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>John Paulson’s Interview With The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission


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John Paulson’s Interview With The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission
Courtesy of zerohedge.com
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John Paulson, of the eponymous uber-hedge fund did an hour-long interview with the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.  I listened to it (thanks to NYT Dealbook, although not sure where they got it from), and really, I got a kick out of it even though I think my carpal-tunnel is really flaring up now.  Anyway, without further ado, here’s what the man behind the Greatest Trade Ever has to say about the Financial Crisis…
Description: http://stonestreetadvisors.wordpress.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifWhen asked what he saw, when, and why he decided to get short, he said “First thing we noticed was that real estate market appeared very frothy, values rose very rapidly, which led me to believe real estate markets were over valued.”  That’s pretty simple/straightforward, no?  I think it’s pretty interesting that he said the 3 homes he’s bought were all out of foreclosure, and they’d increased in value 4-5x over a 2-3 year period through ~’2005.  Apparently the impetus for the research that led to The Trade was literally staring him in the face every time he got home from work!
He explained his approach, and the way he put it makes me really think the guys who didn’t leave their trading desks & “never saw the bubble/crash coming” really had their heads buried in the sand deeper than I previously thought.  As Paulson said, “Credit markets were very frothy, very little attention paid to risk, spreads were very low, we thought when those securities correct, it could present opportunities on short side.”
Their research approach was pretty straight-forward: Focus on subprime, where they were amazed at how low quality the underwriting was, and how low the credit characteristics were on the loans.  They found the average FICO  was around 630, and over half of the loans were for cash-out refi’s, which were based on appraised, not sales prices (so “value” could be manipulated).  For many of these loans, LTV was very, very high, 80, 90, 100% with many of them concentrated in California (no surprise there).  Close to have of the mortgages they looked at were of the stated-income, no-doc variety.
Those who did report incomes had D/I ratios of > 40% before taxes and insurance.  80% of them were ARMs, so-called 2/28’s with teaser rates around 6-7% for those first 2 years, but after they reset, the rates were L+ 600bps which at the point would have doubled the interest rate on these loans, and Paulson & Co thought there was very little – if any – chance borrowers would be able to afford the higher payments.
Once the rates reset, the only thing these borrowers could do would be to sell, refinance, or default.  These were people spending > 40% of their gross income on their mortgages already, once the rate jumped up after the teaser period, they expected that many borrowers would simply default, and the price of the RMBS into which these loans were securitized would fall drastically, while the price of the protection (CDS, etc) Paulson bought on them would skyrocket.
Paulson & co also went much further in their analysis, well-beyond what many of those on Wall Street were doing.  In May, 2006, they researched growth of 100 MSA‘s and found that there was a correlation between growth and the performance of subprime loans originated within them.  As growth rates slowed, defaults rose.  From 2000-2005, they found that with 0% growth, there’d be losses of around 7% in the mortgage pools.
When they looked at the structure of the RMBS they found the average securitization had 18 separate tranches and that the BBB level only had 5.6% subordination, essentially, once losses surpassed that point, the tranches would become impaired, and if they reached 7% losses (what Paulson thought would happen once home price appreciation only slowed to 0%), the entire tranch would get wiped-out entirely.
By mid-2006, home prices not only had slowed to 0% but were actually decreasing, albeit slowly, only about 1%.  Even still, demand from institutional investors was so great, spreads tightened to 100bps. Why?  Because as Paulson went on to explain, institutional investors were buying up the BBB tranches (the lowest investment grade ones) in hoards.
While he didn’t say it, I will (for the umpteenth time!): This is what happens when institutions effectively outsource credit research to the Ratings Agencies, even though many had/have internal credit analysis groups (ahem IKB ahem).  They buy the highest-yielding security you can find that meets your investment guidelines, which meant that for many, they could only buy securities deemed by the brain trusts at the Ratings Agencies as “Investment Grade.”
Paulson started their credit fund in June, 2006, and as he explained, it wasn’t really as simple as it may seem. Historically – going back to about WWII – the average loss on subprime securities was 60bps, nowhere near what Paulson & Co expected was about to happen.  As he said “according to the mortgage people, there’d never been a default on an investment grade (IG) mortgage security.”  These same people were also of the mindset that they’ll NEVER get to the levels where the BBB tranches are impaired let alone wiped out completely.   These were also the same people who said that not since the Great Depression there hadn’t been a single period where home prices declined nation-wide.  These same people thought, worst case, home price growth would drop to 0% temporarily and then return to growth, just like before.

