Merrill:US May Face “Financing Crisis”

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard appears to be trying to corner the market in apocalyptic financial news. But his sources aren’t evangelicals, survivalists, or even goldbugs. The experts he cites are with respected financial firms, meaning they don’t sound alarms casually. Even more significant, the terms they are using to describe what might be coming are uncharacteristically dire.

The latest bad tidings in that the Fannie/Freddie turmoil may lead our favorite foreign credit sources to dial down their purchases of Treasuries and agencies a tad. We’ve become so dependent on foreign credit that a mere tightening of the spigot would have significant consequences.

Tim Price, a UK based investment manager, gives a long-form treatment of a theme I’ve mentioned: we are way way outside known historical patterns. That is troubling to anyone, but it is particularly unnerving to the order-liking mindsets of analysts and central bankers:

That stock market price action has been so consistently dreadful with such little evidence of a sustainable floor despite flurries of ostensibly positive news (Santander / Alliance & Leicester; some form of formal pastoral care for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) could be interpreted as a sign that many investors remain trapped at the “denial” stage of this particular market disaster. Or perhaps many investors, institutional and individual alike, are now mulling their deliberative options. And some, presumably, have already reached the decisive phase, and already pulled the plug on much of their market exposure and initiated the dash for cash. This may or may not prove to be the prudent strategy; only time will tell. It certainly seems to show the merit in the advice that if you’re going to panic, panic early. We would merely hazard the following suggestion: the current market environment is flushing out those investors (supposedly “professional” and individual) who are congenitally unsuited to be making substantial portfolio allocations to the equity markets. The fiendish difficulty for those who decide to be out of the market entirely will be when to decide to get back in.

Classic Buffettology advises us to get greedy when others are fearful. This would ordinarily be sound advice, if somewhat difficult psychologically to execute. But if that blanket exhortation proves to be deficient or at least premature this time around, it will be because the nature of the problems facing financial markets, central banks and commercial banks is off the charts. It feels difficult because many of us have never been here before: only part-way through the historic bust of an extraordinary credit boom, only part-way through a property market correction that could yet last for months if not years, and only part-way through probably the gravest systemic crisis facing the banking system since the 1970s, if not indeed the 1930s. What accelerates and amplifies the downwave in stock markets is the state of our brave and newly inter-connected world where all investors are effectively neurons firing in a vast collective brain. And the global investment brain has suffered a stroke, an ischemic shock triggered by a sudden catastrophic lack of confidence mixed with heady deleveraging.

Now to Evans-Pritchard (hat tip reader Dwight):

Merrill Lynch has warned that the United States could face a foreign “financing crisis” within months as the full consequences of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage debacle spread through the world.

The country depends on Asian, Russian and Middle Eastern investors to fund much of its $700bn (£350bn) current account deficit, leaving it far more vulnerable to a collapse of confidence than Japan in the early 1990s after the Nikkei bubble burst. Britain and other Anglo-Saxon deficit states could face a similar retreat by foreign investors.

“Japan was able to cut its interest rates to zero,” said Alex Patelis, Merrill’s head of international economics.

“It would be very difficult for the US to do this. Foreigners will not be willing to supply the capital. Nobody knows where the limit lies.”

Brian Bethune, chief financial economist at Global Insight, said the US Treasury had two or three days to put real money behind its rescue plan for Fannie and Freddie or face a dangerous crisis that could spiral out of control.

“This is not the time for policy-makers to underestimate, once again, the systemic risks to the financial system and the huge damage this would impose on the economy. Bold, aggressive action is needed, and needed now,” he said.

Mr Bethune said the Treasury would have to inject up $20bn in fresh capital. This in turn might draw in a further $20bn in private money. Funds on this scale would be enough to see the two agencies through any scenario short of a meltdown in the US prime property market…..

Yves here. The problem is that the Treasury lacks statutory authority to do so, and despite going to the trouble to announce a plan on a Sunday before markets opened in Asia, there is no sign that anything concrete has been done to advance the ball.

Roughly $1.5 trillion of Fannie and Freddie AAA-rated debt – as well as other US “government-sponsored enterprises” – is now in foreign hands. The great unknown is whether foreign patience will snap as losses mount and the dollar slides.

Hiroshi Watanabe, Japan’s chief regulator, rattled the markets yesterday when he urged Japanese banks and life insurance companies to treat US agency debt with caution. The two sets of institutions hold an estimated $56bn of these bonds….

But the lion’s share is held by the central banks of China, Russia and petro-powers. These countries could all too easily precipitate a run on the dollar in the current climate and bring the United States to its knees, should they decide that it is in their strategic interest to do so.

Mr Patelis said it was unlikely that any would want to trigger a fire-sale by dumping their holdings on the market. Instead, they will probably accumulate US and Anglo-Saxon debt at a slower rate. That alone will be enough to leave deficit countries struggling to plug the capital gap. “I don’t see how the current situation can continue beyond six months,” he said.

Merrill Lynch said foreign governments had added $241bn of US agency debt over the past year alone as their foreign reserves exploded, accounting for a third of total financing for the US current account deficit….

Global inflation is now intruding with a vengeance as well. Much of Asia is having to raise rates aggressively, drawing capital away from North America. This may push up yields on US Treasuries and bonds, tightening the credit screw at a time when the US is already mired in slump.

Russia’s deputy finance minister, Dmitry Pankin, said the collapse in the share prices of Fannie and Freddie over the past week was irrelevant because their debt has been effectively guaranteed by the US government under the rescue package.

“We don’t see a reason to change anything because the rating of the debt of those agencies hasn’t changed,” he said.

Foreign policy experts doubt that the picture is so simple. Russia is likely to use its $530bn reserves as an implicit bargaining chip in high-stakes diplomacy, perhaps to discourage the US from extending Nato membership to the Ukraine and Georgia.

Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s premier, has stated repeatedly that his country is engaged in a new Cold War with the United States. It is clear that Moscow would relish any chance to humiliate the United States, provided the costs of doing so were not too high for Russia itself.

China is regarded as a more reliable partner, with a greater desire for global stability….

Yves here. Partner maybe, only in the way Ambrose Bierce defined it in the Devil’s Dictionary:

When two thieves have their hands so deeply plunged into each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third party.

If we think China is a friend, we will be disappointed.

Brad Setser, from the US Council on Foreign Relations, said the Chinese have a stake in upholding Fannie and Freddie, not least to ensure that their loans are “honoured on time and in full”.

David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC, said fears that regional banks could start toppling after the Fed takeover of IndyMac last week were now the biggest threat to the dollar.

“We have a pure dollar sell-off,” he said. “It’s a hating competition: at the moment the markets hate the dollar more than they hate the euro, even though German’s ZEW confidence indicator was absolutely atrocious.”

Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Merrill:US May Face “Financing Crisis”"

  1. laobaiqing   July 18, 2008 at 9:01 am

    The foreigners who invested in agencies and have no choice but buy more are as silly as prisoners complaining about their food. Why? it is costless and nutritious..

  2. Anonymous   July 25, 2008 at 5:27 am

    Not really. They have a lot of choices and I like the political angle Yves has talked about in this article. Russia and china are going to use these reserves to get what they want out of the US by way of bargaining chips. If they start using anything else as settlement currency, the US can see a skyrocketing import led inflation as their currency tanks against its key trading partners. The cost of this may not be so high for russia – as it continues to make money out of fundamental assets i.e. commodities which the world can redenominate to more stable index, and China has its own assets – cheap labor that can be productive for exporting and manufacturing to the rest of the world. Although its competetive powers in manufacturing if the dollar slides is going to be seriously reduced.