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The Washington Independent

Understanding the Mess We’re In

The Federal Reserve is considering some aggressive steps to unlock lending, including buying large amounts of unsecured short-term debt, The New York Times says

William Willis
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Oct 07, 2008

The Federal Reserve is considering some aggressive steps to unlock lending, including buying large amounts of unsecured short-term debt, The New York Times says today. That’s the money that companies regularly use to run their everyday operations.

When it seizes up, so does the rest of the economy. And that’s close to what’s happening now.

Now that we’ve said all that, let’s just come out and acknowledge that the complexities of the commercial paper market aren’t quite what people talk about over their coffee or during a break at work. You’d have to be a high-level economist to understand half of what’s going on in this crisis, and even then, those people don’t always fully get it, either.

To help, here’s This American Life, which over the weekend ran a piece explaining the mess we’re in right now, including what’s going on with the commercial paper market and how credit default swaps worked. Like an earlier story the program did on securitization of subprime mortgages, the piece explains in understandable terms why we should all be very, very nervous about the credit crunch.

I heard it in my car on Saturday and pulled over to listen to the whole thing. As one example, the story looked at commercial paper from the perspective of the pest control company Terminix, and its need for short-term debt. From the piece:

“Let’s just say you have Terminix come out and treat your house, you write a check,” [Mark Peterson, treasurer of Servicemaster] explains. “Our billing department marks your account as having been paid. What’s our cash position? Do you have money or do you need money? Today, our company, we have money.’ ”

Peterson’s company might or might not have cash money the next night. It’s no big deal — maybe it needs to buy a lot of termite poison or upgrade its fleet of termite-fighting vans. All companies move between having cash on hand and not having it every day. Some days they have extra money. Some days they need to borrow.

If you’re an ordinary consumer, you might use a credit card to bridge the gap. If you’re a gigantic company, you use the commercial paper market, a way of borrowing a lot of money.

And if suddenly you can’t borrow that money.. well. Think about that.

It’s why the Fed is considering such aggressive steps toward freeing up more money for businesses. While the stock market’s drop is cause enough for concern, the possible freezing up of the commercial paper market is probably why you really should be worried these days.

William Willis | William Willis is a freelance writer and social media manager who specializes in assisting finance professionals and Fintech entrepreneurs in growing their online audience and attracting more paying customers. William worked as a bank teller and virtual assistant for financial firms in the United States and the United Kingdom for six years before beginning her writing career. William is a strong force in the workplace, inspiring others to work hard and excel with her optimistic attitude and boundless energy. He enjoys hiking, crocheting, and playing video games with her grandchildren in her spare time.

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