European central bank

Finally, The End Of The Five-Year Armageddon Trade?

For the past several years, beginning with the collapse of the US housing finance market in 2008, debt and equity markets worldwide have been subject to periodic shocks and jolts that have given rise to what’s now known as the “Armageddon Trade.”

Reminiscent of the market positioning that occurred in advance of “Y2K” at the turn of the new century, a bevy of commentators took turns predicting that the market crashes that were triggered by the collapse of the securitization market for mortgage debt were about to be triggered again by various “black swan” (i.e., odds of happening conventionally, perceived like winning Power Ball) events either in America or overseas. This would lead to gigantic losses for security holders with “long” positions, and, of course, tremendous gains for short sellers who would have two ways to win. One, if those black swan events actually occurred, and two, if they could convince enough people that they would, so that they would dump their stocks and bonds in a “pre-fire” fire sale into the willing hands of the shorts when the alleged “crisis” was seen to have passed.

Of course, the Armageddon Trade talk was buttressed by actual occurrences that nobody predicted in their scope and impact.  The near death experience of the American mortgage banking and investment banking industries really did happen, along with the fall of Lehman Brothers, the distressed sales of Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Countrywide Mortgage, Wachovia Bank, and Washington Mutual, the resignations of the heads of Citibank, AIG, Bank of America and other financial giants accompanying their bailouts by US taxpayers, and the bailout/bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler.

If all this destruction of wealth could happen in the world’s most important economy with its global reserve currency, then was it so hard to believe that Greece would default? Or that Germany would abandon the Euro? Or that the Euro would collapse to arithmetic parity with the US dollar or worse? Or that the European Central Bank would prove too weak to act decisively? Or that Italy, Spain and Portugal would follow Ireland and Iceland into virtual receiverships along with their banking institutions? Or that France would finally succumb to its excesses? Or that China would collapse into recession? Or that the US would default on its outstanding debt as a result of the new political Tea Party mistaking the so-called “debt ceiling” law for a credit card limit? Or that the US government would actually shut down for weeks to satisfy the same minority Tea Party and their talk radio sponsors?

As it happened, however, none of these confidently predicted Armageddon events actually happened, dealing a blow to the credibility of the “Chicken Little” school of market sentiment. Instead, US stocks climbed 20-30% in 2013, depending on your choice of scoreboard. Yet as the new year began, the bad news bears put together a new disaster scenario to encourage the investment winners of the past year to take advantage of the “selling opportunity” while they still could, thereby driving down stock prices and rushing money into Treasuries, which were increasing rather than decreasing in value despite the Fed’s December decision to begin tapering its own debt securities purchases. The bears had of course positioned themselves in Treasuries in advance of their latest Armageddon call.

This time around, however, the doomsayers had to weave a much more complex and interrelated, cumulative case for the end of the world as we know it. This included pointing to the following. China was slowing toward a hard landing, based on one month’s PMI data in advance of an earlier than usual Chinese New Year, which always depressed economic activity temporarily. Another imminent “Lehman moment” collapse in China of their “shadow-banking” trust loan finance sector because the collapse of coal prices would not support repayment. A slowdown in US hiring (by some but not all measurers) and retail sales (for some but not all vendors), obviously temporarily impacted by unusually severe winter weather in two-thirds of the country. The potential for a rolling emerging market currency collapse brought on by runs against the Argentinian, Turkish and Hungarian currencies, which in global GDP terms do not amount to a hill of beans, plus a new Italian government crisis. And finally a protracted fight in the US Congress over the extension of the debt ceiling through the 2014 election cycle brought on by the Tea Party caucus in the House and Ted Cruz in the Senate.