Why would “the mortgage people” expect anything else?  From their desks on the trading floors in Manhattan, Stamford, London, and everywhere else, things looked just peachy!  Spreads were tightening, demand for product was up, and more importantly, so were bonuses!  As far as they knew, the mammoth mortgage finance machine they’d created, based on their complex models and securities was working perfectly…
Paulson also made a distinction missed by many if not most: Everyone was looking at nominal home price appreciation, but real appreciation numbers were much different.  Going back 25+ years using real growth rates, they found that prices had never appreciated nearly as quickly as they had from 2000-2005, and that this trend was unlikely to continue for much longer, i.e. there would be a correction and then mean reversion.  Their thought was that once this correction came about, because of the poor mortgage quality and questionable assumptions/structures in mortgage securities, losses would be much worse than estimated.
Paulson was intent to make one distinction, one that must have been the cause of at least some frustration (followed by fantastic jubilation), that they did their own analysis, they weren’t really trying to attack “the mortgage people’s” views specifically.  Instead, they were trying to understand the conventional wisdom and understand why they had contrary viewpoints.  As myself and countless others have pointed out over the years since, the mortgage industry (I guess we’ll stick with calling them “the mortgage people?”) brushed Paulson off as “inexperienced, as novices in the mortgage market, they were very, very much in the minority…Even our friends thought we were so wrong they felt sorry for us…”
The mortgage people didn’t see any problems because there’d never been a default, except for one manufactured housing (mobile home) deal in the early 1990’s in California.
“The Ratings agencies – Moody’s – wouldn’t let you buy protection on securities from a particular state, because they ensured that the pools were geographically diversified, so they were essentially national pools, although California loans had the highest concentrations therein the pools correspond to the level of home sales in each state.”
What I found surprising from the interview is that Paulson actually praised the mortgage underwriting/originating practices of the big established banks like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan, which he said generally had the best underwriting standards and controls.  The worst were from the New Centuries and Ameriquests, eclipsed in their lax standards only by the mom & pop type shops who were really just sales businesses who made money on the volume of product they originated and sold to Investment Banks like Lehman and Morgan Stanley that didn’t have their own origination network.
These smaller “rogue” mortgage originators were mostly private entities who weren’t under the same scrutiny of their larger, publically-traded “competition.”  Their sales teams were compensated purely on quantity of loans originated with little-to-no care for quality.  These were the guys who routinely falsified documents, appraisals, incomes, assets and/or encouraged borrowers to do the same.  These were the kind of places that made Countrywide’s standards and controls look almost honorable by comparison.
The FCIC then asked Paulson about the infamous ABACUS debacle.  Paulson’s tone when responding to questions from the FCIC here was so, so, awesome; you could hear it in his voice, like he wanted to just say “are you guys freaking kidding me?  Seriously?!?!  REALLY?!??!” every time they asked him about how CDO’s got made.  He basically said (paraphrasing) “If ACA and IKB or Moody’s didn’t like the ~100 subprime reference securities we helped pick for the deal, they could have…not bought the deal or – get this – replaced them with ones they liked better…I couldn’t have gone short if they hadn’t gone long, they agreed on the reference portfolio, it got rated, boom, done”  It sounded like he just wanted to say something like “Hello morons?!  This is how Finance works, HELLOOO!!!”
