Sunday, October 5, 2008

Credit Markets

No one can overstate the need to unfreeze the credit markets. Home prices dropped in 24 of 25 U.S. metropolitan areas in July, led by declines in Las Vegas and the coastal cities of California , as foreclosures depressed prices and accounted for a fifth of all sales. Foreclosed houses tend to sell at a discount of about 20% to owner-maintained houses; these discounts are weighing on prices throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the market for commercial paper, short-term borrowing by businesses, has nearly frozen to a standstill. Even giants like General Electric are suffering. The industrial giant had to sell $3 billion worth of preferred stock to investing legend Warren Buffet and had to place an additional $12 billion of stock in the equity markets to maintain its triple-A bond rating.

To get credit flowing again, banks have to start lending to each other at lower rates. When banks charge each other a higher premium to borrow, the cost trickles down to the consumer. One indicator of how willing banks are to lend to each other is the "TED Spread," which measures the difference between the three-month LIBOR (London Inter-bank rate) and the three-month Treasury rate. The higher the spread, the greater the aversion to risk. Last Tuesday, the spread surged to 3.5%, its highest level in more than 25 years.

The fact is the $700 billion rescue package is the icebreaker for our frozen credit markets. Sure, the prospect of re-floating a few free-wheeling fat cats and funding a few pork-barrel projects appeals to no one, but the prospect of cutting off our nose to spite our face isn't very appealing either. We might not like it, but Congress did the right thing.

Eric P. Egeland