from Follow the Money

Lehman v Argentina

September 16, 2008

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I am guilty of instinctively comparing large defaults to the Argentina’s default. That is the largest default that I know well.

And Lehman qualifies as a large default.

John Jansen reports one of Lehman’s bonds now trades at 35 cents of on the dollar. That a bit above the levels that Argentina’s bonds traded at after Argentina’s default in late 2001. But Argentina’s bonds also eventually proved to be worth something like fifty cents on the dollar, at least to investors who participated in Argentina’s exchange and got the GDP warrant.*

Lehman’s bankruptcy filing indicates that Citi is a trustee for $138b of Lehman bonds, and the Bank of New York is a trustee for another $17b. The resulting $155b in outstanding bonds significantly exceeds Argentina’s outstanding stock of bonds at the time of its default.

And investors had far longer to adjust their portfolios in anticipation of Argentina’s default than in anticipation of Lehman’s default.

I continue to believe that the credit markets’ reaction to Lehman will ultimately matter more than the reaction of the equity markets. John Jansen reports that the spreads on Morgan Stanley and Goldman have widened significantly. Evans-Pritchard reports (hat tip naked capitalism):

The interest rate on Tier 1 debt for typical banks has jumped by 125 basis points since Friday. "This is a violent effect," said Willem Sels, credit strategist at Dresdner Kleinwort.

Michael Lewis seems to be thinking along similar lines.

As important as it seems right now on Wall Street, this isn’t a day that most Americans will remember as all that big of a deal. When Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. goes out of business, the reaction of the average citizen is either ``Lehman who?’’ or, ``I heard of them! What do they do?’’

It is a big deal, however, but not because some bond traders are out of work, or that puff pieces in business sections about Dick Fuld’s survival skills turned out to be wrong. It’s a big deal because this is the day that American financiers, from the point of view of the Asians who sit on top of the world’s biggest pile of mobile capital, became a bad risk.

And yes, the Bank of China seems to have a bit of exposure to Lehman. It also presumably has additional exposure to other US financial institutions (The BoC has by far the largest external portfolio of the Chinese state banks)

Widening spreads though only really bite when debt actually has to be refinanced. AIG seems to be facing some rather more immediate pressure from its swap counterparties.

More in the morning ...

UPDATE: John Jansen reports Morgan Stanley’s credit spread has widened significantly and LIBOR is way way up. LIBOR may now be the rate that banks don’t lend to each other at, but the banks do need funding.

UPDATE 2: AIG’s bonds are also trading at Argentina-in-default levels, 33 cents on the dollar.

UPDATE 3: The New York Times suggests that if AIG doesn’t get federal money, it will fail on Wednesday. That is a stark choice: a two day no bailout policy, or the second failure of a large financial institution in a week.

* I am doing this from memory; I have not checked the recent price for Argentina’s par bond and its GDP warrant recently. Do not hold me to an exact number. Argentina’s spread has widened recently, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Argentina’s par is now worth somewhat less than it was at some points in the past.

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