This 2014 doomsday scenario succeeded initially in driving a “semi-correction” of 5% in equity values and concomitant rally in ten-year Treasury note values. The cable TV financial networks rallied to the correction cause (if only because they had been calling for one all during 2013 to no avail), bringing on a host of guest commentators predicting a 20% correction (S&P down to 1480), a new bear market, and even a return to recession negative GDP growth this year with the impending collapse of global finance and all commodity markets except gold. Many of them saw it coming in the supposed “weak volume” recovery of 2013 – it would prove a false dawn, as one prophesized.

But as the old prophet Bob Dylan put it even in his Super Bowl commercial, “things have changed.” The markets got smart. They looked under the hood of the global economy found problems, but not crises that couldn’t be handled by the powers that be. China bailed out a weak trust bank, proving they learned the Lehman lesson. That country’s trade figures improved in January, presaging stabilization in manufacturing while the government pursues economic reforms to reign in excess lending – good things that will help prevent crises. Italy had a relatively smooth transition to more energetic and popular leadership (learning the Berlusconi lesson). The House and Senate extended the debt ceiling, no strings, no filibusters (learning the Gallup Poll lesson) and the merging market central banks acted quickly to face reality of currency runs, proving they learned the Thailand lesson.

In short: plenty of worry for the famous wall that markets often climb, but no Armageddon’s on the horizon. Maybe we can get back to “normalcy” after all, even with increased market “volume” more to the upside. Even with that supposed crisis sign, low volume proves to be a fraud.  As Bloomberg has reported, trading volume measured in shares has indeed been down over the past five years, by 27%.  But the average price of shares is way up for the same period (from $24 to $77, well over double!). So volume measured in total market value has actually grown by a third over that period.  Score one for grade school arithmetic. Chicken Littles, it seems, just can’t do the math!

By Terry Connelly, Dean Emeritus, Ageno School of Business, Golden Gate University

Previously published on http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terry-connelly/finally-the-end-of-the-fi_b_4809501.html

Terry Connelly is an economic expert and dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and global head of investment banking at Cowen & Company. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education

For Once, a Consequential Fed Meeting

Wednesday’s conclusion of the first Fed meeting of 2012 may herald a new working majority at the Board more closely aligned with Chairrman Ben Bernanke’s view of the economy and the role of the Fed in supporting employement as well as restraining inflation. What would be the consequences?

First, the identification  of an inflation rate of 2% , give or take a few basis points, as the specific target of Fed policy. Secondly, related to that objective, a new transparency with respect to the individual expectation of the Reserve  Board members as to the likely course of interest rates over the next several quarters and indeed as far out as 2014. This will not be revealed by name but by a sort of collective range of projections, dropping off the highs and the lows to try to contain market speculation as to who on the Board  specifically is the high or the low. Thirdly, related to these projections, would be a change in the language of the Fed’s starement heretofore guaranteeing low interest rates through mid-2013 — words will be added to in effect EXTEND the period of low rates into 2014. And finally, there may even be an initiation of a form of QE3 — the Fed’ s version of stimulus — this time focused squarely on the housing market by way of extending the Fed’s purchases of bonds from Treasuries to mortgage-backed securities.

All four of these actions may not be reflected in the official post-meeting statement ,and some may come out shortly after the meeting. But any one of these four actions would lead the financial markets to anticipate the other three in due course. The main concern, if and when the entire policy package comes together, is whether the markets will somehow misinterpret the Fed’s “new transparency” in ways which the Fed does not intend and would soon have to correct, especially in the face of continued market nervousness about the Euro debt crisis. (The US markets simply have yet to understand that all negotiations continue on to the next Euro “Summit” —  because no side can politically or financially afford to leave an impression that they gave in too soon – this is all that is really going on with the Greek debt issue.)

It’s Still A Greek Haircut — Short Back and Sides

Here’s what’s going on with the European Debt Crisis, and particularly the Greek bond “haircut” negotiations; the fact that the barbershop closed over the long three-day weekend is of much more moment than the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of most Eurozone sovereign credits, which was widely anticipated by the financial markets (we should have guessed they would do it on Friday the 13th).

