Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Unmeasurable Uncertainty v. Priceable Risk in the Shawdow Banking System!

Nouriel Roubini, January 7, 2008
Mood and Views at the American Economic Association Meetings: Recession Ahead:

This is a crisis of insolvency, not just illiquidity; it is a problem of unmeasurable uncertainty (on the size of the losses and who is holding the toxic waste) rather than priceable risk; and liquidity risk is now severe and not manageable as we have a shadow financial system where non-bank institutions (SIVs, conduits, money market funds, hedge funds, investment banks, etc.) borrow short/liquid and invest in long/illiquid assets; so they are subject to a severe liquidity/rollover risk but they don’t have access to the lender of last resort support of the central bank in the case of a liquidity run.

Bill Gross, PIMCO, Total Return Fund, January 2008
Pyramids Crumbling
The Economist magazine points out in its September 22nd issue, [both banking & shadow banking] are built on a fundamental (and ever present) mismatch: they borrow short and lend longer and riskier. Recognizing this flaw, governments have for over a century mandated that banks have an ample percentage of reserves in order to bridge the liquidity and investment risks that periodically ensue. Like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, the critical job of a traditional banker was to have enough reserves or cash on hand to prevent a run. Stewart’s modern day counterpart must follow similar guidelines, although a 21st century banker now can always look skyward for a guardian angel in the form of the Fed, the ECB, or the Bank of England. Recent infusions of over a half a trillion dollars by this triumvirate point to the perennial need for reserve banking in either an earthly or a more heavenly sense.

But today’s banking system as pointed out in recent Investment Outlooks, has morphed into something entirely different and inherently more risky. Our modern shadow banking system craftily dodges the reserve requirements of traditional institutions and promotes a chain letter, pyramid scheme of leverage, based in many cases on no reserve cushion whatsoever. Financial derivatives of all descriptions are involved but credit default swaps (CDS) are perhaps the most egregious offenders.

According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), CDS totaling $45 trillion were outstanding at year end 2007, more than half the size of the entire asset base of the global banking system. Total derivatives amount to over $500 trillion, many of them finding their way onto the balance sheets of SIVs, CDOs and other conduits of their ilk comprising the Frankensteinian levered body of shadow banks.

Originators and existing supporters of these securitized WMDs might also point out that their reserves come in the form of equity and subordinated tranches comprising 10 or 20% of the repackaged loans. They do. But as this equity/subordination shrinks due to underlying defaults, the pyramid begins to unravel. Rating servicer downgrades can and do lead to the immediate liquidation of certain CDOs. The inability to rollover asset-backed commercial paper does and has led to the liquidation of SIVs or, pray tell, a misguided attempt to restructure them as super SIVs. CDOs and even levered municipal bond conduits known as "Tender Option Bonds" have been and will be similarly vulnerable to "Jimmy Stewart-like" runs as the monoline insurers that theoretically stand behind them are themselves downgraded to less than Aaa status.

The withdrawal of deposits from our new age shadow banking system has frightening potential consequences because a thinly capitalized banking system is always at risk relative to its more conservative counterpart. Visualize, as does Chart 1, in crude yet understandable form, today’s shadow system versus that of two decades ago.

While the exact amount of reserves supporting the Bank of Shadows is undeterminable, let’s go back to the $45 trillion BIS estimate of outstanding CDS for more insight. If total investment grade and junk bond defaults approach historical norms of 1¼% in 2008 (Moody’s and S&P forecast something close) then $500 billion of these default contracts will be triggered resulting in losses of $250 billion or more to the "protection selling" party once recoveries are inserted into the equation.

The unfairly "Ben Stein pilloried" Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs estimates that mortgage related losses of $200-400 billion alone might lead to a pullback of $2 trillion of aggregate lending. Even if this occurs gradually, he writes, "The drag on economic activity could be substantial." Add to that my $250 billion loss estimate from CDS, as well as prospective losses in commercial real estate and credit cards in 2008 and you have a recipe for a contraction in credit leading to a recession.

CDS are like put options with the addition of counterparty risk because traded over-the-counter with no binding margin requirements. "imagine what would happen if $45 trillion worth of insurance policies experienced an actuarial average of 5% losses and no one had $2.25 trillion sitting around to foot the bill!" Source