Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Fed is getting Desperate ...

In mid-March – at the peak of the crisis - the Fed did not just partially bail out the Bear Stearns shareholders who would have been totally wiped out in the case of a disorderly collapse of Bear Stearns; more importantly the Fed effectively bailed out JP Morgan that had – like Bear – and still has a massive exposure to the CDS market; it bailed out the creditors of Bear Stearns who would have suffered massive losses if the Fed had not outright bought $29 billion of toxic securities held by Bear; and it effectively bailed out Lehman, Merrill and a good chunk of the shadow financial system as the Bear Stearns bailout – together more importantly with the new TSLF and the PDCF facilities – ensured – for the first time since the Great Depression - that systemically important broker dealers would have access to the lender of last resort support of the Fed. Without these new facilities and the Bear bailout a generalized run on many institutions of the shadow banking system would have occurred.

While the extreme tail risk of a systemic financial meltdown – and we were in mid-March one epsilon away from such a generalized run on most of the shadow banking system – was avoided by the trifecta of the Bear Stearns bailout, and the creation of the TSLF and the PDCF facilities the stresses in the financial markets – liquidity and credit crunch - remain severe as even the FOMC had to admit in its latest statement.

The severity and persistence of the liquidity crunch is evident from the fact that in the interbank markets spreads (Libor/OIS + TED) remain extremely high and still close to their peaks since this crisis started last summer in spite of 325bps Fed Fund ease by the Fed, in spite of the creation and vast expansion of the TAF auctions (now up to $150 billion over a month), in spite of the creation and extension of the TSLF, in spite of the creation of the PDCF.

Why? Banks and non bank primary dealers having access to the Fed liquidity are hoarding such liquidity and not relending it to the other members of the shadow banking system for two reasons. First, they need that liquidity for themselves as the roll-off of SIV and conduits and concerns about future liquidity needs have led to a massive need for liquidity insurance; second, given the counterparty risk – who is holding the toxic waste and how much of it – that an opaque and non-transparent financial system has created no one trust its counterparties and is willing to lend them money on a term basis.

Thus, monetary policy can address illiquidity problems but cannot resolve credit and insolvency problems. And this US economy now suffers of a virulent strain of illiquidity and insolvency problems. So the liquidity crunch remains severe in spite of all of the extreme policy actions by the Fed and other central banks.