Worse than LTCM: Not Just a Liquidity Crisis; Rather a Credit Crisis and Crunch
Worse than LTCM: Not Just a Liquidity Crisis; Rather a Credit Crisis and Crunch
Nouriel Roubini | Aug 09, 2007
The global market turmoil got ugly today forcing the ECB and the Fed to inject liquidity in the financial system as the concerns about subprime, credit and debt turned into a full blown liquidity run and crisis. As in 1998 at the time of the LTCM crisis, the Fed and global central banks decided to ease monetary policy in between meetings and injected a large amount of liquidity into the system. Coming two days after the Fed tried to prevent perceptions of a "Bernanke put" by signaling in its FOMC statement no Fed easing and no bail out of the financial system, the Fed actions today are certainly ironic if necessary given the massive liquidity seizure in the financial markets.
But the current market turmoil is much worse than the liquidity crisis experienced by the US and the global economy in the 1998 LTCM episode. Let me explain why. Economists distinguish between liquidity crises and insolvency/debt crises. An agent (household, firm, financial corporation, country) can experience distress either because it is illiquid or because it is insolvent; of course insolvent agents are – in most cases - also illiquid, i.e. they cannot roll over their debts. Illiquidity occurs when the agent is solvent – i.e. it could pay its debts over time as long as such debts can be refinanced or rolled over - but he/she experiences a sudden liquidity crisis, i.e. its creditors are unwilling to roll over or refinance its claims. An insolvent debtor does not only face a liquidity problem (large amounts of debts coming to maturity, little stock of liquid reserves and no ability to refinance). It is also insolvent as it could not pay its claim over time even if there was no liquidity problem; thus, debt crises are more severe than illiquidity crises as they imply that the debtor is insolvent, i.e. bankrupt, and its debt claims will be defaulted and reduced. In emerging market crises of the last decade, we had liquidity crises (i.e. a solvent but illiquid sovereign) in Mexico, Korea, Brazil, Turkey; we had debt/insolvency crises (a sovereign that was both illiquid and insolvent) in Russia, Ecuador, Argentina.
The 1998 LTCM crisis was mostly a liquidity crisis: the US was growing then at 4% plus, the internet bubble had not burst yet, we were in the middle of the "New Economy" productivity boom, households were not financially stretched and corporations were not financially stretched with debt either. In spite of those sound and solvent fundamentals the collapse of Russia – a country then with the GDP of a country such as the Netherlands – caused a global liquidity seizure and crisis of the type experienced by credit markets in the last few weeks: sudden demand for cash liquidity, sharp increase in the 10 year swap spread, sharp increase in the VIX gauge of investors’ risk aversion, liquidity drought in the interbank and euro-dollar market, deleveraging of highly leveraged positions, reversal of the yen carry trades. With the exception of the credit event in Russia, this was not a credit/insolvency crisis. And since it was a liquidity crisis the Fed easing – 75bps – was successful in restoring in a matter of weeks calm and liquidity in financial markets. Even that liquidity episode had painful credit fallout: it is not remembered by most but the entire subprime mortgage industry went bankrupt in 1998-99 following the LTCM liquidity crisis. So a liquidity shock event triggered massive credit events then.
Today we do not have only a liquidity crisis like in 1998; we also have a insolvency/debt crisis among a variety of borrowers that overborrowed excessively during the boom phase of the latest Minsky credit bubble.
First, you have hundreds of thousands of US households who are insolvent on their mortgages. And this is not just a subprime problem: the same reckless lending practices used in subprime – no downpayment, no verification of income and assets, interest rate only loans, negative amortization, teaser rates – were used for near prime, Alt-A loans, hybrid prime ARMs, home equity loans, piggyback loans. More than 50% of all mortgage originations in 2005 and 2006 had this toxic waste characteristics. That is why you will have hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million - of subprime, near prime and prime borrowers who will end up in delinquency, default and foreclosure. Lots of insolvent borrowers.
You also have lots of insolvent mortgage lenders – not just the 60 plus subprime ones who have already gone out of business – but also plenty of near prime and prime ones. AHM – that went bankrupt last week – was not exposed mostly to subprime; it was exposed to near prime and prime. Countrywide has reported sharp losses not only on subprime lending but also on prime ones. So on top of insolvent households/mortgage borrowers you have plenty of insolvent mortgage lenders, subprime and - soon enough - near prime and prime.
You will also have – soon enough – plenty of insolvent home builders. Many small ones have gone out of business; now it is likely that some of the larger ones will follow in the next few months. Beazer Homes – a major home builder - last week had to refute rumors of its impending insolvency; but so did AHM a few weeks before its insolvency. With orders for home builders falling 30-40% and cancellation rates above 30% more than a few home builders will become insolvent over the next year or so.
We also have insolvent hedge funds and other funds exposed to subprime and other mortgages. A few – at Bear Stearns, in Australia, in Germany, in France – have already gone bankrupt or are near bankrupt. You can be sure that with at least of $100 billion of subprime alone losses – and most losses are still hidden given the reckless practice of mark-to-model rather than mark-to-market - many more will go belly up. In the meanwhile the CDO, CLO and LBO market have completed closed down - a “constipated owl” where “absolutely nothing moves” the way Bill Gross of Pimco put it. This is for now a liquidity crisis in these credit markets; but credit events will occur given that the underlying problem was not of of liquidity but rather one of insolvency: if you take a bunch of to-be-defaulted subprime and near prime mortgages and you repackage them into RMBS and then these RMBS are repackaged into various tranches of CDOs, the rating agencies may be using magic voodoo to turn those junk BBB- mortgages into AAA tranches of CDOs; but this is only voodoo as the underlying assets are going to be defaulted on.
Moreover, the recent sharp widening in corporate credit spreads is not just a sign of a liquidity crunch; it is a sign that investors are realizing that there are serious credit/solvency problems in some parts of the corporate system. Ed Altman, a colleague of mine at Stern, is recognized as the leading world academic expert on corporate defaults and distress. He has argued that we have observed in the last few years record low default rates for corporations in the U.S. and other advanced economies (1.4% for the G7 countries this year). The historical average default rate for US corporations is 3% per year; and given current economic and corporate fundamentals the default rate should be – in his view - 2.5%. But last year such corporate default rates were only 0.6%, i.e. only one fifth of what they should be given firms' and economic fundamentals. He also noted that recovery rates - given default - have been high relative to historical standards.
These low default rates are driven in part by solid corporate profitability and improved balance sheets. In Altman’s view, however, they have also been crucially driven - among other factors - by the unprecedented growth in liquidity from non traditional lenders, such as hedge fund and private equity. Until recently, their demand for corporate bonds kept risk spreads low, reduced the cost of debt financing for corporations and reduced the rate of defaults. Earlier this year Altman argued that this year "hot money" from non traditional lenders could move to other uses for a number of reasons, including a repricing of risk. If that were to occur, he argued that the historical patterns of default rates - based on firms’ fundamentals - would reassert itself. I.e. we are not in a new brave world of permanently low default rates. He said: "If we observe disappointing returns to highly leveraged and rescue financing packages, some of the hedge funds may find it difficult to cover their own loan requirements as well as the likely fund withdrawals. And broker-dealers who are not only providing the leverage to the hedge funds but whom are also investing in similar strategy deals will recede from these activities." The same could be said of the consequences of the unraveling of some leveraged buyouts. Altman suggested that triggers of the repricing of credit risk could also be "disappointing returns to highly leveraged and rescue financing packages". So he argued that the unraveling of the low spreads in the corporate bond market could occur even in the absence of changes in US and/or global liquidity conditions.
Thus, until recently the insolvent firms in the corporate sectors included corporations that could service their debt only by refinancing such debt payments at very low interest rates and financially favorable conditions. Many firms, under normal liquidity conditions, would have been forced into distress and debt default (either of the Chapter 7 liquidation form or Chapter 11 debt restructuring form) but were instead able to obtain out-of-court rescue and refinancing packages because of the most easy credit and liquidity conditions in bubbly markets. Now that we are observing a liquidity and credit crunch and a vast widening of credit spread you will observe a sharp increase in corporate defaults and a further risk in corporate risk spreads.
Insolvent and bankrupt households, mortgage lenders, home builders, leveraged hedge funds and asset managers, and non-financial corporations. This is not just a liquidity crisis like in the 1998 LTCM episode. This is rather a liquidity crisis that signals a more fundamental debt, credit and insolvency crisis among many economic agents in the US and global economy. Liquidity runs can be resolved by the liquidity injections by a lender of last resort: in the cases of the liquidity crises of Mexico, Korea, Turkey, Brazil that international lender of last resort was the IMF; but in the insolvency crises of Russia, Argentina, and Ecudaor the provision of the liquidity by the lender of last resort – the IMF – only postponed the inevitable default and made the eventual crisis deeper and uglier. And provision of liquidity during an insolvency crisis causes moral hazard as it creates expectations of investors’ bailout. Thus, while the Fed and the ECB had no option today but to provide massive liquidity in the presence of a most severe liquidity crunch and run, they should not delude themselves that this liquidity injections can resolve the deep insolvency problems of many overstretched borrowers: households, financial institutions, corporates. Insolvency/credit crises lead to financial and economic distress – hard landing of economies – and cannot be resolved with liquidity injections by a lender of last resort. And now the vicious circle of a weakening US economy – with a housing recession getting worse and a fatigued consumer being at the tipping point - and a generalized credit crunch sharply has increased the probability that the US economy will experience a hard landing. We are indeed at a "Minsky Moment" and this recent financial turmoil is the beginning of a much more serious and protracted US and global credit crunch. The risks of a systemic crisis are rising: liquidity injections and lender of last resort bail out of insolvent borrowers - however necessary and unavoidable during a liquidity panic- will not work; they will only pospone and exacerbate the eventual and unavoidable insolvencies.
Thursday evening update:
Countrywide, the US largest mortgage lender, announced that it faces "unprecedented disruptions" in the debt market and secondary market for mortgages that "could have an adverse impact on the company's earnings and financial condition, particularly in the short-term." Same for WaMu. This is a serious and scary development. As reported by Reuters:
Two of the largest U.S. providers of home loans, Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Washington Mutual Inc (WM.N: Quote, Profile, Research), on Thursday said difficult mortgage market conditions are likely to hurt operations in the near term.
Countrywide, the largest mortgage lender, said it faces "unprecedented disruptions" in the debt market and secondary market for mortgages. It said these "could have an adverse impact on the company's earnings and financial condition, particularly in the short-term."
Washington Mutual, the largest U.S. savings and loan, said liquidity in the market for less-than-prime home loans and securities backed by the loans has "diminished significantly." It said that while this persists, its ability to raise liquidity by selling home loans will be "adversely affected."
The lenders offered their assessments in quarterly reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.