16 November 2008

What's going on for dummies

Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth has posted a comment on Garth Turner's blog that sums up our current financial situation in the simplest terms possible. I've quoted the whole thing here so you don't have to search for it. Once you've read this a few times, you'll understand a whole lot more than your financial advisor or real estate agent will tell you.

A 1930s style depression is not impossible by any means. If governments could avoid a depression merely by printing money, then one would never have happened. Unfortunately, depressions do happen, because ‘money printing’ (monetizing debt) doesn’t cause inflation (ie an increase in the effective money supply) during a hurricane of credit destruction. Traditional money supply measures don’t capture the full picture.

Credit functions as a money equivalent during the expansion phase, but loses the quality of ‘moneyness’ once expansion morphs into contraction. As the vast majority of the effective money supply is currently credit, the collapse of credit will crash the money supply. As is already happening, ‘printing’ merely send money into a giant black hole of credit destruction, thanks to the hoarding mentality that has taken hold amongst banks due to the collapse of trust. Banks know what toxic waste they hold in their own vaults, and certainly aren’t going to trust their colleagues who almost certainly hold the same.

Attempts to stimulate interbank lending are failing miserably, because you can’t ‘print’ trust. Once a deleveraging event has begun, it will proceed to its natural conclusion - the point where the (small amount of) remaining debt is acceptably collateralized to the (few) remaining creditors. All governments can do is to make it worse in the meantime.

We are still in the very early stages of the deleveraging process, where toxic ‘assets’ are being shielded from the harsh light of day, so to speak. Eventually, there will be a mark-to-market event, however hard governments and central bankers try to avoid one, and that will precipitate a firesale of assets at pennies on the dollar.

Such an event cannot be avoided, at least partially due to the creation of perverse incentives in the derivatives market. For instance, allowing a third party to take out a credit default swap against a company they do not own is analogous to allowing me to take out fire insurance on your home, thereby giving me an incentive to burn it down for profit. We have yet to see the ‘burning down for profit’ phase, but it is coming, and when it does, the scale of counterparty risk in the CDS market will also be revealed. A large percentage of companies will not be able to collect on winning bets, and will therefore not be able to pay out on losing ones in turn. This will turn into a cascade event in a $62 trillion market, the effect of which will dwarf the credit destruction we’ve seen so far.

This event is truly global - thanks to the tight coupling in global financial markets, contagion inevitably spreads. The use of derivatives intended to mitigate risk has in fact led to systemic risk. There’s a reason why Warren Buffet refers to derivatives as financial weapons of mass destruction.

If you follow the global media, rather than just the blinkered North American version, you will see how many countries are already teetering on the brink as a result of the credit crunch. Check out Iceland, or Pakistan, the Ukraine, Spain, the UK, Ireland, much of eastern Europe and many more. Many of those countries had far worse housing bubbles than the US and have much further to fall as a result. To imagine Canada to be immune from such a conflagration is simply fanciful. Our real estate excesses have been less extreme, but our banking system is vulnerable, and our export economy will take an enormous hit.

Have you noticed the extent to which shipping is collapsing worldwide? Check out the Baltic Dry index for a leading indicator of the effect of the credit crunch on the real economy. The letters of credit that used to be routine are no longer available, so goods do not move. We live in a just-in-time economy and the paralysis of shipping will eventually lead to empty shelves.

This crisis is very much larger than merely real estate. Liquidity, the supply of which ultimately depends on trust, is the lubricant in the economic engine. Without a sufficient supply, that engine will seize up, just as it did in the 1930s. With no means to connect buyers and sellers, people can starve amid plenty, as they did then. In the 1930s both resources and real skills were plentiful, expectations were nowhere near so inflated and we had none of the structural dependencies on cheap energy and credit that we have now. Without cheap energy and cheap credit, our highly complex socioeconomic system cannot function. A long and painful readjustment is not just likely, but inevitable.

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