by MIKE WHITNEY
President Barack Obama is determined to prevail in his battle with GOP congressional leaders on the debt ceiling issue, but not for the reasons stated in the media. Obama is less concerned with the prospect of higher interest rates and frustrated bondholders than he is with the big Wall Street banks who would be thrust back into crisis if there is no resolution before October 17. Absent a debt ceiling deal, the repurchase market–known as repo–would undergo another deep-freeze as it did in 2008 when Lehman Brothers defaulted triggering a run on the Reserve Primary Fundrepurchase market which had been exposed to Lehman’s short-term debt. The frenzied selloff sparked a widespread panic across global financial markets pushing the system to the brink of collapse and forcing the Federal Reserve to backstop regulated and unregulated financial institutions with more than $11 trillion in loans and other obligations. The same tragedy will play out again, if congress fails lift the ceiling and reinforce the present value of US debt.
Repo is at the heart of the shadow banking system, that opaque off-balance sheet underworld where maturity transformation and other risky banking activities take place beyond the watchful eye of government regulators. It is where banks exchange collateralized securities for short-term loans from investors, mainly large financial institutions. The banks use these loans to fund their other investments boosting their leverage many times over to maximize their profits. The so called congressional reforms, like Dodd Frank, which were ratified after the crisis, have done nothing to change the basic structure of the market or to reign in excessive risk-taking by undercapitalized speculators. The system is as wobbly and crisis-prone ever, as the debt ceiling fiasco suggests. The situation speaks to the impressive power of the bank cartel and their army of lawyers and lobbyists. They own Capital Hill, the White House, and most of the judges in the country. The system remains the same, because that’s the way the like it.
US Treasuries provide the bulk of collateral the banks use in acquiring their short-term funding. If the US defaults on its debt, the value that collateral would fall precipitously leaving much of the banking system either underwater or dangerously undercapitalized. The wholesale funding market would grind to a halt, and interbank lending would slow to a crawl. The financial system would suffer its second major heart attack in less than a decade. This is from American Banker:
As banking policy analyst Karen Shaw Petrou describes it, Treasury obligations are the “water” in the financial system’s plumbing.
“They’re the global reserve currency and they are perceived to be the most secure thing you can own,” said Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics. “That is why it is pledged as collateral. … The very biggest banks fear that a debt ceiling breach breaks the pipes.”….
Rob Toomey, managing director and associate general counsel at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said institutions are concerned about whether Treasury bonds that default are no longer transferable between market participants.
“Essentially, whatever the size is of the obligation that Treasury is unable to pay, that kind of liquidity would just disappear from the market for whatever time the payment is not made,” Toomey said.”
By some estimates, the amount of liquidity that would be drained from the system immediately following a default would be roughly $600 billion, enough to require emergency action by either the Fed or the US Treasury. Despite post-crisis legislation that forbids future bailouts, the government would surely ride to rescue committing taxpayer revenues once again to save Wall Street.
Keep in mind, the US government does not have to default on its debt to trigger a panic in the credit markets. Changing expectations can easily produce the same result. If the holders of US Treasuries (USTs) begin to doubt that the debt ceiling issue will be resolved, then they’ll sell their bonds prematurely to avoid greater losses. That, in turn, will push up interest rates which will strangle the recovery, slow growth, and throw a wrench in the repo market credit engine. We saw an example of how this works in late May when the Fed announced its decision to scale-back its asset purchase. The fact that the Fed continued to buy the same amount of USTs and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) didn’t stem the selloff. Long-term rates went up anyway. Why? Because expectations changed and the market reset prices. That same phenom could happen now, in fact, it is happening now. The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that “Fidelity Investments, the largest manager of money market funds… had sold all of its holdings of US Treasury bills due to mature towards the end of October as a “precautionary measure.”
This is what happens when people start to doubt that US Treasuries will be liquid cash equivalents in the future. They ditch them. And when they ditch them, rates go up and the economy slips into low gear. (Note: “China and Japan together hold more than $2.4 trillion in U.S. Treasuries” Bloomberg)
Now the media has been trying to soft-peddle the implications of the debt ceiling standoff by saying, “No one thinks that holders of USTs won’t get repaid.”
While this is true, it’s also irrelevant. The reason that USTs are the gold standard of financial assets, is because they are considered risk-free and liquid. That’s it. If you have to wait to get your money, then the asset you purchased is not completely liquid, right?
