Thursday, August 16, 2007

Enough is enough...

says PIMCO's Bill Gross, the rich are getting too rich! The chart below shows the share of all income that went to the top .01% of earners. 15,000 families take home 1/20 of all the income in America, many enjoying a 15% tax rate!

...What pretense to assert, as did Kenneth Griffin, recipient last year of more than $1 billion in compensation as manager of the Citadel Investment Group, that "the (current) income distribution has to stand. If the tax became too high, as a matter of principle I would not be working this hard." Right. In the same breath he tells, Louis Uchitelle of The New York Times that the get-rich crowd "soon discover that wealth is not a particularly satisfying outcome." The team at Citadel, he claims, "loves the problems they work on and the challenges inherent to their business." Oh what a delicate/tangled web we weave sir. Far better to admit, as has Warren Buffett, that the tax rates of the wealthiest Americans average nearly 15% while those of their salaried and therefore less incented assistants just outside their offices are nearly twice that. Far better to recognize, as does Chart 1, that only twice before during the last century has such a high percentage of national income (5%) gone to the top .01% of American families. Far better to understand, to quote Buffett, that "society should place an initial emphasis on abundance but then should continuously strive to redistribute the abundance more equitably." ...

Now on to the credit meltdown. Gross is no "isolationist" -- he mentions the dreaded contagion. I suspect things may be more dangerous this time than in the wake of LTCM. In that case, the problems could be traced to the trades of a single firm. Today, we have trillions of (notional) dollars tied up in illiquid transactions between hundreds (if not thousands) of firms. How will this all unwind? I'll be surprised if Moody's and Standard and Poors aren't dragged into court over some of their AAA ratings. But who can blame them if their models (based on historical default probabilities) told them that senior tranches would never bear any losses? (See also here.)

...Some wonder what squelched the hunger of potential lenders so abruptly, while in the same breath suggesting that the subprime crisis is "isolated" and not contagious to other markets or even the overall economy. Not so, and the sudden liquidity crisis in the high yield debt market is just the latest sign that there is a connection, a chain that links all markets and ultimately their prices and yields to the fate of the U.S. economy. The fact is that several weeks ago, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s finally got it into gear, downgrading hundreds of subprime issues and threatening more to come. "Isolationists" would wonder what that has to do with the corporate debt market. Housing is faring badly but corporate profits are in their prime and at record levels as a percentage of GDP. Lenders to corporations should not be affected by defaults in subprime housing space, they claim. Unfortunately that does not appear to be the case.

As Tim Bond of Barclays Capital put it so well a few weeks ago, "it is the excess leverage of the lenders not the borrowers which is the source of systemic problems." Low policy rates in many countries and narrow credit spreads have encouraged levered structures bought in the hundreds of millions by lenders, in an effort to maximize returns with what they thought were relatively riskless loans. Those were the ABS CDOs, CLOs, and levered CDO structures that the rating services assigned investment grade ratings to, which then were sold with enticing LIBOR + 100, 200, 300 or more types of yields. The bloom came off the rose and the worm started to turn, however, when institutional investors – many of them foreign – began to see the ratings downgrades in ABS subprime space. Could the same thing happen to levered structures with pure corporate credit backing? To be blunt, they seem to be thinking that if Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have done such a lousy job of rating subprime structures, how can the market have confidence that they’re not repeating the same structural, formulaic, mistake with CLOs and CDOs? That growing lack of confidence – more so than the defaults of two Bear Stearns hedge funds and the threat of more to come – has frozen future lending and backed up the market for high yield new issues such that it resembles a constipated owl: absolutely nothing is moving. ...

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