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The Hidden Bailout Of $1.4 Trillion In Fannie / Freddie Credit-Default Swaps by Daniel Amerman

September 10, 2008

The Hidden Bailout Of $1.4 Trillion In Fannie / Freddie Credit-Default Swaps
by Daniel Amerman


Something extraordinary happened on Monday, September the 8th, 2008. The government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac triggered the pending settlement of $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps. This single event could have led to a cascading series of failures that might have bankrupted Wall Street – and much of the rest of the financial world – by the end of the week. That isn’t happening, and indeed, the media is treating this as something close to a non-event. However, a very real $1.4 trillion event happened – whose resolution effectively constitutes one of the largest government bailouts in history. Nobody noticed, for even though this is occurring in “plain sight”, the simple fact is that few people outside of the financial industry understand the $600 trillion derivative securities market. In this article, written the day after the event, we will briefly explain why this hidden, massive bailout – not of Fannie and Freddie but of the financial derivatives industry – is hugely significant, with potentially profound – and arbitragable – implications for the dollar, the markets and your personal financial future.

What Did NOT Happen

(These first several paragraphs in italics do not describe what did happen, but rather what could have happened in an alternate universe in which we actually had a free market that functioned without massive government interventions.)

The financial news of the day was that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were both unable to make debt payments and had defaulted on $5 trillion in bonds and mortgage-backed securities. With the US real estate market having fallen $4 trillion in the previous two years (non inflation-adjusted), it should have been no surprise that these two highly leveraged companies were not able to absorb the staggering losses. As this became clear to the markets, Fannie and Freddie lost the ability to borrow – which their survival was based upon – and actual default followed soon after. This default immediately triggered settlements on $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps (credit derivatives), which had been entered into by major financial firms who had promised – in exchange for lucrative fee income – that if Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac were to default, these guarantor firms would make good on the defaulted bonds.

As the value of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt plunged to 30 cents on the dollar, this meant that there was a 70% loss on the bonds (if one could find a buyer at all). This then triggered a call for settlement on the $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps outstanding. Because the debt of the two former titans of the financial world was trading at a 70% discount compared to par value, this meant that total credit losses were $1 trillion ($1.4 trillion X 70% = $1 trillion). This meant $1 trillion worth of payments was due from the companies that had guaranteed the value of this debt, through their entering into credit-default swaps.

Settlement was triggered, but as the credit-default swap beneficiaries soon found out, collecting their settlements was an entirely different matter. The financial institutions around the world who had guaranteed Fannie and Freddie in exchange for lucrative corporate fee income (and multi-million dollar individual bonuses) were all highly leveraged themselves (indeed, weaker than the companies they were guaranteeing), and absolutely reliant on the day to day availability of large lines of credit and general borrowing capacity. As the creditors of these financial giants realized that a trillion dollar hit was barreling straight at them, they pulled their financing. Having to repay or replace these loans, without being able to sell massive portfolios of illiquid assets in a market suddenly devoid of buyers, left nearly every major investment bank and commercial bank in the United States and Europe unable to meet their obligations – even before settlement of their trillion dollar credit-default swap losses.

The failure of the major financial firms triggered another massive round of credit-default swap events, with amounts well over $10 trillion by Thursday, and over $20 trillion by Friday. By that time, however, no one was naïve enough to expect actual payment on those swaps, as Wall Street and the rest of the world’s financial hubs had all been insolvent since Wednesday. When the markets eventually opened for business again more than two months later, the official drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was over 10,000 points, meaning the index was trading at a level in the 1,000 – 1,500 range.

What Did Happen

“They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. Well, there are no libertarians in a financial crisis, either.”

Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard economist

The above scenario is what might have happened if we took the naïve perspective that markets actually function on their own without government intervention, and that corporations take the consequences for their own bad decisions, in exchange for the profits that come from their good decisions. That is of course a hypothetical world that has little to do with current global financial markets.

