Treasury Secretary Paulson gave a press conference yesterday and indicated that things had changed…that the focus of the bailout effort would not be on the purchase of ‘toxic assets’ but would be aimed to assist the capital needs of financial institutions and consumer finance. This ‘shift’ in focus has been duly noted by the press.
Is the ‘bailout’ program having any success?
To answer this question, I am roughly in the same spot of someone I heard being interviewed on Marketplace on NPR radio: the ‘expert’ was asked the following question “Has the efforts to add liquidity to financial markets and financial institutions shown any results to date?” His reply: “I think things are better than they would have been if the efforts had not been made.”
Does that give you a lot of confidence?
I just don’t think that at this time anyone can say more. We are in the middle of a situation that no one present has ever been through. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, an expert on the Great Depression, has seen to it that financial markets and financial institutions have been flooded with liquidity. From the banking week ending September 10, 2008, Reserve Bank Credit has risen from about $890 billion to $2.1 trillion in the banking week ending November 5, 2008. This is roughly a 210% increase in a matter of 8 weeks. (Dare I remind you that it took 94 years for the total of Reserve Bank Credit to reach just $890 billion and only eight weeks to add $1,167 billion more!)
The $700 billion bailout bill…is now turning into a provision of capital for financial institutions…a provision that the Treasury hopes will buy time for institutions to work out their bad asset problems. The unknown question here is whether or not $700 billion is enough or will Congress have to float more funds.
The underlying rationale for the provision of all this liquidity is that either (1) officials are going to be blamed for allowing another MAJOR economic bust to take place or (2) these officials are going to have a problem cleaning up for all the liquidity that they have supplied to the financial markets on such short notice. Success, in the eyes of the officials means that they will have to clean up all the liquidity once the financial markets begin working again. Failure…”is not an option.”
No one knows at this time what is going to happen…
The idea is to keep tossing more and more liquidity into the pot until financial institutions feel that enough is enough! No one has been here before! This is all new!
Your guess is as good as mine…
And then there is the need for fiscal stimulus. The Congress is going to consider a stimulus package which seems to be similar to the first stimulus package they passed earlier this year. It will be aimed at consumers and, although it may not be any more effective than the first package, it can be done quickly, and it will show that the Congress IS doing something AND any little stimulus to the economy will be appreciated.
But, a second stimulus bill is being talked up. This one would be more capital intensive and aim at real projects like projects to rebuild the United States infrastructure. The idea here is that consumers are not going to start spending much until their job security is enhanced and they are sure that they will hold onto their homes. Businesses are going to have to restructure their balance sheets and have some confidence that consumers are going to start spending again before they loosen their purse strings and begin to invest in capital projects again. We seem to be a long way from either of these so the argument goes that the Government needs to engage in some real “Keynesian” pump-priming. The problem with a Government expenditure program like this is that it takes time to prepare and then, once the bill is passed, it takes time for the projects to be implemented. So, help does not come quickly.
And, what about the stock markets? When are they going to come back? Well, we hear all the time that the price an investor is willing to pay for a stock is dependent upon future cash flows. Right now, market expectations concerning future cash flows are pretty depressed and uncertain. Investors must be able to sense a turnaround in future cash flows for them to develop any confidence to begin purchasing stocks. And, investors don’t really know the value of the assets on the books of a large number of companies. To me, a good argument can still be made for more asset charge offs, more bankruptcies, and more depressed forecasts of future cash flows. In my mind, we are not near the bottom here, particularly given the situation described above.
What about uncertainty?
There is lots of it. Much of the uncertainty pertains to the programs that will be coming out of the new administration and the leadership that is put into place by that administration. It is still a long way until January 20, 2009. The current administration has been reluctant to do anything in the past until it became absolutely necessary to do something about the financial markets and the economy. They still want to pass on as much of the decision making as possible to the newly elected administration. So, we are still in a limbo as far as the national leadership is concerned.
What about the international situation and international leadership?
Also an unknown. People are talking about a new Bretton Woods…the international financial structure set up after the second world war. First off, that conference had two years of preparation and negotiation before the meeting was held. There has basically been little or no preparation for the meetings to take place this weekend. Second, the first Bretton Woods conference had seasoned world leadership behind it. That is not the case at the current time. Third, there is almost no intellectual consensus concerning the cause of the current situation and what should be done about it. Fourth, the world is still going through a economic downturn with more countries declaring every week that they are now in a recession.
International coordination and cooperation are going to have to be vital components of the world economic and financial markets in the future but for right now, I don’t think that we can expect much concrete to be forthcoming from the world community.
So, in my view, we will continue to see a downward drift to stock markets with a substantial amount of volatility. What else is new?
For bond markets, United States government securities are going to continue to be the pick for risk-averse investors and spreads will continue to rise between the least risky debt and that considered to be more risky. I saw that the spread between Baa corporate bonds and Aaa corporate bonds exceeded 300 basis points last week. For even lesser credits the spread has been increasing at an almost exponential rate. If there is any indication that the credit crisis is NOT over, it can be picked up from the market place.
The only thing that seems to be positive news at this time is that the Bush plan to get the price of oil below $60 a barrel has been tremendously successful so far!