Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Weird and Unknown From the U.S. Credit Rating Downgrade

We learned in a big way during the 2008 financial crisis that what we don't know can really hurt us. That would still be true today, after S&P lowered America's credit rating from AAA to AA+. We also know that weird stuff happens when the financial markets get a tummy ache. They seem likely to be queasy from the downgrade when the markets open tomorrow. The weird and unknown may surface soon.

Complex Trading. Major banks and hedge funds frequently trade esoteric investments in multi-investment positions involving U.S. Treasuries as hedges or otherwise. Quite often, these market players embrace leverage in playing this game, since it boosts potential profits. The downgrade shouldn't have come as a complete surprise, since the rating agencies have been loudly frowning at the U.S. debt situation for several months now. But the downgrade's timing was uncertain and its impact uncertain. Complex trading positions may become unhinged for unanticipated reasons. These large institutional traders may find their positions exposed, or may receive unexpected demands for collateral from brokers or counterparties, and then struggle to keep things on an even keel. If so, that could prove unsettling for the markets, especially if the exposures from such trading are directly or indirectly concentrated in one or two companies, a la AIG circa 2008. The reform of the derivatives market has proceeded slowly, if at all, and regulators likely have no idea if there exists the potential for another meltdown. So all we can do is wait and see what happens. If there is another AIG lurking out there, expect very bad consequences.

Housing Market Hassles. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide almost all the financing in the residential real estate markets, primarily because their debts are effectively 100% guaranteed by the U.S. government. It's logical to expect that Fannie and Freddie will be downgraded, since their sugar daddy was just downgraded. This could make mortgage loans harder to get. Not necessarily because interest rates would rise, because the U.S. Treasury downgrade could trigger a flight to safety that ironically would increase demand for U.S. Treasuries (there being few alternatives). But a Fan/Fred downgrade would make it harder to find investors for the mortgage backed securities that Fan/Fred backed loans go into. Investors in those securities are the true source of liquidity for the mortgage market, and may demand higher quality borrowers than current already stringent credit standards require. The housing market could slip on yet another banana peel in its path.

Chinese Communists Strengthened. China's Communist government has been coming under increasing domestic political pressure, because of rising unemployment, poor protection of consumers, sporadic protection of the environment, corruption and co-optation by China's capitalist plutocracy. The S&P downgrade of U.S. Treasuries, however, highlights the fundamental strength of the Chinese economy and its levitating currency, the yuan. That makes the Communist government look good, at a time when it needed some positive spin. Of course, S&P wasn't trying to influence internal Chinese politics. But the law of unintended consequences is the supreme authority in the world of finance.

Obama-Boehner in 2012? Increased factionalism in both political parties is stretching current party delineations close to the breaking point. The Republican Party is held hostage by a limited number of Tea Party ideologues. Respected mainstream conservative voices have labeled Tea Partiers "hobbits, " which, albeit an affront to hobbits, captures the fantastical quality of the thinking on the far right. At the same time, the fissure between President Obama and liberal Democrats has been outed. Emotions are red hot. Ralph Nader publicly, and likely others nonpublicly, predict a primaries challenge to President Obama next year. No one is naming names yet. The most obvious challenger, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has publicly said she isn't running for elective office again. Neither a liberal left agenda, nor a Tea Party-style conservative platform, will win the White House in 2012. Both Obama and Boehner know that. Their problems with their parties will increase, because the debt ceiling deal creates a bipartisan committee to squabble more about deficit reduction, giving all factions many opportunities for further raucousness. With so many shouting past each other instead of having a dialogue, the conditions for a realignment of parties are ripening. It's impossible that Obama and Boehner would actually team up to run in 2012. But the pressures for a functioning U.S. government come from powerful forces in the financial markets and the economy. We're no longer debating political philosophy or ideology over beer and pretzels or coffee and Danish. Lots of jobs, careers, wealth, and retirements are on the line. The will of the people is for a functioning government, and ambitious politicians will find a way to give them one. Current party alignments may be endangered.

No comments: