The Housing Chronicles Blog: Did Lehman's failure cause the global cash crunch?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Did Lehman's failure cause the global cash crunch?

Although the federal government defended its refusal to bail out Lehman Brothers, a story in the Wall Street Journal asserts that the consequences of that decision have been much more dire than predicted. That's the thing with predictions -- they're just GUESSES:

Two weeks ago, Wall Street titans and the government's most powerful economic stewards made a fateful choice: Rather than propping up another failing financial institution, they let 158-year-old Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapse.

Now, the consequences of that decision look more dire than almost anyone imagined.

Lehman's bankruptcy filing in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 15, sparked a chain reaction that sent credit markets into disarray. It accelerated the downward spiral of giant U.S. insurer American International Group Inc. and precipitated losses for everyone from Norwegian pensioners to investors in the Reserve Primary Fund, a U.S. money-market mutual fund that was supposed to be as safe as cash. Within days, the chaos enveloped even Wall Street pillars Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley. Alarmed U.S. officials rushed to unveil a more systemic solution to the crisis, leading to Sunday's agreement with congressional leaders on a $700 billion financial-markets bailout plan...

In hindsight, some critics say the systemic crisis that has emerged since the Lehman collapse could have been avoided if the government had stepped in. Before Lehman, federal officials had dealt with a series of financial brushfires in a way designed to keep troubled institutions such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Bear Stearns Cos. in business. Judging them as too big to fail, officials committed billions of taxpayer dollars to prop them up. Not so Lehman.

"I don't understand why they didn't understand that the markets would be completely spooked by this failure," says Richard Portes, professor of economics at London Business School and president of the Centre for Economic Policy Research. Rather than showing the government's resolve, he says, letting Lehman fail only exacerbated the central problem that has afflicted markets since the financial crisis began more than a year ago: Nobody knows which financial firms will be able to make good on their debts...

The government's decision to let Lehman go marked a turning point in the way investors assess risk. When the Fed stepped in to engineer the takeover of Bear Stearns by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in March, Bear's shareholders lost most of their investments, but bondholders came out well. In the financial hierarchy of risk, this wasn't surprising, since bondholders have more contractual rights to get their money back than equity holders. But it created a false impression among investors that the government would step in to rescue bondholders when the next bank ran into trouble. By letting Lehman fail, the government had suddenly disabused the market of that notion.

The reaction was most evident in the massive credit-default-swap market, where the cost of insurance against bond defaults shot up Monday in its largest one-day rise ever. In the U.S., the average cost of five-year insurance on $10 million in debt rose to $194,000 from $152,000 Friday, according to the Markit CDX index.

When the cost of default insurance rises, that generates losses for sellers of insurance, such as banks, hedge funds and insurance companies. At the same time, those sellers must put up extra cash as collateral to guarantee they will be able to make good on their obligations. On Monday alone, sellers of insurance had to find some $140 billion to make such margin calls, estimates asset-management firm Bridgewater Associates. As investors scrambled to get the cash, they were forced to sell whatever they could -- a liquidation that hit financial markets around the world...

To make matters worse, actual trading in the CDS market declined to a trickle as players tried to assess how much of their money was tied up in Lehman. The bankruptcy meant that many hedge funds and banks that were on the profitable side of a trade with Lehman were now out of luck because they couldn't collect their money. Also, clients of Lehman's prime brokerage, which provides lending and trading services to hedge funds, would have to try to retrieve their money or their securities through the courts...

Spooked that other securities firms could fail, hedge funds rushed to buy default insurance on the firms with which they did business. But sellers were hesitant, prompting something akin to what happens if every homeowner in a neighborhood tries to buy homeowners insurance at exactly the same time. The moves dramatically drove up the cost of insurance on Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs debt in what became a dangerous spiral of fear about those firms.

At the same time, hedge funds began pulling their money out of the two firms. Over the next few days, for example, Morgan Stanley would lose about 10% of the assets in its prime-brokerage business...

To some, the government's decision to resort to a bailout represents a tacit admission: For all officials' desire to allow markets to punish the risk-taking that engendered the crisis, banks have the upper hand. "Lehman demonstrated that it's much harder than we thought to deal effectively with banks' misbehavior," says Charles Wyplosz, an economics professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. "You have to look the devil in the eyes and the eyes are pretty frightening."

No comments: