Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Commercial Paper Primer

From Bloomberg:

The Federal Reserve will create a special fund to purchase U.S. commercial paper after the credit crunch threatened to cut off a key source of funding for corporations.

The Treasury will make a deposit with the Fed's New York district bank to help set up the new unit. The central bank will also lend to the program at policy makers' target rate for overnight loans between banks. The Fed Board invoked emergency powers to set up the unit, the central bank said in a statement released in Washington.

Today's action follows a slide in the commercial-paper market to a three-year low of $1.6 trillion last week as investors fled even companies with few links to the subprime mortgage crisis. Companies from newspaper firm Gannett Co. to electricity producer Southern Co. have been forced to tap credit lines or forego raising debt because of the market's disruption.

The Fed's efforts are aimed at ``stemming the bank-run-like panic,'' said Mark Gertler, a New York University economist and research co-author with Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. ``The immediate threat to the real economy is that large corporations are having difficulty obtaining funds via the commercial paper market.''

So -- the Fed is going to but commercial paper. So -- what does that mean exactly?

First, here is a definition of commercial paper:

An unsecured, short-term debt instrument issued by a corporation, typically for the financing of accounts receivable, inventories and meeting short-term liabilities. Maturities on commercial paper rarely range any longer than 270 days. The debt is usually issued at a discount, reflecting prevailing market interest rates.

Commercial paper is not usually backed by any form of collateral, so only firms with high-quality debt ratings will easily find buyers without having to offer a substantial discount (higher cost) for the debt issue.

A major benefit of commercial paper is that it does not need to be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as long as it matures before nine months (270 days), making it a very cost-effective means of financing. The proceeds from this type of financing can only be used on current assets (inventories) and are not allowed to be used on fixed assets, such as a new plant, without SEC involvement.

So -- why would a corporation need to issue this paper? There are lots of reasons. For example, a retail store (like Sears) has two big sales periods -- Christmas and back to school. So twice a year they get a big cash infusion and the rest of the time their sales are hit and miss. Let's suppose a store like Sears wants to get ready for back to school. But for whatever reason they've drained their Christmas profits. How can they buy merchandise to sell? They issue commercial paper.

This market is vital for all sorts of reasons -- inventory and payroll being two of the biggest.

Let's add another concept to the mix: time. Ever wonder why the yield curve is shaped like this?

Time. If you lend money to someone short-term there are fewer things that can go wrong that would prevent them from not paying you back. But if you lend someone money for a long time there are more things that can go wrong. To compensate you for the increased risk of lending someone money for a longer period of time, lenders demand a higher interest rate for longer loans.

So, commercial paper should carry a really low yield because it is issued for a short period of time. With me so far?

Lately, short term rates have been spiking. This seems odd, especially when short term rates are supposed to be lower that long-term rates. Why are short-term rates spiking? Lenders are concerned that borrowers won't be able to pay back a loan even in the short-term. Hence they are asking for a higher interest rate to pay them for a short-term loan. In addition, people are unwilling to buy this paper. In market terms "there is no bid." People are so concerned that even top quality credit risks will announce a writedown in their assets -- and therefore be unable to pay back a loan -- that no one is buying any commercial paper.

At the same time, commercial paper is vital to the economy; every large company depends on it for one reason or another. Therefore, this market has to work.

That is why the Fed is now buying commercial corporate paper:

Opening up another front in the battle to end the credit crunch, the Federal Reserve announced Tuesday it will buy unsecured commercial paper in an effort to restart a market that's ground to a virtual halt in recent weeks over concerns about the financial sector.

"This is a transparent step that should help to pump liquidity into a mature market that had seized alarmingly fast in just a week," according to Harm Bandholz, UniCredit economist.

Will this move work? Is it even legal? There are questions that will be answered in time. Right now the Fed is trying to do anything it can to keep the economy from slipping further into a recession.