what triggered the financial crisis two years ago, a run on repo. Regulated “depository” institutions now rely on a funding system that operates beyond government oversight, a shadow banking system.  The banks exchange collateral, in the form of bundled securities and  bonds with institutional investors (aka—“shadow banks”; investment banks, hedge funds, insurers) via repurchase agreements (repo) for short-term loans. The repo market now rivals the  traditional banking system in terms of size but lacks the guard rails and stop signs that make the regulated system safe. The system is inherently unstable and crisis-prone as a recently released paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York  (FRBNY) admits. Moody’s rating agency summarized the paper’s findings like this: the tri-party repo market “will remain a major source of systemic risk, especially given the current market volatility and the fact that the Federal Reserve’s primary dealer emergency lending facilities are no longer in place…… the market remains structurally vulnerable to a repo run…… If cash investors pulled away in a stressed environment, the clearing banks would be faced with a choice (as they were several times in 2008) of taking on large secured credit exposure to dealers or severely constraining intra-day credit to them. Such market mechanics can exacerbate the effect of a systemic and/or a dealer-specific crisis…..Until the remaining issues in the tri-party repo market are resolved, the risk of a repo run remains in place. (Moody’s, thanks to zero hedge)

It’s too bad Congress doesn’t take time to read  Moody’s analysis before gutting the derivatives and capital requirements provisions in the new reform bill. It might help them understand that by placating Wall Street they’re laying the groundwork for another financial disaster.

When Lehman failed, Fed chair Ben Bernanke stepped in as lender of last resort to keep the banking system functioning. He deftly shifted from lending facilities to quantitative easing (QE)–a ploy that allowed the Fed to relieve the Wall Street behemoths of their toxic assets and non performing loans. The Fed’s efforts revived the economy but transferred gigantic losses onto its own balance sheet.   The EU lacks the political infrastructure to enact a similar fiscal strategy. When banks collapse in Spain or Greece, the losses must be written down, adding to deflationary pressures. That has world leaders worried that their economies will be pulled back into recession.  Here’s a recent post from David Rosenberg which sums up the present situation:

“The downdraft in the market in recent weeks reflects the financial risk related to the European debt crisis, the monetary tightening in China and the re-regulation of the financial sector that is currently making its way through to Congress. The next leg down in the equity market specifically and cyclical assets more generally is economic risk. Equities went into this period of turbulence priced for peak earnings in 2011 and with a tailwind of positive earnings revision and positive guidance ratios from the corporate sector. If the ECRI and the Conference Board’s own index of leading economic indicators, which dipped 0.1 per cent in April, are prescient, then they are portending a period of sub-par economic growth ahead.” (Breakfast with Dave, David Rosenberg, Gluskin Sheff.)

The media characterize troubles in the EU as a “sovereign debt crisis”, reflecting “deficit cutting” the political agenda of its authors. In fact, this is a straightforward banking crisis, undercapitalized banks whose downgraded assets are leading them towards default. The banks alone are responsible.   In the US the problem has been resolved by the historic bank/state merger. “Too big to fail” implies that the primary function of the state is to preserve its core financial institutions. For many reasons, this remedy won’t work in Europe. The individual countries will have to bailout banks at their own expense or resolve them through the bankruptcy courts.

Austerity measures in the Eurozone will derail Obama’s efforts to increase exports to compensate for the slowdown in consumer spending. The administration’s economic strategy, to large extent, depends on a weak dollar, a strong EU and a prosperous China. That plan vaporized earlier this week when Spanish regulators took over CajaSur one of the country’s biggest mortgage lenders. Spain’s property crash is intensifying the contraction and pushing banks to the brink. As credit tightens and economic activity slows, the prospects of a strong rebound become more remote. The downturn could last for years.

Deteriorating conditions in Europe have set off alarms at the Fed. For Fed chair Ben Bernanke, the trouble in the EU money markets and commercial paper markets must seem like a recurrent nightmare, Lehman all over again. Bernanke wants to stop the repricing of bank assets that would trigger firesales and another round of deflation.   So, he’s reopening “swap lines” to help EU banks roll over their short-term loans. His proposal would slash rates to near-zero and make the Fed liable in the exchange of questionable loans and assets, putting both the taxpayer and the dollar at risk. Here’s a clip from the Wall Street Journal:

“The Federal Reserve has a lever it can pull to help European officials combat a worsening financial crisis: Reducing the interest rate it charges on U.S. dollar loans it makes through the European Central Bank to dollar-starved commercial banks in Europe….

