Tuesday, September 04, 2007
It's a day of returns today. The US workforce is returning to work from a long Labor Day weekend. Macro Man's kids are returning to school. And financial markets are returning to fully-staffed trading desks and, one would presume, more normal trading volumes.
One thing that has not returned to normal is the money market, where rates and uncertainty both remain high. Markets are abuzz with talk of the enormous CP rollovers to be done this month and left wondering what will happen if there is no bid. The widely held conclusion, of course, is that the Fed will cut rates to ensure that there is a bid.
There is plenty of "real" news this week as well. The US sees ISM, the Beige Book, and payrolls. Weak readings will cement the notion of rate cuts, while strong readings...well, will strong readings mean anything at all? At Jackson Hole, Big Ben noted that economic data will offer less guidance than usual, given the uncertainty of the times. He may as well have just queued up the old Rolling Stones song, ably covered by the Soup Dragons: "I'm free to do what I want/ Any old time".
Of course, it's not all about the US. An early warning signal of how seriously CBs are taking the current market turmoil may be observed from the BOE and especially the ECB meetings on Thursday. The BOE should be a non-event, though the turmoil in the UK money market is just as pronounced as in the US. No, the real info will come from the ECB.
A month ago, Jean-Claude Trichet used his little word games to signal a rate hike this month. And while the ECB subsequuently issued a statement suggesting that the outlook had not changed, at the same time the ECB has provided mammoth amounts of money market liquidity via short and medium term repos over the past few weeks. What would be the use of providing liquidity with one hand and then withdrawing it with another? An unchanged decision would appear likely. The really interesting bit is likely to come in the press conference, where for the first time since the crisis began a central banker will field questions directly from the fourth estate. The degree of medium-term (or lack thereof) concern over the functioning of markets expressed may give us an insight into what the Fed is also thinking behind closed doors, given that the world's central banks confer closely during times of financial distress.
Macro Man retains the view that easing rates would be a mistake for the Fed. Yes, house prices in some markets are falling, in a few cases precipitously. But in most of those cases, these markets are drastically unaffordabe relative to local incomes, and a degree of normalization should not be the end of the world. Yes, some householders will suffer a hit to their wealth. But policymakers (in aggregate) cannot complain about the unaffordablity of housing on the one hand and then act to buoy prices as soon as they start falling! (Well, they can, of course, but not if they wish to maintain internal consistency.)
Moreover, Macro Man would view the current turmoil in the ABCP market as a long-overdue normalization. The chart below shows the amount of CP outstanding by issuer type. Note the explosion in ABCP over the last two and a half years; can there really be any doubt that this represented a bubble? It seems quite clear (as it did in real time to many people) that the expected excess returns to be generated by the assets purchased by ABCP had dwindled to the point of being negative.
A reduction in the "issue short term paper to buy long-term turds" business model is not an event that will cause Macro Man to lose much sleep at night, he has to say. What's interesting to note is that the amount of non-financial, non-asset backed CP has barely budged thoughout this event. If there's contagion, Macro Man doesn't see it here.
Similarly, the yields on CP suggest that markets are charging a higher rate for crap (ABCP and low-quality non-financial CP), while yields on high-grade CP not backed by turds have not budged.
So what should the Fed do? For starters, it could cut the discount rate to the level of the funds rate, so at least banks can lock in positive carry by borrowing from the Fed to lend in the interbank market. It could reduce the haircut on asset-backed collateral- or is that 60% margin the Fed's way of saying what that stuff is worth?
After all, if America's greatest export turns out to have, ahem, quality control issues, why should anyone in their right mind, including VIG, RIG, et al., show a bid?