My Jaded Crystal Ball

Okay, this is wonky.  I’ve been avoiding writing about securitization for awhile because it can even get the best of people that know financial markets. You may remember that some one asked me where the next bubble lurked and I said commodities.  Now, that’s actually a dangerous place for a bubble because commodities are things you eat and things that make your house light up and your car run.  The housing bubble pretty much wiped out middle class wealth in the west.  What would a commodities bubble burst do in the right markets?  Well, think Mad Max or at least The Grapes of Wrath. Conversely, it could lead to a massive drop in key prices like that of oil.  Imagine that one!

Here’s some interesting finds from FT Alphaville on the securitization of commodities. It’s titled “The subpriming of commodities” for effect.

It’s always been common practice for commodity inventory to be financed by banks by being pledged as security for the loans in question.

The problem comes if such enterprises, instead of using the inventory for general business purposes, are encouraged to stockpile for the sole purpose of liquidity provision and the opportunity to punt on the underlying commodities themselves. It’s a process which arguably artificially pumps up demand for the underlying inventory.

Bundle all those loans together, meanwhile — ideally into a product that can be sold to buyside investors seeking exposure to  commodities — and suddenly you’ve got a direct source of funding for an ever-more speculative game.

When it comes to the larger players,  meanwhile, this arguably transcends ‘trade finance’ even further — especially if it involves the setting up of a large number of special purpose vehicles to accomplish the process.

Here, for example, are the thoughts of Brian Reynolds, chief market strategist at Rosenblatt Securities, regarding what’s going on:

A little more than a year ago we picked up on a trend that we termed the “sub-priming” of commodities. Wall Street has been increasingly been doing structured finance deals wrapped around commodities, and this has added a bid for them while also making them vulnerable to downdrafts.

We know that many equity investors think (or at least hoped) that, after the disastrous record of wrapping pipeline and telecom assets in the 1990’s and sub-prime housing in the last decade, financial market reforms such as Dodd-Frank would have eliminated structured finance as a macro driver. When Dodd-Frank was proposed it envisioned standardized derivatives being placed on exchanges and clearinghouse. We felt it would encourage more non-standardized, exotic, and opaque structures to be created, and in the two years since it was enacted that’s what seems to have happened.

Important trends indeed. Yet, as Reynolds also notes, they’re also very hard to quantify given they mostly occur off-balance sheet:

This process is virtually impossible to quantify. We know that’s a disappointment to equity investors who are used to dealing with voluminous information, but that’s the nature of structured finance. Many structured finance deals are private in nature. As such most people, even those in the credit markets, did not know the full extent of the structuring going on in the 1990’s or the last decade until those firms, which were trapped by “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs), such as Enron, WorldCom and Citigroup, became forced sellers. But over the last year we’ve heard more and more anecdotal evidence of Wall Street increasingly structuring commodity deals, such as structured notes and swaps and even using commodities as collateral.

In Reynold’s opinion — even though he’s not a commodity expert per se — this activity significantly increases the risk of a sharp drop in oil in the coming year, especially since structured finance transactions usually come with caps and floors, which act as important support and resistance levels.

That’s an interesting analysis for oil or copper.  However, what happens if the commodities in question happen to be food?  The only place this used to happen significantly was the gold market.  Actually, it’s understandable for oil too.  But is Wall Street so hungry for  financial innovation that they’re willing to bet the world’s food supply on it?  Yes, of course.  They’ve already done it several times.  History teaches us that it drives the prices up to unreasonable and unsustainable levels that take all kinds of people down when prices collapse.

Here’s an interesting bit on a contango that happened in the wheat market that already led to a food price crisis in 2007-2008.  This one had the Goldman Sachs brand all over it.  Last year, a similar situation occurred with the Oil Market and the same player.

On Monday, April 11, Goldman Sachs told its clients to sell commodities, and the market reacted with a $4 tumble in the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil and sell offs in other commodities.

On Thursday, April 14, the leaders of the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), meeting in Sanya, China, continued to press for a new world monetary system that has a much lower reliance on the dollar, and called for stronger regulation of commodity derivatives to dampen excessive volatility in food and energy prices.

We are in another commodity price run up, like that experienced in the 2005-2008 period.  Such commodity price frenzies have devastating consequences for the world’s poor who, in some instances, already spend half of their income on food.  Today, in the U.S. itself, the rise in the price of gasoline to more than $4 per gallon threatens an economy still struggling to free itself from the still lingering effects of the last bursting bubble.

It appears that the Western economic systems have become ever more volatile over the past decade.  That is, bubbles, followed by severe contractions, are appearing more often and with increased severity.  This is in stark contrast to the dampening of the business cycle we observed, and celebrated, in the 1980s and 1990s.  So, what changed?

In Harper’s last July, Fredrick Kaufman wrote an article entitled The Food Bubble, which explained the reasons for the run up in agricultural commodity prices just prior to the ’08 financial meltdown and worldwide recession.  The popular business media gave the article short shrift.  But, most of what Kaufman observed as the causes of the commodity price run up in the ’05-’08 period is now being repeated, a short three years later.

I’m finding all this interesting as I watch Jamie Dimon squirm on the big hedge loss reported by JP Morgan.  That’s the $2 billion mark to market loss that makes me thing we’re on the verge of 2007 redux.  Specifically, the market concentration is incredible because “the whale” created a huge problem for tons of hedge funds.  Also, the regulator appeared to be asleep at the switch.  You remember are old friends the Credit Default Swaps?

99 per cent of all CDS trades live in an information warehouse called DTCC, to which the regulators of the banks have access in however much detail they want!!! What kind of regulator doesn’t go and look at the that, when the mere public, aggregated info shows this?

Go check out the accompanying graph.

Anyway, I’m not going to get long winded and all financial economist on you, but sheesh, how many times does history have to repeat itself in markets before we get some one to do something useful?   I’m just reminded of all the little canaries that died on the way to the big 2007 blow up that people ignored.   How many canaries have to die this time out before we get another big one