New Order Ushers in A World of Instability

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, August 10, 2007

Hint to White House economic team: You might not want to have had the president repeat that numbskull prediction about a "soft landing" for housing at precisely the moment central banks were pumping $150 billion into the financial system to prevent a market meltdown over anxieties about mortgage-backed securities. Brings back memories of "Mission Accomplished."

Seriously, folks, we all need to get used to days like yesterday because there are going to be a lot more of them. In a world in which trillions of dollars have been bet on the premise that low interest rates and record-low default rates would continue forever, "repricing of risk," as the administration likes to call it, is not some minor technical event. It's more like a tectonic shift going on beneath the surface of the economy

Think about it. In the space of just several months, we've moved from an environment in which fly-by-night brokers were peddling low-interest mortgages to bad credit risks with no documentation and no money down, to one in which the largest banks are raising rates and tightening terms for their best borrowers.

In the space of several weeks, we've moved from an environment in which 25 percent of corporate takeovers could be financed with the junkiest of C-rate bonds, to a world in which the market for C-bonds has completely evaporated.

In just the past few days, problems in the U.S. housing and mortgage markets have come to pose serious challenges for Australian hedge funds, French insurers and mid-market German banks.

And in the course of several hours, a financial system that was seemingly awash in liquidity suddenly didn't have enough.

As it all unfolds, we are learning several painful truths about the new global financial system, which until recently was widely lauded for its ability to price and spread financial risk to investors willing to accept it.

One lesson is that the sophisticated strategies employed by bank and investment funds to "hedge" risk may not be as reliable as had been thought.

In recent years, for example, banks and hedge funds created elaborate investment strategies built around the presumption that Bond A would always go up when the price of Bond B went down, effectively limiting potential losses. But in recent weeks, many such strategies began to go awry as markets for mortgage securities dried up and fund managers began selling whatever they could to raise cash to pay lenders. As a result, Bond A and Bond B began moving in the same direction, creating losses on both.

Another popular way for sophisticated investors to hedge their bets is to buy insurance against the possibility that a particular company or set of mortgage holders will default on their loans. But in some cases, this insurance policy, known as a credit swap, has been issued by hedge funds that themselves had taken on similar risks. If things go bad, a hedge fund may not have the money to uphold its side of the insurance bargain.

It is in the nature of the new financial order that it's hard to figure out exactly what everyone's role is. All the borrowers are lenders and all the lenders turn out to be borrowers, so nobody -- including regulators -- can quite figure out where the ultimate risks really lie.

Yesterday's turmoil, for example, started when BNP Paribas, France's largest bank, announced that it was halting withdrawals from three of its hedge funds. So is BNP Paribas a bank or a hedge fund? Well, it's both.

The bank part has surely made lots of loans to hedge funds, including its own. And the BNP hedge funds surely used those loans to buy other loans and bonds, perhaps even those originated by BNP's bank or underwritten by BNP's investment bank.

These complex and synergic relationships have created a system that is more stable in the face of a mild economic downturn, a string of bankruptcies, or the failure of a hedge fund or two. But as Tim Geithner, the president of the New York Fed has warned, when the financial system comes under extreme stress, those same complex relationships could have just the opposite effect, creating a "domino effect" that increases the risk of a system-wide failure. That fear was very much present in the markets yesterday.

One concern is that rather than spreading risk among millions of investors, the current system has reconcentrated risk on the books of a dozen global broker-dealers who lend most of the money to fund managers so they can buy all those credit instruments. And it is many of the same firms -- Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank, Citicorp -- that have also underwritten hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate takeover loans that, suddenly, they cannot sell as they had planned. It's no coincidence that the shares of such firms have taken a beating in the past few months as rumors swirl around Wall Street that one or another is facing major losses.

We may be discovering, in fact, that the new financial order is not all it is cracked up to be.

Although it has provided ingenious new mechanisms to finance the legitimate needs of businesses and householders and new ways for investors to hedge risks, it has also created opportunities for potentially destabilizing speculation. It is now common for the aggregate value of "derivative" instruments to be many times the volume of the stocks, bonds or commodities on which they are supposedly based. And often it is the trading on derivatives markets that now drives the trading on "real" markets, rather than the other way around.

Australian analyst Satyajit Das makes the point that the main achievement of the new financial architecture has not been to spread risk so much as it has been to expand risk by vastly increasing the amount of borrowed money. Making loans to buy bonds secured by packages of other loans makes for big fees and exciting work for bankers. But as Das predicted last year in his book, "Traders, Guns & Money" -- and as we all discovered yesterday -- if the supply of credit suddenly dries up anywhere in the system, the elaborate new structure they've created can come crashing down on itself.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

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