This blog post originally appeared on RealMoney Silver on Jan. 23 at 8:48 a.m. EST.Yesterday the Fed cut its funds and discount rates by 75 basis points, the largest fed funds cut since October 1984 (when Volcker's Fed bailed out Continental Bank) and the largest discount rate cut since December 1991 (when Greenspan's Fed feared the failure of Citibank). While the Fed's actions will have a salutary impact on the U.S. banking industry's net interest margins, throwing cheap money into the markets will do nothing to address a dysfunctional credit market and the dangerous systemic risks associated with the monoline insurance industry. Nor will dead-at-birth home mortgage market fiscal policy relief (the Paulson plan) and cheap money provide any meaningful short-term relief to the current housing depression -- or to the foreclosed or delinquent mortgages providing much of the current pain. Policy aimed at providing solutions to the deep-rooted problems of credit and housing must almost, by definition, be more imaginative -- something that, to date, a timid and tardy Federal Reserve and Executive Branch seems unable to grasp. This is particularly true given the already levered state of our maturing economy, in general, and consumers, in particular. Based on the market's response on Tuesday and the continued weakness in futures this morning, it should be clear that the investment community remains hungry for a solution to the following:
- the imminent business downturn;
- the excessive inventory of unsold homes that has presaged the consumer-led recession; and
- the resolution of the counterparty payment obligations, stemming from the proliferation of structured investment products.
Solving the Monoline Insurance CrisisThe source of the financial system's Achilles' heel lies in the monoline insurance companies. The bond insurers, MBIA ( MBI) and Ambac ( ABK), were originally formed to insure bond defaults of municipalities. Though there would be a cost to that insurance, the municipalities saved more in interest expenses than the insurance cost as the insurance that MBIA and Ambac provided those municipal bonds with held the same AAA credit rating of the insurers. So far so good. But the bond insurers, intoxicated by the profitability of other instruments, "diversified" away from municipal bonds in the late 1990s into the real estate markets. Unfortunately, at the same time, mortgage originators began to make too many loans to homeowners and commercial owners who could not afford to pay in all but the most optimistic interest rate, economic and real estate assumptions. And too many of those ill-fated loans were packaged into structured credit products: Residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) begat collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) that morphed into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and CDOs-squared. In the fullness of time, even more complex instruments -- including varable interest entities, structured investment vehicles and qualified special purpose vehicles -- entered the picture. Many of these securities and the credit default swaps that fortified those credit markets were ultimately insured by the incredibly levered monoline insurance industry. The monoline insurance industry's top line grew exponentially coincident with the boom in structured finance. Wall Street embraced the shares of MBIA and Ambac, and, in 2007, the stocks reached record levels. The risks that MBIA and Ambac were taking on were clearly not recognized by investors or by the companies. Last week, for example, MBIA disclosed that it has over $30 billion of insured mortgage-backed bonds, which includes over $8 billion of CDOs that own other CDOs (i.e., CDO-squareds). The private mortgage insurance companies -- such as PMI Group ( PMI), Radian Group ( RDN) and MGIC Investment ( MTG) took a similar route and have suffered as delinquencies and foreclosures have spiked. The table below sums up nicely (or not so nicely) the magnitude of the five major monoline insurers' losses.
|A Profile of the Leading Monoline Insurers|
|Company||Equity capitalization||2007 price high||Jan. 18, 2008||Price decline|
|MGIC Investment||$1.2 billion||$76||$14||-81%|
|PMI Group||$0.5 billion||$50||$6||-88%|
|Radian Group||$0.5 billion||$63||$6||-90%|
|Total equity value||$3.8 billion|