An illusion of liquidity has beguiled financial markets across the world and spawned some of the worst excesses seen on Wall Street in modern times, the International Monetary has warned
The so-called ‘flash crash’ on US bond markets last October and the collapse of the Swiss currency floor in January showed how quickly liquidity can vanish, acting as “a powerful amplifier of financial stability risks.” 

IMF tells regulators to brace for global ‘liquidity shock’
by   /  15 Apr 2015

An illusion of liquidity has beguiled financial markets across the world and spawned some of the worst excesses seen on Wall Street in modern times, the International Monetary Fund has warned. Investors are borrowing money to buy shares on the US stockmarket at a torrid pace and are resorting to the same sorts of financial engineering that preceded the last two financial crises. “Margin debt as a percentage of market capitalisation remains higher than it was during the late-1990s stock market bubble. The increasing use of margin debt is occurring in an environment of declining liquidity,” said the IMF in its Global Financial Stability Report. “Lower market liquidity and higher market leverage in the US system increase the risk of minor shocks being propagated and amplified into sharp price corrections,” it said. The report said there are clear signs that underwriting standards are deteriorating in a pervasive search for yield. So-called “covenant-light loans” with poor protection for creditors now make up two-thirds of all new leveraged loans in the US.

The ratio of non-financial corporate debt to underlying assets has reached 27pc, even higher than it was just before the Lehman crash in 2008. Issuance of “second lien” loans that face a likely wipe-out in cases of default are running near record levels once again. This is becoming hazardous as the US Federal Reserve prepares to raise rates, a move that risks a spike in global borrowing costs and may cause liquidity to dry up almost overnight. “A sudden shift in market views that unwinds compressed premiums and sends yields higher could trigger a market liquidity shock,” said the report. The so-called ‘flash crash’ on US bond markets last October and the collapse of the Swiss currency floor in January showed how quickly liquidity can vanish, acting as “a powerful amplifier of financial stability risks.”

The risk of seizure has been made worse by new regulations that effectively force market makers and dealers to hold much lower inventories, or to drop out of the business altogether. The IMF said that large inflows of money into mutual funds have “provided an illusion of liquidity in credit markets” but this will be no protection in a major shock. The report warned that distress in the global oil industry could be the trigger for the next storm. Lending to the oil and gas industry reached $450bn last year, double the pre-Lehman peak. New bond issuance graded at `junk’ level have almost tripled to 45pc. The total debt outstanding is now $3 trillion. Defaults in the energy sector tend to lag oil price crashes by around twelve months since drillers typically hedge their output on the futures markets for a while. “Aftershocks for the corporate sector may not yet have fully filtered through,” said the IMF. The slump in oil prices is a powerful shot in the arm for world economy. It rotates vast sums of surplus capital from the oil-states into consumption, countering the chronic lack of demand that has held back global growth since 2008.

Yet there is a dark side for investors. The IMF said the oil states have accumulated $1.1 trillion over the last five years in foreign reserves alone, “an important source of funding for the global banking sector and capital markets.” These states hold $2 trillion in US assets, with $1.3 trillion concentrated in equities and $580bn in US Treasuries, and $230bn in credit. They are already having to draw down on this wealth to plug holes in their budgets at home, extracting a net $88bn last year. This could have “market repercussions” if it accelerates, said the report. The IMF itself is in a delicate position. It is has been a cheer-leader for ultra-loose monetary policy to stave off global deflation and prevent debt-dynamics spinning out of control in Europe, Japan, and the US. Yet many of the risks now emerging are a direct result of quantitative easing and zero-rates.

A third of all sovereign bonds in the eurozone now carry negative yields. This is causing havoc for money markets and for the life insurance industry, which has locked into commitments stretching out for thirty years that are becoming untenable. “A prolonged low interest rate environment will pose severe challenges for a number of financial institutions. Weak European midsized life insurers face a high and rising risk of distress. The failure of one or more midsize insurers could trigger an industry-wide loss of confidence,” it said. “The industry has a portfolio of €4.4 trillion in assets in the EU, with high and rising interconnectedness with the wider financial system. A large mark-to-market shock could force life insurers into asset reallocations and sales that could engulf the financial system,” it said. The IMF does love to keep us awake at night.

