Monday, October 20, 2008

When the Lender of Last Resort Becomes the Only Resort

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

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In the current credit crisis, central banks and governments in the U.S. and Europe are making the transition from supporting the financial system to becoming the financial system. There seems to be no ruined financial company that governments won't bail out (at least if its large enough or if the impact of its failure would have some significance), nor any limit to the amount of money that central banks will lend. The complete dependency relationship on governments that now exists among financial institutions is the ultimate outcome of Moral Hazard - banks have repeatedly been bailed out in the past, so they take on greater and greater risks until a total systemic failure takes place requiring a government takeover.

The latest bank bailouts include UBS last week and ING this weekend. After UBS declared a surprise profit, the Swiss government announced it would be injecting up to $60 billion into the bank and would get a 9% stake in return (apparently the Swiss government doesn't even believe their accounting figures). The UBS bailout was predicted long ago by the New York Investing meetup. The Dutch government today announced it would be giving ING Groep NV $13.4 billion in exchange for non-voting preferred stock, but would nevertheless be getting two seats on the board. Yesterday, the Korean government announced a blanket $100 billion backing for its bank's foreign currency debts.

As for cash injections into the financial system, these hit a record last week in the U.S. with banks and dealers direct borrowing from the Fed reaching $438 billion per day. This was up from the $420 billion per day the week before. The only Fed program that had less lending last week was the one that allows banks to purchase asset backed securities ($123 billion versus $139 billion the previous week). The U.S. Treasury sold $499 billion in T-bills for the Fed's Supplementary Finance Account to support all of this lending. Meanwhile, the Bank of England started implementing a new framework to provide emergency funds to banks. The new facility cuts the penalty for banks borrowing funds directly from it overnight. Why go elsewhere under those conditions? Ditto in the U.S. where funds from the Fed are plentiful and cheaper than can be gotten elsewhere.

If only one government was engaging in increased lending, a case could be made that it could borrow the money from other more financially sound countries. However, in the current crisis, all the developed countries are increasing available funds substantially. They do so by selling bonds. But if everyone is selling more bonds, who's left to buy them? Only an increase in the supply of the world's major currencies can make this possible, which means they are all being devalued in this crisis. By how much, only time will tell.

NEXT: The Fed Should Be Careful What It Wishes For

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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