Monday, March 24, 2008

The Analysts

One of the major players in the 2001 Dot Com bust were "The Analysts". These were people who made and broke Silicon Valley stock prices by changing their "valuations". Silicon Valley (and those elsewhere) companies dared not risk "meeting analysts expectations" in doing whatever was necessary to meet those "expectations".

During the boom, when everyone was giddy with thoughts of internet profits, meeting or exceeding those expectations proved relatively easy. Later, as more people began to realize that lots of hard cash was being turned into even harder losses, more financial chicanery was needed to meet those lofty expectations.

But all was not lost as many companies could still win glowing analyst evaluations by... well, who can really postulate how without opening themselves up to libel suits? But as anyone familiar with WorldCom, Enron and the host of others knows, *somehow* some evaluations seemed to rise forever.

It should not be surprising then, to see the role that ratings agencies such as S&P, et. al. have played in this current financial crisis. With S&P downgrading the "creditworthiness" reports of Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, once again the typical investor is made aware of how little these ratings reflect reality.

Do they not know what has been going on for the last fifteen months, since HSBC first signified something might be dreadfully wrong in the mortgage world by writing off billions of dollars of sub-prime loans that it had only recently written?

Apparently they do not, for only now, even as the seeds of a recovery are being planted and watered by an eager Federal Reserve, does this particular rating agency start to worry about what might be lurking inside Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, two of the bigger mortgage players in existence. -- Jeff Matthews

The (formerly) 5th largest Wall St. investment bank collapses into a financial heap, requiring a government guarantee of $30B just to get a single competing offer to buy to send the Dow up 4% in a single day. Problem's over, Yay! $2 per share. Strange how no other competitors even squeaked for a chance at the "great deal", even with a $30B backstop. The silence speaks volumes.

No doubt the other banks were too busy putting the final flourishes on their latest "keep the government out of business/we don't need to regulation" oratories.

But these are not the only enablers. A quick look around the "news" (I use that term *very* loosely) channels reveals that despite the panic, downturns and financial meltdown on Wall St., everything is dandy! Buy! Buy! Buy!

Are You Ready for Dow 20,000?
Insiders, at Least, See Reason to Smile
-- courtesy The Big Picture

Just like everyone else in this chain, they don't get paid to make money... they get paid to make *customers*.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Credit Crunch Explained

Courtesy Interfluidity

Credit Crisis for Kindergarteners

David Leonhardt notes that it's pretty hard to explain what's going on in the financial world these days (ht Felix). Here's how I'd tell the tale to a child:

Alice, Bob, and Sue have ten marbles between them. Whenever one kid wants another kid to take over a chore, she promises a marble in exchange. Alice doesn't like setting the table, so she promises Bob a marble if he will do it for her. Bob hates mowing the lawn, but Sue will do it for a marble. Sue doesn't like broccoli, but if she says pretty please and promises a marble, Bob will eat it off her plate when Mom isn't looking.

One day, the kids get together to brag about all the marbles they soon will have. It turns out that, between them, they are promised 40 marbles! Now that is pretty exciting. They've each promised to give away some marbles too, but they don't think about that, they can keep their promises later, after they've had time to play with what's coming. For now, each is eager to hold all the marbles they've been promised in their own hands, and to show off their collections to friends.

But then Alice, who is smart and foolish all at the same time, points out a curious fact. There are only 10 marbles! Sue says, "That cannot be. I have earned 20 marbles, and I have only promised to give away three! There must be 17 just for me."

But there are still only 10 marbles.

Suddenly, when Bob doesn't want to mow the lawn, no one will do it for him, even if he promises two marbles for the job. No one will eat Sue's broccoli for her, even though everyone knows she is promised the most marbles of anyone, because no one believes she will ever see those 17 marbles she is always going on about. In fact, dinnertime is mayhem. Spoons are placed where forks should be, and saucers used for dinner plates, because Alice really is hopeless in the kitchen. Mom is cross. Dad is cross. Everyone is cross. "But you promised," is heard over and over among the children, amidst lots of stomping and fighting. Until recently, theirs was such a happy home, but now the lawn is overgrown, broccoli rots on mismatched saucers, and no one trusts anyone at all. It's all a bit mysterious to Dad, who points out that nothing has changed, really, so why on Earth is everything falling apart?

Perhaps Mom and Dad will decide that the best thing to do is just buy some more marbles, so that all the children can make good on their promises. But that would mean giving Alice 19 marbles, because she was laziest and made the most promises she couldn't keep, and that hardly seems like a good lesson. Plus, marbles are expensive, and everyone in the family would have to skip lunch for a week to settle Alice's debt. Perhaps the children could get together and decide that an unmet promise should be worth only a quarter of a marble, so that everyone is able to keep their promises after all. But then Sue, the hardest working, would feel really ripped off, as she ends up with a much more modest collection of marbles than she had expected. Perhaps Bob, the strongest, will simply take all the marbles from Alice and Sue, and make it clear than none will be given in return, and that will be that. Or, perhaps Alice and Bob could do Sue's chores for a while in addition to their own, extinguishing one promise per chore. But that's an awful lot of work, what if they just don't want to, who's gonna force them? What if they'd have to be in servitude to Sue for years?

Almost whatever happens, the trading of chores, so crucial to the family's tidy lawns and pleasant dinners, will be curtailed for some time. Perhaps some trading will occur via exchange of actual marbles, but this will not be common, as even kids see the folly of giving rare glass to people known to welch on their promises. It makes more sense to horde.

A credit crisis arises when many more promises are made than can possibly be kept, and disputes emerge about how and to whom promises will be broken. It's less a matter of SIVs than ABCs.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mission Accomplished!

The Fed makes $200B in loans to US banks, secured by sub-prime debt: The Big Picture

This effectively transfers $200B (not counting similar loans in the recent past as well as future ones that are undoubtedly on the way) of worthless debt on the shoulders of the US government.

Grover Norquist infamously stated, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Old Grover must be already printing the next "Mission Accomplished!" banner.

Who knew that he wanted to include world financial markets as well?
BBC: Northern Rock Get Bailout
IHT: IKB Bailout

Monday, March 10, 2008

We Have Arrived

The Republicans have now had complete control of the government (for all practical purposes) for 6 of the past ~8 years and since November have been challenged only by the most Milquetoast of congresses.

Arguably, we now stand ready to receive the full glory promised to us by the blessed Republican theology.

What do we have?

- An economy is shambles and headed further downward quickly.
- An unregulated lending market for housing has resulted in ~20% drops in housing prices with no end in sight. Foreclosures approaching levels from the Great Depression.
- Oil is trading for $104 per barrel and increasing every day.
- The dollar is dropping like a rock with $1000 gold and rising.
- A unnecessary quagmire of incompetence financed by debt. [Which one? Ed.]
We lost Vietnam, but we'll get 'em this time! [Oh, that one. Ed.]
- A former American metropolis still reeling from catastrophic losses.
- A paranoid Decider searching our mail, tapping our phones and smirking endlessly while pushing for the One More Tax Cut that will land us in glory. (Here's $300, go spend it on something nice!)

(Cue Blondie) Raaapture!