Sunday, March 30, 2008

Record NH Snowfall for 2008

With the snowstorm we had Thursday night, we have had the most snowfall in New Hampshire since 1873. Now, the snowfall of 113 inches does not quite compare with the normal over 300 inches in the Keewenaw Peninsula of Michigan, but it is still substantial. The roof of my shed did indeed collapse, and as of March 30 (today) I still can't do anything about it because there is still two feet of unmelted snow on top of it.

But from this point forward, the "oldtimers" around here cannot say how the winters of old were so much more severe, with so much more snow (i.e., the climate has really changed...). Unless they are more than 135 years old, we saw more snow this winter than any oldtimer ever did.

My kids will be able to tell stories of that winter of '08, and how the roof on their house collapsed. How they had 37 snow days and had to go to school the entire summer to make up for it. How the cat went outside and got buried in a snowdrift and we didn't find her til the spring...

Al-Sadr Disappoints the Pessimists

The headlines in this morning's newspapers were filled with pessimism over Iraq. My local paper led with: "Basra Effort Falters. Al-Sadr Orders Defiance; U.S. Jets Hit Militia." The story went on to talk about the "faltering" Iraqi government offensive, and how Prime Minister al-Maliki may have "miscalculated" with his offensive.

I could sense the anticipated joy on the part of the liberal media and the Democrats, thinking that this was the beginning of the end of good news coming out of Iraq.

Ah, what a difference a few hours makes. Now the headlines read "Sadr offers a cease fire in Iraq."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Subprime Investments

In my last post, I noted Ben Bernanke's remarks last May about how most subprime mortgages were still making payments.

You might not know it from media reports, but this remains true today.

What are current mortgage default rates? The Mortgage Banker's Association's press release from March 6 states that the delinquency rate for one-to-four unit residential properties was 5.82 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007. In the fourth quarter of 2006, that rate was 4.95 percent. Is that a large or small increase? Beauty is in the eye of the bondholder, I guess. The rates are higher for subprime mortgages; the above numbers are overall.

Going back to Bernanke's point, it remains true that the vast majority of all mortgages, even subprime mortgages, continue to make payments. Consider that fact in light of the tremendous losses reported by banks such as UBS, Citigroup and Bear Stearns. Those losses are reported losses, due to writedowns of the value of securities held by the banks that are backed by mortgages. In many cases, the losses are not due to "mark to market" but due to "mark to model" because market prices simply do not exist. Also, if one looks at the way the trust pools are set up, and the way the cash flows are split across the tranches, it becomes clear that there is quite a lot of "overcollateralization" of the senior tranches. That is, there has to be really significant impairment of the overall mortgage pool backing the securities before most of the securities are hurt. There is also this issue of "excess spread" that creates more of a cushion: the rates that the mortgage holders pay exceeds the rate paid to the securities backed by the mortgages; the excess goes initially into a pool that takes any initial defaults.

You can actually see the default rates for collateralized mortgage pools on a Bloomberg terminal. The data available on one of those is really amazing. Not just prices and rates, but the actual payment performance of the underlying mortgages.

If Bernanke and the Fed are successful in keeping the economy away from recession, or at least deep recession, and at remedying the adverse-selection based credit crunch, then defaults should not increase too much further.

I for one would not be surprised to see some investment banks end up reporting large profits as their securities holdings get revalued upwards.

Ben Bernanke, May 2007

Here is an ironic excerpt from a speech Bernanke gave on the subprime mortgage market on May 17, 2007:

"All that said, given the fundamental factors in place that should support the demand for housing, we believe the effect of the troubles in the subprime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited, and we do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system."

Ah, famous last words.

But see my next post for a follow-on discussion of what he said next:

"The vast majority of mortgages, including even subprime mortgages, continue to perform well."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Market Turmoil: Is the Fed Seeding Inflation?

The markets are in some turmoil this morning. Imagine: Bear Stearns, a truly unique investment bank, was trading for $30 per share on Friday and will be sold to JP Morgan (to the rescue!) for $2 (assuming Bear's shareholders approve it, which I expect they will do given the alternatives).

How could this happen? Bear was hit by two things: Leverage, and the nature of a trading business. Suppose you have $3 of equity supporting $100 of assets. Then if the assets fall in value by 3% the equity is wiped out. This is the same "gearing" effect that many subprime investors had to (re-)discover. Second thing hitting Bear is what Enron discovered as it was approaching bankruptcy: Counterparties quickly stop doing business with trading partners who become risky, particularly when the true risk is unknown.

At this point, counterparty risk seems to be a dominant factor in affecting credit markets. Banks are unwilling to lend to one another. This kind of liquidity crisis is precisely what central banks are supposed to fight. The Fed, in my humble opinion, is doing an admirable job so far. There are a fair number of critics out there who fear that the Fed is simply pumping money into the economy, thereby feeding future inflation.

At least for this latest set of moves, the bond markets do not seem to agree with the inflation arguments. Nominal yields on all maturity Treasury bonds and bills moved lower today, with the 5-year down 14 basis points and the 30-year down 5 basis points. The inflation-indexed Treasuries saw HIGHER yields, although the yield on the 10 year inflation indexed Treasury is still only 1.05%. My reading would be that the bond markets saw the Fed move as not increasing inflation, but as being somewhat beneficial to economic activity (hence the higher real rate).

Lots of interesting things to think about in these crazy times. For instance: Isn't it ironic that traders are so attuned to risk today -- their risk aversion brought down Bear Stearns -- but that they were so asleep at the wheel when everyone was buying subprime mortgage-backed securities at close to par the last several years?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Democrats and Proportional Delegate Assignment

If anyone can explain how Texas' delegates are allocated between Clinton and Obama, I would love to hear it. I don't know if the final allocation has yet to be decided, because some of them were chosen in caucases.

Even more important, would someone who criticized the electoral college system for possibly electing a president who did not get the largest popular vote tell me how the Democratic Party's primary system is better?