Posted tagged ‘CDO’

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.

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.


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.


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:


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).


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.

Detailed Causes of the Crisis and Post-Crisis

November 9, 2008

Since this is a political season, and with the economic crisis, I think everyone in finance understands there is a sort of “silly season” that ensues. We certainly noted the sort of irrational behavior that would immediately make an economist question their beliefs. To me, though, the most offensive form of this stupidity comes from those who believe the Community Reinvestment Act and Fannie and Freddie sparked the whole crisis. Mr. Ritholtz rails against this notion over and over again. Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone else tackle this issue… Of course, I’m also way behind on reading my feeds. I even wrote Mr. Ritholtz an email (something I always tell myself is useless afterwards, since I don’t ever get a response, but is usually cathartic) noting that he was being very informative by setting the record straight. Well, maybe I expressed this sentiment with a tirade…

Every time I hear a Republican talking head on a news program saying Fannie and Freddie caused the problem I want to jump through my T.V., explain that the answer “betrays not even a modest understanding of the contributing factors to the current crisis, it’s scope, and magnitude” and begin to rattle off about flawed ratings agencies, excessive leverage (for investment banks and funds), over-reliance on models, a flawed compensation model for Wall St., managements needs to one-up their own earnings and those of competitors, explosive year over year growth of unproven financial technologies, over-reliance on “fast money” to distribute risk, fund’s need to earn outsized returns to attract assets, funds’ need to buy crappy bonds to build a “relationship” that would allow them to get “good” bonds from banks, poor disclosure from companies (specifically investment banks, as I’ve discussed on my blog), and extremely low rates for a very long time. Of course I’m just a normal guy who actually knows what’s going on, I don’t get invited onto these shows.

(Emphasis added, mine.)

Let’s tackle these, shall we?

