Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Measuring Stress in the System

Historically, the VIX has been an excellent proxy for measuring the level of anxiety and stress in the financial markets…but not always the best one.

Back in early March 2007, I suggested credit default swaps – and particularly the Markit indices – as a way to monitor how the markets are pricing in the risk of defaults. Another common way to monitor default risk is to look at the yield spread between corporate bonds of various rating categories versus the (presumably) riskless US Treasury debt of comparable maturity.

Let me nominate a third alternative: LIBOR rates. LIBOR (formally the London Interbank Offered Rate) is essentially the established rate at which banks lend to each other. Normally LIBOR rates track the Fed Funds rates fairly closely, but lately the LIBOR rates have remained elevated even as the Fed has acted to cut rates and attempted to inject liquidity into the system. If you want to get a sense of how effective the Fed has been in easing tight credit, LIBOR rates (and the "TED spread," which is the difference between LIBOR and the Fed Funds rate) are a good place to start. As the chart below shows, even though LIBOR rates may have topped a month ago, they remain quite elevated when compared to the August-December period.

For more detailed discussion of LIBOR, the Fed, and the current credit crisis, a good place to start is Michael Shedlock’s Failures of the Term Auction Facility – which is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

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