More Flash Crashes To Come As Shadow Banking Liquidity Collapses
by Tyler Durden  / 03/01/2015

Remember the algo-ignited, six sigma anomaly that sent 10-year yields down 30 bps in seemingly no time flat on the morning of October 15? Well despite the CFTC’s contention that it was “just a high volume day” without “any break in liquidity,” the Center for Financial Stability is out with a new report which cites the Treasury flash crash as a glaring example of what happens when an increasingly illiquid market collides head-on with “herding investment behavior.” From the CFS:

On October 15, the deepest and most liquid market in the world demonstrated a six standard deviation move in less than two hours, a move that happens once in 506,797,346 days! It is impossible to suggest that this supersized move in the US Treasury market was due to downward assessment of economic expectations. Economic expectations shift weekly – if not daily. Clearly, a shift in the structure of the US Treasury market and substantial reduction of private sector market makers is at the core of recent complications. Similarly, this issue extends well beyond simply the sovereign debt market for US securities, as a result of the interconnectedness among markets and the unique role for Treasury debt as benchmark securities. To be sure, a sustained “flash crash” in the world’s leading fixed income market could readily unleash a pronounced slowdown of the global economy, or worse. 

Put simply, excessive (and incessant) Fed meddling has fundamentally altered the market structure, creating all types of strangeness (the 2-, 5-, and 10-year all special for example) and in the process of sucking collateral from the system, the central bank has made things far more precarious. Recall what Bloomberg had to say about this back in October:

The amount of U.S. debt available to trade at one time without moving prices as of October has plunged 48 percent to $150 million since April, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.


As the CFS report goes on to point out, the lack of liquidity in the market is readily observable by way of data on various shadow banking conduits. Incredibly, liquidity has plummeted by nearly half since the eve of the crisis:  “…the reduction of market finance is excessively steep. The CFS measure of market finance is down a stunning 46% in real terms since its peak in March 2008! This phenomenon starves financial markets from needed liquidity and is detrimental to future growth by exposing the economy to potentially unnecessary shocks.” Even more alarming is the following table which shows that shadow banking has contracted for 82 consecutive months…

…and here’s Bloomberg again, with DB’s take:

A Deutsche Bank index that gauges liquidity by the three-month average size of daily dealer transactions in Treasuries relative to the variability of the 10-year note yield during that period is down to a reading of about 25, from over 500 in 2005. The current level is close to the low of about 19 at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009.

The problem isn’t confined to government debt. CFS also notes that the veritable dearth of liquidity in the secondary market for corporate paper (presumably related to regulation ostensibly aimed at eradicating prop trading) could lead to an “accident”:

…a recent report by BlackRock highlights how “the secondary trading environment for corporate bonds today is broken.” Data suggest that diminished corporate bond liquidity is in part due to limited participation by market makers. For example, debt holdings by primary dealers are down by 80 percent since a peak in October 2013. These examples signal that the probability of an accident is high and the stage is set for an adverse event meeting with an outsized impact on markets and possibly economies. 

We predicted this 18 months ago, when we warned that “the slightest gust of wind, or rather volatility, threatens to shut down the secondary corporate bond market, which already is running on fumes.” Of course the last thing you would want to see in this type of environment is a scenario wherein non-human actors are all programmed to move in exactly the same direction at exactly the same time, thus exacerbating the already amplified (thanks to the illiquidity issue) impact of a market-moving event. Thanks to the rise of the machines (a fifth of electronically executed Treasury trades will be executed by robots this year), we have precisely that, as even the zen masters at Bridgewater are starting an artificial intelligence unit. As we noted previously, “it seems that everyone has forgotten [what happens] when all the machines chase down the same rabbit holes?” Perhaps the ultimate irony in the whole thing is that a Fed policy (i.e. QE) designed explicitly to stamp out tail risk (i.e. a three standard deviation move), is beginning to create six standard deviation moves in the space of just hours. Throw in the unintended consequences of new regulations and a growing legion of lightning fast (if often hapless) robots and you’ve got the makings of a truly impressive meltdown.

