Wednesday, September 17, 2008
No End Sight of the Financial Crisis
Borrowing Slowdown Deleveraging started with securities tied to subprime mortgages, where defaults started rising rapidly in 2006. But the deleveraging process has now spread well beyond, to commercial real estate and auto loans to the short-term commitments on which investment banks rely to fund themselves. In the first quarter, financial-sector borrowing slowed to a 5.1% growth rate, about half of the average from 2002 to 2007. Household borrowing has slowed even more, to a 3.5% pace. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist Jan Hatzius estimates that in the past year, financial institutions around the world have already written down $408 billion worth of assets and raised $367 billion worth of capital. But that doesn't appear to be enough. Every time financial firms and investors suggest that they've written assets down enough and raised enough new capital, a new wave of selling triggers a reevaluation, propelling the crisis into new territory. Residential mortgage losses alone could hit $636 billion by 2012, Goldman estimates, triggering widespread retrenchment in bank lending. That could shave 1.8 percentage points a year off economic growth in 2008 and 2009 -- the equivalent of $250 billion in lost goods and services each year. "This is a deleveraging like nothing we've ever seen before," said Robert Glauber, now a professor of Harvard's government and law schools who came to the Washington in 1989 to help organize the savings and loan cleanup of the early 1990s. "The S&L losses to the government were small compared to this." Hedge funds could be among the next problem areas. Many rely on borrowed money to amplify their returns. With banks under pressure, many hedge funds are less able to borrow this money now, pressuring returns. Meanwhile, there are growing indications that fewer investors are shifting into hedge funds while others are pulling out. Fund investors are dealing with their own problems: Many have taken out loans to make their investments and are finding it more difficult now to borrow. That all makes it likely that more hedge funds will shutter in the months ahead, forcing them to sell their investments, further weighing on the market. History of Trauma Debt-driven financial traumas have a long history, from the Great Depression to the S&L crisis to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Neither economists nor policymakers has easy solutions. Cutting interest rates and writing stimulus checks to families can help -- and may have prevented or delayed a deep recession. But, at least in this instance, they don't suffice. In such circumstances, governments almost invariably experiment with solutions with varying degrees of success. Franklin Delano Roosevelt unleashed an alphabet soup of new agencies and a host of new regulations in the aftermath of the market crash of 1929. In the 1990s, Japan embarked on a decade of often-wasteful government spending to counter the aftereffects of a bursting bubble. President George H.W. Bush and Congress created the Resolution Trust Corp. to take and sell the assets of failed thrifts. Hong Kong's free-market government went on a massive stock-buying spree in 1998, buying up shares of every company listed in the benchmark Hang Seng index. It ended up packaging them into an exchange-traded fund and making money. Today, Mr. Bernanke is taking out his playbook, said NYU economist Mr. Gertler, "and rewriting it as we go." Merrill Lynch & Co.'s emergency sale to Bank of America Corp. last weekend was an example of the perniciousness and unpredictability of deleveraging. In the past year, Merrill has hired a new chief executive, written off $41.4 billion in assets and raised $21 billion in equity capital. But Merrill couldn't keep up. The more it raised, the more it was forced to write off. When Merrill CEO John Thain attended a meeting with the New York Fed and other Wall Street executives last week, he saw that Merrill was the next most vulnerable brokerage firm. "We watched Bear and Lehman. We knew we could be next," said one Merrill executive. Fearful that its lenders would shut the firm off, he sold to Bank of America. This crisis is complicated by innovative financial instruments that Wall Street created and distributed. They're making it harder for officials and Wall Street executives to know where the next set of risks is hiding and also contributing to the crisis's spreading impact.