The ABACUS conversation ended pretty awkwardly (as you might imagine), and then the FCIC moved onto asking Paulson about his Prime Brokerage relationships and what he thought about the Banks.  Interestingly (to me, at least), Paulson had much of it’s assets with Bear Stearn’s Prime Brokerage primarily because the way Bear was structured , the PB assets were ring-fenced from the rest of Bear’s assets in a separate subsidiary, so even if Bear went down, the PB assets would theoretically be safe.  The rest of Paulson’s assets were with Goldman’s PB.  When Bear’s Cioffi/Tanin-run internal hedge funds failed, Paulson saw that as the proverbial canary in a coal mine; they knew the crap that Bear, Lehman, and everyone else had on their books.  They didn’t pulled all of their cash balances from their prime brokers and set up a contra-account at Bank of New York, where, by the time Lehman went Bankrupt, they were holding most of their assets in Treasuries there.
Next, the FCIC asked him about regulators and banks and what people could (or, better, SHOULD) have done that might have prevented the crisis.  Paulson called out the Fed for not enforcing the mortgage standards that were already in effect.  He mentioned that pre-2000, no-doc loans were only given to people who could put 50% down and only represented about 1% of the mortgage market, but only a few years later, originators were “underwriting” NINJA loans with 100% LTV!
Paulson went on to explain how simple fixes, so-to-speak, just enforcing existing regulations like requiring income/asset verification, that homes were owner-occupied, and a downpayment, as low as 5% would have made a huge difference.  Most of the mortgages that failed didn’t have those characteristics.  Excessive leverage and poor understanding of the credit, problems Paulson also say brought down Bear and lehman.  They were leveraged (total assets: tangible common equity) on average, 35:1.  At that sort of massive leverage, a 3% drop in assets would wipe out every $ of equity!
Even if that ratio was brought down to 12:1 and you increase their capital ratio to 8%, the banks still couldn’t hold some of the riskier, more illiquid assets like Private Equity interests, equity tranches of CDO’s, lower-rated buyout debt from many real estate deals, and other assets that themselves were already highly-leveraged.  Adding further leverage to assets themselves already levered an additional 12:1 is just lunacy.  No financial firm should be able to do that, at max those assets should only be allowed to be levered 2:1 (similar to the max leverage for stocks due to Fed Regulation T).
He went on (this is pretty much verbatim, emphasis mine): “Under those scenarios, I don’t think either bank would default.  AIG FP was absurd and exemplified the derivative market where you can sell protection with zero collateral.  AIG FP Sold $500bn in protection with $5bn collateral, 100:1 collateral.  ACA was collateral agent, they were like 120:1 leveraged.  $50bn protection on $60mm collateral.  You have to hold collateral, we need margin requirements for both buying & selling protection.  It’s not the derivative itself that’s the problem, it was the margin requirements (or lack thereof).  We need something like Reg T (max 2:1 leverage at trade inception).  What these guys did would be like like buying $100 of stocks with $1 of equity, a tiny downward move is a huge loss of equity.  In all, these four things would have likely prevented the crisis:

  1. Mortgage underwriting standards, simple & logical
  2. Higher bank capital ratios
  3. Higher capital against risk assets
  4. Margin requirements against derivatives

Paulson was then asked about the Ratings Agencies and what role they played in the bubble/crisis.  Regular readers know where I stand on them & NRSRO regs, and no surprise, Paulson is similarly critical, particularly of the issuer-pays compensation structure, calling it the perverse incentive that it really is, despite whatever nonsense rhetoric RA executives say.
That, combined with being public (or part of public companies) and they were in this race to keep pace with their competitors, to keep up earnings growth with their derivatives business, which he called a “perverse economic incentive that may have led to their laxness in rating securities”
He went-on to explain this same – in the immortal words of Citi CEO Chuck Prince – “keep dancing while the music’s still playing” – incentive structure led the Banks to take similarly short-sighted actions as they struggled to keep up earnings, growth, and of course, bonuses.  At that point, the only way to do that was to grow their balance sheets, add more leverage to earn spread.  In Paulson’s words “Once things go up like that, you don’t see any downside, so at top of market they just weren’t looking at the downside, just upside, became more and more aggressive until they blew up.”
Paulson said the Fed certaintly could have cracked-down on lax-underwriting standards, eliminated negative-amortization loans, stated-income, 100% LTV, IO’s, etc where most of the problems developed.  On the banks and more broad financial services industry, he said “…people became delusional, ‘we can leverage AAA 100:1…’ if you had margin requirements against derivatives, AIG could have NEVER happenedIf they held higher equity against risky investments, they would have never defaulted. Constructively, that’s what Basel 3 says, 8% equity/capital and higher risk weightings for illiquid risky type assets.  I think adoption of those rules will lead to a safer financial system.”
When asked about the role of Fannie May & Freddie Mac, he pointed out the problem was largely similar to what brought down the banks and AIG: excessive leverage and poor oversight/underwriting. “They deviated from their underwriting standards as a way to gain share in alternate mortgage securities, of poor quality & higher losses.  Second, they were also massively leveraged 80-120:1 if you include on-balance sheet assets & guarantees which is way more than any financial institution should have.”
Yea, I think 120:1 leverage is just a wee bit more than prudent, just a bit though…
From this interview it seems painfully clear that those with whom the safety of the Financial System rested were in a deep coma at the helm, Bank executives, regulators, Congress, institutional money managers, all of them.   It’s clear that the nonsensical argument put-forward by Tom Arnold & Yves Smith that those who were shorting housing, subprime, etc were NOT IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM remotely responsible for causing the crisis.  Institutional managers were not gobbling-up BBB-rated RMBS CDO tranches because shops like Paulson & Co were shorting them. Like I said before: they wanted the highest yield they could get away with holding!
As Paulson said, anyone who looked at the data he did should have noticed the impending doom, but apparently, either very, very few people did that type or analysis or they did and just, like Chuck Prince said, kept on dancing until the music stopped.
These traders thought tight spreads indicated safety, which is just wrong in so many ways.  These are the same morons who – thought they should know better – constantly confuse correlation with causation.  Low spreads may have been historically correlated with low default and loss rates, but low spreads do not cause low losses/defaults.  Spreads, like stocks, trade as a function of supply and demand, and all low spreads indicate(d) is that, as Paulson noted, institutional managers were swallowing up as much of these MBS and derivatives (for reasons I explained above), and, like a bunch of lemmings, all thought history would continue despite significant evidence suggesting this time, it was actually different.
One other thing that critics and the public at large probably doesn’t know is that Paulson & Co had a MASSIVE internal, independent research effort wherein they did crazy things like *gasp* look at loan-level data.  Imagine that!  This enabled them to hunt for CDO and other product that contained an inordinate amount of crap for them to short.  This same work also helped them to buy RMBS/CMBS etc when the market turned in 2008 and 2009. They had done the work, and knew what they were willing to pay once it was time to go long.
I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong technical, momentum, and quantitative trading strategies.  There is, however, something very wrong, and very dangerous about relying on these strategies alone while ignoring fundamentals, as evidenced by the housing crisis.  Those who did the hard work like Paulson & Co. made the greatest trade ever, while those who ignored or were otherwise blind to the fundamentals got absolutely crushed.

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Debt Factoids on Our National Debt Are Puzzling – And Scary – Seeking Alpha


If you’re interested in the subject of our national debt, there is a new must read report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on the topic. It includes some odds and ends that I found interesting.
We know that there is a law called the debt ceiling. We also know that we will (again) hit that limit early in 2011. Many think that this will be a line in the sand fight with the new Congress. Phooey. According to the CBO report, suspending issuance of maturing cash management bills in the supplementary financing program will cost $200 billion; suspending flows and redeeming securities in government accounts, $124 billion; from the civil service retirement fund, “at least” $200 billion; from the exchange stabilization fund, $20 billion; and swapping debt with the federal financing bank, $15 billion. Total: $560 billion.

Conclusion: If there is to be a fight over the debt limit, it could be a long one.
The CBO is speaking with forked tongue in this report. A critical issue: How do we define what debt is at the federal level?

There are so many components to the puzzle. I give the CBO an A+ for this position:

CBO believes it is appropriate and useful to policymakers to include Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s financial transactions with other federal activities in the budget. The two entities do not represent a net asset to the government but a net liability — that is, their impact on the government’s financial position is a negative one.

So how does CBO actually account for F/F? It gets a D- for this:

Neither CBO nor the Administration currently incorporates debt or MBSs issued by Fannie Mae (FNMA.OB) and Freddie Mac (FMCC.OB).

