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?