I’ve tried to warn about this since I stated the blog in December, but I must say, this is getting pretty scary.
The U.S. financial system resembles a patient in intensive care. The body is trying to fight off a disease that is spreading, and as it does so, the body convulses, settles for a time and then convulses again. The illness seems to be overwhelming the self-healing tendencies of markets. The doctors in charge are resorting to ever-more invasive treatment, and are now experimenting with remedies that have never before been applied. Fed Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, walking into a hastily arranged meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday night to brief them on the government’s unprecedented rescue of AIG, looked like exhausted surgeons delivering grim news to the family.
The fear is moving to the panic stage. Everyday a new patient falls ill.
The desperation was especially striking in the market for U.S. government debt, long considered the safest of investments. At one point during the day, investors were willing to pay more for one-month Treasurys than they could expect to get back when the bonds matured. Some investors, in essence, had decided that a small but known loss was better than the uncertainty connected to any other type of investment.
That’s never happened before. In a special government auction on Wednesday, demand ran so high that the Treasury Department sold $40 billion in bills, far beyond what it needed to cover the government’s obligations.
“We’ve seen crisis. We’ve seen recession. But we’ve not seen the core of the financial system shaken like this,” says Joseph Balestrino, a portfolio manager at Federated Investors. “It’s just crazy.”
Last month I made the seemingly outrageous statement that the first few weeks of a new administration might look like Roosevelt’s first 100 days in 1932. Now I’m not sure we can last until January 20th. This is effecting every company.
The damage has gone beyond banks and brokerages. Ford Motor Credit Co., the finance arm of Ford Motor Co., paid 7.5% for Tuesday-night overnight borrowings, says one trader. Typically, the rate for such debt would be about one-quarter percentage point over the federal-funds rate, which is currently 2%, he says.
If Ford has to pay 7.5% for short term borrowing, it means the loan window is essentially closed for most small and medium sized businesses. That will mean more layoffs.
This could get really ugly.