That’s interesting. They say they “should” do it, but they don’t. Who makes that decision?

The Administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) makes the ultimate decision about whether the activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be included in the federal budget.

The White House decides which categories of debt are included when determining what constitutes debt? That is convenient. When did that happen? We are not talking chicken scratch here. The good folks over at the Fannie and Freddie have piled up $6 trillion in debt. We would blow out the debt ceiling set by Congress by over 40% if that came on the books. So it stays off the books. But the debt is staring us in the face. Funny system.
This also caught my eye:

Payments of interest from the FFB to the Treasury have been less than $1 billion annually in recent years but are projected to increase (to as much as $6 billion) because of higher loan activity (particularly by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program and the Rural Utilities Service). As of September 30, 2010, the FFB portfolio totaled $60 billion.

Hello, what is this? For interest to rise at the FFB from $1 billion to $6 billion, it would have to imply that there is at least a four- or five-fold increase in the balance sheet. This means that there is a plan to grow the FFB by $250 billion. Who is going to be the beneficiary of that? That is a hell of a lot of money. Is the FFB going to fund a solar build-out? The existing portfolio of Department of Energy loans:

Another (minor) data point of interest: The federal government has a number of trust funds that are used as accounting vehicles to store up IOUs from the government. The principal accounts and current holdings:

Social Security Trust Fund…….2.6t
Civil Service Retirement Fund…0.8t
Military Retirement Fund………0.3t
Medicare……………………….0.3t
All others…….…………………0.6t

Total:…………………………..4.6 trillion

These funds are all anticipated to grow over the next decade. One has a growth rate that is way out of whack with the others:

The Military Retirement Fund is growing at three times the rate of the others. The raw numbers are $282 billion for 2010 and $1.012 trillion for 2020. That’s a 10-year increase of $730 billion (a 350% increase). What is that about? Are we planning on a new war, or have we just not accounted for the retirement costs of the military properly over the past decade or two? I suspect (hope) it is the latter.
We have all seen a form of this chart elsewhere. It is nothing to be proud of. Yes, there are a few countries in worse shape than us. But Italy, Greece and Belgium are now making front-page news with their debt. And the U.S. will have a different outcome than Japan.

This chart of trust fund assets is central to our problem. Notice that these funds are scheduled to grow by more than $2 trillion. It sounds nice that the nation has trust funds where money is squirreled away someplace safe — money that can be used to pay bills (Social Security) when they come due over the next 20 years.

But there is no money in the trust funds. They have IOUs that obligate future taxpayers to come up with the cash when needed. The trust funds have nothing to do with “savings” in the traditional sense.
This has been going on since 1983, when Greenspan created the accounting gimmick and the huge surpluses that followed. The fact is we do have future liabilities, and there have been some savings set aside for that. But the money has been spent on funding past deficits. So, really, there are no savings.
I am not sure there is a fix to this problem. I do know that the bills on this are coming due in the next five years or so. I don’t think we will make it another 10 years without having to confront this problem.

Debt Factoids on Our National Debt Are Puzzling – And Scary – Seeking Alpha

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Bernanke on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ – Real Time Economics – WSJ


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Bernanke on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared Sunday evening on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to discuss the state of the economy, the central bank’s controversial $600 billion bond-buying plan and the financial crisis. Following are excerpts from the interview with CBS’s Scott Pelley, as released by the network:
Q: The major banks are racking up profits in the billions. Wall Street bonuses are climbing back up to where they were. And yet, lending to small businesses actually declined in the third quarter. Why is that?

A: A lot of small businesses are not seeking credit, because, you know, because their business is not doing well, because the economy is slow. Others are not qualifying for credit, maybe because the value of their property has gone down. But some also can’t meet the terms and conditions that banks are setting.
Q: Is this a case of banks that were eager to take risks that ruin the economy being now unwilling to take risks to support the recovery?

A: We want them to take risks, but not excessive risks. we want to go for a happy medium. And I think banks are back in the business of lending. But they have not yet come back to the level of confidence that –or overconfidence –that they had prior to the crisis. We want to have an appropriate balance.
Q: What did you see that caused you to pull the trigger on the $600 billion, at this point?