If you want a glimpse of the real world future, and what is happening as the same flawed business model that destroyed the $1.2 trillion subprime mortgage derivative securities market now threatens the over $60 trillion credit derivatives market, then we need to look no further than what actually happened with the $1.4 trillion worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac credit default swaps. The companies were taken into conservatorship on September 6th. They have effectively failed even if legally there are some different ways of phrasing it. As reported by Bloomberg on September 8th, that led to a unanimous agreement by 13 Wall Street firms on Monday, September 7, 2008, that settlement of $1.4 trillion in credit default swaps had been triggered.

If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had actually failed to make payments on their debt – the consequences would have quite likely destroyed Wall Street right there. As illustrated in the scenario above, there simply isn’t a big enough capital base on Wall Street to absorb a trillion dollars in losses in a week, particularly once your creditors catch on to what is happening. Much smaller losses from subprime mortgage derivatives incrementally dribbling out over the course of the year, still might have taken down Wall Street, had it not been for the ability to hide losses in Tier Three assets (with the full complicity of the government), as well as the reassurances that the Federal Reserve provided by so swiftly bailing out Bear Stearns via JP Morgan, when a creditor driven bankruptcy (as described above) threatened to take down a major player.

Of course, the hypothetical collapse did not happen. The meltdown was averted because the federal government proactively and aggressively intervened to keep a financial disaster from taking down Wall Street (just as it did with Bear Stearns, and Long Term Capital Management the decade before). When the situation started to get bad, the federal government stepped in and – even if they still are hedging a bit legally – effectively guaranteed the debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Which means that they also – and this is crucial – bailed out the firms who had guaranteed the $1.4 trillion in credit derivatives. There may very well be losses, perhaps significant losses, but there would be no catastrophic loss there, that would threaten the viability of the financial system. Because what has really happened is that you have replaced a credit default swap on a quasi-governmental agency, that being Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, with a credit default swap on the full faith and credit of the United States government. If the US guarantee had not been substituted then it would be a catastrophic failure. But because the US guarantee was substituted, it’s seemingly not a big deal, though much remains to be worked out.

In other words, the biggest beneficiaries of the $1.4 trillion Fannie and Freddie bailout were not Fannie or Freddie at all, but the Wall Street firms whose senior officers just happen to be major political contributors to both political parties – with some of those senior officers also running the Treasury Department on a revolving door basis.

How the ending valuation of the credit default swaps for settlement purposes will work out is a fascinating question. Arguably you could say that the value of Fannie and Freddie debt just rose, not only in comparison to prices during the recent financial turmoil, but also compared to par value. After all, we have just gone from quasi-governmental debt to something that is much closer to being explicitly a full faith and credit obligation of the United States Government, which means we should be losing part of the small spread that Fannie and Freddie traded at as quasi-governmental debt over direct governmental debt yields. From this perspective, one could say that the United States stepping in and taking over actually improves credit quality and the value of the bonds, so there is no loss at all – but a gain.

However there still remains a level of uncertainty, as the debt has not explicitly been made full faith and credit of the United States government. There’s a taint involved, and there could be liquidity issues – as investors typically are not too fond of even small uncertainties. So there’s a good chance the ending value will end up somewhere in the 90s – perhaps very close to par or perhaps a little bit further away. Wherever the ultimate settlement prices, however, it will not be a massive loss, because what has really happened is that a swap has indeed taken place, and the United States government bailed Wall Street out of self-inflicted credit swap-driven destruction, through preemptively swapping its guarantee for the guarantees by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The real implication of this then is that there is no danger from credit default swaps directly taking down Wall Street, so long as the federal government is willing to aggressively intervene every time there is a potential failure. I think we can see a clear path to the future here.

Where Did That Trillion Come From?

Before going any further, let’s stop and ask a simple question.

Where did the money for the bailout come from?

How did a strapped federal government come up with the trillions (if need be) to make good on all of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s obligations?