  1. Excessive Leverage — If the plot of the credit crisis had included a deus ex machina it would have been an instant de-levering of troubled investment firms. This didn’t happen and several collapsed. I don’t want to be repetitive, but the Deal Professor says it plainly when he says, “Sometimes, You Can Only Raise Capital When You Don’t Need It” … If a firm is highly levered, as Bear was, Lehman was, Fannie was, Freddie was, and A.I.G. was, then when the market gets bad, losses pile up, and credit tightens it’s a death spiral. There’s a large distance between well-capitalized and insolvent, but once you move from adequately-capitalized to under-capitalized it’s probably impossible not to hit insolvent or bankrupt. Oh, and let’s not forget how this became a problem in the first place … the rules were relaxed in 2004.
  2. Flawed Rating Agencies — This is pretty obvious. Moodys errors. Rating agencies noting any deal, even one “structured by cows,” would be rated. And lastly, the smoking gun that seems to be the largest caliber, the fact that … well, I’ll let Mr. Raiter speak for himself:… “Mr. Raiter said that the residential mortgage rating group at S.& P. had captured the largest market share among its main competitors — 92 percent or better — ‘and improving the model would not add to S.& P.’s revenues.‘” Wow! Honesty, stupidity, incompetence … all on display. Now, to be honest, I have no idea what difference these problems made. What I do know is that the rating agencies were used as a means of outsourcing risk management and credit analysis. While it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the rating agencies missed the mark, the magnitude by which they missed is a huge problem if everyone took their ratings as fundamentally true. What these “statistical rating agencies” should have been doing is running securities and mortgage loans through abhorrently conservative scenarios and fixing ratings based on those…. they didn’t. They were argued down to “realistic” scenarios based on past experience. The issues above merely compound the problem.
  3. Over-Reliance on Models — Related to the rating agencies’ issues, this one is a great catchall for terrible risk management. Let’s be honest, no one saw the fundamentals in housing getting so bad. That’s not the issue, I didn’t see it so I can’t exactly blame others for not seeing it. What I can do, however, is blame risk management professionals for not preparing for it. When you have, as Citi did, tens of billions of dollars in highly correlated assets, you should know there’s a risk of tens of billions of dollars in writedowns. When you have tens of billions of dollars in commercial mortgages, as Lehman did, you should realize the risks there. Similar lessons for WaMu, Wachovia, and CountryWide. Instead, though, like the rating agencies, there was a push to have “realistic” or “back tested” results. Let’s go to Mr. Viniar, C.F.O. of Goldman, for his take: “Even scenario analysis, which can address some of VAR’s deficiencies, came up short … [This] ’caused us to look at more-extreme scenarios than we used to look at,’ says Viniar. ‘It made us expand out the tails of what we deemed a realistic possibility.'” Logical, concise, and conservative. It seems Goldman didn’t attempt to show lower risk numbers so that they could deploy more capital or be looked upon as safer by the stock market. No, they looked at more extreme scenarios. They reacted quickly. However, in quoting this passage I sandbagged you, dear readers. This quotation is actually much more relevant to this situation than one would think–it comes from 2001! Mr. Viniar, people probably won’t remember (seems like a lifetime ago), but I noted before, was the guy who convened a firm-wide meeting on exposure to the housing markets. The takeaway is that the firm that looked at the most extreme scenarios, not the ones that models said were most likely, weathered the storm the best.
  4. Flawed Compensation Model — This one is pretty obvious. Lots of money flowed into people’s P.A.’s (that’s “personal account”) each year based on fees and mark-to-market gains for complex structured products. In many instances these risks were distributed and off the balance sheets of investment banks. However, these businesses were grown, and none of the risks were well understood–the people in the lead, though, lead the charge to increase their compensation. I was personally aware of a senior trader/banker/whatever that pushed a firm, one that has seen tens of billions in writedowns and may or may not still be alive, who pushed for balance sheet commitment of 2-3x the current size in the C.D.O. business. This would have exposed this institution to writedowns larger than most firms equity base. This proposal was shot down, but still… Clearly making eight digits was going to someone’s head. Now, we all know that I believe one should be accountable for their decisions, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when one has made tens of millions of dollars in bonus and salary, but their decisions lead an institution to take massive losses, reduces shareholder value significantly (keeping in mind shareholders might be woefully unaware of the risks being taken), and leads to thousands of people losing their jobs, merely being fired isn’t enough. Especially since these issues are only beginning to be understood when these people are fired, usually. Becoming an instant millionaire is a huge, huge problem. It’s the “swing for the fences if you’re down” mentality, and it’s also the “worry about the tail events if they happen” mentality. Put simply, there should be the ability to claw-back compensation based on performance for years. Perhaps a ten year lockup of wealth is extreme, but given these issues and famous blowups in the past, and taking into account the tradition of good times to last several years, maybe ten years is harsh but not extreme. Maybe employees should be allowed to hedge exposure to stock prices after a few years, but still have risk if negligence is discovered or things go wrong that were set in motion by that person. Obviously something drastic needs to be done, perhaps merely paying less is sufficient, but I doubt it.
  5. Management Pressures — Highly correlated to the flawed compensation model, it’s the case that management was pushed hard to get earnings up. Having seen the “budget” process (an odd name, I thought, since a budget, to me, merely means expenditures) up close, I saw people come up with reasonable numbers, submit them to senior management, and be told, “More!” Well, guess what <expletive>s? If someone tells you they can reasonably deliver something and you always add 10-20% to those numbers, there is more risk taking and less rationality to how that profit is achieved. Maybe the long term effects of pushing the envelope are much worse than not taking those risks to begin with. This is one reason Goldman seems to outperform so often, they understand what they are getting themselves into. They truly work together and achieve revenues through teamwork instead of edict. Now, underperformance is punished, but setting reasonable goals is step one when trying to exceed them. The next generation of management should fight their bosses tooth and nail not to set unreasonable baseline expectations and should figure out objective measures that reflect an employee or business’s effectiveness. The tyranny of quarterly earnings shouldn’t make grown ups act stupidly because they can’t “just say no.” Here’s a hint: if you run a company with a nine- or ten-digit balance sheet and you don’t realize your business is complex enough that you shouldn’t manage to the next ninety days, then you should step aside. Seems simple to me. Maybe that’s why Google doesn’t bother with quarterly guidance.
  6. Explosive Growth of Unproven Financial Technologies — Being a bit of a purist I am hesitant to call financial products or methods “technologies,” but I’ll use that word for now. The truth of the matter is, these products had never seen a massive downturn. Sub-prime loans as we know them today hadn’t seen a recession until now. C.D.O.’s backed by structured products hadn’t existed during a protracted period of fundamnetal credit distress before. This was known and talked about often. For as much as this was talked about, it was an observation that was never extrapolated. Hedging and risk management still looked at historical levels of distress and credit problems. The market had grown by orders of magnitude, but that wasn’t part of the equation. Quite simply, the fact that these markets grew so much so fast meant no one had a good handle on the feedback effects of this growth. This is somewhat obvious and very moot, so I won’t dwell on the problems of such massive growth.
  7. Over Reliance on “Fast Money” To Distribute Risk — Anyone who knows structured products understand this point. Basically, the fair-weather buyers are “fast money.” This client based is distinct from “buy and hold” or “real money” accounts. Here is where the shell game of wall street really kicked into high gear. Hedge funds would buy bonds with the intention of selling at a profit later. Investment banks would, to show strength of the market, put out “bids” or interest to purchase securities they had just created at a higher price than they had just sold said securities at. Hedge funds would then immediately sell back to Wall St. firms, at a profit, to take advantage of their desire to show the market their securitizations “trade well” or “at a premium.” When firms are making money on the securitization, they can afford this. Speaking more generally, hedge funds just “trade bonds around” more. In recent years insurance companies and banks, the institutions that buy securities and rarely sell them (for a myriad of reasons), went from 70+% of the buying base for structured products to 20-30% of the buying base. This means that in a bad market 70-80% of the bonds that exist can be sold (dumped?) at a moments notice. Add in the fact that during this period there was explosive growth (as noted above) and you see why when the markets hit trouble the huge wave of selling occurred, liquidity dried up, and prices plummeted.
  8. The Flawed Model for Relationships Funds have with Wall St. (coupled with Funds’ Needs for High Returns to attract Assets) — The way a bank figured out if a hedge fund was a good customer was, basically, how much a fund helped that bank get out of risk (stupidly, as stated above, since banks were likely to be more hurt by a fund owning assets and were more likely to wind up needing to repurchase those assets, but I digress…). However, when assets were in short supply relative to demand, only the top clients were able to purchase securities banks were creating. So, one might wonder, how did a nascent fund, at the bottom of the food chain, get access to the desirable securities? Easy solution: they purchased the undesirable securities to “help out” a Wall St. firm. These were more risky, although they were generally carried a higher rate of return in the event of no credit problems. These new funds, then, showed higher returns, attracted more money, and bought more securities from banks. Net effect? Most funds had a poor mix of products–higher risk bonds or assets that would get hit much harder than generic securities and more generic securities. Keep in mind that, to get high returns, funds were buying C.D.O. products and other structured products that had higher returns in general, but funds also levered these products and thus funds were much more exposed to moves in the market. Funds, as everyone knows, get paid a percentage of assets under management and returns, so to grow their revenue stream many funds just had to buy lots of securities (and, to establish a strong enough relationship to be allocated enough securities, plenty of lower quality securities). This was the prisoner’s dilemma of the syndicate system–funds cooperated every time. (Just to put some numbers on it, when a fund would try to buy residential or commercial mortgage backed securities it was possible for demand to outstrip supply 2- or 3-to-1. Accounts with strong relationships usually got 100% to 80% of the requested amount of bonds being issued. Weak relationships or smaller firms could receive as little as 10-20% of their desired allocation.) This is a complex process and nuanced point, feel free to email me for more explanation.
  9. Poor Disclosure from Companies — This is a point I’ve raised before. I won’t go over it again. The short story is that firms got away with a lot because they didn’t tell anyone what they were doing.
  10. Extremely Low Rates for a Very Long Time — I’ve raised this point before as well (between the numbered lists). Rates were very low and, suddenly, a product that trades at 50-100bps over L.I.B.O.R. traded 50-100% higher than L.I.B.O.R. If your benchmark was treasury rates to outperform your benchmark meaningfully you needed to get much higher spreads, and thus take higher risk. This is why C.D.O.’s experienced such explosive growth (see the problems the growth cased above). Low rates also made it more attractive to get a floating rate mortgage, which a huge majority of sub-prime mortgages were. This was part of the ex-post concern with Alan Greenspan’s encouraging people to take out A.R.M.’s.