A: It has to do with two aspects. the first is unemployment The other concern I should mention is that inflation is very, very low, which you think is a good thing and normally is a good thing. But we’re getting awfully close to the range where prices would actually start falling.
Q: Falling prices lead to falling wages. It lets the steam out of the economy. And you start spiraling downward. … How great a danger is that now?

A: I would say, at this point, because the Fed is acting, I would say the risk is pretty low. But if the Fed did not act, then given how much inflation has come down since the beginning of the recession, I think it would be a more serious concern.
Q: Some people think the $600 billion is a terrible idea.
A: Well. I know some people think that but what they are doing is they’re looking at some of the risks and uncertainties with doing this policy action but what I think they’re not doing is looking at the risk of not acting.
Q: Many people believe that could be highly inflationary. That it’s a dangerous thing to try

A: Well, this fear of inflation, I think is way overstated. we’ve looked at it very, very carefully. We’ve analyzed it every which way. One myth that’s out there is that what we’re doing is printing money. We’re not printing money. The amount of currency in circulation is not changing. The money supply is not changing in any significant way. What we’re doing is lowering interest rates by buying treasury securities. And by lowering interest rates, we hope to stimulate the economy to grow faster. So, the trick is to find the appropriate moment when to begin to unwind this policy. And that’s what we’re going to do.
Q: Is keeping inflation in check less of a priority for the Federal Reserve now?

A: No, absolutely not. What we’re trying to do is achieve a balance. We’ve been very, very clear that we will not allow inflation to rise above two percent or less.
Q: Can you act quickly enough to prevent inflation from getting out of control?

A: We could raise interest rates in 15 minutes if we have to. So, there really is no problem with raising rates, tightening monetary policy, slowing the economy, reducing inflation, at the appropriate time. Now, that time is not now.
Q: You have what degree of confidence in your ability to control this?

A: One hundred percent.
Q: Do you anticipate a scenario in which you would commit to more than 600 billion?

A: Oh, it’s certainly possible. And again, it depends on the efficacy of the program. It depends, on inflation. And finally it depends on how the economy looks.
Q: How would you rate the likelihood of dipping into recession again?

A: It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll have a double dip recession. And that’s because, among other things, some of the most cyclical parts of the economy, like housing, for example, are already very weak. And they can’t get much weaker. And so another decline is relatively unlikely. Now, that being said, I think a very high unemployment rate for a protracted period of time, which makes consumers, households less confident, more worried about the future, I think that’s the primary source of risk that we might have another slowdown in the economy.
Q: You seem to be saying that the recovery that we’re experiencing now is not self-sustaining.

A: It may not be. It’s very close to the border. — it takes about two and a half percent growth just to keep unemployment stable. And that’s about what we’re getting. We’re not very far from the level where the economy is not self-sustaining.
Q: [On calls to cut the deficit]

A: We need to play close attention to the fact that we are recovering now. We don’t want to take actions this year that will affect this year’s spending and this year’s taxes in a way that will hurt the recovery. That’s important. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking now about the long term structural budget deficit. We’re looking at ten, 15, 20 years from now, a situation where almost the entire federal budget will be spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt. There won’t be any money left for the military or for any other services the government provides. We can only address those issues if we think about them now.
Q: How concerned are you about the calls that you’re beginning to hear on Capitol Hill that would curb the Fed’s independence?
A: Well, the Fed’s independence is critical. The central bank needs to be able to make policy without short term political concerns. In order to do what’s best for the economy. We do all of our analysis, we do all of our policy decisions based on what we think the economy needs. Not based on when the election is or what political conditions are.
Q: Is there anything that you wish you’d done differently over these last two and a half years or so?