How did a government that is already running over a $400 billion deficit so smoothly and easily come up with an extra trillion dollars or two, if needed? (With the $400 billion being based upon government accounting standards whose usage would get an individual or private firm thrown in prison. The deficit is far, far higher when unfunded retirement obligations are taken into account.)

And, for that matter, now that we’re on the subject – where did the government come up with the money for the $170 billion “tax rebate”?

How about that $59 trillion number for unfunded retirement related government obligations that keeps being bandied around? (The real number is a good bit higher as I cover in my article “The $2 Million Opportunity.”)

Where does the government come up with all that money, anyway?

The answer is simple – there is an unlimited supply of dollars. When you issue your own currency, and you are sufficiently determined, then there is an infinite supply of money available. Which could be a very good thing(?), for the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac credit-default swaps are only one small part of a much larger market – and much larger risk. As we will discuss later in the article, however, while the supply of money is infinite, the value of that money is a different matter.

Taking Full Advantage Of Implicit Government Guarantees

Click Here To Learn About A Free Mini Course That Will Teach You How To Turn Inflation Into Wealth.

Once you understand that the supplyof money is effectively infinite for a sufficiently grave emergency, then you are ready for the next step in understanding some recent events which might otherwise seem indecipherable. From some perspectives, this near catastrophe which could have so easily taken down all of Wall Street (had the federal government not intervened), was not a catastrophe at all. It was instead a highly successful experiment. For the many firms which purportedly took on the risk in creating $1.4 trillion of credit-default swaps for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do so for the fun of it or out of the goodness of their hearts. They did so because they got paid enormous sums of money for purportedly taking on all those risks. With much of that money quite directly passing through to the already wealthy individuals involved.

If Fannie and Freddie had not run into problems then the guarantor financial firms would have just pocketed all of their fees, ultimately as pure profit. Instead of that, a worst case scenario occurred that arguably should have destroyed every one of the firms involved in this business – and would have likely done so if there had genuinely been a free market involved.

What the experiment proved was that as long as the risk that you take is big enough, then the federal government and your former coworkers down at the Treasury Department can be absolutely relied upon to bail you out. Now, Wall Street felt this was likely already the case. It was kind of a shame to lose a firm like Bear Stearns, but the good part about it was it proved that a major derivatives market failure wouldn’t be allowed to occur, as was remarked upon in the article from last month quoted below:

“Government intervention has saved the $62 trillion credit derivatives market from facing the nightmare of counterparty failure during the credit crisis of the past year…

After the government backed rescue of Bear Stearns, the market views other major derivative counterparties as also “too big to fail”, and this implicit support… means the credit derivatives market will likely be spared the ultimate test.”

Reuters (Karen Brettell), August 7, 2008

With the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the markets have been shown to be correct, and the reliability of the government bailout occurring has now been proven on a much larger scale. If the dollar amount is great enough, then no individual firm has to go down. Instead the United States Treasury and/or Federal Reserve will preemptively step in, and effectively make every one whole (or close thereto), perhaps without even affecting Wall Street bonuses.

The principle is very simple. Take huge risks that you know cannot possibly pay out if you lose. In fact – that’s the key to the whole transaction. The risks have to be so large that you cannot afford to lose, and the economy and markets cannot afford for you to lose. Then one of two things happens. Either the risk event does not come about and you make an extraordinary amount of money as an individual and as a firm for having taken on this huge amount of risk. Or the risk happens and you have to pay out. Except you really don’t, because you can’t afford to pay out and you have effectively blackmailed the rest of the population through being too big to fail. Then the government steps in and bails you out. Except it’s not really the government, because the government can’t truly do that, it is the rest of the population which bails you out.

