What Trichet Knows and You Don't - 13 July 2011
US exposure to Eurozone crisis could run into trillions...
WHY WOULD the European Union bend over backwards to "save" a member nation that accounts for 2.01% of the EU by trade volume?
More to the point, if things really were under control, why would European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet say that risk signals for financial stability in the Euro area are flashing "red" as he did following a meeting of the European Systemic Risk Board in Frankfurt? asks Keith Fitz-Gerald, chief investment strategist at Money Morning.
The short answer: Because he knows what the European banks are desperately trying to hide from the rest of the world – that there are still enormous risks and they're even more concentrated now than they were in 2008 at the start of the financial crisis.
In all, more than 50 European banks have a combined 92 billion Euros ($129 billion) tied up in Greek sovereign debt. Worse, there are 14 banks whose Greek exposure is more than 10%, which suggests that they may not have reserves strong enough to handle a debt default.
Admittedly, 10% doesn't sound like an especially large number – but if bad debt starts a run on a bank's deposits, 10% can very quickly grow to 20%, 30%, or more as increasingly fearful depositors scramble to pull out their money.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the 10% figure may not completely account for bad mortgage debt, credit default swaps, currency arbitrage or other "exotic" financial instruments (and we have no way of knowing because these instruments are almost completely unregulated).
When countries are ranked by total exposure to the Euro, the concentration becomes even more apparent – as do the reasons for the intense negotiations being undertaken by the Germans and the French. The former has everything to lose while the latter, with its dysfunctional economy, has everything to gain.
Incidentally, when ranked by the number of banks at risk, the reasons why credit-default-swap raiders are going to go after Spain, Italy, and France when they're done with Greece, Ireland, and Portugal becomes abundantly clear: The concentration of risk is a target-rich environment for major trading houses that have grown so powerful they can attack entire countries, much the way the bond vigilantes attacked debt in the 1990s as a means of raising rates.
What's ironic is that the very bailout policies everybody thinks are helping are, in fact, providing the incentive to attack because the traders know they can't lose if they apply enough leverage.
Now let's chat for a minute about what else I think Trichet has figured out – namely that the risks to US financial institutions are significant and that these same risks may actually outweigh the costs of the last global bailout should Greece fail.
I believe that Trichet has very quietly communicated this information to US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, who looks and sounds defeated and who appears to be telegraphing one or more black swans on the horizon – even as he publicly downplays the possibility.
At the same time, regulators who have probably not been explicitly told what's at stake are wising up, which is why they've been "probing" US financial institutions with regard to direct and indirect Greek exposure – especially when it comes to details on the credit default swaps they may have written on Greece, Greek debt, and European banks.
There are two particular areas of concern as I see them: The Fed's Dollar swap lines and money market funds.
Dollar swap lines are specific credit lines extended by the Fed as a means of ensuring that stressed foreign banks have easy, quick access to short-term US Dollar-denominated funds when they need to take "risk off" or as part of the well-documented "flight to safety."
First, I want to know what the Fed's Dollar swap lines are with European central banks, and which US banks have engaged in similar arrangements and are using their swaps to daisy chain the capital into other "investments" that directly or indirectly involve Greek exposure.
And secondly, I want to know which banks have money market exposure to Greek debt. Not many investors realize this, but money market funds have long invested in foreign debt instruments as a means of maintaining their value and their stability. This is not an inconsequential matter, either.
According to a report from Fitch Ratings, the 10 largest US prime money market funds represent more than $755 billion of assets – over half of which are directly exposed to European banks and presumably to the Greek debt crisis. That's another $377.5 billion in exposure our system may not be able to handle.
Throw in private liquidity pools, the rest of the US money market universe, and European money market funds denominated in Dollars, and you could easily hit another $2 trillion to $5 trillion in risks that are not yet factored into the financial system.
But you know what?
As problematic as that sounds, I am actually more worried about something we've heard with increasing frequency over the past few weeks – that the Fed and Wall Street are both optimistic that they understand the risks involved.
Anybody besides me want to call BS?
I think we should, because the mere fact that they think they "understand" the risks involved practically guarantees that they don't. And really, we have the right to know if there's another Lehman Bros. lurking somewhere in the Eurozone.