Here’s the deal:

Greece owes more money to its bondholders than it can ever afford to pay off, so the Eurozone “leaders” came to an agreement with the representatives of the major bank holders of Greek bonds back in December that the holders  would take a 50% haircut on the face value of their holdings in an exchange of those securities for new Greek bonds of considerably longer duration; but they deferred setting the  exact terms of exchange, including importantly the interest rate they would be paid on the new longer term debt  That rate — if set too low – would of course constitute an even deeper ‘haircut’ on the total value of their  holdings.

Most of the banking institutions holding  Greek sovereign debt can ill afford write-down on their balance sheet beyond 50%, which would put them in potential need for financial bailouts from their governments (the same governments S & P just downgraded, in part because of this very risk. But of course these governments would also have to pony- up more money to Greece if the interest rate is set so high on the new bonds that Greece can’t afford to pay the it off when due! It is this “balance of terror” that negotiators in December  felt would  lead to a rational, face-saving (as well as other-parts -of -the-anatomy-saving) deal on the interest rate that all parties could live with, by now.

Most of these bank holders bought the debt early on, but only some have the protection of hedges with credit default swaps, which would  theoretically (depending on the solvency of the counter-party) pay 100% of face value if Greece forced a haircut by legislation and thereby actually “defaulted”. The existing bonds are governed by Greek  law, which Greece could at least try to change to force harsher terms on the holders. Thus  the banks are  being “asked”   to choose between getting 50% or less of face value by “voluntary’ agreement, or, in a some but not all cases, take their chances on getting 100% through their CDS “insurance” under circumstances where the whole financial system might nonetheless collapse (a la Lehman) around them — and their insurers — because a forced conversion would likely foreshadow  a disorderly Greek default, which is exactly what most everyone has been trying to avoid! look like a voluntary haircut deal to me.

But now come some  hedge funds (the only lower form on the financial system’s Tree of Life apparently lower than Bain & Company in a Newt Gingrich taxonomy) that bought up Greek sovereign debt a the current market rate of t20-25% of face value, looking to cash in on the 50% haircut deal that they thought  would be a 100% windfall for themselves. And they have the Gaul (some of them may be French) to be so upset by the low interest rate Greece proposes to pay on their new bonds (with a push from the IMF,  Greece’s lender of last resort, which loves its own pocket book more than the hedge funds’ for sure) that they are threatening to walk away from any “voluntary” deal — I guess because just a 75% profit in a couple months isn’t enough). Greece being aware of this has threatened to change Greek law on the hedgies to force them to go along with a haircut deal struck with a majority of holders (the banks stuck, as described above,  between a rock and a hard place), knowing that this amounts to a default that could bring down the whole Euro house —  including Greece, as their Finance Minister well knows. The hedge funds seem tempted to bet that, rather than see that event happen, even the new Iron Lady of Europe, Frau Merkel, will come up with the  dough to let Greece pay a high enough  interest rate on the new bonds to keep the hedgies in hedge heaven.

Do we see any public spirited citizens in the room? This is not the first time the hedge funds or the Greeks  have played chicken with the world economy. My guess is that sometime in the next week Merkel will politely but firmly tell them  to stop the games or go to hell (namely, back to the drachma). This posture  worked in December with a slightly different cast of characters, and it worked with Berlusconi. But we may have a return to the wilder market days of last fall for a few moments this coming week or two before the dust settles. The effects of S&P’s downgrades can wait on this, because the too-easy ‘solution’ of letting Greece default is too much like the pre-Lehman “moral hazard’ talk that caused us all the trouble in the first place.Because if Greece is the new Lehman, then Italy, or Spain, or even France, is the next AIG, Merrill Lynch, or Bank of America, with or without further downgrades. But definitely without the lender of last resort that the Fed and the US Congress were able to be…unless the Iron Lady takes off the leash she holds on the ECB — dream on hedgies!