“’DON’T PANIC!!!!’ Just 6.9% off of the most offensive valuation extreme in history.” – Tweet from John Hussman, Hussman Funds
The above quote from John Hussman was a shot at the financial media, which was freaking out over the sell-off in the stock market on Wednesday and Thursday last week. As stock bubbles become more irrational, the rationalizations concocted to explain why stocks are still cheap and can go higher become more outrageous. The financial media was devised to function as a “credible” conduit for Wall Street’s deceitful, if not often fraudulent, sales-pitch.
Perhaps the biggest fraud in the last 10 years perpetrated on investors was the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation. The Dodd-Frank Act was promoted by the Obama Government as legislation that would protect the public from the risky and often fraudulent business practices of the big financial institutions – primarily the Too Big To Fail Banks. It was supposed to prevent another 2008 financial crisis (de facto financial collapse).
However, in effect, the Act made it easier for big banks to disguise or hide their predatory business operations. Ten years later it is glaringly apparent to anyone who bothers to study the facts, that Dodd-frank has been nothing of short of a catastrophic failure. Debt, and especially risky debt, is at record levels at every level of the economic system (Government, corporate, individual). OTC derivatives are at higher levels than 2008. This is without adjusting for accounting changes that enabled banks to understate their derivatives risk exposure. The stock market bubble is the most extreme in history by most measures and housing prices as a ratio to household income are at an all-time record level.
A lot of skeletons in the closet suddenly pop out of “hiding” when the stock market has a week like this past week. An article published by Bloomberg titled, “A $1 trillion Powder Keg Threatens the Corporate Bond Market” highlights the fact that corporate America took advantage of the Fed’s money printing to issue a record amount of debt. Over the last couple of years, the credit quality of this debt has deteriorated. More than 50% of the “investment grade” debt is rated at the lowest level of investment grade (Moody’s Baa3/S&P BBB-).
However, the ratings tell only half the story. Just like the last time around, the credit rating agencies have been over-rating much of this debt. In other words, a growing portion of the debt that is judged investment grade by the ratings agencies likely would have been given junk bond ratings 20 years ago. In fact, FTI Consulting (a global business advisory firm) concluded based on its research that corporate credit quality as measured by ratings distribution is far weaker than at the previous cycle peaks in 2000 and 2007. FTI goes as far as to assert, “it isn’t even close.”
I’ll note that FTI’s work is based using corporate credit ratings as given. However, because credit ratings agencies once again have become scandalously lenient in assigning ratings, there are consequences from relying on the judgment of those who are getting paid by the same companies they rate. In reality, the overall credit quality of corporate debt is likely even worse than FTI has determined.
The debt “skeleton” is a scary one. But even worse is the derivatives “skeleton.” This one not only hides in the closet but, thanks to regulatory “reform,” it’s been stashed in the attic above the closet. An article appeared in the Asia Times a few days ago titled, “Has The Derivatives Volcano Already Begun To Erupt?” I doubt this one will be reprinted by the Wall Street Journal or Barron’s. This article goes into the details about the imminent risk of foreign exchange derivatives to the global financial system. There’s a notional amount of $90 trillion in FX derivatives outstanding, which is up from $60 trillion in 2010.
Many of you have heard about the growing dollar “shortage” in Europe and Japan. Foreign entities issue dollar-denominated debt but transact in local currency. FX derivatives enable these entities to swap local currency for dollars with banks. However, these banks have to borrow the dollars. European banks are now running out of capacity to borrow dollars, a natural economic consequence of the reckless financial risks that these banks have taken, as enabled by the Central Bank money printing.
As it becomes more difficult for European and Japanese banks to borrow dollars, it drives up the cost to hedge local currency/dollar swaps. Compounding this, U.S. banks with exposure to the European banks are required to put up more reserves against their exposure, which in turn acts to tighten credit availability. It’s a vicious self-perpetuating circle that is more than partially responsible for driving 10yr and 30yr Treasury bond yields higher recently. Perhaps this explains why the direction of the Dow/SPX and the 10-yr Treasury have been moving in correlation for the past few weeks rather than inversely.
But it’s not just FX derivatives. There’s been $10’s of trillions on credit default swaps underwritten in the last 8 years. The swaps are based on the value of debt securities. For instance, Tesla bonds or home mortgage securities. As the economy deteriorates, the ability of debtors to service their debt becomes compromised and the market value of the debt declines. As delinquencies turn into defaults, credit default swaps are exercised. If the counter-party is unable to pay (AIG/Goldman in 2008), the credit default swap blows up.
And thus the fuse on the global derivatives bomb is lit. The global web of derivatives is extremely fragile and highly dependent on the value of the assets and securities used as collateral. As the asset values decline, more collateral is required (a “collateral call”). As defaults by those required to post more collateral occur, the fuses that have been lit begin to hit gunpowder. This is how the 2008 financial crisis was ignited.
In fact, given the financial turmoil in Italy, India and several other important emerging market countries, I find it hard to believe that we have not seen evidence yet of FX derivative accidents connected to those situations. My best guess is that the Central Banks have been able to diffuse derivative problems thus-far. However, the drop in the stock market on Wednesday surely must have triggered some equity-related derivatives mishaps. At some point, the derivative fires will become too large s they ignite from unforeseen sources – i.e.the derivatives skeletons come down from hiding in the attic – and that’s when the real fun begins, at least if you are short the market.
I would suggest that the anticipation of an unavoidable derivatives-driven crisis is the reason high-profile market realists like Jim Rogers and Peter Schiff have recently issued warnings that the coming economic and financial crisis will be much worse than what hit in 2008.