Thursday, August 14, 2008

Here we go again

Anyone get the feeling that the banking and credit crisis is about to get worse? We may be waiting a lot longer than the third quarter for the bleeding to stop.
J.P. Morgan seems to be taking one of the two strategies that have emerged during the crisis: hold onto the junk and hope the market turns. This is the same plan that's in place at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, and was in place at Bear Stearns Cos.
There's a technical term for the other strategy that's being employed at Merrill Lynch & Co. Dump it.
Merrill employed this strategy back on July 29 when it took a healthy haircut and accepted 22 cents on the dollar for about $30 billion in collateralized debt obligations that were stinking up the balance sheet. About the only good news the market took from this was that there was actually someone willing to buy it.
The point is that even though there are different strategies, there is a single truth: the books on Wall Street are still loaded with stuff that stinks.
Not everyone is holding their noses. Brad Hintz, the Sanford Bernstein analyst and former chief financial officer at Lehman, is among the best who have assessed the situation. He doesn't think the Alt-A loans and the subprime loans are going to be a problem. Most of that stuff has been written off. "After all, the marks can't go past zero," he wrote me in an e-mail.
'Impossible to hedge'
That doesn't mean Hintz is whistling like Frank Quattrone past the courthouse. He's worried about a couple of things: commercial mortgage backed securities, the kind J.P. Morgan copped to having $11.6 billion worth, and good old prime mortgages, which like the Titanic would never default and are now taking on water.
If the prime stuff goes, the whole system implodes and we're all sleeping in the park. The commercial stuff is more likely to fail.


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