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Saturday, January 26, 2008

What Does the Fed Really Know?

John Mauldin wrote about Fed's "real" motivation for the 75bps emergency cut. He may well be right to think that the Fed was not responding to stock prices but to insure against an impending credit crisis, at a much larger scale. Bernanke's coauthor Gertler echoed the same view.
 
I believe the monoline insurance companies like Ambac and MBIA are in worse shape than most realize, the counter-party risk in the $45 trillion Credit Default Swap market is much worse than we realize, and the exposure by various banks to their problems is much larger than currently understood. The Fed understands this, and realizes that they have been behind the curve but need to catch up. Let's go back and look at this quote from my letter just last week:
 
"If you are a bank or regulated entity, and you have mortgage-backed securities that have been written by a AAA monocline company, you can carry that debt on your books as AAA. But as the companies get downgraded, you have to write down the potential loss. Quoting from a recent note from Michael Lewitt:
 
" 'MBIA's total exposure to bonds backed by mortgages and CDOs was disclosed to be $30.6 billion, including $8.14 billion of holdings of CDO-squareds (CDOs that own other CDOs, or mortgages piled on top of mortgages, or, to quote Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park again, 'a big pile of s&*^'). MBIA was being priced as a weak CCC-rated credit when it issued its bonds last week; it is now being priced for a bankruptcy. MBIA's stock, which traded just under $68 per share last October, dropped another $3.50 this morning to under $10.00 per share.
 
" 'The bond insurers' business model is irreparably broken. In HCM's view, it will be all but impossible for these companies to raise capital at economic levels for the foreseeable future and certainly in enough time to work out of their current difficulties. The performance of MBIA's 14 percent bond issue will prove to have been the death knell for this business. The market needs to come to the realization that the so-called insurance that these companies were offering is not going to be there if it is needed. The fact that these companies were rated AAA in the first place will remain one of the great puzzles of modern finance for years to come.'
 
"You can bet that the $8 billion in CDO-squareds is gone. It is a matter of time. MBIA's market cap is about $1 billion [it is now at $1.74]. Current shareholders will be lucky if they only get diluted 75%."
 
Think this through. MBIA is still rated AAA. Ratings downgrades are just a matter of time. Banks that raised $72 billion to shore up capital depleted by subprime-related losses may require another $143 billion should credit rating firms downgrade bond insurers, according to analysts at Barclays Capital.
 
Banks will need at least $22 billion if bonds covered by insurers, led by MBIA Inc. and Ambac Assurance Corp., are cut one level from AAA, and six times more than that for downgrades by four steps to A, as Paul Fenner-Leitao wrote in a Barclays report published today. Barclays' estimates are based on banks holding as much as 75% of the $820 billion of structured securities guaranteed by bond insurers. (Source: Bloomberg)
 
The stocks of MBIA and Ambac have risen on speculation of take-overs or a rescue. But MBIA is going to have to cover that $8 billion of CDO squareds. With what cash? MBIA makes about $5 billion a year. It will take almost two years' earnings just to deal with the losses from CDO squareds. Not to mention the subprime mortgage exposure.
 
But what if the above-mentioned monolines are downgraded to junk, as was ACA when it could not raise capital? As the downgrades on various mortgage assets and the CDOs continue to increase, the ability of the monolines to deal with the problems is going to come under increasing question. The losses at major banks could be much worse than $122 billion if they are downgraded to the same junk level that ACA was.
 
And that is just the credit default swaps (CDSs) from the monolines. What about the trillions that are guaranteed by banks and hedge funds? There are a total of $45 trillion CDSs outstanding.
 
No one is really sure who owes what and to whom, and what is the risk that there may be no one to pay that CDS when it comes due? The entire mess is going to have to be unwound in the coming quarters. It may take a year or more.
I think the concern that there is the potential for a much worse credit crisis than we are currently experiencing is what is driving the Fed. They are looking at the problem from the inside, and realize that they simply have to engineer a much steeper yield curve to allow the banks to make enough profits so that they might be able to grow their way out of the crisis over time.
If I am wrong and the Fed was responding to the stock market, then we will likely not see a cut this next week. But if we get another 50-basis-point cut, as I think we will, then it means the Fed is responding to concerns about the credit crisis. And we will get another cut the next meeting and the next until we get down to 2% or below.
 
A 50-basis-point cut takes the rate to 3%. It they had cut the rate by 1.25% next week, the market would have collapsed. Better to do it in two leaps is what I think they are thinking. We will see. And it is not just the Fed that is concerned.