By Mike Whitney
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”. Aldous Huxley
21/02/08 “ICH” — — The credit storm which began in July when two Bear Stearns hedge funds were forced to liquidate, has continued to intensify and roil the markets. Last week the noose tightened around auction-rate securities,a little-known part of the market that requires short-term funding to set rates for long-term municipal bonds. The $330 billion ARS market has dried up overnight pushing up rates as high as 20% on some bonds—a new benchmark for short term debt. Auction-rate securities are now headed for extinction just like the other previously-vital parts of the structured finance paradigm. The $2 trillion market for collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), the multi-trillion dollar mortgage-backed securities market (MBSs) and the $1.3 asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) market have all shut down draining a small ocean of capital from the financial system and pushing many of the banks and hedge funds closer to default. The price of insuring corporate bonds has skyrocketed in the last few weeks making it more difficult for businesses to get the funding they need to expand or continue present operations. Much of this has to do with the growing uncertainty about the reliability of credit default swaps, a $45 trillion dollar market which remains virtually unregulated. Credit-default swaps are a type of financial instrument that are used to speculate on a company’s ability to repay debt. They pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent if a borrower fails to adhere to its debt agreements. When the price of CDSs increases, it means that there is greater doubt about the quality of the bond. Prices are presently soaring because the entire structured finance market—and anything connected to it—is under withering attack from the meltdown in subprime mortgages. As foreclosures continue to rise, the securities that were fashioned from subprime loans will continue to unwind destroying trillions of dollars of virtual-capital in the secondary market.
It all sounds more complicated than it really is. Imagine a 200 ft. conveyor belt with two burly workers and a mountain-sized pile of money on one end, and a towering bonfire on the other. Every time a home goes into foreclosure; the two workers stack the money that was lost on the transaction—plus all of the cash that was leveraged on the home via “securitization” and derivatives—-onto the conveyor-belt where it is fed into the fire. That is precisely what is happening right now and the amount of capital that is being consumed by the flames far exceeds the Fed’s paltry increases to the money supply or Bush’s projected $168 billion “surplus package”. Capital is being sucked out of the system faster than it can be replaced which is apparent by the sudden cramping in the financial system and a more generalized slowdown in consumer spending.