Wednesday, December 19, 2007

a $700 trillion volcano

This is a fascinating essay by Mike Whitney, published at Whitney explains several key items, the most important of which is how "the markets have been transformed by 'structured finance'."
What's so destructive about structured finance is that it allows the banks to create credit "out of thin air", stripping the Fed of its role as controller of the money supply. David Roache explains how this works in an excerpt from his book "New Monetarism" which appeared in the Wall Street Journal:
The reason for the exponential growth in credit, but not in broad money, was simply that banks didn't keep their loans on their books any more-and only loans on bank balance sheets get counted as money. Now, as soon as banks made a loan, they "securitized" it and moved it off their balance sheet.

There were two ways of doing this. One was to sell the securitized loan as a bond. The other was "synthetic" securitization: for example, using derivatives to get rid of the default risk (with credit default swaps) and lock in the interest rate due on the loan (with interest-rate swaps). Both forms of securitization meant that the lending bank was free to make new loans without using up any of its lending capacity once its existing loans had been "securitized."

So, to redefine liquidity under what I call New Monetarism, one must add, to the traditional definition of broad money, all the credit being created and moved off banks' balance sheets and onto the balance sheets of nonbank financial intermediaries. This new form of liquidity changed the very nature of the credit beast. What now determined credit growth was risk appetite: the readiness of companies and individuals to run their businesses with higher levels of debt. (Wall Street Journal)
The banks have been creating trillions of dollars of credit (by originating mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and asset-backed commercial paper) without maintaining the proportional capital reserves to back them up. That explains why the banks were so eager to provide mortgages to millions of loan applicants who had no documentation, no income, no collateral and a bad credit history. They believed there was no risk, because they were making enormous profits without tying up any of their capital. It was, quite literally, money for nothing.
Right, money for nothing. Structured finance explains the $681 trillion value of outstanding financial derivatives out there, according to the Bank of International Settlements. Whitney's key point here is that all of this money creation is out of the Fed's control. Adjusting interest rates won't fix the problem. The Fed certainly doesn't want to try to take control of monstrous toxic pile of money either, because then it would surely blow up, not just immediately, but also in their own hands.

If some unscrupulous financiers can come up with a way to generate money out of thin air, they are probably going to choose to generate a whole lot of it, not just a little money. Especially if it is hidden from all oversight and regulation. And in theory this money is risk free. It is insured (via credit default swaps). No doubt. Those insurers will surely pay off, now that the shit is officially hitting the fan. It's not like we have a $700 trillion volcano about to explode or anything..

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