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美国:降级或引恐慌,华尔街救火忙

Cyrus Sanati 2011年08月10日

华尔街自认为其从容不迫的应对和振振有词的分析将有利于避免周一市场出现过度恐慌。但是恐慌的实质就是非理性,任何试图对抗恐慌的努力都将是徒劳。

    上周五夜间,标准普尔(Standard & Poor’s)决定降低美国主权信用评级,为此,华尔街掀起了一场政府保卫。目前,这一金融中枢正严阵以待,不断通过电话会议来安抚紧张的投资者,淡化评级机构对市场的影响,希望能藉此避免市场周一开盘时出现过度恐慌情绪。

    但是美国遭遇降级在历史上还是头一遭,因此其影响仍不容小觑,而且可能会在经济和政治领域引发广泛的连锁反应。尽管周一的开盘可能会吸收大部分降级的余震,但是投资者不安的情绪仍可能置华尔街的呐喊于不顾,从而引发市场崩盘。

    标普的决定对于市场来说无异于雪上加霜。标普500(SPX)上周下跌7.4%,创2008年11月信用危机以来新低。恐慌抛售是导致2008年危机的罪魁祸首之一,而它也可能是导致上周市场狂跌的原因之一,悲观的投资者们变现手中的组合资产,将其换成现金或其他貌似“零风险”的金融工具,例如国债。

    标普将美国国债“零风险”3A级评定降级为AA+,美国国债一向被誉为投资最后的诺亚方舟之一,然而,该举措将这艘方舟推向了风尖浪口。变现避险的趋势可能会进一步加剧,由此引发各类资产价格的连锁下跌。

调理预期

    但是华尔街经济分析人士和资金经理正努力唱低标普的降级影响,声称降级完全在预料之中。毕竟,标普在7月份就说过,如果政府拿不出有效的方案来解决未来10年中4万亿美元的赤字问题,公司将可能向美国亮出降级牌。而且国会在大限11小时前通过的债务上限议案只涉及到了2.1万亿美元的削减。

    然而,标普在降级宣布时机上的选择却令很多经济学家大跌眼镜,当时正值市场大乱,而且两党组成的债务“超级委员会”还未来得及在华盛顿碰头磋商预算削减的具体事宜。但是标普声称,公司对于政客们削减多达4万亿美元赤字的决心表示怀疑。

    现在,华尔街在向投资者灌输市场一直处于降级预期当中。意思就是说市场在周一开盘时可能不会一泄千里——而且鉴于上周末可喜的就业指数,市场可能会有抬头迹象。

    即使投资者意识到了这一点,也并不意味着他们已经做好了心理准备。降级的可怕之处在于,一些大型基金公司,由于公司有3A级证券持有比例的强制标准,将被迫抛售美国国债。这种被动抛售将成为真正抛售恐慌的导火索,并进一步将市场推向深渊。

    这一话题仍颇具争议。但是华尔街声称这种强制标准实属罕见,而且即便美国国债不再享有评级机构的最高评级,绝大多数公司仍有足够的空间来吸纳美国国债。摩根大通(JP Morgan)(JPM)的分析师认为被迫式抛售的可能性很小,而且在最糟糕的情况下,市场上被迫抛售的国债预计也只有400亿美元。虽然这也是个不小的数目,但它仅占10万亿美元流通国债的0.4%。除此之外,当公司因强制标准变卖国债兑现时,公司也有可能分期分批兑现,而不是一次性兑现。

    人们选择美国国债作为避风港的原因之一就是美国国债市场的规模。国债规模的庞大也反映了美元作为世界储备货币的地位。也正因为如此,大多数外国央行必须持有美元及其国债,藉此防备本国货币出现不测风云,并平衡与美国的贸易流量。外国政府持有大约40%的美国国债,而且没有任何迹象表明这些国家将于周一抛售国债。美国国债持有国前三甲(中国、日本及英国)的官员已在周末表示他们没有抛售的计划。

    但是很快也有交易员指出,上周,当股市因欧元主权债务危机出现恐慌抛售时,尽管投资者充分意识到了降级风险,他们仍选择购买美国国债。美国10年期国债收益率于上周降至2.56%。

