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Archive for August 16th, 2011

“The Sequel”: How 2011 is a repeat of 2008—only bigger, longer, and uncut by bailouts

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by Gonzalo Lira
Posted  August 15, 2011

I MIGHT HAVE MISSED IT, BUT I DON’T THINK ANYONE HAS NOTICED THIS SIMPLE TRUISM:

The structural causes that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 are identical to the structural causes that are leading us to another systemic financial crisis in 2011. And of course, the debt hole in 2011 is bigger than in 2008—a lot bigger. The only difference is the kind of debt at the core of the looming crisis: Mortgage-backed securities in 2008, as opposed to European sovereign debt in 2011.

That’s why I am confident in predicting we are about to have another Global Financial Crisis—I’m calling it The Sequel: Same movie, same players, same story. Only this time around—like all good sequels—the financial crisis we are about to experience is going to be bigger, longer, and uncut by bailouts.

By the way, that is the key difference between 2008 and 2011: We’re not going to have a Hollywood Ending this time around. The governments of Europe and the United States, as well as their respective central banks, do not have any weapons to fight off this 2011 financial crisis, as they did in 2008, for the simple reason that they used them all up—they’re out of bullets, both monetarily and politically.

So when The Sequel hits the big screen, there won’t be a Big Daddy Government deus ex machina to come save the day in the third act twist. When The Sequel hits, we’re on our own.

Let’s discuss the structural similarities between the original and The Sequel:

In both 2008 and now 2011, you had unpayable debts at the center of a fragile financial system. In 2008, it was mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations—the so-called “toxic assets”. I think we all know that story pretty well.

In 2011, we have European sovereign debt. And just like the toxic assets of 2008, the Euro-bonds might have been rated AAA, but they certainly aren’t blue-chip—they are more like brown-chip: That deep brown color peculiar to fast-sinking dog-turds.

In both 2008 and 2011, these unpayable debts—emitted over many years, accumulating silently and asymptomatically like plaque in the arteries—gave a false sense of prosperity in the years leading up to the respective crises.

In the lead up to 2008, the MBS’s and CDO’s gave the American homeowner a sense that their house was their personal private ATM sitting on their quarter-acre suburban lot. They also were a profit spigot for the financial sector, which bouyed the U.S. GDP growth, leading to a false sense of national prosperity, even as there were signs that the non-financial sector of the economy was diving.

In the lead up to 2011, on the other hand, the sovereign debt of the eurozone countries gave the European citizens a sense that they could afford to buy all the imported goods they could ever want, as well as the sense that their government could afford to pay for all the social welfare programs they were all promised—without having to pay for any of this by way of higher taxes. Hell, that was the entire Labour governments’ platform between 1997 and 2010: Blair and Brown gave the UK a welfare state and low taxes—all paid for with sovereign debt.

In both 2008 and 2011, you have banks exposed to these bad debts both directly and indirectly—and this exposure in 2011 threatens to topple the entire financial structure, just as it almost did in 2008.

In 2008, the financial institutions with direct exposure to the toxic assets—that is, the institutions that actually owned these crap bonds that would never be paid in full—were mostly American banks. Their capitalization depended on how pristine these toxic assets were. As it became increasingly clear that the toxic assets were exactly that—toxic—the banks holding this crap found themselves not only without the capitalization to pass regulatory muster, but in fact found themselves functionally insolvent—hence the suspension of FASB 157, coupled with the injection of $150 billion worth of capital by way of TARP.

In 2011, the financial institutions with direct exposure to toxic assets—in this case, the European sovereign bonds, especially from the PIIGS—are once again banks, this time around mostly European banks: UniCredit, Société Générale, Dexia.

Like 2008, these assets might be rated triple-A, but they’re dog-turds—and they threaten these banks with insolvency, if any of them default. A bankruptcy of any of the aforementioned European banks would have massive consequences for the rest of the global financial construct—it would not be a Europe-only problem, just as the bankruptcy of Lehman was most definitely not an America-only catastrophe.

And that’s just the direct exposure to the 2011 version of toxic assets.

The real danger in 2011 is the indirect exposure – that is, the liabilities that are triggered in the case of a debt default: Just like 2008.

In 2008, it was AIG and other assorted credit default swap sellers that got hit bad, when the toxic assets began to default—we all remember how the very ground we trod rocked as AIG stumbled and everybody had a collective nuclear-meltdown freak-out.

In 2011—you guessed it—it’s worse: We have Bank of America for sure has massive exposure to derivatives on European sovereign and debt, as well as . . . God knows what else.

Why do I say “God knows what else”? Because just like in 2008, the derivatives market is so opaque—not to say hermetic—that we are not going to know who’s going to go bust until it actually happens. In 2008, Hank Paulson and the Treasury Department didn’t find out about the AIG hole until the weekend before the company would go bust. Today, in 2011—even with the experience of how potentially deadly ignorance of the derivatives markets can be—there are no mechanisms in place to swiftly and accurately tally who has derivatives exposure to any particular bond or asset.

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