The Trillion Dollar Bailout

In the last post I speculated that the bailouts would end up costing the taxpayers upto $1 Trillion. It looks like that has become reality. Here’s an email I recieved from Asif Suria, of SINLetter:

In an unprecedented move, the current administration unveiled a simple three page plan on Saturday that will provide the treasury with $700 billion to buy toxic assets off the balance sheets of financial institutions. Combining this bailout plan with the $85 billion loan to AIG and the $200 billion to rescue Fannie and Freddie, we the taxpayers are eventually likely to incur a bill of $1,000,000,000,000. In case you did not have the time to count all those zeros and calculate what you might be liable for, that is $1 trillion and works out to a little over $3,250 for every man, woman and child living in the United States.

We have come a long way in this crisis that has devoured most of the independent mortgage lenders and left just 3 out of the 6 investment banks that started this year. Almost every weekend there is news of yet another small bank going under and real estate shows no signs of turning around. Nearly 47% of all homes sold in the state  of California last month were foreclosures and the median home price in the San Francisco bay area fell from $655,000 in August 2007 to $447,000 last month.

Following in the footsteps of our neighbors across the pond, the SEC temporarily banned short selling in the stocks of 799 financial institutions in an orchestrated effort to shore up markets. While I felt that the SEC’s move to ban naked short selling was a good move, I think a ban on short selling of any kind makes no sense. Essentially we can only buy stocks to go long or sell our existing positions but cannot hedge our portfolios by selling stocks that may be overvalued?

[Cartoon of Wall Street Bailout]

Short selling is an activity that even noted British economist John Maynard Keynes indulged in as far back as 1919 and is not the evil activity it is being painted out to be in the media. Try telling fund managed Ken Heebner who graced the cover of Fortune magazine just a few months ago that he has to change the structure of his 130/30 fund (130% of assets are invested in long positions and 30% are invested in short positions) because he can no longer sell short even if he identifies overvalued or mismanaged companies in the financial sector.

In its press release regarding the short selling ban the SEC admits, “Under normal market conditions, short selling contributes to price efficiency and adds liquidity to the markets.”. Clearly this action is targeted towards institutions that were aggressively short selling financial stocks and unless extended, it should end on Oct 2, 2008. Thankfully naked put options and the ultrashort ETFs, our instruments of choice to hedge the SINLetter model portfolio, were not included in the ban.

We are already beginning to see the dollar weaken against other currencies and the best way to play this (besides shorting the dollar) could be to take long positions in other currencies through ETFs like Currency Shares Australian Dollar Trust  (FXA), Currency Shares British Pound Sterling Trust  (FXB), Currency Shares Canadian Dollar Trust  (FXC) or Currency Shares Swiss Franc Trust (FXF). If picking a specific currency is too daunting a task (it is for me), then the “carry trade” ETF PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund (DBV) could provide a useful alternative. The simple premise of this ETF is that higher yielding currencies tend to outperform lower yielding ones and hence this ETF goes long the highest yielding currencies while simultaneously shorting the lowest yielding currencies. You can learn more about the carry trade and DBV from this BusinessWeek article titled Trade Currencies Like A Hedge Fund.

Bond prices have also dropped in anticipation of the U.S government issuing more debt to finance this bailout. Most homeowners tend to either move or refinance their homes within a 10 year period. Hence 30 year mortgages are closely correlated to the 10 year Treasury note and have already jumped last week in response to this bailout plan. Not only are financial institutions being given a “get out of jail free” card but responsible first time home buyers who waited out the real estate bubble are going to pay the price immediately through increased financing costs.

So Who’s Really Bailing Out The Financial Industry?

I started writing this post on Sunday but never got a chance to finish it. (On the other hand my first 3 days of the UCLA MBA program have been AWESOME!) I  know there’s been a lot of commotion in the stock market over the past few days and the Government just announced a bail-out of insurance company AIG. (But between spending 12 hours at school and reading 40 pages of papers a night, its been impossible to keep up). So anyway, here’s my delayed posting – its still relevant.

Last week the government announced a bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The US taxpayer now owns 79.9% of the outstanding shares. Before you go around congratulating them on their outstanding stock picking skills, just remember that the government is now explicitly backing the mortgages held by the two institutions.

While certain government officials have said that the bailout will end up costing the taxpayer as much as $300 Billion, the actual figures could be as high as $1 Trillion. When you consider that several major banks, the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) and the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) will all need to be bailed out at some point, the official cost to the US tax payer will probably be well over a $1 Trillion.

Where is the government going to get this kind of money? Our national debt is already running at $9.68 Trillion and we have future debt obligation of another $45 Trillion.

Will the government raise taxes or just print more money to cover this shortfall?

Raising taxes is never a popular thing to do and most politicians try to avoid it if they can. The easiest thing to do is just print more money! However, this has the effect of devaluing the existing dollars in circulation. This typically leads to more inflation. Someone even said that inflation was like taxation without representation!

Basically, the average US tax payer is on the hook for all these bailouts. It will come at the cost of higher taxation, or higher inflation. Both will lead to a somewhat lower standard of living than we’ve been used to for the past two generations!

Despite the severe correction in gold and silver prices, this instability in the currency should cause their prices to jump.Even gold and silver stocks, which have been massively punished, should do well in the long term and are currently great buys right now.

Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac Collapse

About 5 weeks ago I suggested that both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were going bankrupt and their shares were going to hit single digits in 12 months. Well it looks like the market believed that too and their shares were punished. Instead of having to wait a year, the stocks dropped like bricks within the month!

According to Nouriel Roubini, renowned Professor of Economics & International Business at NYU’s Stern Business school, this is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the worst U.S. Recession in the last few decades.

The FDIC that has already depleted 10% of its funds in the rescue of IndyMac alone will run out of funds and will have to be recapitalized by Congress as its insurance premia were woefully insufficient to cover the hole from the biggest banking crisis since the Great Depression

Fannie and Freddie are insolvent and the Treasury bailout plan (the mother of all moral hazard bailout) is socialism for the rich, the well connected and Wall Street; it is the continuation of a corrupt system where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. Instead of wiping out shareholders of the two GSEs, replacing corrupt and incompetent managers and forcing a haircut on the claims of the creditors/bondholders such a plan bails out shareholders, managers and creditors at a massive cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Wow, those are strong words! Practically every stock in the financial sector has jumped today, probably due of extreme oversold conditions and not because of any underlying change in the fundamental scenario.

Sadly, my beloved Oil & Gas stocks are down. It may be a sector rotation out of energy stocks and into the financials. But so long as my Canadian Income Trusts continue to provide me with dividends and passive income, I’ll continue to hold them.

But I might enter new short positions in the financials if the stocks rally significantly above these levels. Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke announced today that FNM & FRE were “in no danger of failing”. I don’t know if I believe him – sounds just like a few months ago when the government telling us there’s no recession. Meanwhile everything (except housing) is getting more expensive and unemployment is rising. And as Jim Rogers says that “the only people Bernanke cares about are his buddies on Wall Street”!

There's Still No Recession!