卖出之日,买进之时

    准确评估降级对国债收益率的影响是一件比较棘手的事情。如果10年期国债的市场需求趋于稳定,那么收益率应该保持不变,因为政府需要提高收益率以吸引投资者。华尔街的经济师们一直预测10年期国债收益率可能上升25-60个基点——这样收益率将升至3%。这跟欧洲国家现行的收益率相比仍然偏低,例如,意大利10年期国债收益率上周已升至6%。

    尽管不确定因素很多,很多资产经理正试图安抚他们的客户,并希望客户们以塞翁失马的态度来看待降级。每一次市场的重大动荡都为那些财大气粗的买家们提供了绝好的买进机会。

    “我们不知道周一市场开盘后的表现究竟会如何——周日晚上应该能有一些眉目——但是我们更多地将这种形势当做是一种机遇,因为宏观事件的对市场的影响是广泛的,没有针对性,”投资公司Franklin Templeton Investments的投资组合经理爱德华•博克斯向《财富》(Fortune)杂志透露说。爱德华监管的资产额达300亿美元。“我们在投资过程当中将会充分挖掘基础性研究,我们将在周一或周二中找到相应的投资机遇。”

    对于有些投资者,特别是依赖于市场波动的对冲基金来说,这种由于降级而引发的市场巨震可能是好消息而不是坏消息。与恐慌不同的是,市场可能会出现抢购热。

    虽然这在短期内对华尔街有好处,然而从长期来看,降级终究会为华尔街及美国经济带来负面影响。越来越多的外国政府正逐渐采取多元化的外汇储备政策来替代单一化的美元外汇。降级之后的几周之内,这一趋势将会有所加剧。例如,上周,韩国13年以来第一次购进了黄金而不是美元来作为其储备。如果像韩国这样的拥趸继续疏远美元,美国经济将受到拖累,因为届时漏洞就得由国内储蓄来填补。

    华尔街自认为其从容不迫的应对和振振有词的分析将有利于避免周一市场出现过度恐慌。但是恐慌的核心就是非理性,任何试图以逻辑来对抗恐慌的努力都将徒劳无功。目前,从欧洲中央银行(European Central Bank)到美联储(Federal Reserve),世界各国的市场信心一片低迷。货币是建立在信心而不是黄金之上的,美国和欧洲的货币系统很大程度上需要投资者的信心来维持运作。如果投资者认为该系统已经靠不住,那么人们就可能会把哪怕是轻微的评级的下调也当成经济大难将至的佐证。

    Wall Street is jumping to the defense of the United States government following Standard & Poor's decision Friday night to downgrade its sovereign debt. The financial community is circling the wagons in an attempt to avoid a major panic when the markets reopen Monday, holding conference calls with nervous investors and downplaying the importance of credit-rating agencies in the financial markets.

    But the credit downgrade should not be taken lightly. Such an event is unprecedented and could end up having wide-reaching economic and political implications. While much of the shock of the downgrade should have subsided by Monday's opening, there is still a chance that the emotions of investors could overtake even the loudest shills from The Street, setting the markets up for a sharp fall.

    S&P's decision couldn't have come at a worse time for the markets. The S&P 500 (SPX) fell 7.4% last week, its worst performance since the dark days of November 2008 when the credit crisis went into overdrive. Panic selling was behind much of the 2008 correction and it may have also had a role in last week's market dive as concerned investors liquidated their portfolios, converting them into cash or other supposedly "risk-free" instruments, including Treasuries.

    S&P's decision to downgrade U.S. debt from its implied risk-free credit rating of AAA to AA+ has put in doubt one of the last investment vehicles considered to be a safe haven. The urge to pull more money out of the market and hide it under a mattress could therefore intensify, creating a downward spiral in prices across all asset classes.

Managing expectations

    But many Wall Street economists and money managers are downplaying S&P's move, saying that the downgrade wasn't a big surprise. After all, S&P did say in July that it would probably downgrade the U.S. if the government failed to produce a plan to reduce the Federal deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years. When Congress finally produced a plan at the 11th hour to raise the debt ceiling, it proposed just $2.1 trillion in cuts.

    What was a surprise to some economists was the timing of the announcement, coming on the heels of a market rout and before the bi-partisan debt "super committee" meets in Washington to discuss decide on what should be cut from the budget. But S&P said that it questioned the U.S. political will to make the tough cuts needed to get close to the $4 trillion mark.