The Global Liquidity Squeeze Has Begun
by Michael Snyder  /  04/18/2015

Get ready for another major worldwide credit crunch. Today, the entire global financial system resembles a colossal spiral of debt. Just about all economic activity involves the flow of credit in some way, and so the only way to have “economic growth” is to introduce even more debt into the system.  When the system started to fail back in 2008, global authorities responded by pumping this debt spiral back up and getting it to spin even faster than ever.  If you can believe it, the total amount of global debt has risen by $35 trillion since the last crisis.  Unfortunately, any system based on debt is going to break down eventually, and there are signs that it is starting to happen once again. For example, just a few days ago the IMF warned regulators to prepare for a global liquidity shock“.  And on Friday, Chinese authorities announced a ban on certain types of financing for margin trades on over-the-counter stocks, and we learned that preparations are being made behind the scenes in Europe for a Greek debt default and a Greek exit from the eurozone.  On top of everything else, we just witnessed the biggest spike in credit application rejections ever recorded in the United States.  All of these are signs that credit conditions are tightening, and once a “liquidity squeeze” begins, it can create a lot of fear.

Over the past six months, the Chinese stock market has exploded upward even as the overall Chinese economy has started to slow down.  Investors have been using something called “umbrella trusts” to finance a lot of these stock purchases, and these umbrella trusts have given them the ability to have much more leverage than normal brokerage financing would allow.  This works great as long as stocks go up.  Once they start going down, the losses can be absolutely staggering. That is why Chinese authorities are stepping in before this bubble gets even worse.  Here is more about what has been going on in China from Bloomberg

China’s trusts boosted their investments in equities by 28 percent to 552 billion yuan ($89.1 billion) in the fourth quarter. The higher leverage allowed by the products exposes individuals to larger losses in the event of stock-market drops, which can be exaggerated as investors scramble to repay debt during a selloff. In umbrella trusts, private investors take up the junior tranche, while cash from trusts and banks’ wealth-management products form the senior tranches. The latter receive fixed returns while the former take the rest, so private investors are effectively borrowing from trusts and banks. Margin debt on the Shanghai Stock Exchange climbed to a record 1.16 trillion yuan on Thursday. In a margin trade, investors use their own money for just a portion of their stock purchase, borrowing the rest. The loans are backed by the investors’ equity holdings, meaning that they may be compelled to sell when prices fall to repay their debt.

Overall, China has seen more debt growth than any other major industrialized nation since the last recession.

This debt growth has been so dramatic that it has gotten the attention of authorities all over the planet

Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s finance minister says that “debt levels in the global economy continue to give cause for concern.” Singling out China in particular, Schaeuble noted that “debt has nearly quadrupled since 2007″, adding that it’s “growth appears to be built on debt, driven by a real estate boom and shadow banks.” According to McKinsey’s research, total outstanding debt in China increased from $US7.4 trillion in 2007 to $US28.2 trillion in 2014. That figure, expressed as a percentage of GDP, equates to 282% of total output, higher than the likes of other G20 nations such as the US, Canada, Germany, South Korea and Australia.

This credit boom in China has been one of the primary engines for “global growth” in recent years, but now conditions are changing.  Eventually, the impact of what is going on in China right now is going to be felt all over the planet.

Over in Europe, the Greek debt crisis is finally coming to a breaking point.  For years, authorities have continued to kick the can down the road and have continued to lend Greece even more money. But now it appears that patience with Greece has run out. For instance, the head of the IMF says that no delay will be allowed on the repayment of IMF loans that are due next month…

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde roiled currency and bond markets on Thursday as reports came out of her opening press conference saying that she had denied any payment delay to Greece on IMF loans falling due next month. Unless Greece concludes its negotiations for a further round of bailout money from the European Union, however, it is not likely to have the money to repay the IMF.

And we are getting reports that things are happening behind the scenes in Europe to prepare for the inevitable moment when Greece will finally leave the euro and go back to their own currency. For example, consider what Art Cashin told CNBC on Friday

First, “there were reports in the media [saying] that the ECB and/or banking authorities suggested to banks to get rid of any sovereign Greek debt they had, which suggests that maybe the next step will be Greece exiting,” Cashin told CNBC.


