Saturday, November 28, 2009

Short Session, Big Losses on Dubai Debt

Friday's abbreviated session answered the question of why stocks did not advance much in Wednesday's pre-holiday trading, when all of the economic news was positive. Overhanging the market was word from Dubai - on Wednesday - that the government was requesting a six-month moratorium on interest payments, mostly from its major real estate developer, Dubai World.

While the news did not noticeably affect markets in the US, the news shook Asian and European markets violently on Thursday. US stock exchanges were closed for Thanksgiving.

Quoting the NY Times:
According to data from the Bank for International Settlements, foreign banks have $130 billion of exposure to the United Arab Emirates, with Britain having the largest exposure, $51 billion. Banks in the United States have debts of $13 billion.

At the open on Friday, stock futures were indicating a massive sell-off, with Dow futures down more than 200 points. After an initial selling spree which sent the Dow down more than 230 points, cooler heads prevailed for a time, bringing the indices back to some level of respectability and calm. By the close, however, fears of another round of banking crises had investors scurrying for the exits, not wanting to hold positions over a weekend in which many of these issues would be pondered.

Dow 10,309.92, -154.48 (1.48%)
NASDAQ 2,138.44, -37.61 (1.73%)
S&P 500 1,091.49, -19.14 (1.72%)
NYSE Composite 7,070.09, -162.03 (2.24%)

On the day, declining issues far outpaced advancers, 5211-1086. New highs held a slim edge over new lows, 98-85. Volume was only average, indicating a hope that markets would return to a more normal tone in days ahead. There was little panic to speak of, though every sector finished in the red.

NYSE Volume 2,846,343,000
NASDAQ Volume 972,038,750

Commodities took the bigger hit. Oil tumbled $3.06, to $74.90, its lowest close in months. Gold fell $12.60, to $1,176.00, though the price had fallen by as much as $30 during the day. Silver slipped 47 cents, holding at $18.34.

What Dubai means to US banking interests is a relatively small matter, as only Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) hold anything approaching what would be considered large obligations. The general fear - a holdover from last year's major meltdown - is a more severe liquidity issue, cascading across the financial landscape in unpaid loans and the roll-over of resultant guarantees (Credit Default Swaps) which would put more banks at risk.

While it is possible that another severe shock could ensue, it's more likely that central banks will intervene in the interest of the banks, propping them up with more guarantees and looser credit facilities, much like last year's rescue. Still, there are palpable fears out there, that the entire system is prone to disruptions like this as more emerging markets face similar issues.

Paper money rolling off printing presses at high speed can only delay the inevitable. Eventually, losses must be taken or parties made whole. The most probable outcome is continuation of the deflationary spiral, which the central bankers of the world wish to avoid.

The simplest way to understand the issue is in terms of mortgages. As more money is pumped into the system, chasing the bad, assets - everything from stocks to houses - become less valuable. The home purchased for $200,000 a year ago is only worth $160,000, an so on. Devaluing currencies to reflect lower asset values, a hard, painful choice, seems the proper medicine, but one which world banking and political leaders have yet refused to consider.

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