A Baker’s Dozen on Current Issues in the Markets

If I have the energy this evening, I’ll put up two posts: the first on the near-term, and the second on longer-dated issues.  Then, next week on Monday, I hope to continue addressing the balance sheets of the companies in my portfolio.  I still believe that credit quality will not in general improve, but that companies that can benefit from additional financing and obtain it will be the best off in this environment.

  1. First a few macro pieces.  I usually don’t comment on Nouriel Roubini.  To me, he seeks too much publicity.  Is the present situation worse than LTCM?  Yes and no.  Yes, the entire housing market and housing finance areas are affected, as well as some levered areas in corporate credit — CDOs and loans to private equity.  No, at least not yet.  During LTCM, the solvency of at least one major investment bank (the rumor is Lehman) nearly went down.  That would have been worse than what we have at present by a fair margin.
  2. This piece from Paul Kasriel is interesting.  He brings up the correlation of seemingly unrelated asset classes, and hits the nail on the head by explaining that it id the owners of many risky classes of securities that are forced to sell due to margin calls that drives the rise in correlations.  Then he makes another hit on a favorite topic of mine, Chinese inflation.  That is the greatest threat to the value of the US Dollar and the end of Chinese stimulation of the US through the recycling of the current account deficit.  (At an ISI Group lunch late in 2006, I suggested that Chinese inflation was the greatest threat to the global economy.  Jason Trennert thought it was amusing.)
  3. I disagree a little with this otherwise useful piece from Investment Postcards.  In the middle of the graphic it reads “Subordinate bonds (junk-bond quality) on balance sheet.”  Usually not true.  Banks are typically more senior in the financing structure, unless they originated the loans themselves, and retain the equity residual.  In the first case, there is low probability of a large loss.  In the second case, a high probability of a more modest loss.
  4. Countrywide has certainly scared a number of people, including depositors.  First time I’ve seen anything resembling a bank (S&L) run in a while.  Here’s a quick summary on what went wrong.
  5. Now, US mortgage lenders are not the only ones having trouble, but also those in the UK.  Part of the issue there is that a larger part of their mortgage finance is adjustable rate, which makes rising short rates proportionately more painful there.  Maybe the Bank of England, which has been among the more aggressive inflation fighters, will have to loosen soon.
  6. One problem with securitization is that that legal documents are complex, and arguments over which party has what right become more common when deals go bad.  I’m no lawyer, but expect to see more situations like this one between CSFB and American Home.
  7. Okay, a rundown.  What markets have been hit so far?  Emerging markets, real estate and funds that invest in real estatemerger arbitrage and LBOs, art, many hedge funds (an article on the demise of Sowood), high yield debt, and the stock market globally.  I’m sure I’ve missed some, but I can’t remember a time when so many implied volatilities went up so much at the same time.
  8. What’s not hurt as much?  Life insurance companies, though you sure can’t tell it from their stock prices.  I like Life the best of all my insurance sub-industries.  This area will come back sooner than most financials.
  9. What might have scared the FOMC most?  The move in T-bills.  It was the biggest rally over one or two days ever, as the Wall Street Journal concludes, that is panic.  Such an incredible bid for safety demonstrated a lack of confidence in the banking system, as well as other riskier elements of the markets.  It’s rare for T-bills and LIBOR to get so out of whack.
  10. But maybe things aren’t that bad, after all, US corporate earnings are rolling ahead at over a 10% rate.  I can live with that.
  11. Is Citadel a rescuer of Sentinel, or a rogue-ish clever firm that took advantage of panic at weakly managed Sentinel? Penson argues for the latter, but if there were multiple bids considered, it may be a difficult case for Penson to prove.  I would guess that Sentinel is toast, and that their clients will take most of the financial hits.
  12. Now, will the carry trade finally blow up?  After the move in the yen on Thursday, some thought so.  Some felt that it would plunge the world into a deflationary collapse.  I don’t think it will be that bad, but it will lead to inflation in the US, and an increase in the purchasing power of Asia and OPEC, at the expense of the US and a host of smaller countries (NZ, Iceland, etc.).  The parallels to LTCM are interesting; that’s the last time the carry trade got blown out.
  13. Finally, Hurricane Dean.  I wasn’t so bold two days ago, but I felt that damage to the US would be limited.  I’m more certain of that now.  (Someone tell the Louisiana Governor that there is no bullseye on her state.)  I’m an amateur meteorologist, but what I do in situations like this is measure the deviation of the track of the storm from the forecast.  In my experience, deviations tend to persist.  That told me that Dean was likely to miss Texas.  That’s more likely now; bad news for Mexico.  Pray for those in harm’s way.