“The loans currently are priced one percentage point above a market rate called Overnight Indexed Swaps (OIS), which tracks the expected path of the Fed’s benchmark federal funds rate. The loans are set above OIS to discourage foreign banks from using the government program too aggressively. But the Fed could reduce that penalty to encourage more borrowing and ease some of the financial strain on foreign banks in need of dollars….Many European banks, and their U.S. branches, need dollar funds because they hold U.S. dollar assets. But lenders have become more wary of extending them the cash. That’s made dollar loans more costly for European borrowers and the funding they do get is has been for shorter maturities.” (“Fed’s Next Move Could Be Reduced Rate on Dollar-Euro Swaps”, Jon Hilsenrath, Wall Street Journal)

The Fed is operating far beyond its mandate to maintain price stability and full employment. It’s applying its own arbitrary pricing mechanism and usurping the authority of the EU central bank.   Here’s how Clifford Rossi explains the Fed’s action in a recent post on Institutional Risk Analysis:

“The mechanism for the bailout of Europe is the Fed’s provision of dollar credit in virtually unlimited amounts via central bank swaps lines…..the Fed swap lines help the bankrupt nations of the EU ignore their mounting fiscal problems……Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is engaged in a little geopolitical engineering in Europe — and the people of the EU do not yet realize that a political change in control has occurred…. the leaders of Europe now find themselves beholden to the Fed for their continued political existence…. Chairman Bernanke and the FOMC have but to terminate the Fed’s swap lines with the various central banks of Europe or start selling the MBS portfolio in the US, and governments from Washington to Berlin will start to fall.” (“More fed swap Lines for Europe and the End of Globalization”, Clifford Rossi,  Institutional Risk Analysis)

The swap lines are designed to keep asset prices artificially high, so the contagion doesn’t spread to the US where accounting gimmickry helps to hide bank losses. Bernanke is perpetuating the repo scam, by assisting banks and other financial institutions to amplify crumbs of capital into huge  bubbles which can take down the whole economy. The Wall Street Journal exposed a similar repo scam this week in an above-the-fold article on Wednesday. Here’s an excerpt:

“Three big banks–Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, and Citigroup Inc.—are among the most active at temporarily shedding debt just before reporting their finances to the public, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows. The practice, known as end-of-quarter “window dressing” on Wall Street, suggests that the banks are carrying more risk most of the time than their investors or customers can easily see….

“Over the past 10 quarters, the three banks have lowered their net borrowings in the “repurchase,” or repo, market by an average of 41 per cent at the ends of the quarters, compared with their average net repo borrowings for the entire quarter, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data. Once a new quarter begins, they boost those levels…

“The data suggest ‘conscious balance-sheet management,’ said Robert Willens, an accounting specialist who heads Robert Willens LLC. If there are big gaps between average quarterly and quarter-end data, he said, the quarter-end numbers “are at best meaningless and at worst misleading and disingenuous.” (“Banks trim Debt, Obscuring Risks”, Michael Rapoport and Tom Mcginty, Wall Street Journal)

So the banks are intentionally masking their leverage to conceal their true condition to investors. And it’s all done with derivatives and repo; the lethal combo that led to the crisis of ’08. Unfortunately, Wall Street’s lobbying campaign has been so successful that, even now, real change is unlikely.  In fact, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank openly opposes  Blanche Lincoln’s comprehensive derivatives legislation saying that it “goes too far”. Frank has signaled that the bill would be killed or rewritten in committee. Derivatives trading is a main profit-center for the nation’s largest banks and they have spent millions to preserve the status quo.

“I don’t see the need for a separate rule regarding derivatives because the restriction on banks engaging in proprietary activities would apply to derivatives as well as everything else,” Frank said on Monday.

Even without Frank’s support, the bill would have faced fierce resistance from a contingent of Wall Street Democrats who were planning to strip the critical provisions from the legislation.

Rep Michael McMahon (NY-D) defended the banks saying, “The House bill is based on principles on how to reduce risk and make the system more transparent, it’s not based on wiping out the system or destroying the system and that’s what the provision does.”

The credit storm in the EU has had no effect on Congress. Wall Street has won this round. The window for real reform has closed, and now it’s “business as usual” until the next catastrophe.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state and can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

 

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MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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