Seven Notes, Primarily on the Financial Sector

1)  I have been arguing for a while that commercial mortgages are an unresolved issue with most banks, who still hold their loans at par.  Contrast that with the pricing on Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities [CMBS] or REIT stock prices, which show commercial real estate pricing in the dumps.  Look at these articles: (one, two, three).  How many commercial properties are inverted?  Who knows, but when properties sell for significantly less than replacement costs, it is not a good scene.

Regarding CMBS, as the loss estimates ratchet up, the credit ratings ratchet down.  Securities sold in 2005 and after will suffer, as well as marginal CMBS from earlier vintages.

2)  Outside of conforming mortgages, losses in residential mortgages are considerable.  Consider how S&P is raising its loss assumptions on alt-A loans.  Or consider how being underwater, or close to underwater affects the willingness of people to default.

3)  That last article helps point out a truth that is neglected.  Defaults predominantly happen when borrowers are underwater, or nearly so.  Changing  the mortgage interest rate is cheaper in the short run, but does not cure  the situation as well as reducing the principal (forgiving part of the loan).  Why less loan forgiveness?  Two reasons: Accounting would require a bigger short-term loss, and the government prefers subidizing a piece at a time, so it prefers smaller annual subsidies, rather than a once-and-for-all cure.  They would rather pay over time, and overcommit future budgets, than pay the full freight now, even if it is cheaper in the long run to do so.

4)  But many defaults are strategic.  The owners know which side their bread is buttered on, and they default when their properties are too far underwater (one, two).

5)  The states can’t print money like the Federal government can.  Excluding California, of course, which has its new currency, the IOU.  (We are still waiting for a secondary market to arise.  Perhaps some enterprising bank  will offer to buy IOUs at a discount.  As it is, banks either honor in full or refuse to honor the IOUs.)  The states represent the current troubles better than the Federal government does, because they must meet the challenge through expense cuts and tax increases, both of which are painful.

All that said, next year may be more painful, because of greater unemployment, and lower taxes from real property.

6)  Beware junior debt.  I know that at other times I have used trust preferred securities offensively to make money as the credit cycle turned in 2002, but that is a very hard game to play, and we aren’t there yet for this cycle.

7) I’ve had many people writing me for investment advice, and in the near term, I will try to write a piece that summarizes my views of what to do now.  In broad, I lean toward reducing risk exposure, and sitting on high quality short term debt.  For those that hedge, quality will be rewarded, and structure penalized over the next  6-12 months.  And, avoid financials, aside from exchanges and insurers with clean assets.