    Now Wall Street is pushing the idea that investors have already priced in a potential downgrade. This means markets probably won't go into freefall on Monday – they could even possibly strengthen given the sunny job numbers that came out at the end of last week.

    But even if investors saw this coming it doesn't mean they were prepared. One of the largest fears surrounding a downgrade is that certain large funds would be forced to sell U.S. debt on a downgrade as their investment mandates require them to hold a certain percentage of their assets in triple-A rated securities. This forced selling would then be the catalyst that could set off a major panic, sending the markets into a tailspin.

    This continues to be a controversial topic, but Wall Street is claiming that such draconian mandates are rare and that most firms have enough wiggle room to allow them to hold U.S. debt, even if it no longer carries the top rating from the credit rating agencies. Analysts at JP Morgan (JPM) believe that the potential for forced selling seems low and estimates that at the worst, the market could see around $40 billion in forced selling. That's not exactly pocket change, but it is just 0.4% of the $10 trillion of tradable U.S. government bonds available. Furthermore, it is unclear when firms must cash out of their Treasuries as mandates may call for liquidation over time as opposed to all at once.

    The sheer size of the U.S. debt market is one reason why people turn to it as a safe haven. Its largess is a reflection of the U.S. dollar being the world's reserve currency. That means simply that most foreign central banks are required to hold dollars and Treasuries to back up their own domestic currency and to balance their trade flows with the U.S. Around 40% of Treasuries are held by foreign governments and there seems to be no indication that they will be dumping them come Monday. Officials from China, Japan and the UK, the top holders of U.S. debt, have already sent signals over the weekend that they do not plan on dumping it.

    But some traders are quick to point out that last week, when there was some panic selling in the stock market in the wake of the European sovereign debt crisis, investors chose to buy Treasuries, knowing full well that a downgrade was likely. Yields on the 10-year government bond fell to as low as to 2.56% last week.

Sell-off is a buying opportunity

    Adding up what the effect a downgrade would have on bond yields is a bit tricky. If demand for 10-year bonds holds steady, then rates should hold as the government would need to offer a higher yields to attract customers. Economists on Wall Street have indicated that a 25 to 60 basis-point increase in yield may occur on the 10-year Treasury bond – pushing rates up to around 3%. That's still relatively low compared to the yields now being seen in Europe, where, for example, Italian 10-year bonds just hit 6% last week.

    Despite the uncertainty, some asset managers are trying to calm their clients by putting a positive spin on the downgrade. Any major dislocation in the market creates a buying opportunity for those with the dry powder.

    "We don't know exactly how markets will open on Monday morning – we will get some indication Sunday night – but often times we really look at these situations as opportunities, because macro events like this tend to impact markets very broadly and not very specifically," Ed Perks, a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton Investments, who oversees over $30 billion in assets, tells Fortune. "Our investment process tries to leverage fundamental research and we will try to identify opportunities on that Monday or Tuesday."

    The sheer volatility in the market as a result of the downgrade could end up helping, not hurting some investors, especially hedge funds, which thrive on market volatility. Instead of a panic there could possibly be a rally as investors flood the market with orders.

    While that may be good for Wall Street in the short term, the long term negative effects of a downgrade could come back to haunt it and the rest of the U.S. economy. An increasing number of foreign governments are slowly diversifying their reserves away from the dollar, a process that could accelerate in the coming weeks due to the downgrade. For example, South Korea last week passed on the U.S. dollar and bought gold for the first time in 13 years to fill its reserves. If strong allies like South Korea continue to shift away from the dollar, it will be a drag on the U.S. economic growth rate, as domestic savings would have to rise to fill in the gap.

    Wall Street believes that its cool response and analytical reasoning will help alleviate any major panic on Monday. But panic is at its core irrational. Trying to counter panic with logic can be a futile exercise. What we are seeing is a loss of confidence in market systems around the world – from the European Central Bank to the Federal Reserve. The monetary systems of both the U.S. and Europe require confidence on the part of investors to operate given that the money is largely backed by faith, not gold. If investors no longer believe that system is viable, a one notch downgrade by a credit rating agency will look like a footnote in the coming economic calamity.

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