Situations like this are sometimes referred to as “moral hazard” – a weak and theoretical sounding term for an insider’s game of global economic blackmail that is growing at a rate much faster than the overall global economy. The cozy relationship between Wall Street and regulators is crucial, and much of the massive, hidden derivatives bailout that just occurred can be explained by looking at just who the chief “cop” is. US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson built his half billion dollar personal fortune as the former head of Goldman Sachs, meaning he was chief executive of one of the world’s leading derivatives players.

Making Sense Of The Irrational

It is only when you understand the game that is being played, that the actions of Wall Street and much of the rest of the financial world after the subprime mortgage crisis becomes clear.

The subprime mortgage derivates experiment failed spectacularly. The firms that were creating these derivative securities and the rating firms who were rating them were making numerous and obvious mistakes. Yet once the fundamentally flawed business model was disproven – the world did not move away from derivative securities. Oh, they stopped creating new subprime mortgage derivatives, but when we look at the arguably much riskier credit derivatives market (this greater risk is explored in my article “Credit Derivatives Dangers In 2008 & Beyond – A Primer”), the market grew from $35 trillion in outstanding credit derivatives in July 2007 — the same time it was becoming clear that something was going very badly wrong in the subprime mortgage derivatives market — to a current level of about $62 trillion. In other words the market reacted to the real world proof that these things don’t actually work, by almost doubling the amount in existence in one year. Indeed, the amount of credit derivatives outstanding grew at an annual rate that was about twice the size of the entire United States economy.

Now if you are an academic modeling a hypothetical world of free markets and rational behavior by sophisticated investors keeping the markets safe and fairly valued for all involved, this would make no sense whatsoever. Rational investment firms ought to be fleeing markets like credit derivatives – not doubling up on an already failed experiment.

The reason? It’s the best game in town. Take a huge amount of risk, be paid exceedingly well for it and if you screw up — you have absolute proof that the government will come in and bail you out at the expense of the rest of the population (who did not share in your profits in the first place).

Investing For The Bailout, Not The Crisis

Once we recognize that what is happening here is not a massive credit default, but a monetization by the US government of those losses on a potentially multi-trillion dollar scale, then our investment strategy changes dramatically. We are no longer investing for the crisis – but for the bailout. The combination of this bailout and the Federal Reserves unprecedented actions in forcing interest rates so far below the rate of inflation creates a “target-rich environment” for the execution of arbitrage strategies by both corporate and individual investors.

The federal government is not going to let the financial system fail. It will create however much money needs to be created to bail out the institutions and attempt to bailout the economy, as it has already shown in real world test after test, from the so-called “tax rebate”, to Bear Stearns, to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Which means that the government is prepared to destroy the dollar, and is not just prepared to, but is currently actively destroying the value of the dollar rather than let those firms fail. So the way you invest for the failure of an out of control derivatives market is to invest for the destruction of the dollar. Which means taking on new tools for a new time.

Four Steps To Creating Wealth From Catastrophe

The first step in creating wealth in an unfair world – is to avoid getting cheated. If you are investing money at short term rates of 1%, 2% or even 5%, while the value of your money is eroding at 9% a year, then you are being deliberately played for a sucker, and cheated out of the value of your money by the Federal Reserve.

Not that secret meetings are being held and an explicit agreement is being made to “get the little guys”. It’s just that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good to try to avert a catastrophic market meltdown, and that means that trusting individual investors get paid a negative interest rate on their money (after adjusting for inflation), while paying taxes on (economically) non-existent income for the privilege. Keep in mind as well that one of the purposes in destroying the value of your money is to keep the prices on financial assets propped above where they would otherwise be, if genuine market forces were setting short term interest rates. Which means that you are systematically overpaying for financial assets compared to actual fundamental values, and are getting played for a sucker there as well, to the extent that you are not being subsidized with below (real) market rates like the banks, investment banks and hedge funds. (See my article “Fed Manipulations Subsidize Wall Street & Cheat Investors” for more on this.)

