Is the credit crisis the end of the beginning?

May 14th, 2008

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We will introduce another character today- Satyajit Das. He is a world-leading expert in derivatives and risk management and has a good inside knowledge of the murky world of derivatives. He is best known as the author of the fascinating book, Traders, Guns & Money.

Unlike the mainstream media and market, Satyajit Das is under no illusion that the credit crisis is over. In fact, as he wrote in Nuclear De-Leveraging,

An alternative and, arguably, better view of the current state of the financial crisis is that stated by Winston Churchill: ?… this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.?

Why is it so?  The short answer is de-leveraging. As we said before in Why are fantastic stocks sold off in a bear market?,

Today, there are so much leverage in the financial system and by extension, the market. Both retail and institutional market participants borrow and employ leveraged derivates (e.g. options, CFDs, futures, etc). The problem with leverage is that, when the market goes against you, your losses are magnified and you find that you are suddenly short of cash (to repay the debts, obligation, margin calls, collateral, etc). Sometimes, the only way to increase your cash level is to liquidate whatever you have- the good investments along with the bad. If enough people are in the same situation as you, this will result in widespread indiscriminate selling in the market.

As long as the de-leveraging process is confined to only the financial markets, the sell-off in stocks presents an excellent buying opportunity. Unfortunately, according to Satyajit Das’s opinion, the de-leveraging process in the financial market is only the first phase of a much larger process. He believes that this process will spread to the real side of the economy (see Analysing recent falls in oil prices?real vs investment demand on the difference between the financial and real sides of the economy), which means that the person on the street will eventually feel the impact. As we said before in The Great Crash of 1929,

Also contrary to popular impressions, that Great Crash was not a one-day event. It was a series of events that marked the beginning of an even more devastating consequence?the Great Depression. In fact, it took a year after the Great Crash for the average person on the street to feel the effects of the ensuing Great Depression.

If Satyajit Das is right, then in the future, we will look back at the credit crunch as just the beginning events of a greater scheme of things.  Currently, from the looks of things, the first phase is over. The effect is that money has become more expensive (see Rising price of money through the demise of ?shadow? banking system).

Next, another process is currently under way- the returning of bad quality assets into the bank’s balance sheet. As we explained before in What is SIV?,

The recent deterioration in the credit market is severely disrupting the SIV funds because of the high cost of obtaining short-term funding. As a result, many of the lenders have to buy back the mortgage assets from the SIV, resulting re-loading those mortgage asset into its balance sheet.

As Satyajit Das said,

High inter-bank rates and the deceleration in bank lending reflect, in part, banks husbanding their cash resources to accommodate the involuntary increase in assets.

In addition to this return of bad assets to their balance sheet, the banks also have to contend with losses incurred by the write-down of bad debts. What will happen then? As we said before in Banking for dummies,

As you can see by now, the banking business is a balancing act of managing a portfolio of assets and liabilities. Since the banking industry is a highly regulated one, there are rules for them to follow in this balancing act.

Now that the banks’ balance between assets and liabilities are out of equilibrium, what will happen? To restore balance, banks will have to raise capital (i.e. issue shares for cash) and/or cut down on lending and/or sell assets. Indeed, central bankers and foreign sovereign wealth funds have been very ‘helpful’ in this balance restoration process (see Central banks & pawnshops and Why did the foreigners bail out cash-starved financial institutions?).

As Satyajit Das continues,

The new capital noted above will merely restore bank balance sheets. Growth in lending and assets will require additional capital. The banking system?s ability to supply credit is significantly impaired and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Credit is clearly being rationed in the global financial system. If the banks are not able to re-capitalise, then the contraction in credit supply will be sharper.

Guess what will happen when the supply of money and credit contracts sharply? This is what we call “deflation” (see What is inflation and deflation?). During deflation, businesses and individuals have to de-leverage. Already, this process is already under way in Australia. When reading the mainstream newspapers, you will get to read numerous reports that credit is tightening. For example, take a read at Debt down as rates hurt in the Sydney Morning Herald,

The value of debt taken on by consumers and businesses slumped in March as higher interest rates continued to bite, according to figures published yesterday.

An economist at Lehman Brothers, Stephen Roberts, said the decrease in credit use was further evidence of the global credit crunch rippling through the broader economy as companies and consumers wind back their exposure to debt.

In Australia, with total private debt to GDP ratio of around 170%,  you can be sure that there will be more de-leveraging in the private sector to go.

This is the beginning of the next phase where the real economy is affected. In the next article, we will show you how this phase will unfold.

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