And if there is some doubt, however small, that you will not be repaid in full, then the asset is not really risk free, right?
This is what the Fidelity flap is all about. It’s about the erosion of confidence in US debt. It’s about that sliver of doubt that has entered the minds of investors and changed their behavior. This is a significant development because it means that people in positions of power are now questioning the stewardship of the present system. And that trend is going to intensify when the Fed begins to reduce its asset purchases later in the year, because winding down QE will precipitate more capital flight, more currency volatility and more emerging market runaway inflation. That’s going to lead to more chin scratching, more grousing and more resistance to US stewardship of the system. None of this bodes well for Washington’s imperial aspirations or for the world’s reserve currency, both of which appear to be living on borrowed time.
The media has done a poor job of explaining what’s really at stake. While, it’s true that higher interest rates would make consumer loans more expensive and put the kibosh on the housing recovery, that’s not what the media cares about. Not really. What they care about is the looming massacre in shadow banking where USTs are used as collateral to secure short-term loans by the banks so they can increase their leverage by many orders of magnitude. In other words, the banks are using USTs to borrow gobs of money from money markets and financial institutions so they can finance their other dodgy investments, derivatives contracts and ancillary casino-type operations. If there’s a default, the banks will have to come up with more capital for their scams that are leveraged at 40 or 50 to 1. This systemwide margin call would trigger a deflationary spiral that would domino through the entire system unless the Fed stepped in and, once again, provided a giant backstop in the form of blank check support. Here’s how Tim Fernholz sums it up over at Daily Finance:
“…Many informed people are worried” (about) “A freeze in the tri-party repo market, akin to the cascade of troubles that followed the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008.”….
In 2008, more than a third of that collateral was mortgage-backed securities. When Lehman went bankrupt, its lenders began a “fire sale” of the securities it used as collateral, which drove down the value of other mortgage-backed securities, which led to more fire sales. This dynamic would eventually lead to a freeze in the repo markets, which, at the time, provided $2.6 trillion in funding to the banks each day…..
Today, most of the collateral in use is U.S. Treasuries and “agency securities” — mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by the U.S. government:
… if the ugly day of a default comes, lenders may simply stop accepting U.S. debt as collateral. That will have the effect of sucking some $600 billion in liquidity out of the banking system. Unable to get funding for Treasurys, securities dealers would be pressured to sell them-or other assets-to find new funding, creating a fire sale dynamic…..
And, of course, this scenario is only about how the Treasurys work in the repo markets. U.S. debt is used as collateral for derivatives swaps and numerous other transactions; if they are suddenly worth less than expected, lenders can be expected to demand more collateral up front, putting even more pressure on the financial system. That’s why pressure is building to raise the ceiling before the world’s largest economy enters a scenario with so much uncertainty.”
Repeat: “That’s why pressure is building to raise the ceiling before the world’s largest economy enters a scenario with so much uncertainty”.
So the Obama team isn’t worried that Joe Homeowner won’t be able to refi his mortgage or that the economy might slip back into recession. They just don’t want to see Wall Street take it in the shorts again. That’s what this is all about, the banks. Because the banks are still up-to-their-eyeballs in red ink. Because they still don’t have enough capital to stay solvent if the wind shifts. Because all the Dodd Frank reforms are pure, unalloyed bullsh** that haven’t fixed a bloody thing. Because the risks of another panic are as great as ever because the system is the same teetering, unregulated cesspit it was before. Because the banks are still financing their sketchy Ponzi operations with OPM (other people’s money), only now, the Fed’s over-bloated balance sheet is being used to prop up this broken, crooked system instead of the trillions of dollars that was extracted from credulous investors on subprime mortgages, liars loans and other, equally-fraudulent debt instruments.
Can you see that?
This is why the media is pushing so hard to end the debt ceiling standoff; to preserve this mountainous stinkpile of larceny, greed and corruption run by a criminal bank Mafia and their political lackeys on Capital Hill. That’s what this is all about.
Central bankers don’t see their mistakes.Posted August 10, 2011 Guatemala City, Guatemala
Despite assertions that it has ended its policy of quantitative easing (QE), the Fed is unlikely to be able to do so until it also ends its zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP). This deadly policy duo has had terrible consequences for the American economy and every country using U.S. dollars, which continue to depreciate.
