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Central banks move to calm credit markets

Major central banks swept in to calm credit markets spooked by mounting losses yesterday and injected cash to prevent the financial system from seizing up.

The European Central Bank (ECB) pumped a record €94,8 billion ($130 billion) into Europe’s money markets as banks scrambled for cash after France’s biggest listed bank, BNP Paribas, froze withdrawals from three funds. It cited US subprime mortgage market problems. Another separate European fund valued at €750 million ($1,03 billion) was frozen too, and a Dutch bank pulled its planned new listing after suffering subprime losses. The Bank of Canada said that it was ready to provide funds to support the stability of its financial system, while the US Treasury said it was monitoring markets and “remains vigilant.”

US President George Bush sought to calm fears that a credit market squeeze would unpick economic growth, telling a news conference both the global and US economy were strong and there was enough liquidity in the system. Traders were on edge, though, waiting to see whether the US Federal Reserve would follow the ECB’s lead and pump cash into the market. Overnight money in the US opened at 5,5% — a quarter point above its target. US interest rate swaps, a measure of market risk appetite, widened sharply on renewed credit worries. Stocks fell and investors piled into the safety of bonds, pushing down the yield on US Treasuries and European government debt.

In Europe, traders said that the cash markets were seizing up until the ECB acted. “There appears to be a dash for cash both in dollars and in euros,” said Nick Parsons, head of market strategy at nabCapital in London. “I’m keen to know whether the ECB is speaking with the Fed,” a European money-market trader said, noting that even after the ECB injection conditions were jumpy. The ECB tried to calm markets by injecting the largest amount of money ever in a single operation, saying “the aim was to assure orderly conditions in the euro money market”. It routinely holds quick market operations when there is a cash imbalance but not since the US terror attacks in 2001 has the size neared yesterday’s level.

The BNP problems had sent judders through European markets already rife with rumors of worsening troubles in Germany. The Bundesbank hosted a meeting with banks involved in the rescue of Europe’s highest profile subprime victim yet, lender IKB, to arrange details of its €3,5 billion ($4.8 billion) bail out. “Nobody wants to lend any money. It’s safety first,” said Karen Birzler, a money market trader at HVB in Munich. The cost for banks to borrow money overnight in the eurozone, the world’s second-largest economic region, shot up to 4,62%, the highest level since shortly after the 2001 US terror attacks, and way above the ECB’s 4% target. Only when the ECB offered banks extra cash to assure orderly conditions did rates return to normal levels. Money market traders, meanwhile, remained on edge waiting to see whether the US Federal Reserve would inject extra funds as well. The New York Fed conducted its routine money market operations, with the overnight addition of funds of $12 billion, only marginally above what was expected.

A Zurich-based money-market trader called market conditions “crazy” since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has given no signal of concern that credit markets could unpick the real economy. “The market is acting like a yo-yo. It’s all very psychological. The possibility of a credit crunch returning is starting to spook everyone,” he said. A rates strategist at a large European bank in London said that fear of a scarcity of funds, known as liquidity, whether irrational or otherwise, was taking hold. “It’s about lines of credit, fear that credit lines will be called and institutions will have to make money available to others who are facing big credit-related losses,” he said.

US dollar deposit rates for tomorrow/next day delivery surged more than half a point to as high as 5,86% from 5,22% on Wednesday, before easing back to 5,65%. It was the first time since December 2000 they had jumped over half a point in a single day, according to Reuters data. Sterling overnight rates also moved up, as traders complained of liquidity drying up. But they also said this might be partly down to summer trading in what was a rumor-filled market. The scramble for cash forced traders to unwind so-called carry trades, where low-yielding currencies are sold to finance purchases of higher yielding assets. This sparked a broad-based yen rally, but the surge in short-term dollar deposit rates lent the dollar support against most other major currencies. (businessday.co.za)