Finally, Australia gets its own $700 billion plan. Kevin Rudd’s government moved yesterday to slap a Federal guarantee on all deposits with banks, credit unions, and building societies. The $700 billion guarantee includes Australian subsidiaries of foreign owned banks.
The government wants people to understand their money is safe in the banks. That’s why that last bit is in there. It’s designed to keep foreign holders of Aussie dollars from engaging in a run on the dollar and bringing their money home, wherever home might be (Japan, for example).
The Australian dollar is up in early trading. But its huge slide in just a few months is remarkable. It’s good for exporters (especially farmers). Aussie agricultural goods now become relatively cheaper on foreign markets. It’s not as good for consumers, who could see higher prices on imports (and there are a lot of imports in the consumer goods sector of the economy).
The big question, of course, is how shares will react to the weekend’s events? So far so good. They’re up 6% in early trading.
Polling the crowd this weekend and the Melbourne Investment Expo, we got the impression that there was a bit of capitulation on Friday. Investors who could not afford to lose anymore capital may have exited the market during the big 8.3% slide. Fear gave way to abject terror.
There may also be another reason-aside from the panic in the banking market-for Friday’s frenzied selling. When Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail, it defaulted on some US$130 billion in senior debt. Against that debt, hedge funds and other Wall Street investment banks had sold some US$400 billion in credit default insurance.
Remember, anyone can sell credit default swap (CDS) insurance. It’s a little like writing options. You collect the premium and hope you never have to pay out on the policy. So firms like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), JP Morgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) sold huge amounts of credit insurance against default in Lehman bonds.
One theory making the rounds last week was that those investment banks and hedge funds were selling assets and hoarding cash in preparation for judgement day on how much of that insurance they would actually have pay out. An auction was held last week to determine the value of the outstanding Lehman CDS.
Based on the results of the auction, it looks like anyone who sold default insurance on Lehman bonds will have to pay out around 90.25 cents on the dollar to the holders of the CDS. Obviously, that could be a huge number, based on the gross value of the CDS outstanding ($360 billion). But if the banks and hedge funds have already hedged against their risk in writing these credit default swaps, it won’t be any big deal.
If, on the other hand, you were a hedge fund selling CDS on Lehman’s debt without making any provision that you’d actually have to pay up, well you, my friend, are in a sorry state. And you were probably selling assets like cheap underwear to raise cash last week. What does any of this have to do with the Aussie share market?
Blue chip Aussie mining shares like BHP Billiton (ASX: BHP) and Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) and OZ Minerals Limited (ASX: OZL) have been the darlings of hedge funds wanting to own commodity stocks. The Aussie dollar has also been a popular commodity currency and yield play. If hedge funds and investment banks were liquidating commodity positions to raise cash for the Lehman CDS auction, it would most likely hammer Australian stocks.
That’s one reason Aussie stocks fell much harder on Friday than stocks on Wall Street. Australia has a high percentage of stocks that were attractive to leveraged speculators when commodity prices were high. Now, those assets have seen a large amount of selling. With the Lehman CDS auction behind us, will the selling end?
We’ll see. Beyond Lehman, there are the larger issues in the global financial system. On that score, politicians in Europe raced against the opening of global markets this morning. They announced a package of reforms that would: guarantee interbank lending, guarantee debt issued by banks until 2009, give government’s permission to buy preferred shares in banks, make provisions to directly recapitalise any banks that were deemed “systemically critical.”
While the Euro nations try to unfreeze the banking sector by effectively guaranteeing all lending, regulators in the U.S. and the U.K. are taking similar steps. The British government will take controlling stakes in the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS Plc. The Brits have also decided to inject about A$125 billion in capital directly into the banking system.
We covered the big-picture implications of this policy response in yesterday’s special Sunday edition of the Markets and Money. If you missed it, you can find it here (Australian Resource Shares, What’s Next). But it’s not hard to see what’s going: government guarantees to all bank lending, and direct, unsecured government lending to anyone who asks for it.
Will putting more money (credit) into the hands of those who created the problem in the first place actually help? Probably not. As Jim Rogers told CNBC, it’s setting the stage for an ‘Inflationary Holocaust.’ It’s hard to believe at first that the current deflation in financial assets will give way to astonishing inflation. But that’s just what we expect to happen.
Specifically, governments will boost lending to the private sector via central banks. You can also expect direct stimulus for households via rebate packages and tax breaks. In the long-run, big government spending programs on public works, infrastructure, and energy are a certain political winner.
And where will the money come from? Good question. It will be printed or borrowed into existence. Money supply will rise. And with the banking sector effectively nationalised, private investors will look for a real hedge against the inflation being unleashed.
We would take a strong look at over-sold Aussie oil stocks right now. Not only are they over-sold from a technical perspective, but the oil price has nearly halved from its highs earlier in the year. You may not get a better chance to buy them at this price.
Of course, if the market gets any worse than it got last week, it will no longer be the worst financial crisis since the Depression. It will be the worst financial crisis of modern times, full stop. If that is the case, it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.
In the meantime, however, you could do worse than build a “Robinson Crusoe” portfolio. That is, when his ship ran aground and all his colleagues were lost at sea, Crusoe spent three days salvaging anything from his ship that would be of use in living on his deserted island. His misfortune was severe. But he had enough sense to realise the ship contained items that would be essential for his survival after the shock of his shipwreck.
The stock market offers you a similar opportunity, once the selling abates. You will get an excellent chance to buy Australia’s best shares at very low prices.
Markets and Money