It is as though the Fed were riding on the back of a double-headed monster. It cannot hang on forever, but it cannot dismount the beast without being devoured. As it is, the U.S. Treasury depends on ZIRP to fund America’s ballooning debt. As investors flee an enfeebled dollar and ponder S&P’s downgrade, the Fed is likely to be the “buyer of first resort” so that the price of Treasuries does not fall, pushing up interest rates. So with the Fed insisting that short-term interest rates will remain near zero “for an extended period,” a phrase used for the past two years, a new round of QE is almost inevitable.
For its part, QE involves flooding financial institutions with excess liquidity to try to flatten out the yield curve and depress long-term interest rates in hopes of sparking a recovery. But QE has created a massive overhang of excess reserves in the banking system that constitute repressed price inflation. And the sums involved are truly staggering with the Fed having injected at least $2.3 trillion into the financial system since Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008.
From late 2008 through March 2010, the Fed bought longer-term securities worth $1.7 trillion (QE1). This included purchases of $500 billion of mortgage securities and $100 billion of agency debentures with a target of $1.25 trillion for mortgage debt. purchasing mortgage-backed securities and bailing out AIG and Bear Stearns, as well as buying other securities, led to an increase in the monetary base of 140 percent.
In November 2010 the Fed began QE2 by buying an additional $600 billion in longer-term Treasury securities, a program that officially expired at the end of June. Yet the Fed has indicated it will continue buying Treasuries using proceeds from maturing debt it already owns, allowing it to engage in continuing quantitative easing by another name.
With over $112 billion of the Fed’s government bond holdings maturing over the coming 12 months, replacement alone would involve purchases of Treasurys of over $9 billion each month. It also has more than $914 billion of mortgage-backed debt and $118 billion of debentures issued by government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). As such, this is a “stealth” continuation of QE with only a limited, if any, decrease in the money-creation process.
For all the fanfare about QE, it must be said that it constitutes a last-gasp step and admission of failure of other monetary policy tools. Consider the case of Japan. Its central bank, the Bank of Japan (BoJ), began asset purchases under QE to offset deflation and stimulate its ailing economy in early 2001.
After nearly a decade of setting interest rates near zero, the BoJ realized it had been unable to conjure up an economic recovery. Then after five years of gradually expanding its bond purchases, the BOJ exercised an exit strategy from QE in 2006, only to begin again.
Last March the BoJ increased its QE program from ¥5 trillion to ¥10 trillion (about $130 billion) scheduled until the end of 2012. Recently, it announced another expansion to ¥15 trillion ($183 billion).
A child untutored in economics might think it makes no sense to continue massive increases of liquidity into the economy that have been ineffective for so long. But most central bankers and many economists demur that previous amounts were too little and more is needed.
But the incentives that QE and ZIRP create for commercial banks make it easy to see why these policies cannot promote economic growth. On the one hand, low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, which should encourage more investment spending. But on the other, commercial banks pay almost nothing to borrow yet receive interest payments from the Fed to hold excess reserves, making them unlikely to extend new loans.
A sufficiently high interest rate paid on bank reserves will induce banks to choose a risk-free, interest-bearing asset rather than lending to private-sector borrowers. And so it is that commercial banks are earning record profits while making very few new loans.
The question of whether the Fed or the BoJ have an effective “exit strategy” from their policies of monetary expansion using near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing remains open. One possibility for the Fed is to engage in repurchase agreements (reverse repos) to remove some of the excess liquidity that it pumped into the financial system.
These reverse repos involve selling securities to commercial banks with the Fed agreeing to buy them back at a higher price at a later date. But once again, commercial banks will find the choice between holding risk-free, interest-bearing assets a much better bet than issuing new commercial loans.
In the end both QE and ZIRP have been ineffective in restoring economic vitality while also creating a massive overhang of repressed inflation. Most economists view business startups, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, as the key to economic recovery and growth. Yet QE and associated central-bank policies are diverting credit away from newly forming firms.
The Fed has now announced it will continue the “exceptionally” low short-term interest rates until the middle of 2013! This indicates that U.S. central bankers are unconvinced of the errors of their ways in their policy choices. That they are unwilling and unable to change course means that the U.S. and Japanese economies are doomed to painfully slow economic growth for the foreseeable future.
- Two of the most influential voices in investing say QE3 is coming soon (business.financialpost.com)
- We are all QEers now (superbullinvestor.com)
- Bank of England stops easing as inflation worries weigh (theglobeandmail.com)