Archive for the ‘Platforms’ category

Inside Goldman’s ABACUS Trade

April 19, 2010

Today, in the Huffington Post, I posted a document that shows an earlier incarnation of the ABACUS trade (although, not that different from the one that has got the SEC up in arms). I also explained it as well as I could. Head on over and let me know what you think.

Why 2010 will be Challenging for Goldman Sachs

December 30, 2009

I figured I’d let 2009 go out with a bang and post another of my contrarian views: 2010 will be rough for Goldman Sachs. Why? Well, to know the answer to that, you should head on over to the Huffington Post where the full piece is online.

Happy New Year!

Making the Financial Networks Useful

June 14, 2009

Starting with the little spat between John Stewart and CNBC I started to think seriously about how the financial news stations are extremely broken. Now, I’ve mused on specific parts of this equation before. However, I’ve been writing this post, a more complete look, for a while. So, imagine my surprise when Barry Ritholtz beat me to the punch! Barry’s look, though, seems to focus more on the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to improving CNBC. Personally, I think there is a massive overhaul needed. So, instead of taking the same approach as Barry (telling a network how to improve itself) I’ll focus on describing what my ideal financial news network would look like.

1. Make no buy/sell recommendations. Honestly, the shameless self-promoters that  go on CNBC are quite often wrong. There is no accountability for recommendations–obviously, the logistical issues are both important and daunting. However, there is a much larger problem that is most observable with Jim Cramer. I have no doubt Mr. Cramer is intelligent, just as I have no doubt that his show is useless drivel–he needs to make so many recommendations just to fill his airtime that no one ever sees his performance, CNBC doesn’t track it, and all the studies that look at his recommendations need to make huge assumptions. But, the easiest explanation of why recommendations are bad comes from a post entitled Lawyers vs. Detectives. Clearly, also, there doesn’t exist the air time or continuity to track and update recommendations correctly–the logisitical issues I mentioned earlier. And, to be frank, any idiot can just dump ticker symbols onto the screen and say a few sentences about why those ticker symbols are good or bad… and be completely wrong or stupid. The point of a good finance network should be to bring reporting and analysis to light. (Further evidence: look at Barron’s experts who, as a whole, underperform passive indices. And they are tracked and asked for analysis of their picks regularly.)

2. Emphasize investiagtive journalism. Financially literate, intelligent people can add a whole lot of value when it comes to explaining and digging into economic and financial stories. Think Kate Kelly and her three part tick tock of the Bear Stearns situation as a good example. Think of the deep look into the mortgage industry that NPR did. Think of the detailed profiles of various individuals at the center of the finance world. Clearly, there is a lot of value to be added merely by going beyond the puff piece. Right now what people get 90% of the time when it comes to finance reporting pertains to what the Dow Jones did or is doing for the day. Guess what? When stocks go up, it’s because there are more buyers than sellers. When they go down, vica versa. Trying to divine more than that from the market move on a given day is as useless and surface as it often is wrong.

3. Hire experts and not personalities. I’ll tell you a secret… Maria Bartiromo adds no value if you know anything about markets and finance to start with. I’ve seen her provide an outlet for executives to provide narrative versions of their press releases several times. There is never a question I’ve heard her ask that was probing or had an answer I didn’t already know from reading the NY Times or the WSJ. She doesn’t even understand journalism very well! The entire lineup of attractive and vacuous seat-warmers add no value. Remember this little episode with Fox Business news? Now, that’s a little different because it was live, breaking news. However, a thinking person probably would have stopped before talking about how great a move it was for Apple to buy AMD, despite the fact that such a purchase would have been “WTF?!” move for Apple–the current anchors just talk to talk. I even remember a CNBC anchor pulling up a guest’s chart on a segment (the network had been hyping this segment for a few hours–theoretically the anchor had prepared for it) and asked why, if things were so dire, the chart showed such a strong rally/uptrend. Well, the chart was showing spreads for a certain class of bonds–and, as we all know, when yield goes up, price goes down! She was anchoring a segment on fixed income (and had already been chatting about the topic for a few minutes!) and still couldn’t figure out what was going on in a very simple chart… Surely there’s room for improvement!

The model, though, for financial news anchors should really be an engaged, credentialed moderator. Thomas Keene, honestly, is a great example of this. I don’t catch his show (or podcast) as often as I would like, but whenever I do it’s clear he’s intelligent, familiar with the underlying issues, and that he views his job as getting his guests to make their case as well as expose the “other side” of the argument. A network should be able to create a lineup of intellectual experts (with relationships and enough personality to be interesting) in equity markets, corporate credit/finance, economics, macroeconomics, currencies, commodities, personal finance, etc. Networks haven’t seemed to figure out that, unlike human interest stories and traditional news, having some domain expertise is vital to being able to ask the right questions and get the underlying reasoning out into the open.

4. Go beyond soundbites and short on-air segments. I think finance is much more complicated than normal news, in the same way that political news usually is more complicated: there are lots of underlying dynamics, complex rules, and large parts of the process are hidden from view and established through precedent. Unlike a plane crash, terrorist attack, or story about some zany celebrity antic, financial news that focuses on the “what” instead of the “why” is dull, uninteresting, and useless. This is why financial news, in the first place, tries to explain what’s going on. So, it should only be natural that financial news, if it needs the “why” to be useful and is more complicated than garden-variety news, needs to allocate more than a few minutes to a given issue. No one is going to understand what’s going on with commercial real estate in five minutes. CDOs can’t even be explained in ten minutes, let alone covered in the context of the credit crisis in that time.

How can a financial news network, then, ensure that there is enough depth to a story or segment? Well, time is obviously a big piece of the equation. To revisit a prior example, Thomas Keene usually has guests on for 30+ minutes. However, media and a command of visual aides and interactive media online is also important. Some of the most compelling explanations of how CDOs work and different aspects of the credit crisis are graphics. Further, finance is based on data–models, data highlighted in charts and stories, and other material should all be made available online.

5. Embrace new media. As far as I can tell, no financial news station has a strong online presence. If a strong group of credentialed experts is the backbone of the network’s on-air talent (see #3 above) then they should have deeper, more valuable insights than what they can cover on the air. These thoughts should be blogged about, tweeted, and whatever else to make them as accessible as possible–more and more the “conversation” is online and to join it one must have their thoughts online. The NY Times does a good job at this–their columnists and reporters write all sorts of blog entries ranging from deep, researched pieces to random musings and clever one-line arguments.

Further, with my idealized network, all the content from on-air segments would be put on YouTube and made available to whomever wants to link or embed it. Openness and access would be key strategies for the network. A part of this is also making the on-air personalities and others who contribute regularly interact with the public as much as possible (currently, Twitter is a great medium for this).

6. Emphasize standards–make objectivity, fairness, and accountability the network’s core values. Barry talked about this in his list:

7.  Fact Check: An awful lot of things on air get stated with authority and confidence. Much of them are little more than junk or pop myths. Why is it that the more dubious a proposition is, the greater the confidence the speaker seems to muster? Consider fact checking as much of the statements that are made on air as possible, and making frequent corrections.

Now, this ties in with some of what I’ve said above. However, my point goes beyond this. Executives should not want to go one my idealized network when they need to “get out a statement”–the “narrative press release” as an interview is useless and doesn’t hold the subject of the interview accountable for their words. Similarly, when a guest comes on and makes an assertion that is incorrect it needs to be challenged at the time and corrected later–I clearly take a harder stance on this issue than Barry does. If people will be making their investment decisions based on information presented on the network and then they need to trust the network–viewers need to know the network strives to prove correct information and puts every effort into doing just that. Also, the rules of “journalistic engagement” for the network (things like policies on anonymous sourcing) should be public.

7. Make education a pillar of the network. Finance and markets, as I describe in multiples places above, are complicated and often counter-intuitive–a fair amount is “inside baseball.” Having a section of the website and some on-air time dedicated to explaining both terms and important but obscure facts and market dynamics is an important service. Simple things, like bond math, are important and static–these concepts (that subtly undergird all other topics–remember the anecdote about the misread chart above) should be revisited whenever absolutely necessary while being available at all times.

If these simple pieces were all followed, I believe there would exist a simple to follow, engaging financial network that would add a ton of value where there currently is a void. Then, maybe, the other networks would need to follow suit. I won’t hold my breath.

Revisiting a Debate We Should be Past

June 10, 2009

Recently, Felix Salmon, Clusterstock, and others have been mentioning an essay from the Hoover Institute about the financial crisis. Now, I haven’t yet linked to the essay in question… I will, but only after I’ve said some thing about it.

I was on the front lines of the securitization boom. I saw everything that happened and am intimately familiar with how one particular bank, and more generally familiar with many banks’, approach to these businesses. I think that there are no words that adequately describes how utterly stupid it is that there is still a “debate” going on surrounding banks and their roles in the financial crisis. There are no unknowns. People have been blogging, writing, and talking about what happened ad naseum. It’s part of the public record. Whomever the author of this essay is (I’m sure I’ll be berated for not knowing him like I was for not knowing Santelli — a complete idiot who has no place in a public conversation whose requisites are either truth or the least amount of intellectual heft), unless it’s writing was an excesses in theoretical reasoning about a parallel universe, it’s a sure sign they don’t what they are talking about that they make some of the points in the essay. Let’s start taking it apart so we can all get on with our day.

For instance, it isn’t true that Wall Street made these mortgage securities just to dump them on them the proverbial greater fool, or that the disaster was wrought by Wall Street firms irresponsibly selling investment products they knew or should have known were destined to blow up. On the contrary, Merrill Lynch retained a great portion of the subprime mortgage securities for its own portfolio (it ended up selling some to a hedge fund for 22 cents on the dollar). Citigroup retained vast holdings in its so-called structured investment vehicles. Holdings of these securities, in funds in which their own employees personally participated, brought down Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. AIG, once one of the world’s most admired corporations, made perhaps the biggest bet of all, writing insurance contracts against the potential default of these products.

So Wall Street can hardly be accused of failing to eat its own dog food. It did not peddle to others an investment product that it was unwilling to consume in vast quantities itself.

(Emphasis mine.)

Initial premise fail. I had a hard time finding the part to emphasize since it’s all so utterly and completely wrong. Since I saw everything firsthand, let me be unequivocal about my remarks: the entire point of the securitization business was to sell risk. I challenge anyone to find an employee of a bank who says otherwise. This claim, that “it isn’t true that Wall Street made these mortgage securities just to dump them on them the proverbial greater fool” is proven totally false. There’s a reason the biggest losers in this past downturn were the biggest winners in the “league tables” for years running. As a matter of fact, there’s a reason that league tables, and not some other measure, were a yardstick for success in the first place! League tables track transaction volume–do I really need to point out that one doesn’t  judge themselves by transaction volume when their goal isn’t to merely sell/transact?

In fact, the magnitude of writedowns by the very firms mentioned (Merrill and Citi) relative to the original value of these investments imply that a vast, vast majority of the holdings were or were derived from the more shoddily underwritten mortgages underwritten in late 2006, 2007, and early 2008. In fact, looking at ABX trading levels, as of yesterday’s closing, shows the relative quality of these mortgages and makes my point. AAA’s from 2007 (series 1 and 2) trading for 25-26 cents on the dollar and AAA’s from early 2006 trading at roughly 67 cents on the dollar. The relative levels are what’s important. Why would Merrill be selling it’s product for 22 cents on the dollar if the market level is so much higher (obviously the sale occurred a few months ago, but the “zip code” is still the same)? This is a great piece of evidence that banks are merely left holding the crap they couldn’t sell when the music stopped.

Now, onto the next stop on the “How wrong can you get it?” tour.

It isn’t true, either, that Wall Street manufactured these securities as a purblind bet that home prices only go up. The securitizations had been explicitly designed with the prospect of large numbers of defaults in mind — hence the engineering of subordinate tranches designed to protect the senior tranches from those defaults that occurred.

Completely incorrect. Several people who were very senior in these businesses told me that the worst case scenario we would ever see was, perhaps, home prices being flat for a few years. I never, not once, saw anyone run any scenarios with home price depreciation. Now, this being subprime, it was always assumed that individuals refinancing during the lowest interest rate period would start to default when both (a) rates were higher and (b) their interest rates reset. [Aside: Take note that this implicitly shows that people running these businesses knew that people were taking out loans they couldn't afford.] Note that the creation of subordinate tranches, which were cut to exactly match certain ratings categories, was to (1) fuel the CDO market with product (obviously CDO’s were driven by the underlying’s ratings and were model based), (2) allow AAA buyers, including Fannie and Freddie, an excuse to buy bonds (safety!), and (3) maximize the economics of the execution/sale/securitization. If there were any reasons for tranches to be created, it had absolutely nothing to do with home prices or defaults.

Further, I would claim that there wasn’t even this level of detail applied to any analysis. We’ve seen the levels of model error that are introduced when one tries to be scientific about predictions. As I was told  many times, “If we did business based on what the models tell us we’d do no business.” Being a quant, this always made me nervous. In retrospect, I’m glad my instincts were so attuned to reality.

As a matter of fact, most of the effort wasn’t on figuring out how to make money if things go bad or protect against downside risks, but rather most time and energy was spent reverse engineering other firm’s assumptions. Senior people would always say to me, “Look, we have to do trades to make money. We buy product and sell it off–there’s a market for securities and we buy loans based on those levels–at market levels.” These statements alone show how singularly minded these executives (I hate that term for senior people) and businesses were. The litmus test for doing risky deals wasn’t ever “Would we own these?” it was “Can we sell all the risk?”

But wait, there’s more…

Nor is it plausible that all concerned were simply mesmerized by, or cynically exploitive of, the willingness of rating agencies to stamp Triple-A on these securities. Wall Street firms knew what the underlying dog food consisted of, regardless of what rating was stamped on it. As noted, they willingly bet their firm’s money on it, and their own personal money on it, in addition to selling it to outsiders.

One needs the “willingly bet [their own] money on it” part to be true to make this argument. I know exactly what people would say, “We provide a service. We aggregate loans, create bonds, get those bonds rated, and sell them at the levels the market dictates. It isn’t our place to decide if our customers are making a good or bad investment decision.” I know it’s redundant with a lot of the points above, but that’s life–the underlying principles show up everywhere. And, honestly, it’s the perfect defense for, “How did you ever think this made sense?”

And, the last annoying bit I read and take issue with…

Nor is it true that Wall Street executives and CEOs had insufficient “skin in the game,” so that “perverse” compensation incentives created the mess. That story also does not pan out. Individuals, it’s true, were paid sizeable bonuses in the years in which the securities were created and sold.

[...]

Richard Fuld, of failed Lehman Brothers, saw his net worth reduced by at least a hundred million dollars. James Cayne of Bear Stearns was reported to have lost nearly a billion dollars in a matter of a few months. AIG’s Hank Greenberg, who remained a giant shareholder despite being removed from the firm he built by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in 2005, lost perhaps $2 billion. Thousands of lower-downs at these firms, those who worked in the mortgage securities departments and those who didn’t, also saw much wealth devastated by the subprime debacle and its aftermath.

Wow. Dick Fuld, who got $500 million, had his net worth reduced by $100 million? That’s your defense? And, to be honest, if you can’t gin up this discussion, then what can you gin up? The very nature of this debate is that all of these figures are unverifiable. James Cayne was reported to have lost nearly a billion dollars? Thanks, but what’s your evidence? The nature of rich people is that they hide their wealth, they diversify, and they skirt rules. So, sales of stock get fancy names like prepaid variable forwards. Show me their bank statements–even silly arguments need a tad of evidence, right?

Honestly, at this point I stopped reading. No point in going any further. So, now that you know how little regard for that which is already known and on the record this piece of fiction is, I’ll link to it…

Here ya go.

Although, Felix does a great job of taking this piece down too (links above)… Although, he’s a bit less combative in his tone.

Nor is it plausible that all concerned were simply mesmerized by, or cynically exploitive of, the willingness of rating agencies to stamp Triple-A on these securities. Wall Street firms knew what the underlying dog food consisted of, regardless of what rating was stamped on it.

Mild Skepticism: Credit Card Bill of Rights Edition

May 21, 2009

Well, we can all rest assured that H.R. 627, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009, will indeed pass. I’ve been a huge advocate of strengthening consumer protection in the past, so this is a welcomed change.  However, I’m worried that legislators have managed to put restrictions and requirements on credit card companies without taking the last step: making them ineligible to be waived in boiler-plate language. Or, more importantly, the difference between “opt out” and “opt in” … From the text of the bill:

‘(k) Opt-in Required for Over-the-Limit Transactions if Fees Are Imposed-

‘(1) IN GENERAL- In the case of any credit card account under an open end consumer credit plan under which an over-the-limit fee may be imposed by the creditor for any extension of credit in excess of the amount of credit authorized to be extended under such account, no such fee shall be charged, unless the consumer has expressly elected to permit the creditor, with respect to such account, to complete transactions involving the extension of credit under such account in excess of the amount of credit authorized.

‘(2) DISCLOSURE BY CREDITOR- No election by a consumer under paragraph (1) shall take effect unless the consumer, before making such election, received a notice from the creditor of any over-the-limit fee in the form and manner, and at the time, determined by the Board. If the consumer makes the election referred to in paragraph (1), the creditor shall provide notice to the consumer of the right to revoke the election, in the form prescribed by the Board, in any periodic statement that includes notice of the imposition of an over-the-limit fee during the period covered by the statement.

‘(3) FORM OF ELECTION- A consumer may make or revoke the election referred to in paragraph (1) orally, electronically, or in writing, pursuant to regulations prescribed by the Board. The Board shall prescribe regulations to ensure that the same options are available for both making and revoking such election.

‘(4) TIME OF ELECTION- A consumer may make the election referred to in paragraph (1) at any time, and such election shall be effective until the election is revoked in the manner prescribed under paragraph (3).

(Emphasis mine.)

Now, you’ll notice that any election remains in force until one revokes it. Also, you’ll notice that there are periodic disclosure requirements. For educated consumers (for example, readers of The Consumerist or the Wall St. Journal’s personal finance blog “The Wallet”) this should sound familiar.  It’s well established that credit cards already contain language describing how they treat information they collect on you–most sell or share this information. As this FDIC page says, though, you can usually opt out. Raise your hand if you’ve ever, in all your time on this round ball of dirt, seen how to opt out or been told of this ability by anyone (other than me, just now). If more than 0.5% of you are raising your hand, there are liars galore reading. Now, opting out on those particular issue is a different animal–there are lots of forms of information sharing you cannot opt out of. In fact, credit bureaus can sell your information too. (Wouldn’t it be nice if this legislation fixed these practices as well?) Despite these differences, the point remains that opt in protections can be abused and aren’t really protections at all. As a matter of fact, it would be nice if we saw protections that were non–waive-able.

Just goes to show that, even when considering laws strengthening consumers’ protection against abusive practices, it pays to read the fine print.

Citi’s Earnings: Even Cittier Than You Think

April 20, 2009

Well, Citi reported earnings this past week. And, as many of you know, there are a few reasons you’ve heard to be skeptical that this was any sort of good news. However, there are a few reasons you probably haven’t heard… (oh, and my past issues on poor disclosure are just as annoying here)

On Revenue Generation: First, here are some numbers from Citi’s earnings report and presentation, Goldman’s earnings report, and JP Morgan’s earnings report:

Revenues from 1Q09 Earnings Reports

These numbers should bother Citi shareholders. Ignoring the 1Q08 numbers, Citi–whose global business is much larger and much more diverse than it’s rivals–generates no more, if not slightly less, revenue than the domestically focused JP Morgan and much, much less than Goldman. But it gets worse. Goldman’s balance sheet was $925 billion vs. Citi’s $1.06 trillion in assets within it’s investment banking businesses, roughly 10% larger.  I’d compare JP Morgan, but they provide a shamefully small amount of information. As an entire franchise, however, Citi was able to generate their headline number: $24.8 billion in revenue, on assets of $1.822 trillion. JP Morgan, as a whole, was able to generate $26.9 billion, on assets of $2.079 trillion. JP Morgan, then is 14% larger, by assets, and generstes 8% higher revenue.

These numbers should be disconcerting to Citi, it’s no better at revenue generation than it’s rivals, despite having a larger business in higher growth, higher margin markets. Further, in an environment rife with opportunity (Goldman’s results support this view, and anecdotal support is strong), Citi was totally unable to leverage any aspect of it’s business to get standout results… and we’re only talking about revenue! Forget it’s cost issues, impairments and other charges as it disposes assets, etc.

On The Magical Disappearing Writedowns: Even more amazing is the lack of writedowns. However, this isn’t because there aren’t any. JP Morgan had writedowns of, approximately, $900 million (hard to tell, because they disclose little in the way of details). Goldman had approximately $2 billion in writedowns (half from mortgages). Citi topped these with $3.5 billion in writedowns on sub-prime alone (although they claim only $2.2 billion in writedowns, which seems inconsistent). But, that isn’t close to the whole story. Last quarter, in what I could find almost no commentary on during the last conference call and almost nothing written about in filings or press releases, Citi moved $64 billion in assets from the “Available-for-sale and non-marketable equity securities” line item to the “Held-to-maturity” line item. In fact, $10.6 billion of the $12.5 billion in Alt-A mortgage exposure is in these, non–mark-to-market accounts. There was only $500 million in writedowns on this entire portfolio, surprise! Oh, and the non–mark-to-market accounts carry prices that are 11 points higher (58% of face versus 47% of face). What other crap is hiding from the light? $16.1 billion out of $16.2 billion total in S.I.V. exposure, $5.6 billion out of $8.5 billion total in Auction Rate Securities exposure, $8.4 billion out of $9.5 billion total in “Highly Leveraged Finance Commitments,” and, seemingly, $25.8 billion out of $36.1 billion in commercial real estate (hard to tell because their numbers aren’t clear), are all sitting in accounts that are no longer subject to writedowns based on fluctuations in market value, unlike their competitors. These are mostly assets managed off the trading desk, but marked according to different rules than traded assets. If one doesn’t have to mark their assets, then having no writedowns makes sense.

On The Not-so-friendly Trend: This is a situation where, I believe, the graphs speak for themselves.

credittrendsconsumertrendsmortgagetrends

Do any of these graphs look like things have turned the corner? Honestly, these numbers don’t even look like they are decelerating! Compare this with the (relatively few) graphs provided by JP Morgan.

jpmsubprimetrendshomeequitytrendjpmprimemortgagetrend

These aren’t directly comparable, as the categories don’t correspond to one another, and JP Morgan uses the more conservative 30-day delinquent instead of Citi’s 90+-day delinquent numbers. However, JP Morgan’s portfolio’s performance seems to be leveling out and even improving (with the possible exception of “Prime Mortgages”). Clearly, the pictures being painted of the future are very different for these institutions.

On the Stuff You Know About: I’ll be honest, this business about Citi benefiting from it’s own credit deterioration was confusing. Specifically, there is more going on when Citi refers to “credit value adjustments” than just profiting from it’s own Cittieness. However, Heidi Moore, of Deal Journal fame helped set me straight on this–the other things going on are dwarfed by the benefit I just mentioned. Here’s the relevant graphic from the earnings presentation:

cva-graphic

And, via Seeking Alpha’s Transcript, the comments from Ned Kelly that accompanied this slide:

Slide five is a chart similar to one that we showed last quarter which shows the movement in corporate credit spreads since the end of 2007. During the quarter our bond spreads widened and we recorded $180 million net gain on the value of our own debt for which we’ve elected the fair value option. On our non-monoline derivative positions counterparty CDS spreads actually narrowed slightly which created a small gain on a derivative asset positions.

Our own CDS spreads widened significantly which created substantial gain on our derivative liability positions. This resulted in a $2.7 billion net mark to market gain. We’ve shown on the slide the five-year bond spreads for illustrative purposes. CVA on our own fair value debt is calculated by weighting the spread movements of the various bond tenors corresponding to the average tenors of debt maturities in our debt portfolio. The debt portfolio for which we’ve elected the fair value options is more heavily weighted towards shorter tenures.

Notice that Citi’s debt showed a small gain, but it’s derivatives saw a large gain (the additional $166 million in gains related to derivatives was due to the credit of it’s counterparties improving). Why is this? Well, notice the huge jump in Citi’s CDS spread over this time period versus cash bonds, which were relatively unchanged. Now, from Citi’s 2008 10-K:

CVA Methodology

SFAS 157 requires that Citi’s own credit risk be considered in determining the market value of any Citi liability carried at fair value. These liabilities include derivative instruments as well as debt and other liabilities for which the fair-value option was elected. The credit valuation adjustment (CVA) is recognized on the balance sheet as a reduction in the associated liability to arrive at the fair value (carrying value) of the liability.

Citi has historically used its credit spreads observed in the credit default swap (CDS) market to estimate the market value of these liabilities. Beginning in September 2008, Citi’s CDS spread and credit spreads observed in the bond market (cash spreads) diverged from each other and from their historical relationship. For example, the three-year CDS spread narrowed from 315 basis points (bps) on September 30, 2008, to 202 bps on December 31, 2008, while the three-year cash spread widened from 430 bps to 490 bps over the same time period. Due to the persistence and significance of this divergence during the fourth quarter, management determined that such a pattern may not be temporary and that using cash spreads would be more relevant to the valuation of debt instruments (whether issued as liabilities or purchased as assets). Therefore, Citi changed its method of estimating the market value of liabilities for which the fair-value option was elected to incorporate Citi’s cash spreads. (CDS spreads continue to be used to calculate the CVA for derivative positions, as described on page 92.) This change in estimation methodology resulted in a $2.5 billion pretax gain recognized in earnings in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The CVA recognized on fair-value option debt instruments was $5,446 million and $888 million as of December 31, 2008 and 2007, respectively. The pretax gain recognized due to changes in the CVA balance was $4,558 million and $888 million for 2008 and 2007, respectively.