A: Well, I wish I’d been omniscient and seen the crisis coming, the way you asked me about, I didn’t, But it was a very, very difficult situation. And– the Federal Reserve responded very aggressively, very proactively
Q: How did the Fed miss the looming financial crisis?
A: there were large portions of the financial system that were not adequately covered by the regulatory oversight. So, for example, AIG was not overseen by the Fed. … The insurance company that required the bailout, was not overseen by the Fed. It didn’t really have any real oversight at that time. Neither did Lehman Brothers the company that failed Now, I’m not saying the Fed should not have seen some of these things. One of things that I most regret is that we weren’t strong enough in in putting in consumer protections to try to cut down on the subprime lending problem. That was an area where I think we could have done more.
Q: The gap between rich and poor in this country has never been greater. In fact, we have the biggest income disparity gap of any industrialized country in the world. And I wonder where you think that’s taking America.

A: Well, it’s a very bad development. It’s creating two societies. And it’s based very much, I think, on– on educational differences The unemployment rate we’ve been talking about. If you’re a college graduate, unemployment is five percent. If you’re a high school graduate, it’s ten percent or more. It’s a very big difference. It leads to an unequal society and a society– which doesn’t have the cohesion that– that we’d like to see.
Q: We have talked about how the next several years are going be tough years in this country. But I wonder what you think about the ten year time horizon. Fifteen years. How do things look to you long term?

A: Long term, I have a lot of confidence in the United States. We have an excellent record in terms of innovation. We have great universities that are involved in technological change and progress. We have an entrepreneurial culture, much more than almost any other country. So, I think that in the longer term the United States will retain its leading position in the world. But again, we gotta get there. And we have some very difficult challenges over the next few years.
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Bernanke on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ – Real Time Economics – WSJ

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Currencies The Race to the bottom


Currencies

Race to the bottom

A weak economy and an active Federal Reserve have driven the dollar down since June. Will that last?

THREE months ago, when Europe’s debt crisis had markets panicking about sovereign risk, it seemed that all roads led to the dollar. The greenback was rising against the other big global currencies, the yen, pound and euro. Its role as the world’s reserve currency seemed an inestimable advantage when investors were unsure where they could safely park their cash. Within the rich world, America’s economy looked the best of a bad bunch. The stage seemed set for a dollar rally.
How quickly things have changed. On August 11th the dollar fell to a 15-year low against the yen of ¥84.7. It perked up against the euro to $1.29, though that was still much weaker than the $1.19 it reached in early June when euro-revulsion was at its worst (see chart 1). The ground the greenback has lost in recent weeks owes to a run of weaker data about the economy, not least on jobs (see box on the next page). On August 10th the Federal Reserve conceded that the recovery would probably be slower than it had hoped. The Fed kept its main interest rate in a target range of 0-0.25% and stuck to its creed that rates would need to stay low for “an extended period”. In addition the central bank said that it would reinvest the proceeds from the maturing mortgage bonds it owns into government bonds to prevent its balance-sheet (and thus the stock of ready cash) from gradually shrinking.
This modest change in Fed policy was widely expected. It signalled concern about the economy while stopping short of panic measures. That did not stop stockmarkets from slumping the day after the Fed’s statement—perhaps because investors had hoped the central bank would go further and commit itself to a fresh round of asset purchases, or perhaps because they were unnerved by the Fed’s more cautious tone on the economy. But the Fed’s shift still seemed to confirm that it is more minded than other central banks to keep its monetary policy loose, a perception that has contributed to the dollar’s slide and helped America’s exporters. The day before the Fed’s decision, the Bank of Japan kept its monetary policy unchanged. The European Central Bank (ECB) has allowed short-term market interest rates to rise as it withdraws emergency liquidity support from the banking system.
Events in America do not determine the dollar’s fate: exchange rates have two sides. The euro has bounced back since June in part because markets are more confident that Europe has got to grips with its sovereign-debt problems. The currency’s strength also reflects a stronger economy. Figures due out after The Economist went to press were expected to show that the euro area’s GDP grew a bit faster than America’s in the second quarter, thanks largely to booming Germany. But the problem of sluggish growth in the euro zone’s periphery has not gone away. A strong euro amplifies the lack of export competitiveness in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal. That is one reason why many analysts think the euro is likely to weaken again.
The yen’s rally, in contrast, may have further to run. It is trading against the dollar at levels last seen in the aftermath of the peso crisis in the mid-1990s, when the yen had greater claim to being a haven from troubles elsewhere. But the yen’s renewed strength may not be quite as painful for Japan’s exporters as that implies. Years of falling prices in Japan combined with modest inflation elsewhere mean the real effective exchange rate is below its average since 1990 (see chart 2). Because Japan’s wages and prices have fallen relative to those in America and Europe, its exporters can live with a stronger nominal exchange rate.
What needs explaining, then, is not why the yen has strengthened recently but why it was so weak before. Kit Juckes of Société Générale reckons that the low yields on offer in Japan provide most of the answer. “The yen is under-owned because Japan had by far the lowest interest rates in the world,” he says. But now falling bond yields in America, as well as in most of Europe, have made Japan a less unattractive place for investors to put their money. The more that the rest of the rich world resembles Japan, the less reason there is to shun the yen. There are even stories that China has been buying Japanese bonds as part of its effort to diversify its currency reserves away from the dollar.
Such interest may not be entirely welcome in Japan. A cheap currency is especially prized now, when aggregate demand in the rich world is so scarce and exports to emerging markets seem the best hope of economic salvation. Japan’s finance minister has complained that the yen’s recent moves are “somewhat one-sided”. That kind of talk has spurred speculation that Japan’s authorities may soon intervene to contain the yen’s rise. But such action would spoil the rich world’s efforts to persuade China to let its currency appreciate. It is perhaps more likely that the Bank of Japan and the ECB will follow the Fed’s lead in extending (albeit modestly) its quantitative easing—or risk a rising exchange rate.
The battle for a cheap currency may eventually cause transatlantic (and transpacific) tension: not everyone can push down their exchange rates at once. For now, though, the dollar holds the cheap-money prize.