The second step to turning financial catastrophe into personal wealth requires understanding one simple thing – which most investors do not. Inflation does not destroy real wealth, at least not directly. Inflation redistributes real wealth. Indeed, inflation can be used by individuals to quite directly take real wealth from both financial institutions and other individuals, as I illustrate in my (slightly twisted) morality tale “Inflation Pickpocket”. (To add insult to injury, those doing the pocket picking can often do so tax-free, even while their victims pay real taxes on illusory income.)

The third step is to understand that wealth redistribution on a massive scale creates personal opportunity on a massive scale. John Paulson (no relation to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) saw the crisis that was coming in subprime mortgages, researched and educated himself on this area (which had not been his field of expertise), and he turned the crisis into a $3-$4 billion personal payday in 2007. If you’re not a hedge fund manager like John Paulson, you may not have the tools that he used to turn a market crisis into personal billions. That’s OK, because Paulson didn’t start with the tools either. He started with educating himself and learning about a new area, until he came up with a novel way to profit from disaster. A method that wasn’t in the financial textbooks, and that he didn’t find by reading a financial columnist in the paper.

Next you need to understand that you personally may have more tools than you may think, some of which may surprise you. Tools which can give you the opportunity to turn financial disaster into personal net worth. There are ways you can use those tools to turn the destruction of the currency into perhaps the greatest real wealth-building opportunity of your life, on a long-term and tax-advantaged basis. But, if you want this to happen –you will need to start with learning. That is the irreplaceable fourth step. You are going to have to educate yourself, and work to not just understand, but to master some of the financial forces and methods in play here. You will have to learn how to turn the destruction of paper wealth into real wealth. With Turning Inflation Into Wealth being the key to this next step. My best wishes to you for turning this challenge into an extraordinary personal opportunity.

September 10, 2008 Posted by | Banking | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Credit Crunch- or Credit Collapse? Banking 101

December 06, 2007Credit ‘Crunch’ – or Credit Collapse?
by Alex Wallenwein


How can you protect yourself during the worsening credit crunch?

To figure that out, we first need to understand what this ‘credit crunch’ really is, from the most fundamental perspective possible. For, it’s root cause is not the sub-prime mortgage default crisis as financial pundits like to claim. It goes far, far deeper than that.

We all know by now that the entire world financial structure is dependent on one thing, and one thing only. That one thing is the very brick from which the splendid looking but dangerously tilting edifice is constructed:


Fundamentally, however, that term is nothing more than a dressed up word for:


The world’s financial system is held up and powered by banks, and banks are in the business of loaning money, which means they are in the business of getting individuals, companies, and governments into debt.

That would be okay if there was a way to retire this debt, but unfortunately the very ‘money’ we all use is itself a creature of debt and consists of nothing but debt.

How is that possible?

It is possible because the very definition of money (i.e., “M1” or the most liquid form of a country’s total money supply) includes bank deposits – and bank deposits are created when someone borrows money from a bank.

When you loan your neighbor a cup of sugar, you go and get some of yours and give it to him, hoping he will return the favor some day. As a normal human being, you cannot loan what you don’t have. That’s pretty obvious.

A bank, however, is a special creature. It is legally authorized to create what it loans you right then and there on the spot. Any funds credited to your loan account by the bank are immediately counted as part of your country’s money supply.

In other words, the bank parts with nothing of its own – but you now legally “owe” the bank the amount money you just borrowed.

Neat, isn’t it?

The bank now has a legal right to your future productivity as either an individual or business earning money in return for what is essentially – nothing. That means the money you just borrowed has no real existence, no real value, other than your promise to “repay”. That promise is what the bank now carries on its books as an “asset.”

There is another way to look at this.

The “money” that circulates throughout individual countries and the global economy is a legal fiction, backed up only by the issuing government’s license to the banks allowing them to create it in this fashion while at the same time giving banks the legal right to enforce your promise to repay against you in a court of law.

Physical cash (i.e., coins and central bank notes) circulating only constitutes a very small fraction of the total money supply, usually about five to ten percent. Most money circulates in electronic form, transferred by checks or EFT technology.

