Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Banking "crisis"

On Dec 14, 2007, at 6:35 PM, Curtis wrote to Jimmy:
What' with this big WW banking bailout that's happening right now to the tune of 40 billion/month?
Jimmy replies:
I think they mean a one time charge or infusion of $40 billion. Not every month. $40 billion per month is about 1/2 trillion dollars each year. That doesn't sound right.

Normally, in a truly free market, this would work itself out (self correct) in a matter of months. The problem is that the U.S. gov has decided to wade in and try to forestall the correction.

The banks made some bad loans and they are having to take some write downs on their assets (the collateral behind those loans was not worth what they loaned). Some of the loans had escalator clauses that kicked in after the "teaser" period was up. It's like those credit card checks you get in the mail that say 0% for 6 months and then the rate goes up to the usual 14% to 24%. Ideally on the CC loans, you pay them off before the 6 months are up. Unfortunately a bunch of folks don't.

The same with the housing mortgages. The banks offered 100% financing at a teaser rate of, say, 4% for the first 3 years, and then the rate would go to 6.9% or whatever. Two things happened. #1, here were a bunch of folks who bought a house, not for themselves, but to resell. Call them speculators, call them investors. It doesn't matter. They got the 100% low interest rate mortgage figuring that they could make a profit by selling the house within the 3 year time span. The problem is that too many people decided to do the same thing, and suddenly (#2) there was a housing glut with too many sellers and not enough buyers. Prices dropped. Now these "investors" are owning a house which is not only not worth the financed amount, but they are also looking at a huge rise in their monthly payment. Can't sell and can't pay. It's the "can't pay" that's a problem.

Naturally some legitimate homebuyers/owners with less than sterling credit got scooped up in the net. These are the hard luck stories that Congress is attempting to address. They will fail. They will only prolong the pain as they did during the depression of the 30's.

A possible larger problem is that real investors do not like uncertainty. They are not looking for capital appreciation. Only a reasonable, steady, predictable return. Foreign governments hold over $2 trillion of U.S. Treasury debt on the presumption that the dollar will pretty much hold its value relative to their own currencies. If they see massive volatility in the U.S. markets, they may just decide to dump their dollar reserves. In the past three (maybe 4) years the dollar has gone from .88 per Euro to $1.44 per Euro. That's a 75% increase. Gold has increased about a third. This is not good news in such a short time. When you dump dollars, you can only do it by buying something else that you perceive as more stable. The price of those things will rise relative to the dollar as more and more people jump the dollar ship.

For every seller of dollars there must be a buyer, so how do you get the seller to part with his non dollar asset in exchange for dollars. Why, you offer him more, of course. This is called a price increase, or, if the Fed has expanded the money supply, (it has) then it's called inflation. People will deal with gradual, sneaky inflation. They will panic when it's obvious and rapid.

Jimmy is buying gold on Monday.

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