“We are a puny and fickle folk,” wrote the Yankee Romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases.” It is in that spirit that today’s Markets and Money looks at the stock market’s fickle reaction to the Geithner plan, and the avarice of bankers and mortgage lenders.
The volume figures suggested Monday’s rally was broad but not deep. On Tuesday, that was confirmed. In Australia, the All Ords finished up but couldn’t match the 7% surge on the S&P 500. Financials like Macquarie Group (ASX:MQG) and Westpac (ASX:WBC) were the big winners on the day.
Today is another story. Stocks in New York were down. And investors now have to figure out just what this Geithner plan means for the banking system. That is a question we’ll deal with today, too. It’s a big one.
But first, there’s more news on the housing front to report and argue about. Remember, all we’re saying is that rising Australian housing prices had a lot more to do with the credit boom than any critical shortage of housing stock.
This alleged shortage is often alluded to but never proven, so far as we can see. If someone does have proof, we’re happy to publish it. But if there were really a shortage of housing units, wouldn’t there be a lot more people living in the streets or in their cars?
The main reason we’re harping on the topic is that Australia is showing the same social and psychological symptoms of housing infatuation that we saw in America in 2004. It’s a love affair. Or a disease. Or both. But the point is that turning to property as an antidote to the share market poison may not be your best bet.
While the great youth Binge on Housing unfolds, one statistic to watch is how many new housing loans are going to first home buyers. Before the U.S. housing boom went manic in 2004, subprime loans accounted for about nine percent of all new mortgage originations in the U.S. Then-after the Fed lowered short-term interest rates to one percent and kept them there for a year-non-bank lenders went down the credit ladder looking for new marks.
At the height of the boom, subprime loans as a percentage of all new mortgages rose to 25%. In certain states like California, subprime loans started to account for an even larger percentage of all new loans made. The low rates even induced a lot of borrowers with fixed rate 30-year mortgages to refinance into a subprime or adjustable rate mortgage.
Getting the marginal buyer into the housing market keeps the bubble going. But it’s also the last phase before the bubble pops. So keeping an eye on an influx of marginal buyers into the market is one way of alerting yourself to potential falling house prices.
Earlier this month the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that, “The number of first home buyer commitments as a percentage of total owner occupied housing finance commitments increased from 25.7% in December 2008 to 26.5% in January 2009. This is the highest level recorded since the series commenced in 1991.”
These would be the First Home Buyers (FHB) taking advantage of the Kevin Rudd’s enlarged first home buyer grant ($14k for existing properties and $21k for new homes). And if you dig a little deeper, you find that more of these new borrowers are borrowing more with ‘honeymoon’ introductory interest rates that later reset to standard variable rates (exposing them to rising rates, probably in 2010 or 2011, more on that below).
So the first problem we have is that marginal buyers are becoming a larger percentage of the market. The second problem is that they are borrowing more. According to the Australian Finance Group, loan-to-value ratios were 66% in September of 2007. They’re now at a new high of 72.7% nationally (75% in Victoria and 76.6% in New South Wales).
What’s more, the number of new buyers choosing the low introductory ‘honeymoon rates’ has grown from 5.3% of new lending to 21.8%a 311% increase. And according to industry outfit Mortgage Choice, 92% of new mortgage loans in Australia are variable rate.
We provide this litany of statistics to make a simple point: the marginal buyer at the most risk of losing his job and with the fewest assets and facing the highest mortgage stress is borrowing ever larger amounts of money at variable rates at the low phase of the interest rate cycle. He has maximum exposure to falling house prices and rising rates.
Of course, you could argue that interest rates have reached a permanently low plateau. You’d be a moron if you did so, but you’re welcome to it. It’s much more likely that interest rates will begin to rise in 2010 or 2011. Why?
Well, by then you will either have inflation as a result of more stimulus packages, deficit spending, and an expanded money supply. Or if you prefer a positive scenario, a recovery will taken hold by then and the RBA will be forced to raise rates to “cool things off.”
Another scenario we won’t go into in massive detail is that China may be blamed for inflation by then. This came to us via a reader but it makes sense so we’ll mention it briefly. The theory goes that massive multiple government stimuli will have worked their way into the economy as bank lending by later this year or early next.
This will lead to inflation, which naturally will shock (simply shock) policy makers. So they will blame China. You know, the China that’s been busy stockpiling resources and tangible assets, while getting rid as many of its dollar reserves as possible, as quickly as possible.
That’s largely a geopolitical issue, and could lead to some intriguing fireworks next year. But economically speaking, it means about a year from now, FHB’s are going to find out that interest rates rise as well as fall. Kevin Rudd better hold the election before then. If he doesn’t, no amount of love from Barack Obama may save him from a mob of angry, disillusioned, and heavily indebted Gen Yers.
While we still have China on the brain, did you see the speech by Zhou Xiaochuan of the People’s Bank of China on the need for a new international reserve currency that is not the U.S. dollar? It was a Jim Dandy of a speech.
He said a lot of provocative things in the speech without ever mentioning the U.S. dollar by name. But the key line for us was the realization that money not backed by a real asset or real collateral is not real money.
Zhou said, “The acceptance of credit-based national currencies as major international reserve currencies, as is the case in the current system, is a rare special case in history. The crisis again calls for creative reform of the existing international monetary system towards an international reserve currency with a stable value, rule-based issuance and manageable supply, so as to achieve the objective of safeguarding global economic and financial stability.”
The speech mentions a few possibilities for replacing the dollar, some of which include using a basket of other currencies and commodities. But don’t expect anything to happen soon. As troublesome as the dollar standard has become to everyone, it’s not the sort of thing you swap out like a bad light bulb.
