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Prepare for a different financial landscape

By Mohamed El-Erian
The opinions expressed are his own.

With the European crisis continuing to dominate the news, many people now realize that today’s global economy faces an unusually uncertain outlook. Indeed, Europe’s turmoil is but one of the multiple global re-alignments in play today. What may be less well recognized is the extent to which specific sectors are already changing in a consequential and permanent manner.

This is particularly true for global finance where volatility has increased, liquidity is evaporating, and the role of government is pronounced but inconsistent. This is a sector where the functioning of markets is changing, along with the outlook for institutions. The implications are relevant for both economic growth and jobs.

The recent volatility in financial markets – be it the dizzying swings in equities around the world or the fragmentation of European sovereign bonds – far exceeds what is warranted by the ongoing global re-alignments. We are also seeing the impact of a consequential shift in underlying liquidity conditions – or the oil that lubricates the flow of the credit and the related ability of savers and borrowers to find each other and interact efficiently.

Facing a range of internal and external pressures, banks seem to be limiting the amount of capital that they devote to market making. Combine this with the natural inclination of many market participants to retreat to the sidelines when volatility and uncertainty increase, and what you get is a disruptive combination of higher transaction costs, reduced trading volumes, and abrupt moves in valuations.

We are also witnessing a loss of trust in instruments that many market participants – from corporations to individual investors and institutional ones – use to manage their balance sheet risks. The reduced ability to hedge current and future exposures is even forcing some to transition from using markets to manage their “net” exposures to simply reducing gross footings.

Meanwhile western banks, whether they like it or not (and most do not), are now embarked on a journey – away from what some have called “casino banking” to what others label as the “utility model.” Whether in America or in Europe, banks are under enormous pressure from both the private and public sectors to become less complex, less levered, less risky and more boring.

By withholding new credit, private creditors are forcing certain banks to de-lever – a process that is amplified by the sharp decline in bank stocks and the accompanying erosion in capital cushions. At the same time, the banks’ traditional global dominance is under growing competitive pressures from rivals headquartered in healthy emerging economies.

The result of all this is a further, across-the-board shrinkage in the balance sheet of the western banking system. This is led by Europe where some institutions (e.g., in Greece) are also experiencing meaningful deposit outflows.

After the 2008-09 debacle of the global financial crisis, governments also want their banks to be better capitalized and more disciplined. And while implementation has been both far from consistent and less than fully effective, the intention is clear: Much tighter guardrails and better enforcement to preclude any repeat of the wild west experience of over-leverage, bad lending practices, and inappropriate compensation approaches.

The influence of central banks and governments are also being felt in other ways that impact the functioning and efficiency of markets. Some of the implications are visible and largely knowable while others, by their very nature, are unprecedented and therefore less predictable.

For three years now, central banks have been pursuing a range of “unconventional policies,” particularly in America and Europe. The goal has been to reduce the probability of prolonged recessions and severe financial dislocations.

In doing so, central banks have gone well beyond their prudential supervisory and regulatory roles. They have become important direct participants in markets – essentially using their printing presses to buy selective securities, and doing so not on the basis of the usual commercial criteria that anchor the normal functioning of markets.

Market predictability is also being impacted by the erosion in the standing of sovereign risk in the western world. The cause is the twin problem of way too little economic growth and way too much debt. The effect is a less stable global financial system now that there are fewer genuine “AAA” anchoring its core.

All this will translate into a very different financial landscape. The change will be most pronounced for banks.

Look for western banks to be less complex, less global, somewhat less inter-connected and, therefore, less systemic. With some banks teetering on the edge, certain European governments (e.g., Greece) will have no choice but to nationalize part of their financial system.

Also, with the western banking system shrinking in scope and scale, look for new credit pipes to be built around those that are now clogged. With the aim of supporting growth and jobs, particularly in longer-term investments such as infrastructure, some of these pipes will be directed or enabled by governments.

Have no doubt, the financial landscape is rapidly evolving. Some of the changes are deliberately designed and implemented. Others are being imposed by the quickly changing reality on the ground.

The ultimate destination is a smaller and safer financial services sector. When we get there, a better balance will be struck between private gains and the common good. Banks will be in a better position to serve the real economy without exposing it to catastrophic risk and harmful abuses.

The next few months will shed light on the extent to which governments and, to a lesser extent, business leaders are able to properly orchestrate the process. The more they fall short, the less growth and fewer jobs there will be.