The Bargain

Now, guess what the issuing government receives as its consideration (a legal term for counter-promise) in this bargain?

The issuing government essentially gets a perpetual blank check from the central bank.

The central banks get authority to operate by promising the government in question that they will loan the government whatever “money” it needs to pay its ever-rising bills (at interest, of course).

That way, the banks make both us as individuals as well as our national government their debtors.

You and I, on the other hand, are promised by our government that we will be able to spend this debt. They do this by passing and enforcing a law that requires anyone to whom we offer this debt-money in payment for any debt to accept it – or else the debt is wiped out. The legal term for our offer is called a tender of payment (not “payment” itself). Hence the phrase “legal tender”.

Debt – as payment for other debt.

This system has its own tricky checks and balances consisting of bank reserve requirements and “money multipliers” etc., but there is no need to go into these right now to understand what the true origin of this so-called “credit crunch” is.

The True Nature of the Credit Crunch

Mortgages are really nothing more than another type of promise to repay.

When you take out a mortgage, the bank clerk types a number into the bank’s computer that shows up in the system as a “credit” on your account. This is done in return for your promise to “repay” the bank. That way, the bank gives you a legal fiction and your government backs up the bank’s claim against you, in case you default, with the banks right to sue you in court.

In essence, it is you – not your government – that backs up your country’s money supply. In truth, it is your future productivity that creates the money that “makes the world go “round” as the popular ditti says.

You are Atlas holding up the financial world, and the banks are riding on your shoulders.

The banks, though, have now finally shot themselves in the foot.

Their quintessential need to get more and more people into debt so that the banks themselves can prosper, has led them to generate more and more creative ways of finding more and more potential borrowers.

Their last resort was to make loans to home buyers who really didn’t qualify for a mortgage. They felt constrained to loan to people who really didn’t demonstrate the requisite future productive power they could pledge in return for the “credit” the bank created on their accounts.

So, when times eventually got a little tougher as interest rates rose, they began to default on their mortgages – in growing numbers.

Those borrowers didn’t have much to lose. They got their homes for zero or near-zero down payments, based on fictitious “stated income” figures which the mortgage brokers were encouraged to dream up for them in order to make it look on paper as if the loan was justified. The loan broker’s supervisor closed both eyes, issued the loan, and bagged his bank-sponsored bonus vacation for having found yet another sucker who would go for this gambit, and the world kept spinning.

These mortgages are now the epicenter of the so-called credit crunch.

But they are no different in nature than the very “money” that everybody earns and spends, the very money that governments, banks, and businesses now fear may one day stop flowing as abundantly as it has so far.

The sad truth is that both the mortgages and they money they are supposed to be repaid with are nothing more than – debt.

When Banks Don’t Trust Banks …

Normally, banks fear that individual or business borrowers won’t be able to repay them in time. Now, they are afraid of each other because no single bank knows what the other’s real exposure to the credit crunch really is.

You have read about the gragantuan losses of the biggest financial houses in the world. Some of these losses go into the tens of billions of dollars. Smaller banks have similar problems albeit on a smaller scale.

Knowing this, and knowing that these losses stem from banks’ exposure to disappearing mortgage assets, no bank in its right mind would loan to the other money that the lending bank itself sorely needs to fund its own operations.

That little problem has made the interest rate at which banks loan each other money shoot straight up.

By now, not only subprime mortgages are at risk, but even prime borrowers with sterling credit are defaulting. Their mortgages (debt) were sold by the originating lenders to other outfits called “SIVs” or ‘specialized investment vehicles’ – a fancy term for what boils down to sham corporations set up to buy the mortgages.

Remember that mortgages constituting promises to repay are “assets” in the debt economy. The originating banks sold these to investment funds like hedge funds and to SIVs so the mortgages wouldn’t appear on the originating bank’s balance sheet.

