Remember 1929 and the financial crisis of 2008 / 2009 – the cause of any coming financial crisis is here again

It has not yet been fully recognized that Ruth Bader Gindsburg’s (RBG) death significantly raises the likelihood of a US – centric financial crisis this fall. The continued forbearance by lenders and bond trustees, the rule waiving and the explicit belief in further fiscal stimulus have all depended on the assumption that Congress would be open to any agreement and negotiations between the parties.

But the possibility of any kind of agreement has been damaged by fury among Democrats at President Donald Trump’s insistence that RBG’s successor must be appointed before the election.

US Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell’s pleas for more fiscal support do not seem to have done the trick of concentrating members of Congress on the urgency of a reaching an agreement on additional fiscal stimulus. All that matters in Washington now is the fight over who succeeds RBG.

But there are entire industries, specifically airlines who already received more than 5 billion dollar in government support, hotels and “core retail” (shopping malls), whose revenues have suffered deeply from the failing off of the initial federal fiscal stimulus and consumers’ fear of Covid-19 infection. Each of these industries has been supported by previously “investment grade” tranches of securitizations that are going into default on a large scale.

The only way to get Congress to act on major new stimulus before January or February will be to have a financial crisis. Usually these are triggered by the failure of a large financial institution or the sudden, deep repricing of a whole class of securities.. The major banks are far more risk averse and better capitalized now than in the past crisis and the housing industry is prospering from the refinancing boom made possible by Fed easing.

Since the Lehman crisis, risk has been moved off bank balance sheets and into securitization markets. This is why we think it is more likely that the coming financial crisis will be triggered by the market’s rejection of a few classes of securities.

Something like this happened in 1929 with the collapse of pyramided securities holding companies. So to find the point of vulnerability in the US financial markets, we believe we have to look for the least legally flexible credit securities that can move the fastest from low risk to visibly defaulted.

Those would be in our opinion the commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), particularly those floated in the market between 2012 and 2017.

Because they are mostly not held on bank balance sheets, there is no bank that can decide, say, to amortize their principal and interest payments over a longer timescale. Unlike almost all collateralized loan obligations, CMBS cannot have any substitution of collateral. Meaning you cannot move a few bad assets to the sponsor’s own balance sheet and replace them with performing assets that can be added to the CMBS collateral pool.

A CMBS manager generally holds small amounts of cash that are intended for maintenance or replacing necessary equipment or fixtures and furniture in shared areas. These “FF&E” pools typically will amount to about three months of assumed rent receipts.

Since the Covid – related economic crisis in March, the trustees for many CMBS bonds backed by troubled properties have allowed FF&E accounts to be used to pay enough principal and interest to avoid having the CMBS collateral from going into defaults. But that three months of cash has run out in many cases, particularly for hotels and malls.

In the first weeks of September, there has been a rapid increase in the number of CMBS going into “special servicing”, a sort of formal defaults. This process in our opinion will now accelerate rapidly, conterminous with the Supreme Court nomination fight and the ongoing election.

In the most troubled CMBS structures triple-A tranches are now jumping down to BB. This is the sort of surprise we got in 2007-2008, just as the last financial crisis accelerated.

Now, even deregulating conservatives we know want to restrict the Wall Street securitization machine. This is because it is based on an elision of the truth that amounts to deception.

Among the easiest targets in the aftermath of this will again be the major credit rating agencies.

The ratings that the agencies bestowed on CMBS were just a marketing tool for selling securities. They should not have any of the colour of independent free speech.

At the very least, the agencies should be treated the same as research departments of securities firms.

In the US, that would mean being regulated by Finra, the broker-dealers’ self-regulator. That would be much more expensive than their current friendly chats with the SEC. And the rating agencies in our opinion should be forced to assume more direct civil liability for misrepresentations of possible risks.