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Editor's Note: We're sharing this Wall Street Examiner post with you today because no one else is looking at the real interest rate story right now: short-term commercial paper. While the media focuses on the fed funds rate, hikes in this critical market have brought us to the edge of an unprecedented liquidity crunch. Here's Lee…
Wall Street and the media breathlessly waited for Yellen & Co. to hike the fed funds target from 0% to 0.25% up to 0.25% to 0.50% – a move that's been telegraphed for months.
The drama around this move was manufactured.
But with so much focus on the fed funds rate, it's really not surprising that the media missed the fact that the really important rates have been on the move since July.
Meanwhile, "overnight money," money that the central bank loans overnight to banks (and which the Fed influences through open market operations), has barely budged.
We're looking at a liquidity crunch like nothing we've ever seen before. Here's how it happened and how bad it's likely to get…
How We Got Here
It seems the fear of even a minuscule, one-off rate hike has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A vicious cycle has been underway and it will get even uglier before it's all said and done.
Beginning in the second quarter, selling of leveraged instruments like commodities futures, leveraged emerging markets debt and equity bought on margin, and especially junk debt, began to cause liquidity to dry up.
Margin calls started to go out, which extinguished deposits and caused distress in the leveraged carry trades.
As the collapse in the junk market worsened, rates rose.
Most recently, junk debt hedge and mutual funds, like the Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund (MUTF: TFCVX) and others run by Stone Lion Capital Partners and Lucidus Capital Partners, have been inundated with redemption requests that they can't easily honor. They've "gated" – they have cut investors off from their money and have essentially collapsed.
That means liquidity is about to get as scarce as water in the Sahara…
Commercial Paper Is Like a Bat Out of Hell Now
In effect, the market has already tightened. Signs of a money crunch have been showing up in soaring money market rates in durations longer than overnight – which had not moved until the Fed waved the magic wand on Wednesday. But before that there were clear signs of turmoil even in maturities as short as seven days – and it was worse at 30 and 90 days.
Various types of 30-day commercial paper, which big corporations may use to meet their short-term debt obligations, like payroll, but which hedge funds and others may also use to fund carry trades, have risen almost 20 basis points since October and nearly 30 basis points since July. Ninety-day has moved even more: 25 to 30 basis points since October and 30 to 35 basis points since July.
The lack of rate increases in overnight paper and fed funds makes me believe the Fed will have serious trouble making a rate increase stick on fed funds and other overnight money. But it looks more and more like the Fed will not be able to prevent a spontaneous, self-generating market tightening in rates longer than overnight from spiraling out of control.
As this goes on, liquidity will dry up. Buyers and sellers will be left high and dry, and prices will continue to plunge where they have already plunged in commodities, emerging markets, and especially, junk debt. And stock prices will join them as liquidity pressures spread and the need to raise cash, wherever it can be raised, grows.
This tightening has been exacerbated by something the U.S. Treasury did last month…
About the Author
Financial Analyst, 50-year charting expert, finance + real estate pro, and market analyst; published and edited the Wall Street Examiner since 2000.