When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

27 October 2008

Markets are dysfunctional; they are totally unhinged

...[I]t was a meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in September 2006 that earned [NYU professor Nouriel Roubini] his nickname Dr Doom.

Roubini told an audience of fellow economists that a generational crisis was coming. A once-in-a-lifetime housing bust would lay waste to the US economy as oil prices soared, consumers stopped shopping and the country went into a deep recession.

The collapse of the mortgage market would trigger a global meltdown, as trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unravelled. The shockwaves would destroy banks and other big financial institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, America’s largest home loan lenders.

“I think perhaps we will need a stiff drink after that,” the moderator said. Members of the audience laughed.


Then, in February 2008, Roubini posted an entry on his blog headlined: “The rising risk of a systemic financial meltdown: the twelve steps to financial disaster”.

It detailed how the housing market collapse would lead to huge losses for the financial system, particularly in the vehicles used to securitise loans. It warned that “ a national bank” might go bust, and that, as trouble deepened, investment banks and hedge funds might collapse.

Even Roubini was taken aback at how quickly this scenario unfolded. The following month the US investment bank Bear Stearns went under. Since then, the pace and scale of the disaster has accelerated and, as Roubini predicted, the banking sector has been destroyed, Freddie and Fannie have collapsed, stock markets have gone mad and the economy has entered a frightening recession.

Roubini says he was able to predict the catastrophe so accurately because of his “holistic” approach to the crisis and his ability to work outside traditional economic disciplines. A long-time student of financial crises, he looked at the history and politics of past crises as well as the economic models.

“These crises don’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “Usually they arrive because of a systematic increase in a variety of asset and credit bubbles, macro-economic policies and other vulnerabilities. If you combine them, you may not get the timing right but you get an indication that you are closer to a tipping point.”


“Every time there has been a severe crisis in the last six months, people have said this is the catastrophic event that signals the bottom. They said it after Bear Stearns, after Fannie and Freddie, after AIG [the giant US insurer that had to be rescued], and after [the $700 billion bailout plan]. Each time they have called the bottom, and the bottom has not been reached.”

Across the world, governments have taken more and more aggressive actions to stop the panic. However, Roubini believes investors appear to have lost confidence in governments’ ability to sort out the mess.

The announcement of the US government’s $700 billion bailout, Gordon Brown’s grand bank rescue plan and the coordinated response of governments around the world has done little to calm the situation. “It’s been a slaughter, day after day after day,” said Roubini. “Markets are dysfunctional; they are totally unhinged.” Economic fundamentals no longer apply, he believes.

“Even using the nuclear option of guaranteeing everything, providing unlimited liquidity, nationalising the banks, making clear that nobody of importance is going to be allowed to fail, even that has not helped. We are reaching a breaking point, frankly.”

He believes governments will have to come up with an even bigger international rescue, and that the US is facing “multi-year economic stagnation”.

Nouriel Roubini: I fear the worst is yet to come (Times of London, 26 October 2008)

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