That, in turn, was important so that the banks could make more money by making even more loans. A bank is required to keep a certain “reserve to loan ratio”. When it originates a loan and keeps servicing it, the loan show up on its books as both an asset (the right to receive future payments from the borrower) and a liability (money loaned out). Assuming the ratio is one to nine, for each $100,000 of reserves, the bank is “only” allowed to make $900,000 in new loans.

By selling the loans to other entities, a bank can turn the formerly balancing asset-liability pair into a pure asset. Once it receives payment for the mortgage (at a discount, of course), its “reserves” increase by that amount.

The bank can then go and loan out up to nine times of that new reserve amount.

That’s how the original mortgage mushroomed into the financial equivalent of nine other mortgages, each for nearly the same amount. Take this process and repeat it thousands of times, every day, throughout the entire US economy, and you have a pretty good picture of the amount of default risk that has been created in the process.

The really big problem is, however, that many banks gave the buyers of their mortgages an open line of credit on which the buyers can call if they run into financial trouble. These backdoor agreements are now being called in by the buyers of these mortgages who are not receiving what they bargained for. The reason: the mortgage-“assets” they bought are being defaulted upon by under-qualified homeowners.

It is this exposure that now makes banks very, very leery of each other.

Banks regularly loan each other low-interest money to finance their daily operations. Without these loans, they cannot operate profitably. Without them, they must either use their reserves to pay for expenses or pay higher interest on their day to day operating cash. Both of these options shrink the amount of new loans they are allowed to make,

That is the truly devastating effect of the credit crunch.

When banks can’t make loans, borrowers who need to borrow can’t get what they need, so they can’t spend it, so that flow of money is not available to the economy, so the economy eventually slows and then shrinks when gross domestic product goes negative – and that’s what we call a recession.

The Mutant Recession

Just as viruses mutate to become resistant to lower level antibiotics, we are now seeing new types of recessions brewing that will no longer respond to the usually prescribed “treatment” of lower interest rates.

Under normal circumstances, recessions can be temporarily alleviated and even turned into another boom by injecting more “credit” (debt) into the economy. This is done by lowering interest rates, and central banks have a number of ways of achieving that.

But when banks don’t trust each other and stop loaning money to each other, that’s when you have a real problem on your hands.

If they don’t trust each other, you can bet that they trust their customers less. We are already seeing mortgage lending standards tightening up – and that is happening even though interest rates have been lowered 75 basis points since the credit crunch hit this past summer, and further significant rate cuts are expected.

This puts banks in a bind: They can’t trust borrowers to pay their loans back as they did in the past, but making loans is the primary way for them to make money. The result: They end up making fewer loans.

Fewer loans mean they make less money.

Fewer loans also mean that the rate at which credit (the money supply) grows begins to shrink.

When this gets to a point where not only the growth rate of credit shrinks, but where the total amount of outstanding credit shrinks, we have a full-blown credit contraction in the making – and the name we usually pin on credit contractions is “Deflation.”

The only ‘solution’ to this dilemma is for the Fed to inject more money (debt) into the system.

That is the root cause of the entire problem.

Debt must be created in order for money to even exist. To repay that debt, more money must be created, and that requires even more debt. Debt piled on debt, and then more debt piled on top of that. It’s an inverted pyramid of debt creation, and you know that structures like that cannot stand on their own. They must be propped up – but the system is rigged in such a fashion that only more debt can prop it up, which only exacerbates the entire problem.

You, as a business owner, private citizen, father, mother, employer, or whatever, are carrying this inverted pyramid. Picture Atlas himself, carrying an inverted pyramid on his back,except that Atlas’ size is about the same in proportion to the pyramid he carries as your size to the great pyramid of Cheops.

That’s you, functioning in this economy.

How do you get out of this situation? Is it all gloom and doom? No. There are ways to escape this crushing load – but that’s the subject of the next installment of this mini-series.

Alex Wallenwein

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December 13, 2007 Posted by | Banking | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment