The rules of financial health are simple, but remarkably hard to follow. Be frugal in order to save, use your savings to buy the whole market not parts of it, if this system ain't broke, don't fix it. And don't underestimate your longevity.
Dislocations: Financial and Fundamental
The crash of 2007 was more than a bank panic. Thirty years of excessive borrowing had reached a point where something was certain to topple it. Alan Greenspan deplored "irrational exuberance" in 1996, but only in 2007 did everybody try to get out the door at the same time. The crash announced the switch to deleveraging, it did not cause it.
Whither, Federal Reserve? (2)After Our Crash
Whither, Federal Reserve? (2)
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On St. Patrick's Day, 2008, Bear Stearns became insolvent and was given to J P Morgan. The Federal Reserve assumed all risks. Effectively, the fifth largest investment bank in America was nationalized for $2 a share, because no private bank would buy it at any price. A year earlier it was worth $170 a share, even one trading day earlier it sold for $26.
At the heart of this catastrophe were "repo's", or repurchase agreements. (They should not be confused with repossessions of cars and other hard goods bought on time, which are also called repo's.) Although most people had never heard of the high-finance version of repo's, the volume of these instruments had grown to $5 trillion by January 2005, presumably even several times larger than that when they caused the nationalization of Bear Stearns. Newsmedia accounts offered the guess that 16% of the resources of the whole financial sector were caught in open repo's when the music stopped. Repo's must be awfully good, or awfully bad.
They were both of these things at once. Like so many innovations in the post-computer era, they offered a major cost saving to an inefficient transaction system but were so successful they overwhelmed the institutions which flocked to their reduced cost. The unanticipated difficulties might have been imagined, but they were not adequately guarded against. Essentially, these loans limited exposure to a few days, a feature that made them appear quite safe. Unfortunately, tons of these loans could expire simultaneously if a rumor got started and everyone held off using them for a week. With a run on a bank, at least people have to take action to withdraw their money; but with these things, simple inaction quickly led to massive cash shortages at the bank. Speeding up the loan process had made it cheaper, but made it vulnerable.
Consider the inefficient complexities of a bank loan. The bank wants collateral, perhaps 80% of the value of the loan. The ability of the borrower must be investigated, a clear title assured, and papers arranged for transfer in case of defaulted collateral. Lawyers must organize the agreements, and it all takes time, costs money. To go through all this for a one-week loan for anything less than huge transactions is simply not practical. So the idea was devised to sell the collateral to the lender at a discount, together with a repurchase agreement to buy it back at full price. For safety sake, the discount could be greater than the interest cost, and part of it returned if all went well. The collateral could be held by a third party, who essentially guaranteed the details while the collateral itself never moved. Bear Stearns had perfected these variations at such favorable prices they dominated the market for them with hedge funds; the margin for error narrowed when interest rates dropped, cash got scarce when investors got uncomfortable, the whole hedge fund industry was suddenly paralyzed, and everything connected to hedge funds was frozen secondarily. Much of this was handled automatically by computers, so huge volume made it impossible for anyone to know who might be insolvent. It seemed comparatively harmless to decline to play this game for a few days, but it was not harmless if most people decided to do so at the same time. The daily variations of interest rates and/or duration generate a ("Gaussian") normal distribution curve for the risk, predicting serious deviations will occur once every two centuries. But when events --even false rumors -- suddenly get everyone's attention at once, small daily fluctuations no longer bear much relationship to the frequency of violent fluctuations. Once-in-a-century events start to happen every few years. At those times, the public stops speaking with a million voices and shouts in unison. Quite often, there is no cataclysmic event to trigger it. Like the conversational babel of a dinner party, it can all stop at once for no particular reason.
The mathematics of this matter could be taught to a tenth-grade math class. It starts to get beyond everybody's anticipation however when two such Black Swan events happen at the same time. In this case, an unanticipated pause for a few days bumped into the rule that non-bank institutions must mark their portfolios to the market every day. But for days at a time in this crisis, there could be no trading in certain issues; there was no market to mark to. How then can you demonstrate your solvency -- what might your competitors be hiding during these unannounced market holidays? And, since banks are in the same pickle but aren't required to mark to market, how can you trust them to pay bills? When you see European banks, who must obey new rules called Basel II, go bankrupt and get nationalized, how can you be sure American banks, who needn't obey Basel II until 2009, are any safer bet?
Progress is progress, but how much of it can we cope with?
Originally published: Monday, March 17, 2008; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019
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