Posted tagged ‘credit’

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.

Notes and Predictions: The Stress Test

May 6, 2009

As the results of the stress test start leaking out slowly, it’s a fun exercise to make some educated guesses/predictions about what the future holds and take note of pertinent facts. As we’ve discussed before, there is a lot to take issue with when considering the results of the stress test at all, especially given the added layers of uncertainty stemming form the limited information provided in the scenarios. So, without further delay, let’s get started.

1. The baseline scenario will prove wholly inadequate as a “stress test.” Please, follow along with me as I read from the methodology (pdf).  I’ll start with the most egregious and reckless component of the mis-named baseline scenario (I would rename it the, “if payer works” scenario) : what I will refer to as “the dreaded footnote six.” From the document:

As noted above, BHCs [(Bank Holding Companies, or the firms being stress tested)] with trading account assets exceeding $100 billion as of December 31, 2008 were asked to provide projections of trading related losses for the more adverse scenario, including losses from counterparty credit risk exposures, including potential counterparty defaults, and credit valuation adjustments taken against exposures to counterparties whose probability of default would be expected to increase in the adverse scenario.(6)


(6) Under the baseline scenario, BHCs were instructed to assume no further losses beyond current marks.

(Emphasis mine.)

Holy <expletive>! In what alternate/parallel/baby/branching universe is this indicative of anything at all? Assume no further losses beyond current marks? Why not assume everything returns to par? Oh, well, that actually was a pretty valid assumption for the baseline scenario. From the document:

New FASB guidance on fair value measurements and impairments was issued on April 9, 2009, after the commencement of the [stress test].  For the baseline scenario supervisors considered firms’ resubmissions that incorporated the new guidance.

(Emphasis mine.)

Thank goodness! I was worried that the “if prayer works” scenario might have some parts that were worth looking at. Thankfully, for troubled banks, I can skip this entire section. (Confidence: 99.9999%)

2. Trading losses will be significantly understated across all five institutions that will need to report them. First, only institutions with over $100 billion in trading assets were asked to stress their trading positions. Second, from the section on “Trading Portfolio Losses” from the document:

Losses in the trading portfolio were evaluated by applying market stress factors … based on the actual market movements that occurred over the stress horizon (June 30 to December 31, 2008).

(Emphasis mine.)

Okay, well, that seems reasonable, right? Hmmmm… Let’s take a look. Here is what some indicative spread movements for fixed income products looked like January 9th of 2009, according to Markit (who has made it nearly impossible to find historical data for their indices, so I’m resorting to cutting and pasting images directly–all images are from their site):


(Click on the picture for a larger version.)

Well, looks like a big move is taken into account by using this time horizon. Clearly this should provide a reasonable benchmark for the stress test results, right? Well, maybe not.


(Click on the picture for a larger version.)

Yes, that’s right, we’ve undergone, for sub-prime securities a massive widening during 2009 already. Also, as far as I can tell, the tests are being run starting from the December 2008 balance sheet for each company. So, if I’m correct, for the harsher scenario, trading losses will be taken on December 2008 trading positions using December 2008 prices and applying June 2008 to December 2008 market movements. For sub-prime, it seems pretty clear that most securities would be written up (June 2008 Spread: ~200, December 2008 Spread: ~1000, Delta: ~800, Current Spread: ~2600, December 2008 to Today Delta: ~1600, Result: firms would take, from December 2008 levels, half the markdown they have already taken).

Also, it should be a shock to absolutely no one that most trading assets will undergo a lagged version of this same decline. Commercial mortgages and corporate securities rely on how firms actually perform. Consumer-facing firms, as unemployment rises, the economy worsens and consumption declines, and consumers default, will see a lagged deterioration that will appear in corporate defaults and small businesses shuttering–both of these will lead to commercial mortgages souring.  Indeed we’ve seen Moody’s benchmark report on commercial real estate register a massive deterioration in fundamentals. That doesn’t even take into account large, exogenous events in the sector. Likewise, we see consistently dire predictions in corporate credit research reports that only point to rising defaults 2009 and 2010.

In short, for all securities, it seems clear that using data from 2H2008 and applying those movements to December 2008 balance sheets should produce conservative, if not ridiculously understated loss assumptions. (Confidence: 90%)

3. Bank of America will have to go back to the government. This, likely, will be the end of Ken Lewis. It’s not at all clear that Bank of America even understands what’s going on. First, if I’m correctly reading Bank of America’s first quarter earnings information, the firm has around $69 billion in tangible common equity. Also, it should be noted that the FT is reporting that Bank of America has to raise nearly $34 billion.  Now, with all this in mind, let’s trace some totally nonsensical statements that, unlike any other examples in recent memory, were not attributed to anonymous sources (from the NYT article cited above):

The government has told Bank of America it needs $33.9 billion in capital to withstand any worsening of the economic downturn, according to an executive at the bank. […]

But J. Steele Alphin, the bank’s chief administrative officer, said Bank of America would have plenty of options to raise the capital on its own before it would have to convert any of the taxpayer money into common stock. […]

“We’re not happy about it because it’s still a big number,” Mr. Alphin said. “We think it should be a bit less at the end of the day.” […]

Regulators have told the banks that the common shares would bolster their “tangible common equity,” a measure of capital that places greater emphasis on the resources that a bank has at its disposal than the more traditional measure of “Tier 1” capital. […]

Mr. Alphin noted that the $34 billion figure is well below the $45 billion in capital that the government has already allocated to the bank, although he said the bank has plenty of options to raise the capital on its own.

“There are several ways to deal with this,” Mr. Alphin said. “The company is very healthy.”

Bank executives estimate that the company will generate $30 billion a year in income, once a normal environment returns. […]

Mr. Alphin said since the government figure is less than the $45 billion provided to Bank of America, the bank will now start looking at ways of repaying the $11 billion difference over time to the government.

(Emphasis mine.)

Right around the time you read the first bolded statement, you should have started to become dizzy and pass out. When you came to, you saw that the chief administrative officer, who I doubt was supposed to speak on this matter (especially in advance of the actual results), saying that a bank with $69 billion in capital would be refunding $11 billion of the $45 billion  in capital it has already received because they only need $34 billion in capital total. Huh? Nevermind that the Times should have caught this odd discrepancy, but if this is the P.R. face the bank wants to put on, they are screwed.

Now, trying to deal with what little substance there is in the article, along with the FT piece, it seems pretty clear that, if Bank of America needs $34 billion in additional capital, there is no way to get it without converting preferred shares to common shares. There is mention of raising $8 billion from a sale of a stake in the China Construction Bank (why are they selling things if they are net positive $11 billion, I don’t know). That leaves $26 billion. Well, I’m glad that “once a normal environment returns” Bank of America can generate $30 billion in income (Does all of that fall to T.C.E.? I doubt it, but I have no idea). However, over the past four quarters, Bank of America has added just $17 billion in capital… I will remind everyone that this timeframe spans both T.A.R.P. and an additional $45 billion in capital being injected into the flailing bank. Also, who is going to buy into a Bank of America equity offering now? Especially $26 billion of equity! If a troubled bank can raise this amount of equity in the current environment, then the credit crisis is over! Rejoice!

I just don’t see how Bank of America can fill this hole and not get the government to “bail it out” with a conversion. The fact that Bank of America argued the results of the test, frankly, bolsters this point of view. Further, this has been talked about as an event that requires a management change, hence my comment on Lewis.  (Confidence: 80% that the government has to convert to get Bank of America to “well capitalized” status)

Notes/Odds and Ends:

1. I have no idea what happened with the NY Times story about the results of the “Stress Test.” The WSJ and FT are on the same page, but there could be something subtle that I’m misunderstanding or not picking up correctly. Absent this, my comments stand. (Also, if might have been mean.unfair of me to pick on the content of that article.)