In short, Fannie and Freddie were part of the problem, but not in and of themselves. In fact, if Fannie and Freddie had caused these problems by selling banks their bonds, then we wouldn’t have a problem at all. Why? Because Fannie and Freddie would be “on the hook” for the bonds they guarantee. If these bonds went bad no firms would have taken losses on them (since the government stepped in to keep them solvent and backstopped their obligations). Okay, now that I’m done ranting I’m going to rant on something new. The post-crisis narrative of what went wrong… (don’t you love the rise of the word “narrative”?).

  1. The failure of rating agencies, risk managers, and risk management models. This has been getting the most press because it’s easy to explain (not why these things failed, but the fact they failed).
  2. Sheer size. This is pretty silly, if you ask me. Bigger doesn’t have to mean riskier. The practices that get a firm to a massive size could be an issue. Super-concentrating the health of the markets with very few players could be a huge problem. The “Too Big to Fail” issue might fit some situations, but didn’t cause this crisis. No one wants to have to rely on the government to save them.
  3. Executive pay. This is a limited view on the actual problem. In fact, in most firms, C.E.O.’s aren’t the highest earning individuals.
  4. Hedge funds and short selling. Really? Let’s trace the logic here (or lack thereof): a firm runs it’s business poorly and I bet it will decline in value. Clearly I am at fault there. The “free markets at all costs except losses” crowd, like those currently at Treasury, are putting a band aid on an amputated leg here. Especially with the very firms begging to be protected turning around and getting fees from products circumventing the bank on short selling. (What a stupid move, some firms deserve to be in worse trouble.)
  5. Everything else. Why get into the details of the actual causes when you can distill down issues to “good” versus “bad” and simple fights? No one has…. so I’m doing it! But I doubt all the other things will make it into the popular understanding of what went wrong.

There you go. My hands are tired, so I’ll stop here. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

In The Year 2010: C.D.O. Edition

October 21, 2008

In another installment of the series called “In The Year 2010″ I will sit here and guess what will be going on by the end of 2010 with respect to various products. (Inspired by the Conan O’Brian skit “In The Year 2000″). This is a thought experiment, nothing more.

This edition, as the title would seem to suggest, is about C.D.O.’s. Please sit down, because I’m about to argue something very counter-intuitive. C.D.O.’s will be alive and well in the year 2010. Now, I’m willing to claim this victory on a technicality–corporate C.D.O.’s are still being issued. Now, safe in my assured technical victory, I’ll go farther out on the limb

It’s somewhat instructive to understand what have been the various motivations behind the C.D.O. market, historically (some of these obviously no longer exist)…

  1. There was the reach for yield. If one could get AAA C.D.O.’s for a higher yield than other AAA bonds, it was a no brainer. Both were AAA, obviously! No extra risk.
  2. A highly customized risk profile. If I looked at a pool and thought 6% of the balance was going to written off, but no more, I could buy the 7%-10% tranche and get a higher return. Obviously this higher return would need to match whatever threshhold I established, but that was most likely related to the market anyway. Some people referred to this as taking a position in the collateral with leverage. C.D.O.’s are, in essence, leverage on leverage, but this is a complicated, technical, and largely semantic argument. The surface intuition is that taking a levered position increases your return if nothing defaults, but less has to default for the buyer to lose money.
  3. C.D.O.’s were used to finance bonds or other debt positions. “How?” is what I heard you say, in the back? Well, think about it this way: an investment bank requires 50% of the purchase price of a set of bonds and charges LIBOR+100bps on the other 50%. We say that you’ve financed the purchase of the bonds two to one at a rate of one hundred basis points over LIBOR. Now, using our example, let’s say one could issue a C.D.O. and sell enough bonds to get 50% of the purchase price of the underlying bonds up front. Let’s also assume that the liabilities have a weighted average interest rate of LIBOR+10bps. Using the C.D.O. instead of a traditional loan, especially since the C.D.O. can’t be cancelled like a loan can and, most likely, contains much more lax terms than a loan, is much more cost effective. Taking this a step further, it was even possible for C.D.O.’s to be issued that allowed more bonds to be put into the C.D.O. or allow bonds that were sold to be replaced. This effecive made the C.D.O. a credit line with an extremely cheap interest rate. Keep in mind the “equity” or “most levered tranche” or “bottom” of the C.D.O. generally was structured to have a very high return, somewhere in the 15-25% range.

Also, the backdrop of the boom in C.D.O.’s, don’t forget, was a very low rate environment. If one could get LIBOR+10-15bps on AAA bonds when rates were, in 2004 for example, 1% (for USD LIBOR and the Fed Funds), that was a major out performance for a AAA security (AAA, how much risk could there be?!).

Now that the historical context is out of the way, it seems pretty clear that some of these reasons for isssuing C.D.O.’s will not diminish in importance. Funds and money managers will always need more yield. Investors that are smart about credit analysis will always want to take the risks they understand and get paid for taking said risks. Funds and other “levered players” will always need financing. So, let’s examine how the landscape changes rather than disappears.

