Run on the Bank
Central Banks Inject Liquidity
These terms are being thrown around left and right these days and I’ve read and talked so much about it that my brain is about to explode from serious information overload. Here’s my attempt to present the big-picture synopsis of what’s been happening.
Part I: How We Got Here:
Low Interest Rates:
Starting in 2001, after the dot-com crash and 9-11, the economy was teetering on the edge of recession. To stimulate economic activity, the Fed began to lower interest rates. From the corresponding chart (Bankrate.com), we can see that interest rates across the whole economy fell dramatically.
Along with lower interest rates — beginning with those set by the Federal Reserve — there was also a dramatic increase in the money supply.
Since interest rates are lower, demand for money will be higher. The Fed sees to it that money will be available through its “open market operations.” Most often, the Fed will engage in repurchase agreements (repos) with the money center banks (Citibank, JPMorgan, Bank of America, etc.). Essentially a repo transaction is when a bank deposits collateral (loans) at the Fed and receives cash in exchange. This cash is then lent to the bank’s customers who are eager to borrow money at low interest rates.
The other option is for the Fed to buy Treasuries from the banks (outright purchases). The Fed buys Treasuries with freshly printed currency, thus dramatically increasing the money supply. As I understand it, the Fed rarely does this because it is considered more permanent and it can be highly inflationary.
Over the past few years, the Fed was not buying US Treasuries but our foreign trading partners certainly were!
In 2006, the US trade deficit was nearly $764 billion: the US bought $764 billion more stuff from the rest of the world than the rest of the world bought from us.
What happened to all of those dollar bills sent to our trading partners? A great deal of them found their way right back into the USA through the purchase of US Treasuries and T-Bills. Consider the massive foreign currency reserves held by the Chinese government: as of June, 2007 they stood at nearly $1.4 trilion. Of this amount, it is estimated that the vast majority is held US Treasuries and other USD debt instruments.
And let’s not forget that the US was not the only country with a stimulative interest rate environment. Interest rates and availability of loans from Japan was another hugely stimulative factor.
Increased Risk Appetite:
With so much money available at such low interest rates, the collective risk appetite of market participants across the globe increased. All of this newly created money had to flow somewhere. Because of China’s willingness to produce consumer goods at such low prices, the increased money did not, by and large, slosh into the prices of consumer goods. Instead it sloshed into asset prices: bonds, stocks, commodities, wine, art, and especially REAL ESTATE.
The new money certainly helped to push home prices higher. The other major factor was the increased risk tolerance and demand for risky loans. Wall Street banks created new “structured products” which were sold to investors all over the world. Leveraged products such as CDO’s & CMO’s were created and promised increased yield with low risk to investors. These products contained lots of subprime and Alt-A mortgages yet they managed to receive AAA ratings from S&P, Moody’s & Fitch.
Typically, banks are very careful about who they lend money to because they want to get paid back. In this latest cycle, the borrower’s ability to repay was irrelevant because the mortgage brokers immediately sold the loans to Wall Street. Because of these new products and the strong market to sell them into, Wall Street had a voracious appetite for risky home loans.
Yesterday’s WSJ has a must-read free article about a family in California who bought a $567,000 house with a combined income of $90,000, and NO-MONEY DOWN. Their mortgage was an interest-only, adjustable rate mortgage. At the start, their yearly payments on the loan were $38,400. After a reset which is coming shortly, the mortgage will cost them $50,000 per year. It doesn’t take a financially sophisticated person to realize that this mortgage is totally unaffordable!
But it’s OK because housing prices only go up, right? Wrong – the price appreciation in many neighborhoods was driven by the hysteria and availability of easy loans. Without that, prices must fall.
To be continued…