I got a chuckle from the biz blogs and TV yesterday with the rehash of the 1987 stock crash. 20-five years is a very long time. I’d forgotten most of the events of that day.I was at Drexel, and at that time, Drexel was a powerhouse. The firm had plenty of capital and huge capacity to borrow money to fund positions. Money was rolling in; risk taking was encouraged. I was working with a small group of people on one of the screwier sub-sets of the high yield bond market. It was referred to as LDC debt (Less Developed Country debt). These were the busted bank loans of all of the countries in South America.
You might wonder why anyone would spend time mucking around with the debts of Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Actually, it was a great business. We were coining money. The key to our (and others) success was the ability to make a price on illiquid assets. If some regional bank needed to sell $25Mn of Brazilian debt, we would make a bid on the phone. If a company were in need of some Mexican debt that would be used in a debt for equity transaction, we would offer the paper to the buyer, even though we did not own it.
My old days of currency trading came in handy as some of the paper we traded was denominated in currencies other than the dollar . The fact that I had a “licence” to trade currencies gave me the opportunity to speculate pretty freely, and I/we did. The shop that I worked in was no different than any other on Wall Street. We had a “book” of positions. Some were outright specs, others were hedges against commitments we had made. To hold this book together, we required equity (cash).
The Crash of 1987 happened on a Monday. But the crash really started the week before. The S&P tanked 9% on the week, Friday was a particularly bad day. The big move in stocks set things in motion over a very nervous weekend. I got the call from the controller’s office on Saturday. It went like this:
Hi, Sorry to bother you, but we have some issues with our bank lenders (It was Bankers Trust that first pulled the plug on street liquidity). They are nervous, and want to cut back our funding lines. You are using a fair bit of capital in your trading book. Can you tell me what all this money is being used for?
Sure. We have a matched book of longs and shorts on the prop trading side. We also have some open currency positions. We have an inventory of hedges against open client positions. We also have some naked longs.
Ah, can you be more specific?
Sure. We are long Brazil, Mexico and Chile; we are short Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. We are naked short the USDHK$ and have $60Mn of Cuban bonds in inventory.
You’re shitting me. What is that junk? Is any of this liquid? Can you sell this book of crap?
I might be able to run things down a bit. How much time do I have?
Close half by Monday night.
And that is how the crash of 87 happened.
Sunday night October 19, at the opening in Tokyo the HK$ position was closed off (at a loss of course). I got up at 2am and started the calls to London where there was a market for LDC paper. I was hitting bids on anything I could. The prices for the long assets were getting clobbered. There was no liquidity in the markets I was short. It was about minimising losses and cutting a book. There was no finesse about it.
Of course I was not alone in those early morning hours. Hundreds of players from NYC were on the phone hitting bids on all sorts of squirrely assets. The folks who make markets in London were never dopes. When their phones lit up with Americans looking to lighten up, they voted with their feet. Bids for everything dropped like a stone. By eight o’clock in NY everyone knew that wholesale liquidations were going on, and that stocks were going to get beat to a pulp when the market opened up.
I think I stood all of that day. The phones rang and rang. Both buy and sell side clients were panicked. Most were sellers; the buyers went on strike. Prices were dropping without any trading taking place. The brokers were all, “offered without the bid”. It was next to impossible to get trades off.
Some where’s around 2pm NY time, the Cuban paper got sold (more losses). There was not much more that could be done. So I sat down and watched the Reuters screen and the Dow tape for the rest of the day. I’d had next to no sleep, drank a ton of coffee and smoked too many cigarettes. I’d sweated all day, and stank. I left before the 4pm close.
To me, there are today many similarities to the market conditions that triggered the 87 crash. These two ring a bell:
In 87 I bet on Cuban paper. The rumour at the time was that Castro was sick. The thinking was that when he died, the bonds would increase in value. I’d bought the bonds at around 5 cents on the dollar. Exactly the same bet, for the same reason, is being made today:
Photo: Bruce Krasting
The Hong Kong dollar was pegged to the USD in 1983. Four years later guys like me were betting that the central bank could not hold the peg. Money was flowing into Hong Kong; the central bank was forced to intervene in the market to keep the lid on the HK$. This same trade is popular today:
Photo: Bruce Krasting
The most important comparison has not yet shown up yet in 2012. In 1987, over the course of a weekend (and many panicky phone calls), market liquidity and the ability to finance off-the-run assets dried up. It started at the bottom of the rung of asset quality, by the end of the day it had spread to the most liquid stocks.
On Thursday, October 15, 1987, the farthest thing from my mind was a squeeze on the equity capital I was using to support a book of business. If anything, I was (everyone was) being encouraged to put more money to work. That vaporized in hours. It was one giant “risk off” event.
There were no external factors of significance that led to the 87 crash. The market did itself in on that day. All it took was a few calls that said, “I want you to cut back at open”.
The repo markets that fund the zillions of assets (good and bad) in 2012 are exponentially larger and more complex than in 1987. If anything, that market is more vulnerable today to the call that says, “Cut it back”.
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