  1. Complexity will die. There are a number of reasons for this. Part of the reason is that buyers of C.D.O.’s will begin to realize that structure adds a layer of complexity that no one really can grasp fully. Why have dozens of triggers and tests at every stage of the waterfall (the way cash is distributed in order of seniority)? In some deals, I’m sure, this complexity helped some tranches of the C.D.O. In some other deals, I’m sure, this complexity hurt some tranches of the C.D.O. The one  constant is that it’s nearly impossible to tell the right levels and specific mechanics beforehand. Hence the complexity will die and structures will simplify. Likely this also means less tranches. Why have a $4 million tranche size in a $400+ million deal when you can’t even predict losses within an order of magnitude (1%, 9%. or 20%? Who knows?!)? This is hardly a new concept, I introduced it already when discussing residential mortgages.
  2. Arbitrage C.D.O.’s will reign supreme. This one is controversial, and the term “Arbitrage C.D.O.” almost takes on a different meaning each time it’s defined. The intuition, though, is that a hedge fund taking advantage of a market dislocation by issuing a C.D.O. is an “Arbitrage C.D.O.” Why will these be popular? Well, C.D.O. shops, or firms that are serial issuers of C.D.O.’s, have mostly blown up and are done. Traditional money managers will be shying away from C.D.O.’s for a long time. So, in order to sell the C.D.O. equity, the most levered risky piece, the firm issuing the C.D.O. will need to also be willing to take on the equity–this leaves only hedge funds. Arbitrage C.D.O.’s also come together more quickly and generally are backed by corporate bonds. Funds and other accounts that, as a core competency, already analyze corporate credit won’t have to go “outside the comfort zone” to buy into arbitrage C.D.O.’s.
  3. C.D.O.’s or C.D.O. technology will become part of the M&A world more and more. Aha! Maybe too clever for my own good, but while all these specialty finance companies used to be able to issue a C.D.O. for funding purposes on their own, now they will need an investment bank to connect them with hedge funds or take on the debt, and thus the risk, themselves. These C.D.O.’s will likely be simple too (see #1), but will be an efficient way for these companies to finance assets or move them off the balance sheet. Here’s an example: a diversified finance firm, with a large lending presence, for example (most likely with a R.E.I.T. subsidiary, a popular structure of the past eight years) will be looking to sell itself. However, because the assets on it’s balance sheet look risky the leveraged finance groups will need to arrange some financing against those assets. The structure? Most likely a C.D.O. with hedge funds providing the cash and getting a “juiced” return on their money. This is essentially the covered bond product, but with an extra layer of complexity (tranching) on top.

Okay… that’s enough prognosticating for now. Still deciding which product is next. Drop me a line if you have a favorite!

The Financial Markets Stabilization Act We Should Have Seen

October 14, 2008

This comes from a comment I left on Barry Ritholtz’s “Bailout Plan Open Thread” the other evening. The basic premise is that the “Bailout Bill” as we know it basically says we need to go out and “lift” the street out of toxic crap. Then, the world will be better. It’s at least a bit less like the Underpants Gnomes in the sense that the toxic crap and the freezing up of the credit markets are linked… However, here’s the plan we should see if we, as taxpayers, really want our money going to help us.

1. Purchase only loans or securities that have the right to control loans directly or modify loans. The magic of the C.D.O. is that it’s backed by things that are backed by other things. So, if I buy some sub-prime–backed bonds and C.D.O.’s backed by those same bonds, I’m buying two securities being affected by the same loans. Just buy the loans. With the loans being controlled by the government, they are now free to…

2. Recast all delinquent loans to be much longer, have lower interest rates, and be much harder to abuse. Guess what interest rate you get on a forty year mortgage?  A lower one! Why? Because the duration is much higher. Why? If I make five basis points per year over the life of a forty year loan I’m making more money than if I earn five basis points over the life of a thirty year loan. Thus, the interest rate where I make the same amount of money should be lower on the forty year loan. The government doesn’t even need to smash any potential profits to make loans more affordable.

3. Offer financial institutions two options: sell the government’s bailout fund loans or securities at the price the government offers to purchase them at, or sell them at their mark and give the government equity. Why? Because if the bank isn’t willing to sell at a reasonable bid, furnished by the government, then their mark is over-inflated and they are trying to avoid an adverse hit to earnings–the government should receive more compensation for bailing out the bank. This should be applied to each position one at a time–no securities should be purchased in aggregate, that’s too easy to game. As a matter of fact, that’s how sub-prime worked to begin with: pools of loans got more and more barbelled and the bottom loans defaulted. On average they were normal, in reality they were crappy enough to break the securities. Oh, and the equity should have voting rights. Of course, there are questions to be answered.