FT.com / Capital Markets – Venezuela heads debt default risk list



Venezuela heads debt default risk list

By Anousha Sakoui
Published: April 7 2010 18:59 | Last updated: April 7 2010 18:59FT.com / Capital Markets –
Venezuela has topped a list of the most risky sovereign borrowers, with Lithuania, Lebanon and Romania dropping out of the top 10 riskiest nations to be replaced by Pakistan, Egypt and Iraq.
The report by CMA Datavision is based on the default risk of countries as determined by the price at which their credit default swaps trade in the market. At the end of the first quarter of 2010, the data provider estimated Venezuela had a 48.5 per cent chance of default over the next five years, while Greece which ranked 9th, had a 25.4 per cent probability.
On Wednesday, worries around Greece pushed up the cost of protection against default on its bonds above that of Iceland for the first time, according to data provider Markit.
“It is not a surprise that Venezuela tops the list,” said Nigel Rendell, senior emerging markets strategist at RBC Capital Markets. “What is surprising is that western European countries like Greece and Iceland are now in the top 10. It is a reminder that these regions do have sovereign risk and that just because a country is ‘developed’ does not mean that circumstances cannot change drastically.”
Jerome Booth, head of research at Ashmore Investment Management, thinks the markets are starting to price in the underlying default risk of developed nations. He believes Greece has a greater default risk than Venezuela and expects CDS markets will start to price in a greater risk of default for Greece.
Norway led the list of safest sovereign borrowers. The US fell three spots to rank as the 10th safest sovereign borrower. Analysts at CMA said in the report that spreads on US CDS had increased slightly since the successful passing of the healthcare bill, which commits the government to significant financial investment in health infrastructure and services.
But the UK failed to make the top 10 of the safest sovereign nations. It ranked 21st with a probability of default of 6.7 per cent, according to CMA.
Globally, Portugal saw the greatest deterioration in its creditworthiness as determined in CDS markets over the past quarter.
However, some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the data.
“While I would agree with the ordering of the countries in the top 10, there are other countries that are far more likely to default than Greece that do not appear in the top 10,” said Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citi.
“The implied probabilities of default over the next five-year period, however, are overstated – a 25 per cent chance of Greece defaulting, close to that of Iraq, is ludicrous. It is a useful report, but it reflects the fact that financial markets are driven by nervous investors who invariably over-react in one direction or another.”
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