The table below summarizes the CVA for fair-value option debt instruments, determined under each methodology as of December 31, 2008 and 2007, and the pretax gain that would have been recognized in the year then ended had each methodology been used consistently during 2008 and 2007 (in millions of dollars).

cvatable

Got all that? So, Citi, in it’s infinite wisdom, decided to change methodologies and monetize, immediately, an additional 290 bps in widening on it’s own debt. This change saw an increase in earnings of $2.5 billion prior to this quarter.  In fact, Citi saw a total of $4.5 billion in earnings from this trick in 2008. However, this widening in debt spreads was a calendar year 2008 phenomenon, and CDS lagged, hence the out-sized gain this quarter in derivatives due to FAS 157 versus debt. Amazing.

And, while we’re here, I want to dispel a myth. This accounting trick has nothing to do with reality. The claim has always been that a firm could purchase it’s debt securities at a discount and profit from that under the accounting rules, so this was a form of mark-to-market. Well, unfortunately, rating agencies view that as a technical default–S&P even has a credit rating (“SD” for selective default) for this situation. This raises your cost of borrowing (what’s to say I’ll get paid in full on future debt?) and has large credit implications. I’m very, very sure that lots of legal documents refer to collateral posting, and other negative effects if Citi is deemed in “default” by a rating agency, and this would be a form of default. This is a trick, plain and simple–in reality, distressed tender offers would cost a firm money.

The Bottom Line: Citi isn’t out of the woods. In this recent earnings report I see a lot of reasons to both worry and remain pessimistic about Citi in the near- and medium-term. If you disagree, drop me a line… I’m curious to hear from Citi defenders.

How to Fix the Compensation Issue… Yesterday!

April 15, 2009

With all the tone-deafness that followed the great compensation debate of 2009, I have a very simple solution. The problem, despite what people commonly believe, is not the absolute level of compensation. No, it’s the fact that management’s personal incentives and employees’ incentives are aligned–shareholders are still in the wilderness. How many times have we heard the trite, absolutely silly refrain stating “we need to pay the valuable people that know where the bodies are buried so they can dispose of them!”? Way too many. Although, there are dozens of examples of retention bonuses being paid to people as they resign… Idiots.

So, what do I suggest? Add all compensation, beyond a base limit, say $250,000, as T.A.R.P. debt to institutions who have already received funds under the program–and the interest rate from this new debt should be very high. I would suggest… okay, I never merely suggest… I would demand (better!) that this new debt carry a high coupon. Maybe even ensure the interest owed is cutely linked to the way these publicly owned (partially, anyway) institutions are negatively impacting our economy. One example: this new debt could carry an interest rate equal to the greater of the (a) median of the top quartile of credit card interest rates issued by the company in question and (b) 24.99%.

Now, what does this do? It better aligns management and shareholders. How can a C.E.O. allow divisions that lost billions to run up it’s debt? And, how can an institution award these bonuses necessary to pay people, right out of taxpayer money, if they aren’t willing to pay it back later? By definition, every dollar that flows into the pockets of employees can’t go back to the taxpayers whose money saved these same institutions. Once managers need to actually justify why they are paying people, due to the higher cost, I guarantee fewer employees will receive these higher bonuses. Gone will be the cuspy performers who are being paid because Wall St. is a creature of habit. This will create a wholesale re-thinking of compensation at many institutions. And, honestly, it’s long overdue. To be honest, I don’t really view this higher cost as excessive, either. People being paid 8-12% of profits (it’s actually revenue traders are compensated on, but don’t tell anyone that) should wind up actually costing 10%-20% of profits with this excess debt, perhaps as high as 30%–but these employees continue to be employed and able to profit due to taxpayer funds to begin with. It’s time managers are required justify, to their boards and owners, why high compensation for various employees is necessary. And, since companies say a surtax or banning of bonuses is bad and bonuses are absolutely required, they should be more than willing to pay these higher rates–they need these people after all!


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