Friday, November 20, 2009

The uncertainty just won't go away!

This from the Financial Times on the morning of Friday, November 20, 2009: “Short-term US interest rates turned negative on Thursday as banks frantically stockpiled government securities in order to polish their balance sheets for the end of the year.” (See:

“The development highlighted the continuing distortions in the financial system more than a year after Lehman Brothers’ failure triggered a global crisis.”

“With the Federal Reserve maintaining an overnight target rate of zero to 0.25 per cent, investors are demonstrating a willingness to completely forgo interest income—or even to take a small loss—to own securities that are seen as safe.”

Just how “safe” do these banks have to appear?

The way they are acting indicate that they are not very “safe” at all.

Total reserves at depository institutions for the two weeks ending November 18 averaged $1,106 billion of which $1,068 were reserve balances with Federal Reserve Banks and $38 billion was vault cash used to satisfy required reserves.

The Fed has pumped roughly $350 billion into the banking system over the past 13-weeks primarily through the purchase of open market securities.

The effective Federal Funds rate has fallen steadily through the fall from August and averaged 11 basis points toward the end of the latest banking week.

Putting this information together indicates, to me, a banking system that is still seriously threatened and desirous of all the spare cash that it can attain. This is not a situation of quantitative easing but of bankers that are overly concerned with their solvency. The Federal Reserve is supplying reserves “on demand.” They are not, at this time, initiating the supply.

And, why might this be so?

Well, take a look at some of the headlines of the past week: United States mortgage delinquencies reach a record high; bankruptcies continue to remain near record levels; commercial real estate to remain major problem for years; commercial real estate too complex for government to bail out; unemployment at 25-year high; credit card delinquencies remain at record levels; and bank failures will continue to average about 3 a week for the next 12 to 18 months.

President Obama is even talking about the possibility of a “double-dip” recession.

The distortions in the financial system continue to be enormous. Even given these attitudes within the banking system, as the Financial Times reports, “many” of the leading US banks are “sitting on big trading profits.”

And, why not? When they can borrow for less than 35 basis points and lend out at 350 basis points who cannot make profits. When they can engage in the “carry” trade and profit from the declining dollar as well as earn large spreads, who cannot make profits.

Stock markets have been living off of momentum trading. There are so many unknowns about the future of business and industry, let alone finance that the justification for the rise in stock prices since March can continue to be questioned.

The real problem that exists in the market right now is the huge overhang of uncertainty. Not only are there unknowns about the recovery of industry and finance right now, there are also unknowns related to the huge cloud of government budget deficits that hang over the financial markets for the future and the concern over the ability of the Federal Reserve to “exit” from all the reserves it has put into the banking system.

The risk that is incorporated in this environment shows itself from time-to-time. Of course, the massive rise in the price of gold has been one place that investors have flocked to this year. Another continues to be the world-wide demand for United States Treasury securities. And, like yesterday, enough bad news causes currency traders to move rapidly back into United States dollars for “reasons of safety.”

I know many measures of market risk have declined substantially over the past six months or so. One has to go back to November 2007 to see a spread between Aaa and Baa yields as low as they are now. Likewise, with spreads on high-yield securities. The VIX index has fallen, once again, around its 52-week low. My belief is that these measures are so low because of the Fed’s interest rate policy. Interest rates, in general, are lower than they would be if the Fed was not forcing low rates on the market, and interest rate spreads are low for the same reason.

Still, there is much to be wary of. The only certainty that exists right now is that the Federal Reserve, and other central banks around the world, will keep short term interest rates low for an “extended period.” But, at some point, these rates are going to have to rise. Until they do, the interest arbitrage opportunities will remain and large financial institutions will continue to take away large profits from the financial market. Furthermore, the carry trade will continue to prosper using funds from the United States.

The question here is, when will all the investors that are “making it” through government support and government guarantees head for the doors. It is only logical that when there is an indication that the Federal Reserve is going to start letting interest rates rise that there will be a rush to get out of the market or move to the other side of the market. In such a situation, the financial firms that are big in the trading area cannot afford to be second or third getting to the door to pull their own exit.

How will this leave the banks that are written about in the Financial Times? If these banks, generally the smaller ones, have “stockpiled” government securities, how will they handle the decline in the prices of these securities once interest rates begin to rise? If they are concerned about their solvency now, what will their condition look like under this kind of scenario?

If there is a rush to get out of bonds, will the Federal Reserve back off its exit strategy?

Uncertainty continues to rule the markets. And, on top of the basic market insecurity, there seems to be a growing insecurity about our governmental leaders (Geithner and Bernanke to start with), and about the institutions of our government (see House attack on secrecy in the Federal Reserve). Uncertainty is bad enough but if people have little or no confidence in our leaders and our institutions where are they to turn?

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