Photo: A money exchanger speaks on the telephone in his shop in Sanaa January 5, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

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CHART: Where We Are In The Failure Of The Fiat Currency Structure

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Good honest charts never go out of fashion (although we have “moved” along the chart for the past year).

Probably still the best “one chart says it all”.

Click here to enlarge.

This post originally appeared at The Trader.

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ISDA: We Can’t Tell You If The Greek Bond Swap Will Trigger A Credit Event Yet

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Simone Foxman

The International Swaps and Derivatives Association — responsible for determining when a credit event (that would trigger credit default swap payouts) occurs — just updated its Q&A on Greek sovereign debt to account for the newest changes to the private sector bond swap discussed last night.

Their prognosis? If the swap is indeed voluntary, then there won’t be a credit event, even with haircuts of 50%.

But the likelihood that most bondholders will agree to those kinds of losses without significant coersion is slim. Numbers on participation when that haircut was just 21% were at best around 85%, under the 90% Greece demanded.

The ISDA says it can’t make a final decision on whether or not there will be a credit event until a formal decision is made:

UPDATE OCTOBER 27: The determination of whether the Eurozone deal with regard to Greece is a credit event under CDS documentation will be made by ISDA’s EMEA Determinations Committee when the proposal is formally signed, and if a market participant requests a ruling from the DC. Based on what we know it appears from preliminary news reports that the bond restructuring is voluntary and not binding on all bondholders. As such, it does not appear to be likely that the restructuring will trigger payments under existing CDS contracts. In addition, it is important to note that the restructuring proposal is not yet at the stage at which the ISDA Determinations Committee would be likely to accept a request to determine whether a credit event has occurred.

Read their full Q&A on Greek sovereign debt here.

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Here’s What Europe Just Agreed To Do About Its Banking Crisis

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Simone Foxman

For the majority of a nerve-wracking summit that dragged on more than 10 hours, from 6 PM CET Wednesday to 4 AM CET Thursday morning, all attempts at progress to stem the crisis appeared to hit a wall.

But EU leaders finally made a breakthrough.

At 3:30 AM CET, we heard that they were closing talks with bank representatives on “voluntary” 50% haircuts on holdings of Greek bonds. Then we started hearing about leverage, and suddenly — at 4 AM CET (10 PM EST) — we finally got word of some agreement.

So here’s the rundown of what leaders decided (EU leaders were still pretty vague about all the numbers, however, citing estimates for most things):

– 50% haircuts on private holdings of Greek bonds through 2020. Evidently this will still be voluntary. It would cut Greece’s debt by €100 billion ($139 billion). German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU leaders aim to see the credit swap take place in January.

– Leverage will increase the firepower of the European Financial Stability Facility by 4-5 times, to somewhere in the range of €1 trillion ($1.4 trillion).

– China and the IMF could play a huge role in the bailout. Not only has the IMF expressed interest in playing a role, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that he will call Chinese Premier Hu Jintao around midday tomorrow, presumably to discuss this.

– Greece will receive €130 billion ($180 billion) in fresh aid. We’re thinking this includes the nearly €110 billion ($150 billion) it was promised back in July.

– EU leaders believe Italy’s commitment to debt sustainability and encouraging growth, even though Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi didn’t propose any new measures to accomplish these goals in a letter he wrote to some members of the summit today.

– The European Banking Authority estimates that only €106 billion ($147 billion) in funding will be needed to recapitalize European banks and help them meet capital requirements of 9%. Turns out it didn’t actually conduct new stress tests accounting for adverse scenarios this time around. European Council President Herman van Rompuy told reporters that banks must reach this 9% ratio with only the “highest quality capital.” We’re hoping he means Tier 1 capital and will not allow banks to use riskier convertible bonds to meet this number.

– We aren’t likely to see a final roadmap on EU treaty changes until March 2012.

– A statement from the summit can be found here.

Clearly there’s still a lot more progress to be made towards truly solving the crisis. None of these steps alone — or even altogether — will do that, not to mention that the numbers we’re seeing here have not all been written in stone. Indeed, until we see EU authorities start to execute some of these proposals, it will be difficult to bank on their success.

That said, the fact that EU leaders actually made (at least preliminarily) plans on a lot of the issues they said they would — particularly after all the negative news today and earlier this week — will reassure markets that these leaders are indeed capable of accomplishing something when pressed.

Looking forward, we will be looking to see EU leaders make good on these proposals, without diluting them to ineffectiveness. In particular, treaty changes — probably the most controversial of any measures we’ve heard discussed thus far — will be key to actually mending the broken bones of the euro area.

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