What’s more, an international reserve currency would have to be managed by someone or some organisation other than individual national governments. That’s pretty unlikely. Why?
National governments would be extremely reluctant to give up the ability to devalue their own currencies in order to support exports (see Asia). Also, the strategy of deliberate inflation is a time-tested government method of delivering phony prosperity by expanding the money supply. To give up that ability is to give up the power to create illusions of wealth. Incumbent governments would get the boot from voters for not magically creating more money and giving it away. Avarice.
Also, do you sense a little bit of whinging on the part of the Chinese now? They are worried about the value of their dollar holdings. But the Chinese also deliberately kept the Yuan from appreciating versus the USD over the last ten years. They are every bit the currency manipulators that the U.S. government has become.
China’s artificially cheap yuan perpetuated its low-cost labour advantage across the globe. It kept Chinese goods cheap overseas and allowed Americans (flush with credit and in high spirits over the housing boom) to go an epic spending spree.
Now China has all its foreign currency reserves in the dollar basket. And that basket is on fire, so its leaders are belly aching (albeit it dignified fashion). If anything, yesterday’s announcement could have been targeted at the rest of the G20 nations as a plea NOT to sell the dollar. China saying, “Yes, this sucks. We’re aware of it. We need something different. But not just yet.”
One other note regarding China. How suicidal have American policy makers become? By devaluing the dollar they accomplish two things: they cheapen the dollar’s purchasing power on international markets and lessen the appeal of U.S. financial assets to foreign buyers.
This makes it harder for the U.S. to finance its massive deficits AND it means Americans are competing for scarce tangible assets on the international markets with an increasingly weak currency. Nice work boys!
Okay. Finally. The Geithner plan. What more can we say about it that hasn’t already been said?
Rather than going into the details of the plan we’ll just tell you what we think: it’s a big cop-out by the Feds and a big power grab by the money centre banks to avoid their day of reckoning for making a massively bad bet on U.S. housing prices.
The upside for the banks is that the plan may just help them avoid insolvency. For investors, there is no risk to participating in the scheme designed by Geithner. Because the FDIC provides financing and the Treasury the Equity, private capital interested in the deal has to pony up only a little capital to be exposed to any upside in the toxic assets.
And the downside? That belongs to the FDIC and by extension, the U.S. taxpayer. So with that kind of deal, it’s no wonder Bill Gross and others are excited to have a punt. Why wouldn’t they?
The flaw in the plan, as others are beginning to point out, is that its basic assumptions are wrong. It is trying to fix a fictitious problem. In Geithner’s world, the U.S. banking system is basically sound. But these prodigal assets, these mortgage backed securities are impairing the ability of banks to loan.
The Geithner plan assumes that the problem with the assets is not the collateral that underlies them (subprime loans made to delinquents), but with the pricing of the assets. So he’s invented a scheme that creates an artificially high price for the assets that brings together an unwilling seller (the bank, who must not take too large a loss on the assets or it will see its equity destroyed) and an unwilling buyer (private equity and hedge funds).
Will it work? Well, it may clear the assets off bank balance sheets. That itself doesn’t guarantee banks will resume lending. Lending to whom? To all those people wanting to buy a house? To all those Americans terrified of losing their jobs? And let’s not forget, the whole plan assumes there will be no further deterioration in still other securitised assets held by banks. That’s a big assumption.
In any event, the plan reveals part of the spirit of our age: the belief that there are no real or lasting consequences for being wrong or for moral mis-behaviour. It’s as if once the assets are gone, the same bank managers and risk takers who made a huge directional bet on U.S. housing can get right back to business as usual, forcing U.S. tax payers to pay (for years) for their mistakes.
The truth is the U.S. money centre banks have a huge amount of political power. They donate and contribute to the campaigns of the clowns in Congress who pretend to regulate them. The stockholders and bondholders in these institutions should be forced to realise their losses as punishment for the bad investment they made in U.S. housing. That’s how markets ought to work (and that’s what makes them fair).
But the whole thrust of the Obama/Geithner team is to protect bondholders and stockholders and punish taxpayers. It also punishes the many regional banks that did not make bad sub-prime bets and did not receive billions in unaccounted for TARP money.
The alternative is to place the big banks in receivership. It allows them to stay in business while the assets are liquidated, new capital adequacy ratios are instituted, and new regulations put in place on the amount of leverage depository institutions can use in their proprietary trading.
But none of that looks like it’s going to happen. It’s as if nobody did anything wrong and the assets themselves are to blame for being wayward and underperforming. The Washington/Wall Street axis refuses to acknowledge and take the loss for a huge misallocation of capital. And so the rest of the country and the rest of the world will pay the price by way of higher inflation and later, nationalisation.
As Matt Taibbi wrote in this month’s Rolling Stone, “In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors. Which, when you think about it, is insane.
” What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.
“As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren’t hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future.
“There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system – transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below.
We’ll leave the last word today to investor John Hussman: “Make no mistake – we are selling off our future and the future of our children to prevent the bondholders of U.S. financial corporations from taking losses. We are using public funds to protect the bondholders of some of the most mismanaged companies in the history of capitalism, instead of allowing them to take losses that should have been their own.
“All our policy makers have done to date has been to squander public funds to protect the full interests of corporate bondholders. Even Bear Stearns’ bondholders can expect to get 100% of their money back, thanks to the generosity of Bernanke, Geithner and other bureaucrats eager to hand out the money of ordinary Americans.
To be continued…
for Markets and Money