4. Lend directly to people and small businesses. If the economic fears are all about the seizing up of the credit markets, we should be able to fix these problems by lending to those that live and die by financing. Create very strict standards for qualifying for these loans. FICO and income requirements, unlike sub-prime loans had. For businesses, underwrite loans to actual income and asset levels and only lend very conservative amounts of leverage.

5. Immediately raise capital requirements across the board. As Steve Davidoff notes (Lesson #4 when one follows that link), when you need to raise capital the most, you can’t. He concludes, as I have before, that this is a wonderful argument for raising capital requirements. Also, less levered institutions are more sound in general–there is more room for error. And, as one could guess, the competitive “flavor of the day” businesses, like C.D.O.’s and sub-prime, are much more levered because financing these products is viewed as a way to win business. This is why the institutions with cheap balance sheet are experiencing huge writedowns due to counterparty exposure with financing arrangements. Citi disclosed writedowns of  billions in warehouse lines where C.D.O. issuers were holding bonds with nearly no equity, on Citi’s balance sheet.

6. Required compensation reform. It’s well documented, conjectured, and even assumed that Wall St.’s compensation scheme is to blame for a lot of the mess we’re in. Swing for the fences and jump ship to another bank if it doesn’t work. That’s what it seems the most recent round of large bonuses for executives and traders that caused this problem were following. It’s simple, if you need money from the American people, you sign on to these reforms. Otherwise one might encounter a moral hazard due to government subsidized capital. Honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with an onerous set of restrictions and requirements for paying people exorbitant sums of money.

7. Immediate and broad consumer protections and consumer financial product reform. Rather than have banks start to do whatever they want to reduce their risk (I’ve heard reports of people with home equity lines in good standing paying their bill one day late and having the entire line canceled) require they treat their consumers fairly. Completely restrict the ability for banks to raise rates on things like credit card debt–to retroactively increase rates on existing debt is ridiculous in the first place. In an economy driven by spending and credit, for better or worse, putting consumers further at risk of defaulting on their obligations is stupid. Eliminate binding arbitration of consumer debt–just invalidate it completely, retroactively. I would prefer this practice be eliminated altogether, but if we’re keeping to the topic at hand I’ll only put forth that proposal. Lastly, put strong disclosure requirements in place for all consumer debt products, including new loans or recast loans. Require institutions to show the annualized rate, over the life of the loan, if interest rates rise 2%, 4%, 5%, and if the forwards are realized. Require large print, plain English disclosures. Some people will say Im trying to babysit people, but, honestly, how can one argue against requiring banks tell their customers basic information about their loans? Right, one can’t.

This is what we should have gotten to both get the economy and markets moving in the right direction and ensuring the confidence in institutions and consumers are both restored. Just my opinion..

Quick Thought: Irrational Politicians?

September 21, 2008

Isn’t this just like politicians… Now that they are bailing out some “too big to fail” firms and starting up a mass-produced bailout, why are they buying securities? Shouldn’t they be bailing out homeowners? They vote. If a bank is carrying loans, or securities, on their books at seventy cents on the dollar then why not give the borrower enough to pay the loan off (assuming it’s mark is it’s current principal value)? Anyway, by forgiving the loan, the potential exists for a C.D.O. to be paid down too–don’t forget they are securitizations of securitizations.

Maybe using taxpayer money to have the newly taxpayer-owned G.S.E.’s (more than sponsored, I suppose) make a loan to them at a much lower rate )obviously for the lower amount)? Honestly, seems illogical to go around bailing out financial institutions when those benefits are perceived to be more concentrated … More benficial to people who caused the problems rather than those who stand to lose the most from them.

Anyway, just my thought on this “bailout” …

Disclosure? I Call B.S.

August 20, 2008

Disclosure and financial filings seem to be topical today with the S.E.C. announcing the Investment Banking Analyst Mercy Initiative. So, I’ll play ball. I have read a bunch of things recently making claims about the ability of a diligent investor to know what they are “getting into” and what the risks are for investing in a public company that has disclosure requirements. Actually, I haven’t been doing this for decades, so let’s quote someone that has… Tom Brown:

No one, inside or outside the company, could accurately predict what … ultimate losses would be. But what they could do—and what financial services investors can do now, regarding the banks in general–is make reasonable estimates of ranges of losses, and estimate companies’ future earnings power, then compare that to their market values.

