Moral Hazard

Guest Post: Headwinds For Housing

It’s no secret that housing and employment are correlated, and the causation is intuitive. If more people have jobs, then more people have incomes that support the purchase of a home. In the other direction, the more houses that are built to meet rising demand, the more jobs will be created in construction and real estate. We can see the correlation in this chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve displaying one measure of employment for workers age 45-54 and the index of home prices. As employment of those in their peak earning years rose, so did home prices. This is partly a function of basic supply and demand: Rising demand pushes prices higher. As employment fell, demand declined, and so did home prices. The Federal Reserve famously has a dual mandate: to maintain stable inflation and employment. The Fed attempts to pursue these goals with monetary tools such as setting interest rate targets, while the Federal government supports housing by subsidizing mortgage interest via tax policy and guaranteeing mortgages via the housing-lending agencies of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The Fed’s primary tool for stimulating demand for housing has been to lower mortgage interest rates, by buying the US Treasuries that set the baseline cost of long-term debt and also mortgage securities. Indeed, the Fed’s first quantitative easing (QE) program was to buy about $1 trillion in distressed mortgage debt outright. This removed the impaired debt from banks’ balance sheets and also served to lower mortgage rates.

The Ultimate "All-In" Trade

We have spent a great amount of time recently discussing both the re-hypothecation debacle and the 'odd' moves in CDS - most specifically basis (the difference between CDS and bonds) shifts and the local-sovereign-referencing protection writing. Peter Tchir, of TF Market Advisors, provides further color on the latter (as the 'Ultimate' trade) and in an unsurprising twist, how the former was much more critical during the Lehman 'moment' and will once again rear its ugly head. Exposing the underbelly of these two dark sides of the market must surely raise concerns at the fragility of the entire system - as we remarked earlier - but the lessons unlearned, on which Peter expounds, from the Lehman period are reflective of regulators so far behind the curve that it is no wonder the market's edge-of-a-cliff-like feeling persists.

Jump Risk Jumps After American Bankruptcy, Sends Junk Plunging As Major Debt Refi Cliff Approaches

A week ago, the reputation of legacy carrier American Airlines as being the only one to avoid bankruptcy is not the only thing that went pop. Along with it went the fervent optimism of high yield debt investors that moral hazard spreads not only to insolvent countries and insolvent banks, but to all insolvent corporates. On Wall Street, there is actually a technical name for perspective on insolvency optimism when viewed through the prism of CDS, where it is known as "Jump Risk", or the likelihood of a company to file tomorrow as opposed to a year from now. Until AMR, jump risk was not an issue. Now, it has come back with a vengeance. As Bloomberg LevFin magazine reports, "AMR’s bankruptcy is taking the corporate debt market by surprise, with investors losing 25 percent on bets in junk-bond derivatives that there wouldn’t be a jump in defaults this year. The Chapter 11 filing from the parent of American Airlines is helping to fuel a plunge in the value of credit-default swaps that  take outsized losses when companies in a benchmark index fail. The contracts, which back the debt of borrowers including ResCap and Radian, plunged to 64 percent of face value as of yesterday from 85 percent on Nov. 8. The derivatives were three weeks away from expiring with gains on Nov. 29, when AMR filed for protection." Oops. Alas, that's what happens every time unfounded optimism gets away from reality, especially when one is dealing with "junk", literally, which as the name implies is one TBTF if it is 99% unionized.

The Paradox Of Merkelism And ING's Not-So Grand Bargain

Despite another weekend of hope-driven chatter of a support-the-profligacy, print-til-we-die, mutually assured destruction game of chicken, we remain as far from the fiscal federalism, that we discussed earlier in the week (and the four critical questions that need to be answered) as ever. As we embark on yet another critical week in Europe's (and perhaps the world's future), ING addressed a critical aspect of the conundrum - that of Merkel's (read Germany's) reluctance to step on the gas and save the known universe. While attempting to quantify the price of break-up and the pay-now or pay-later perspective, they describe perfectly the 'Paradox of Merkelism' in that the core countries' attempts to limit their exposure have served only to increase it. They further worry that while a plan for a Grand Bargain may appear, this may rapidly give way to the recognition that the reality is not so grand - the bargain would still have to be delivered.

How The U.S. Will Become a 3rd World Country (Part 2)

The United States increasingly resembles a 3rd world country in terms of unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, falling wages, growing poverty and concentration of wealth, government debt, corporate influence over government and weakening rule of law. Federal Reserve monetary policies and federal government economic, regulatory and tax policies seem to favor the largest banks and corporations over the interests of small businesses or of the general population. The potential elimination of the middle class could reshape the socioeconomic strata of American society in the image of a 3rd world country. It seems only a matter of time before the devolution of the United States becomes more visible. As the U.S. economy continues to decline, public health, nutrition and education, as well as the country’s infrastructure, will visibly deteriorate. There is little evidence of political will or leadership for fundamental reforms. All other things being equal, the U.S. will become a post industrial neo-3rd-world country by 2032.

