Friday, January 09, 2009

CNBC Bonus Bucks Trivia Answers/ Financial Meltdown Revisted


Good morning. If you are wondering why you can't get the Bonus Bucks answer here right now--the CNBC contest website is not working. When it comes back up we will have the questions and answers.

If you have the time you can take a look at my post from September 15, 2008 about the impending financial disaster. When I posted the article the S & P 500 was trading around 1200.

Financial Meltdown--Where there is Smoke, there is Fire



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Financial Meltdown--Where there is Smoke, there is Fire



This article was originally written on September 15, 2008.

At dinner he described the situation to me. He said, “Where there is smoke there is fire”. He went on to explain that any time a major financial institution gets in trouble you could draw a circle around its location and expect the problem to spread to any other financial institution in a 150 mile radius (keep in mind this was the 1980s and before the Internet). He went on to explain the interconnectivity of financial institutions in a geographic proximity....His trip and fact finding mission convinced him that there was going to be a real financial crisis in Texas and that it would likely devastate the major banks and savings and loans. This was a very unpopular stance that cost him his job....It also was the catalyst of a stock market crash in 1987....I am reminded of other sayings that I heard early in my career on Wall Street—“never try and catch a falling knife”. I find myself thinking right now—“Cash is King”.


Financial Meltdown--Where there is Smoke, there is Fire

Back in the 1980s I learned an important lesson. At the time, I was with Bear Stearns and working in their Dallas, Texas office. The head of credit came to Texas to visit the state’s major banks and Savings and Loans to discuss their financial statements. Specifically he was trying to get a handle on their financial viability. There was a growing concern about the quality of credit and soundness of financial institutions in the southwest and California. The head of credit spent a couple of days in Dallas and Houston talking to the CFOs of these banks. Late in day, at the end of the trip, I saw him sitting alone in the office and asked him what he was doing. He informed me he was done but was not scheduled to fly out until the next morning. I saw this as an opportunity to “pick” his brain and learn something. So, I invited him out to dinner.

At dinner he described the situation to me. He said, “Where there is smoke there is fire”. He went on to explain that any time a major financial institution gets in trouble you could draw a circle around its location and expect the problem to spread to any other financial institution in a 150 mile radius (keep in mind this was the 1980s and before the Internet). He went on to explain the inter connectivity of financial institution is a geographic proximity. His trip and fact finding mission convinced him that there was going to be a real financial crisis in Texas and that it would likely devastate the major banks and savings and loans. This was a very unpopular stance that cost him his job. At the end of the day he was right. Both of the major banks in Dallas failed (Republic and First Interstate) and all of the major S and L’s in Texas failed (Sunbelt and Bright Bank to name two). This resulted in the formation of the Resolution Trust Corporation a government agency set up to dispose of the massive amount of defaulted loans owned by these financial institutions. It also was the catalyst of a stock market crash in 1987.

For years I have been telling my friends that the derivatives and swaps markets would turn out to be the equivalent of the savings and loan fiasco but on a scale that could never be imagined. Let me ask you, do you know anyone that predicted Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG would go up in smoke? That Merrill Lynch would be offered at a fire sale? Have you heard prior discussions about the inter connectivity of all these financial institutions? Are they within a 150 mile radius?

AIG, the next to go, is a good example of the direness of the current situation. AIG has been racking up enormous profits for a very long time. Just last week they were considered to be solvent. They are loaded with cash. They are claiming $1,000,000,000,000 in assets (Trillion). They operate world wide. Now if you ask AIG they will tell you their problem is not a solvency issue it’s a liquidity issue. It seems that the financial community is no longer buying this argument and no one is willing to stand up and throw money at the problem. AIG does not have the necessary assets to collateralize the $75 billion in loans it needs right now to keep operating. If they go down someone will be on the hook for the insurance side of the business. I bet you thought as an insurance company there were being regulated. Partially true but this does not include the part of the business that is all wrapped up in the credit default swaps market and other derivatives designed to leverage the balance sheet and create “monster” profits. It appears the Fed and government regulators have finally decided that bailouts aren’t working and decided to say no to Lehman and AIG. Lehman is bankrupt and it appears that AIG will declare bankruptcy soon. The too big fail rule is no longer in effect.

It would be foolish to believe that once AIG goes over the cliff it will bring an end to the financial crisis we are seeing today. You should be thinking of the inter connectivity of AIG and all the counterparties they are doing business with AIG worldwide. Companies doing business with them will get wounded, maybe mortally wounded. What looked like a US problem is now a global problem. This will spill into financial markets world wide.

It appears it is finally being recognized that this is not smoke, it’s a FIRE. It appears that “too big to fail” is no longer a workable strategy to fix the problem. It appears the reality of the credit swaps derivatives market is finally being recognized. It’s likely that much of this paper is worthless or only worth cents on the dollar. This financial crisis is not likely to go away over night. There is more to come before all this “paper” can get unwound or find a home. In the interim there is an enormous risk in the stock and other financial markets.

The Fed will address this issue by adding massive liquidity to the markets. The world’s central banks will do the same. It is the right thing to do. But, it is a short term fix that is like prescribing an aspirin for a major infection. It might lower your fever but it won’t cure your illness.

In closing, I am reminded of other sayings that I heard early in my career on Wall Street—“never try and catch a falling knife”. But, right now I find myself thinking—“Cash is King”.