(emphasis mine).

I emailed Tom to clarify a few thing, but never heard back. So, as I am prone to do, I’ll assume I’m correct in my interpretation and move on. I’m assuming that this was also the case in the past–how else would people be able to buy into a financial institution in the past if Tom didn’t think his words were just as true two to three years ago? (Nothing has really changed in disclosure requirements, right?) Surely, in the past, the issue would have been taking a view on the performance of the various financial institutions’ assets as well.

I looked at three firms’ disclosure, from 2006, related to C.D.O.’s … what I could find. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not trained to do this. I’m just a person, with some financial experience, looking at some S.E.C. filings. I knew i was looking for C.D.O. exposure, especially in the context of figuring out what banks would need to be responsible for if the market had a severe dislocation. Let me explain what I mean by this. Remember all the liquidity put chatter? While mostly related to S.I.V.’s, this is still a relevant concept for C.D.O.’s. As in any syndicated deal, most common for selling bond or stock offerings related to corporations but also relevant for securitized products, when an investment bank agrees to do a securitization they have most likely (call it 80+% of the time) agreed to “take down” or purchase the securities they are unable to sell to investors. Easy enough, right? Those assets are what has generated a huge amount of writedowns. It’s very easy to see the relationship between market share in the C.D.O. and securitized products space and magnitude of writedowns.

These relationships, however, are very complex. Multiple investment banks could be selling an individual deal and each could be responsible for purchasing different parts or different percentages of leftover securitizations. These are individually negotiated for each transaction. As a firm is building up assets (for example, sub-prime mortgage-backed securities), before they have enough to actually securitize and create a C.D.O., the bank/investment bank could have all the risk of those assets losing value or defaulting–if the C.D.O. doesn’t get done then it becomes a big problem. It’s also a big difference what types of assets or structures make up the C.D.O. securities. One sees the problem growing. There is a lot of information that needs to be processed to come up with a reasonable estimation of losses. I would claim that it is completely insufficient for a bank, as they have been, to disclose exposures once they start to become a problem.

So, what did I find? Terrible disclosure. I was able to find almost no information. Certainly no information that would have helped come up with an estimate for losses from these firms based in any sort of logic or fact. Now, I’m not saying one should be suspect of current disclosure–I don’t know what is next to blow up or cause big problems and none of these firms are run by the same regime that decided the previous level of disclosure. What I am saying is that I wouldn’t have been able, even if I had known exactly what was going to happen, to know the magnitude of the losses.

First, I looked at Citi. Citi had a notion of participating or structuring. Those numbers were combined and reported together. This helps to determine market share, perhaps. This does nothing to disclose the risk on the balance sheet. This number ($110 billion) could be made up entirely of bonds were Citi is at risk. It could also be entirely made up of bonds where Citi has no risk and is taking fees. There is nothing I found in the 10-K’s to say anything more helpful. So we know losses, if these C.D.O.’s (named V.I.E. or Variable Interest Entities in the disclosure) were sold at 22 cents on the dollar, as Merrill reportedly did, the losses would have been between zero and $86 billion. Whew! Nailed it down… Now, knowing that, do you buy or sell Citi’s stock?

Second, I looked at Merrill. They state some numbers and then footnote saying they might, potentially, hold a financial interest in some of the securitizations. Same situation as Citi. No disclosure as to what kinds of bonds these are. How much was retained? How much in financing obligations exist related to these? What percentage would have had to be retained by Merrill if unsold?

Last I looked at Bear’s filing. Bear was a slight improvement. They actually stated some of what they retained and have some exposure numbers which one could back out some other information from. Still, if I was modeling the losses I would be asking for a lot more information–while an improvement, in my opinion, it wasn’t enough.

Below are the tables from the various filings. Also, if one was looking for C.D.O.’s, I put the number of instances the term of interest appeared.

Now, since the S.E.C. is mandating and revamping filings and disclosure, perhaps they can do something about this. Maybe financial firms should be forced to disclose risk numbers and sensitivities. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one had the answers, nor did they have the specific questions, before this crisis occurred.

From the Citi 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Thirteen (lucky!)

From Merrill’s 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Zero

From Bear’s 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Eight