Investors looking for calm waters in 2015 will have to give up that New Year’s wish. Two so-called “black swans” are officially on the pond and shaking markets. One is the Swiss franc’s abrupt move last week; the other is the ongoing collapse of oil prices.
Remember, black swans are large, unexpected historical events known for their dominant role in history.
We are witnessing two such black swan events, and financial professionals are being whipsawed. One thing that investment fraud attorneys know for certain: when the market beats up the pros, the mess eventually winds up in the lap of the little guy.
Our message this week? Investors, take note and beware!
Last week, the Swiss National Bank (SNB), stunned markets when it ended its three-year-old currency cap that pegged the Swiss franc to the euro. Following the announcement, the franc soared about 30% in value against the euro and 25% against the U.S. dollar. Swiss stocks also fell more than 10% on the day, including stocks of major banks like Credit Suisse (NYSE:CS) and UBS (UBS).
The fallout from the move was abrupt and disastrous for banks, brokerages and investors who had investments tied to the Swiss franc. Retail currency firm FXCM was on the verge of collapse and was forced to take a $300 million lifeline from an affiliate of Jeffries, an investment bank. As recently as last January, the European Central Bank ranked FXCM as the world’s third largest retail foreign exchange broker. Shares of FXCM stock are down 86% for the year; on Wednesday, its shares closed at $2.33. A week ago, those shares traded above $16.
Major Wall Street banks, including Citigroup (NYSE:C), Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) and Barclays (NYSE:BCS), also lost north of $150 million each at the beginning of the move. And the soaring Swiss franc also caused the collapse of an $830 million hedge fund, Everest Capital Global, which took a beating after the SNB’s move, according to Bloomberg News.
Now there is concern about European banks’ exposure to the Swiss franc and also mortgage borrowers who had mortgage loans denominated in Swiss francs. Those mortgage holders are now left to the vagaries of the financial markets.
As recent history shows, homeowners with mortgages connected to financial markets or tied to opaque financial instruments can easily be harmed by forces well beyond their control.
A similar abrupt move has occurred in the oil markets in recent weeks. While the unexpected collapse of the price of oil from $100 per barrel to below $50 was welcome news for motorists, many banks and investors will be feeling the pain from oil’s drop.
For banks serving the energy industry, underwriting bonds, advising on mergers and financing homes for oil workers, the collapse of the energy boom is bad news. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, an “expected slowdown as a result of falling oil prices may hurt banks’ revenue.” The Journal also reported that a Texas oil expert says that he believes “that you will start seeing some defaults” soon on oil-related lending and likely on high-yield debt, which was a big part of the banks’ revenue the last two years.
The New York Times predicts a similar outcome. “With the price of crude oil falling below levels sufficient for some energy companies to service their huge debts, strains are being felt and defaults are likely,” according to a report last week by Michael Corkery and Peter Eavis. “While it may take some time for the crunch in the oil industry to translate into losses, one thing already seems clear: The energy banking boom is over.”
Mom and Pop investors need to check their portfolios and see whether they have exposure to European currencies and/or oil-related investments. These two black swans can bite them where it hurts.