Also, one of Greece’s largest newspapers is reporting that neighboring countries are forcing subsidiaries of Greek banks that operate inside their borders to reduce their risk to a Greek debt default to zero

According to a report from Kathimerini, one of Greece’s largest newspapers, central banks in Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have all forced the subsidiaries of Greek banks operating in those countries to bring their exposure to Greek risk — including bonds, treasury bills, deposits to Greek banks, and loans — down to zero.

Once Greece leaves the euro, that is going to create a tremendous credit crunch in Europe as fear begins to spread like wildfire.  Everyone will be wondering which nation will be “the next Greece”, and investors will want to pull their money out of perceived danger zones before they get hammered. In the past, other European nations have been willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Greece and avoid this kind of mess, but those days appear to be finished.  In fact, the finance minister of France openly admits that the French “are not sympathetic to Greece”

Greece isn’t winning much sympathy from its debt-wracked European counterparts as the country draws closer to default for failing to make bailout repayments. “We are not sympathetic to Greece,” French Finance Minister Michael Sapin said in an interview at the International Monetary Fund-World Bank spring meetings here. “We are demanding because Greece must comply with the European (rules) that apply to all countries,” Sapin said.

Yes, it is possible that another short-term deal could be reached which could kick the can down the road for a few more months. But either way, things in Europe are going to continue to get worse. Meanwhile, very disappointing earnings reports in the U.S. are starting to really rattle investors. For example, we just learned that GE lost 13.6 billion dollars in the first quarter

One week following the announcement that it would dismantle most of its GE Capital financing operations to instead focus on its industrial roots, General Electric reported a first quarter loss of $13.6 billion. The results were impacted by charges relating to the conglomerate’s strategic shift. A year ago GE reported a first quarter profit of $3 billion.

That is a lot of money. How in the world does a company lose 13.6 billion dollars in a single quarter during an “economic recovery”?

Other big firms are reporting disappointing earnings numbers too

In earnings news, American Express Co. late Thursday said its results were hurt by the strong U.S. dollar, which reduced revenue booked in other countries. Chief Executive Kenneth Chenault reiterated the company’s forecast that 2015 earnings will be flat to modestly down year over year. Shares fell 4.6%. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. said its first-quarter loss widened as revenue slumped. The company said it was exiting its dense server systems business, effective immediately. Revenue and the loss excluding items missed expectations, pushing shares down 13%.

And just like we saw just before the financial crisis of 2008, Americans are increasingly having difficulty meeting their financial obligations. For instance, the delinquency rate on student loans has reached a very frightening level

More borrowers are failing to make payments on their student loans five years after leaving college, painting a grim picture for borrowers, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Student debt continues to increase, especially for people who took out loans years ago. Those who left school in the Great Recession, which ended in 2009, had particular difficulty with repayment, with many defaulting, becoming seriously delinquent or not being able to reduce their balances, the New York Fed said today. Only 37 percent of borrowers are current on their loans and are actively paying them down, and 17 percent are in default or in delinquency.

At this point, the American consumer is pretty well tapped out.  If you can believe it, 56 percent of all Americans have subprime credit today, and as I mentioned above, we just witnessed the biggest spike in credit application rejections ever recorded. We have reached a point of debt saturation, and the credit crunch that is going to follow is going to be extremely painful.

Of course the biggest provider of global liquidity in recent years has been the Federal Reserve.  But with the Fed pulling back on QE, this is creating some tremendous challenges all over the globe.  The following is an excerpt from a recent article in the Telegraph

The big worry is what will happen to Russia, Brazil and developing economies in Asia that borrowed most heavily in dollars when the Fed was still flooding the world with cheap liquidity. Emerging markets account to roughly half of the $9 trillion of offshore dollar debt outside US jurisdiction. The IMF warned that a big chunk of the debt owed by companies is in the non-tradeable sector. These firms lack “natural revenue hedges” that can shield them against a double blow from rising borrowing costs and a further surge in the dollar.

So what is the bottom line to all of this? The bottom line is that we are starting to see the early phases of a liquidity squeeze. The flow of credit is going to begin to get tighter, and that means that global economic activity is going to slow down. This happened during the last financial crisis, and during this next financial crisis the credit crunch is going to be even worse. This is why it is so important to have an emergency fund.  During this type of crisis, you may have to be the source of your own liquidity.  At a time when it seems like nobody has any cash, those that do have some will be way ahead of the game.