Lender of Only Resort?

Ken Houghton, having realized there is still a Commercial Paper market, looks at one implication of it.

One of the things that gets ignored in all the fussing about government debt is how small it is by comparison to corporate debt.

The shortest-term debt, Commercial Paper, can be very interesting. With a maturity that is by definition nine months (270 days) or less—and often for financial institutions overnight, for others rolled over weekly—Commercial Paper can be the lifeblood of an institution.

For Financial Institutions, it’s even more extreme. The prime example is Drexel Burnham Lambert, which failed in large part due to its CP being downgraded, leaving it to turn to the Fed as its Lender of Last Resort. Wikipedia tells the story, using James B. Stewart’s Den of Thieves as its source:

Unfortunately for Drexel, one of first hostile deals came back to haunt it at this point. Unocal’s investment bank at the time of Pickens’ raid on it was the establishment firm of Dillon, Read—and its former chairman, Nicholas F. Brady, was now Secretary of the Treasury. Brady had never forgiven Drexel for its role in the Unocal deal, and would not even consider signing off on a bailout. Accordingly, he, the SEC, the NYSE and the Fed strongly advised Joseph to file for bankruptcy. Later the next day, Drexel officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Financial Institutions live and die by their CP sales. Or at least they did before the Greenspan Put. Here’s a chart of Domestic Financial CP Outstanding and Excessive Reserves over the past twelvemonth:

It certainly appears that the banks are using their “excess reserves” to make up for an inability to issue Commercial Paper in the amounts they did before. Perhaps the Fed Governors who are talking up recovery (h/t David Wessel’s Twitter feed) should wait until the debt markets strengthen a bit as well.