This blog post originally appeared on RealMoney Silver on Aug. 20 at 9:11 a.m. EDT.On Friday night, I appeared on CNBC's "Fast Money" and was asked a critical question: Why fight the Fed in maintaining a cautious market view? After all, the markets soared after the Fed eased in response to the Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) bailout in 1998. I'll answer that question now. Back in 1990-1992 and 2001-2003, the Fed lowered interest rates 100 basis points, secure in the belief that it had thwarted a recession. Both times, the Fed was wrong: A recession commenced, and a bear market in equities followed. For example, the DJIA soared nearly 3% with the surprise January 2001 interest rate cut. Three months later, the markets made new lows and ultimately fell 20% from the highs. Seven years ago, the economy was soaring with real gains of about 4%, productivity was unprecedented, technology was in the midst of a renaissance, and the consumer was in fine shape. The LTCM issue was fairly contained; it was an isolated liquidity crisis in a hedge fund that was forced by the misuse of leverage and the insolvency of a relatively small economy, Russia. The result was a 75-basis-point reduction in the fed funds rates, which restored calm in the financial markets in a matter of weeks. Things are far different today.
Today, we face an economy that has far less promise with participants (consumers, hedge funds and borrowers of all kinds and shapes) all hocked up. Unlike 1998, today's housing market is in a sustained downturn, which will not likely recover until 2010. The consumer is at a tipping point, hedge funds don't hedge, and the world's economy faces a broad credit crunch. What was a liquidity issue seven years ago is both a liquidity and solvency issue today. I have argued that, in the current credit cycle, nontraditional lenders have proliferated by circumventing Regulation T and banking reserve requirements, serving to soften or even dull the Fed's role in monetary policy. In turn, this systemic change has led to unusual borrowing in the form of interest-only and teaser adjustable-rate mortgage loans and levered quant hedge funds. Furthermore, growth in the derivative market ran amok, serving to underwrite the sale of a broad-based group of products (such as motorcycles, automobiles, furniture, etc.) and also serving to brighten the markets for
private equity. This added liquidity from nontraditional lenders also buoyed the credit market, allowing companies that should have failed to tap large sums of equity and bonds. This created the feeling that all was well with the business world as stock markets rallied around the globe and corporate default rates hit all-time lows in 2006. But this was an illusion. With credit being extended to everyone, the consumer -- already having ponied up to the Credit Bar Saloon -- went further into hock by loading up on ARMs and "no-money-down" durable (and nondurable) purchases. The hedge funds, in this period of mispricing of risk, got into the act by levering up in order to capture unsustainable returns. (According to Merrill Lynch ( MER), hedge fund assets now approach $10 trillion, which is supported by less than $1.5 trillion of equity.) The "hot money" provided by nontraditional lenders eventually led to what we have today and what I have described as a tightly wound financial system vulnerable to any interruption or negative event. The subprime mess was the event that triggered a chain reaction and a reassessment and repricing of risk; it was a ticking credit time bomb that most ignored -- until recently.
Regardless of the Fed's actions, the odds favoring a 2008 recession have been increasing daily and until recently have been almost entirely ignored.