Short of green men landing in the City and eating everything within a mile of Bank station, how serious could the credit crunch get, given what we know? The following is not a prediction, more of an exercise in generating plausible worst case scenarios.
Firstly the possibility of the failure of a systemically important institution cannot be ignored. The rumours surrounding further write-downs are too pervasive for that. Undoubtedly a rescue would be organised, but confidence would be very severely shaken and massive injections of liquidity would be necessary to stabilise the markets.
In this context we could expect a series of hedge fund failures too, and a widespread deleverage and flight to quality across the system. Significant falls in equity markets, moves in low yielding currencies vs. the dollar (as carry trades are unwound) and spikes in implied volatility are also to be expected. The securitisation markets would remain shut for an extended period of time, ABCP would be very difficult or impossible to roll, and the swap spread would go out significantly.
Another possibility is the failure of a monoline (such as MBIA, Ambac, FGIC, FSA or Radian) or a large insurance company involved in the credit markets such as Ace or XL. This is more problematic in that the parties who would be involved in a rescue are less clear and the majority of the systemic risk related to such a failure would be confined to the wholesale market. On balance though in the circumstances I think a rescue would be more likely than not. We have not seen a failure like this before so the consequences are harder to predict, but certainly the impact on the muni and structured credit markets would be considerable.
We can reasonably assume that the largest firms have the resources to attempt to mark their books. For smaller banks or fund managers that may not be the case, so there could well be medium sized institutions that are sitting on losses that are significant given their capital base without knowing it. This won’t be as bad as a big player going down, but on the other hand a struggling tiddler might actually be allowed to fail, depending on the country. That would cause further spread widening and deleverage across the industry.
Just as Sarbannes Oxley was a (-n over) reaction to Enron, so we can expect to see revisions to Basel 2 and to the accounting framework for conduits and SIVs. These will be a slow burn rather than sudden changes, in all likelihood, but depending on how far they go, they have the potential to reduce the intermediation of risk and decrease bank profitability, at least until the industry figures out how to arb the new rules.
Meanwhile we can expect the U.S. housing market to trend down for an extended period, until mid 2009 at the earliest, and contagion into other bubbly markets such as the UK and Spain is entirely possible. Specialist mortgage lenders, REITs, builders, and the holders of 2006 and 2007 vintage MBS paper are likely to suffer most. The impact on the economies concerned will be considerable, and full blown consumer-lead recessions are entirely possible in the U.S. and the UK.
The equity markets seem particularly vulnerable at the moment: perhaps we are seeing the start of an inevitable repricing of risk, but with many established equity markets close to their all-time highs, large falls from here are possible. Bank debt must also be vulnerable: while spreads have blown out, they are still rather tight compared with the potential downside in some of the scenarios I have outlined. This will have a knock-on effect in credit markets generally as risk capital is withdrawn and investors become much more risk averse.
None of this is inevitable, or even — so far at least — likely. But looking at what the future might bring is always a useful exercise, particularly in the heat of a crisis. Look on my stress tests, ye Mighty, and despair:
- Failure of your largest (by notional or PFCE) bank counterparty.
- One day equity market fall of 25%, followed by a further 40% over six months. Private equity cannot be sold.
- Short rates go to 2%, long rates to 6%, and the swap spread is 100 bps.
- Interbank borrowing is impossible for three months. Securitisation is impossible for ever.
- One day dollar fall of 5% followed by a further 20% over six months.
- All asset-backed securities except RMBS become completely illiquid and halve in value. (Remember this has an effect on collateral from clients and on SIVs and conduits too.)
- Default rates on prime retail mortgages are the worst ever experienced historically plus 10%. Subprime assets are worthless.
- AA- or better credit spreads for financials go out 100 bps. 150 bps for A to BBB. 300 bps below that. Corporate spreads go out by half those amounts, as do emerging market spreads. (Or if you want a riff on this, BRICS spreads tighten.)
- All monoline or credit insurer protection is worthless. Monoline spreads are 500 bps.
- All hedge funds concentrating in ABS default. Default probabilities triple for the rest.