Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Financial Crises and the London Connection

A round-up on the latest on the impending financial disaster. First, from Reuters, "MF Global and the Great Wall Street Re-Hypothecation Scandal." To summarize:

By way of background, hypothecation is when a borrower pledges collateral to secure a debt. The borrower retains ownership of the collateral but is “hypothetically” controlled by the creditor, who has a right to seize possession if the borrower defaults.

In the U.S., this legal right takes the form of a lien and in the UK generally in the form of a legal charge. A simple example of a hypothecation is a mortgage, in which a borrower legally owns the home, but the bank holds a right to take possession of the property if the borrower should default.

In investment banking, assets deposited with a broker will be hypothecated such that a broker may sell securities if an investor fails to keep up credit payments or if the securities drop in value and the investor fails to respond to a margin call (a request for more capital).

Re-hypothecation occurs when a bank or broker re-uses collateral posted by clients, such as hedge funds, to back the broker’s own trades and borrowings. The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations much to the chagrin of hedge funds.
United States law caps the level of re-hypothecation, but the UK does not. The result is that large financial firms have set up UK subsidiaries in order to avoid the United States' limits. 
With weak collateral rules and a level of leverage that would make Archimedes tremble, firms have been piling into re-hypothecation activity with startling abandon. A review of filings reveals a staggering level of activity in what may be the world’s largest ever credit bubble.

Engaging in hyper-hypothecation have been Goldman Sachs ($28.17 billion re-hypothecated in 2011), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (re-pledged $72 billion in client assets), Royal Bank of Canada (re-pledged $53.8 billion of $126.7 billion available for re-pledging), Oppenheimer Holdings ($15.3 million), Credit Suisse (CHF 332 billion), Knight Capital Group ($1.17 billion),Interactive Brokers ($14.5 billion), Wells Fargo ($19.6 billion), JP Morgan($546.2 billion) and Morgan Stanley ($410 billion).

Nor is lending confined to between banks. Intra-bank re-hypothecation is also possible as evidenced by filings from Wells Fargo. According to disclosures from Wachovia Preferred Funding Corp, its parent, Wells Fargo, acts as collateral custodian and has the right to re-hypothecate and use around $170 million of assets posted as collateral.
According to the author, the prognosis is grim:
The volume and level of re-hypothecation suggests a frightening alternative hypothesis for the current liquidity crisis being experienced by banks and for why regulators around the world decided to step in to prop up the markets recently. To date, reports have been focused on how Eurozone default concerns were provoking fear in the markets and causing liquidity to dry up.

Most have been focused on how a Eurozone default would result in huge losses in Eurozone bonds being felt across the world’s banks. However, re-hypothecation suggests an even greater fear. Considering that re-hypothecation may have increased the financial footprint of Eurozone bonds by at least four fold then a Eurozone sovereign default could be apocalyptic.

U.S. banks direct holding of sovereign debt is hardly negligible. According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), U.S. banks hold $181 billion in the sovereign debt of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. If we factor in off-balance sheet transactions such as re-hypothecations and repos, then the picture becomes frightening.
However, there is more to this picture. As explained in this post at Zero Hedge, the financial collapse in 2008 also started with similar financial "magic" from AIG.
As readers will recall, the actual office that blew up the world the first time around, was not even based in the US. It was a small office located on the top floor of 1 Curzon Street in London's Mayfair district, run by one Joe Cassano: the head of AIG Financial Products. The reason why this office of US-based AIG was in London, is so that Cassano could sell CDS as far away from the eye of Federal regulators as possible. Which he did. In fact he sold an unprecedented $2.7 trillion worth of CDS just before the firm collapsed due to one small glitch in the system - the assumption that home prices could go down as well as up.
Only this time, instead of a handful of financial firms imploding, it will be a bevy of banks: this world where distraction and diversion often times is the only name of the game, while banks were pretending to have issues with their traditional liabilities, it was really the shadow liabilities where the true terrors were accumulating. Because in what has become a veritable daisy chain of linked shadow exposure, we are now back where we started with the AIG collapse, only this time the regime is decentralized, without the need for a focal, AIG-type center. What this means is that the collapse of the weakest link in the daisy-chain sets off a house of cards that eventually will crash even the biggest entity due to exponentially soaring counterparty risk: an escalation best comparable to an avalanche - where one simple snowflake can result in a deadly tsunami of snow that wipes out everything in its path. Only this time it is not something as innocuous as snow: it is the compounded effect of trillions and trillions of insolvent banks all collapsing at the same time, and wiping out the developed world and the associated 150 years of the welfare state as we know it.
A collapse of the European financial system would drastically impact the United States, possibly leading to a prolonged depression and high unemployment.

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