Apocalypse Down-under: Aussie bank’s write-offs signal doom for Wall Street

By Mike Whitney

30/07/08 “ICH” — – Monday’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was a real humdinger. It started off with the White House announcing that this year’s fiscal deficit would soar to a new record of nearly $500 billion. That was followed by news of rising oil prices, weak quarterly earnings and a slowdown in consumer spending. Plunk, plunk, plunk; one domino after another. By mid-morning the markets were in full retreat. That’s when investment giant Merrill Lynch announced that it would notch a $4.6 billion second-quarter loss and write-downs of $9.4 billion on collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other mortgage-related assets. That’s when the dookie really hit the fan. Stocks quickly went verticle and the rout was on. By the closing bell the Dow was down 240 points. Traders staggered from floor of the exchange slumped-over and bedraggled looking like they just got a missive from the draft board. The optimism is being wrung from the markets faster than the credit at an over-levered hedge fund. Every day brings another dismal surprise.

And, yet, on Tuesday, the market staged a valiant comeback surging 260 points in a matter of hours. It was enough to give the fund managers a bit of a lift and hope that things are finally turning around. But the market’s woes are far from over. They’re deeply-rooted and spreading like Kudzu throughout the system. The International Monetary Fund summed it up in warning they issued earlier in the week:

“Global financial markets are ‘fragile’ and indicators of systemic risk remain ‘elevated’…Credit quality ‘across many loan classes has begun to deteriorate with declining house prices and slowing economic growth.’ Bank balance sheets are under ‘renewed stress’ and the decline in bank share prices has made it more difficult to raise new capital. (There is an) ‘increased likelihood of a negative interaction between banking system adjustment and the real economy.’ (Financial Times)

The IMF also stuck by its earlier prediction that total losses to financial institutions from the credit crisis would reach $1 trillion ($945 billion) a sum that will have devastating consequences for industry, consumers and the global economy. Tuesday’s festivities on Wall Street are likely to be short-lived. It’s just a one-day lull in the storm.

Over at Nouriel Roubini’s blog, Dr. Doom made this observation about the Merrill Lynch’s troubles:

“Merrill Lynch’s decision to ‘sell’ a good chunk of its remaining CDOs at 22 cents to the dollar has been widely praised as the firm finally recognizing the full extent of its losses on these toxic instruments. This batch of $30.6 billion of CDOs was already marked down to $11.1 billion. Now with the ‘sale’ of it to Lone Star at a price of 6.7 billion Merrill Lynch is taking another $4.4 billion write-down and ‘selling’ it at 22% of the original face value. But is this a market-based ‘sale’? No way, calling this transaction a ‘sale’ is a joke.” (Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor)

This isn’t a “sale”; it’s more like abandoning a sinking ship. The investment chieftains are getting scorched by their downgraded assets and have started dumping them at any cost. There’s no market for mortgage-backed anything now, and there won’t be until housing finds a bottom. By time that happens, most of the CEOs and CFOs in the mega-brokerage houses will be squatting on streetcorners on the lower East Side with tin-cup in hand. It’s that bad.

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