Posted tagged ‘balance sheet’

Merrill Cleanses Itself, We Think

July 29, 2008

Well, there was an announcement from Merrill about some things:

  1. Selling CDO Assets
  2. Settling monoline issues
  3. Selling equity

Now, while all these are important, #2 is better covered elsewhere as I think reliance on insurers was stupid to begin with and #3 is what it is… best left for analyst reports for nuance, but very generally obvious. Let’s go to the release…

Merrill Lynch agreed to sell $30.6 billion gross notional amount of U.S. super senior ABS CDOs to an affiliate of Lone Star Funds for a purchase price of $6.7 billion. At the end of the second quarter of 2008, these CDOs were carried at $11.1 billion, and in connection with this sale Merrill Lynch will record a write-down of $4.4 billion pre-tax in the third quarter of 2008.

… [The] sale will reduce Merrill Lynchs aggregate U.S. super senior ABS CDO long exposures from $19.9 billion at June 27, 2008, to $8.8 billion, the majority of which comprises older vintage collateral 2005 and earlier. The pro forma $8.8 billion super senior long exposure is hedged with an aggregate of $7.2 billion of short exposure…

Merrill Lynch will provide financing to the purchaser for approximately 75% of the purchase price. The recourse on this loan will be limited to the assets of the purchaser. The purchaser will not own any assets other than those sold pursuant to this transaction. The transaction is expected to close within 60 days.

(emphasis mine).

Now, this is (via the WSJ via naked capitalism) 22 cents on the dollar. Wow! But, to be honest, this is sticker shock that comes from the massive liquidity being used here. The bid someone shows you on $30 billion versus $30 million is a very different proposition. This sounds like advice I gave before (see item #1 on that post). Now, what questions should the analysts be asking? Note the bold, italicized, underlined parts above. Seems as if the purchaser will be an entity, most likely formed for this transaction, that will only need 25% of the $6.7 billion, or $1.675 billion. Now, since the other 75% is financed, what happens if losses start flowing to these CDOs? The amount of equity decreases. From the Journal …

Many CDOs held by Merrill were viewed as highly likely to default and lose some or most of their principal value. Of around 30 CDOs totaling $32 billion that Merrill underwrote in 2007, 27 have seen their top triple-A ratings downgraded to “junk,” according to data compiled by Janet Tavakoli, a structured-finance consultant in Chicago. Their performance has been “dreadful,” she says.

(emphasis mine).

So now Merrill is in a race. Up to 78% of notional value can be written down, now, with no one taking a loss. Then the next $1.675 billion falls to Lone Star’s equity, and then the rest come out of capital Merrill has put up for the benefit of Lone Star. With the above downgrade statistics such losses aren’t completely out of the question. With this in mind, I would want to know the financing terms. The devil is in the details. Such financings could require only some margin up front in addition to the 25% equity, or none at all. The financing terms could limit Merrill’s ability to claw back more capital as the assets see further writedowns. In general, these terms could mean the risk is only cushioned, not removed. I’m sure these questions will be asked, and that Merrill anticipated such questions. This makes me think that these issues lead to the depressed price–price was the one protection potentially preventing Lone Star from having to have to cough up more money (you can’t owe money if the assets are performing better than their price implies). However, if these terms aren’t very favorable (Merrill was trying to get rid of these assets, after all) one might not ever see the financing terms. It’s also possible that Merrill retains some equity upside in these assets. I guess we’ll wait and see…

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Why “Best” Doesn’t Mean Anything

March 3, 2008

One thing I fixate on is finding “the best” something.  In finance, however, I have to radically adjust my thinking. “Best” is meaningless–albeit for unintuitive reasons. I always thought that to put together the “best” trading desk, one only needs to go out and get the “best” traders. Well, along what dimensions does one judge a trader? Risk management? Percentage of trades that are profitable? Overall P&L? Ability as a manager?

Let me give two examples that show why “best” is a meaningless term. First, consider a trader who is senior and runs a trading desk. This trader still has a trading book, though, and is given a lot of balance sheet to use and take risk with. This trader has many trades on at once and, in general, they go in his favor (say 60-75%). He/she has demonstrated a consistent ability to generate positive P&L, and with more resources generally generates more P&L.  He/she is a very hands-off manager, however, and his/her subordinates go to him/her only with specific issues. This trader goes home earlier than the rest of the desk and pushes off as many outside obligations as possible to others. He/she knows most major players in the business and will have some email or IM conversations frequently and shares information with others on his/her desk.

Second, consider another senior trader who runs a trading desk. This trader is involved with a trading book, but has a subordinate to take over the day-to-day trading responsibilities. He/she is very focused on being a good manager and making his subordinates feel like their voices are heard. This trader has been around for a long while and dictates the overall risk positions of the desk, but not necessarily specific trades. He/she will take a view on, for example, the shape of the yield curve, risk/reward in the marketplace, and where supply and demand are headed and then recommend his/her desk to position themselves accordingly.  This trader commits sizable amounts of capital to trades, but has been working in an environment where balance sheet is constrained. He/she is very focused on maintaining good relations with major market participants and is pro-active about setting up and attending events outside the office with important accounts. This trader, due to the focus on relationships, is able to source very large “franchise trades” that allow the desk to control billions of dollars in supply and/or demand in various securities–these lead to large positive P&L for the desk.

Now, which is better? See? Completely different people. Completely different styles. The first probably is a great person to have at a shop that takes a lot of proprietary risk. The second is most likely a terrific fit for a business that focuses on secondary trading and being in the flow of big customers. But, which is better to build a trading business from scratch? Which is a better fit to take over a desk that has just lost a lot of money and had several traders fired? Which of the two traders described above is better for a nascent hedge fund? These questions are much more complex and multi-faceted than I would have believed just a short time ago.

Perhaps I’ve just taken 653 words to say something obvious, but it’s always been counter-intuitive to me that one can’t just take a list of traders, sort them by the revenue they generated, or some other number,  and interview them from top to bottom to find the best trader for the job.