Second Biggest Dow Points Week Ever Ends On Weak Note

A 787 point gain on the Dow this week, second only ever in absolute points gained to w/e 10/31/08, ended on a disappointing note as equities gave back significant early gains around the NFP print to end the day practically unch (128pts off the highs). Equities underperformed credit on the day with another strangely impressive (given NAV and HY spread differentials) outperformance by HYG. On a medium-term basis, equities began to revert back to where broad risk assets are more supportive but on a short-term intraday basis, risk assets (most notably EURJPY, AUDJPY, and TSY levels and curves) were in a more aggressive derisking mode. ES definitely maintained strength for longer than many expected today before giving it all back into the close, but financials (especially the majors) were surprisingly positive today even after such a good week - quite a squeeze.

Walk Thru For The Upcoming European Treaty Changes - Is A Redemption Fund The "Transitory" Hail Mary?

Once again today was marked by ongoing disagreements over the form of any and every solution (or non-solution) to the 'problem' that is the Euro-Zone. At every corner, the EU Treaties are dragged up as impediments to the free-and-easy save-us-with-your-printing-press arguments (among others). Credit Suisse provides an excellent summary of the relevant sections and while their perspective is that the Treaties do provide some flexibility for the ECB to extend its operations (and the incumbent introduction of much stronger fiscal watchdog measures), Euro-bonds will (no matter what and certainly noty a slam dunk for success) require a full Treaty change - a process that could take years. There are currently three options being discussed for the Stabilittee bonds - all of which have more than short-term time horizons for any potential implementation and so we suspect, as CS mentions, that the talk of the Redemption Fund from the German Council of Economic Experts will grow louder as an interim step.

Squid Vs Merkel

As the hopes and prayers of every European central banker (and long-only manager) rest on age old battles; 'good vs evil', 'woman vs man', 'Germans vs the-rest-of-us', we found today's helpful note from The House Of Squid very amusing. Goldman, in their puppet-masterly way, suggest (in an ever so logical manner) that perhaps Mrs. Merkel should allow for the print-fest and provide their right-hand man Draghi with the ammo he needs to have that discussion.

"There are no easy choices and it would have been, no doubt, better if the ECB had never got in the position it is in now. But the current situation demands a careful weighing of the risk involved with any decision taken. The inflationary risk thereby seems to be getting an unduly high weight in the consideration of German policy makers."

Bundesbank's Jens Weidmann Discusses The ECB's Role As An Overthrower Of European Rulers, Bashes EFSF Incompetence

One of the last remaining Germans at the ECB, Jens Weidmann, gave an interview to the FT earlier today, in which the president of the Bundesbank, shared some pragmatic responses to questions about the depths of ECB intervention in the capital markets. The man who on Tuesday clinically stated explicitly that the "ECB can't print money to finance public debt" (to which he adds today that "this is a very fundamental issue. If we now overstep that mandate, we call into question our own independence"... odd, never prevented the Fed from questioning its own independence), follows up with some much needed clarity on just where the ECB sees itself in the coming weeks and months, touches on the rumor that sent stocks surging on Friday, namely that it would proceed to fix interest rates (it won't), and shares some rather amusing observations on the recent revelation that the ECB has become a weapon of political (de)stabilization: after all it took the ECB's bond buying program - the SMP - just two days of not buying Italian bonds for Silvio Berlusconi to resign after BTPs hit an all time rock bottom price. Yet the most amusing slap in the face of the Eurocrats is precisely what we mock every single day, namely the perpetually changing nature of the EFSF on a day to day basis, confirming the cluelessness of the continent's leaders, and which has cost Europe all credibility in the face of capital markets, explaining why the EFSF has to resort to not only buying its own bonds, but issuing terse statements denying anything and everything: "EU governments have decided how to finance the EFSF. They agreed on guarantees for the EFSF and, in their last meeting, on two options on how to leverage the EFSF – by an insurance model or a special purpose vehicle. Instead of working on implementing these approaches, we now have the next idea that is completely out of the realm of what has been discussed previously. I don’t think it builds confidence in crisis resolution capabilities if from week to week, from one meeting to the next, you are questioning your last decision."

Goldman On Italy - Part 3

This morning brings the latest, or the third, in the ongoing pitch book of Italian bonds by Goldman's Francesco Garzarelli, in which the strategist hopes that third time will be the charm for calling the bottom to the BTP collapse (sold to you, Goldman client). What apparently has Goldman confused is how its former employee Mario Draghi has let BTP spreads hit the record and unsustainable levels they did yesterday. To wit: "We were actually quite surprised not to see more forceful intervention by the central bank in secondary markets after the LCH announced it would raise initial margin requirements (and wrong in assuming it would have helped keep the Italy vs. AAA spread close to 450bp – it closed yesterday at 500bp over, but is now back at 450bp)." Here Goldman confirms what we suggested on Monday: that the ECB is now nothing but a policy enactment and dictator overhaul tool: "In this context, Italy still has to comply fully with the ECB’s ‘requests’ dated August 8, while Greece’s commitment to more austerity in exchange for financial support has continued to sway (at the time of writing, news that former ECB no. 2 Papademos would take the helm is encouraging)." Even so, the future to Goldman is quite cloudly :Granted, one positive collateral effect of market tensions has been to precipitate a political shakeup in Italy. But the collateral damage created by the price shock in Italian bonds to the stability of the EMU project (aggravated by explicit talk of countries being expelled from the single currency) is high and quite lasting. It will probably take a leap forward into deeper forms of fiscal risk-sharing (Prof Monti is a long-time proponent of Eurobonds) to get the market properly functioning again." OTOH, Barclays has done the math, and as we pointed out a few days ago, is not surprised.