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The Jolly Contrarian’s Glossary

The snippy guide to financial services lingo.™

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/lɪˈkwɪdɪti/ (n.)

Hence, liquid: the state of having ~; liquidate: to make use of one’s ~ (i.e. to sell); Illiquidity: the opposite of ~.

Sellability. The ease with which one can buy or sell an asset and therefore convert it into cash, being the essence of liquidity.

So, a US T-Bill is very “liquid” — you can buy or sell any number in the blink of an eye of a keystroke on your Bloomberg terminal; a power station in the lawless mountainous badlands of Central Asia is very illiquid — it may take three years of due diligence, all kinds of legal, regulatory and accounting engineering and the conveyance of a few bags of cash in brown paper bags to local gentlemen in Kalashnikov-equipped Hiluxes.

To “liquidate” is one of those jargony verbs with which one can, by substituting it for the commonplace “sell”, burnish one’s standing as a financial sophisticate. Try to resist this temptation. Be quietly confident that you are a sophisticate, whatever word you chose.


Liquidity is really a function of the ease with which demand and supply can be matched. It will always be a job with big, complex, privately held assets, but even usually liquid assets (like listed equities) can suddenly become illiquid. This could happen:

  • When the issuer is in trouble. Then, all the world’s a seller, and no-one is buying. Hence: liquidity zero. Sellers are stuck with assets they don’t want. This kind of illiquidity is credit-related.
  • When the market is in trouble: In 2007 the credit crunch was caused by reliable investors (typically commercial and investment banks), spooked about their own capital positions, suddenly deserting the commercial paper market to conserve their own cash reserves, rather than anything specific to the AAA assets they were buying[1]. Thus the old saw: “don't use short-term assets (like commercial paper) to fund long-term liabilities (like mortgages)”. Not the great example, because there was an element of credit concern in the strike, but the point remains that illiquidity can be driven by lender credit weakness, not necessarily borrower credit weakness.

See also


  1. although the assets they were buying, notionally AAA rated asset-backed commercial paper, were pants, and many of the CP buyers knew this, having structured them themselves