Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What could $ 700 bn do!

 $700 bn is only 14% of the $14 trillion of the Mortgage Debt out in the US market

A huge chunk of the problem is thus out in the open. With about $250 out to capitalise banks, there is not much of money left there. Money goes a long way & you can't really over emphasise the how far can $700,000,000,000 take the world. 
In America you could buy Universal Health Coverage & pay health insurance premiums for all US citizens for six years.

In Africa fight hunger and poverty for 10 years. They only need $72 bn every year in UN funding.

Pay salaries of 22 million american workers for an year.

Finance Germany's annual budget (@$ 420 bn) for more than an year or buy Denmark (GDP less than $350 bn), twice.
This and so many other things that can be done with $ 700 bn are here. But we will end up spending it to pay the price of the asset bubble that has gone burst.

Life is not fair afterall.

End of Capitalism as we know it ?

Ben Bernake addressing the 'The Economic Club' in New York. His statements indicate a shift of long term US policy as we have known it  

a.  Monetary policy has its limits in addresses crises like these and innovative solutions are needed

b.  We need to create systematic authorities to address large non-bank firms that pose systematic risk

c.   We did not have a mechanism;  no body, no authority, no markets for all those securities

d.   There is a problem that these assets do not trade, there is no liquidity and no independent  price discovery. 

If all this retrospection were to be translated into policy talk, he means that policies which let financial firms have there own models to evaluate assets values & risks need to be re-evaluated. The assets should be traded in exchanges & have market determined values. This part of it, to have  a clearing house and an exchange for these assets, is a much agreed view by now.
Statement a evaluates a current situation and, statement c clearly indicates part of the helplessness of the US policy as it was, to prevent this situation and provide a way forward. Probably indication of new separate regulatory bodies for non-banks (unlike a situation earlier where Investment Banking firms had no regulatory authorization)

Now add up c , d & the latest actions of US treasury
1. To take a stake in banks
2. To put conditions like 
           a.  No more golden parachutes .,
            b.  Limits on executive compensation (top 5)
            c.  Limits on risk 
            d.  And, government to have voting rights on matters that affect the investment.  

All this together symbolises a distinct shift in from the free for all market to a more centralised one. The reluctance of the US government, adequately pointed out time & again in various statements underscores the point even more. Total communism as was practised by the erstwhile Soviet Union died long time ago and now is the time of reckoning for complete capitalism and free markets. 

This is the system that they have moved to back home in India,  there are markets and there are regulatory bodies - some government owned and quite a few self regulatory ones like AMFI. We decided to move away from the socialist view of Nehrus after about four decades of being independent, leading to about a decade and half of higher growth but we have still maintained a hold on things. The risk taken are far lower. The banks have a minimum capital ratio of 9% stipulated by RBI unlike the US banks where the minimum is only 4% and a bank is supposed to be well capitalised at above 6%. And none of this applied to Investment Banks, a institution category that no longer exists in the US financial system.  This is also the thought shared by some of those European & Asian economies for who moved from extremes on either side to the centralised point of view. 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Are any assets classes worth anything anymore

Am trying to make sense of the events of the last few weeks. First the housing bubble burst - real estate was not worth too much anymore (specially if had bought anything in the last few years); then the real estate based securities - the CDO (Collateralised Debt Obligations) lost value ;  then the Stock market - not just companies that had anything to do with housing or related securities even all those which had nothing to do with them. Stocks as an asset class are not worth too much, nor are mutual funds. And then everything together, commodities , crude & Gold. Nothing seems to be worth anything anymore. Yes we all know cash is King,  the big problem, we are not too sure of the bank where we keep this cash anymore. 

If you are an ordinary citizen of the world, who is a little aware of financial planning & diversification of wealth into asset classes, the question is where do you keep networth, (whatever is left of it) to preserve it ? Not to mention the inflation rate back home in India has been in the 11- 12% for a while, meaning wealth has been eroding for those who have been cash heavy at a rate more than -10% every year.

The big question is knowing all this what am I going to do.  The answer precious nothing. I am planning to ride it out & wait for a financial scene, when the behaviour of people and hence assets is saner, something I can comprehend.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Global Financial Crisis : Coach Buffet, politicians & accounting

By the looks of it Warren Buffet is playing the role of saviour, an angel investor in quite a few big companies today. 

The Washington Post article compared Buffet to the man who saved the Wall Street in 1893 & 1907 & also loaned Gold to the US government, J P Morgan.  The world's richest man (Buffet) provided $ 3 billion as new capital to GE (now it strikes me GE was actually founded by JP Morgan) on ofcourse very sweet terms. He earlier showed his faith in Goldman Sachs. Interestingly the article also mentions the Buffet as the coach, guiding the US treasury secretary Henry 'Hank' Paulson. Buffet also backed the  $700 bn mentioning that it was such a great deal, he wants one percent of it, provided the troubled securities are bought at market price.

Think he puts 'the words' to assuage the concern and the take care the interest of ordinary tax payer. If you could convince (& ensure the corresponding action) that the troubled assets would be bought at right price, this proposed 'Bailout'-please-call-it-by-other-name actually becomes the great investment of 'American tax payer money'. All consequences of the 'bailouts-please-call-it-by-other-name then actually look good. Financial institutions are ready do business with each other and the with the consumers. Companies, banks & individuals are able to borrow money at reasonable rates for short periods (not at current levels which probably are the highest in decades). Government & taxpayer make money while we have liquity in this system. Lets face it we are used to faith & trust and the use of a currency. To think of going back to the barter system is just not possible.

This brings to me another of the much debated 'MTM'  rule.  Quite a few of politicians want me to believe that the 'mark to market rule' is the cause of all failure. That all problems of the world will go away if we pretended that they weren't there. Just ask financial institutions to showcase their assets through some tinted lens that makes them look healthier. If only we could make all of them sit in a Finance & Economy class. Ok its difficult to mark assets to market when there is no market but the fact of matter is an accounting 'fix' will furthur deepen the crisis of trust. It will send the institutions deeper into our current credit contraction because the balance sheets will be even farther from the truth than they are today.

As a matter of fact, financial institutions hold a lot of their assets for investment and hence do not mark them to market. The percentage varies for example in the case of failed Washington Mutual ,  75% of the assets were not marked to market. A WSJ article this morning analyses this well but the online content is only accessible through a subscription. Hence not posting here.

The Washington Post articles are here & here

Back home, there was a run on ICICI Bank's stock & the chairman KV Kamath, RBI , Indian finance minister quickly moved to control the damage after the stock fell 22% in one week to reach the price at which it issued equity almost three years ago. The interview by KV Kamath in Mint is here. ICICI BANK - Kamath sees agenda, says bank is safe

Books Update : 1984 by George Orwell