2. The next phases of the credit crisis are likely to stress bank balance sheets a lot more. The average bank doesn’t have huge trading books. However, they do have consumer-facing loan and credit products in addition to corporate loans and real estate exposure. In the coming months, we’ll see an increase in credit card delinquencies. Following that, we’ll see more consumer defaults and corporations’ bottom line being hurt from the declining fundamentals of the consumer balance sheet. This will cause corporate defaults. Corporate defaults and consumer defaults will cause commercial real estate to decline as well. The chain of events is just beginning. Which leads me to…

3. Banks will be stuck, unable to lend, for a long time. I owe John Hempton for this insight. In short, originations require capital. Capital, as we see, is in short supply and needed to cover losses for the foreseeable future. Hence, with a huge pipeline of losses developing and banks already in need of capital, there is likely not going to be any other lending going on for a while. This means banks’ ability to generate more revenue/earnings is going to be severely handicapped as sour loans make up a larger and larger percentage of their portfolios.

4. From what I’ve read, it seems that the actual Citi number, for capital to be raised, is between $6 billion and $10 billion. This puts their capital needs at $15 billion to $19 billion, since they are selling assets to raise around $9 billion, which is counted when considering the amount of capital that needs to be raised (according to various news stories). Interestingly, this is 44% to 55% of Bank of America’s needed capital. This paints a very different picture of the relative health of these two firms than the “common wisdom” does. Granted, this includes a partial conversion of Citi’s preferred equity to common equity.

5. I see a huge correlation between under-performing portfolios and a bank trying to negotiate it’s required capital lower by “appealing” the stress test’s assessment of likely losses in both the baseline and adverse scenarios. As I’ve talked about before, not all portfolio performance is created equal. Citi has seen an increasing (and accelerating) trend in delinquencies while JP Morgan has seen it’s portfolio stabilize. So, for the less-healthy banks to argue their losses are overstated by regulators, they are doubly wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out–for example, if JP Morgan’s credit card portfolio assumes better or worse performance than Citi and Bank of America.

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.

Rick Santelli is a Lesson for our Children

February 21, 2009

So, by now you’ve heard of the rant of some guy I’d never heard of before (not to be confused with Barron’s Michael Santoli). Does anyone else find it amusing that Mr. Santelli was ranting on the floor of an “open outcry” trading pit? That’s right, he was ranting about wasteful spending to help homeowners while standing on a monument to the past of finance and inefficient execution.

Mr. Santelli, while I completely accept the fact that you are most likely compensated based on how many viewers you reel in and your entertainment value, and certainly not based on the quality of your journalism (this is CNBC after all, the house of Cramer), analysis, or even grasp of reality, you should still, every now and again, try reading something. From the details of the plan one could learn some simple things:

1. The plan is available only to those people whose mortgages are owned by Fannie or Freddie or those whose mortgages were backed by Fannie and Freddie and put into securities by them. Fannie and Freddie have strict limits on whose mortgages can go into those pools. They have to have high FICO scores, relatively low LTVs, and there is a maximum size allowed. Please note that this restriction, in and of itself, totally disqualifies sub-prime mortgage loans. Let me repeat: sub-prime mortgages and agency-backed mortgages are a totally disjoint set of mortgage loans–there is no overlap.

2. The program does not reduce principal owed. So, in essence, there is no forgiveness of debt, but only a reduction in interest rates and, perhaps, an extending of the term of the loan to reduce monthly payments. People still owe the same amount as before. Sounds like a welfare state to me…

3. The program doesn’t allow refinancing of second homes or investment properties. So all the speculators that own 3 houses on that were supposed to be flipped cannot refinance any mortgages except for the single first mortgage on the house they currently reside in.

4. Second mortgages aren’t covered under the plan. All the people who took out HELOCs to borrow money to buy stocks aren’t going to be bailed out either.

5. There is about $75 billion being used to help stabilize the multi-trillion dollar mortgage market. This number alone implied that there is some selection process to weed out unworthy people from being given government funds.

Look, I want the economy to improve as much as the next guy, but I think swelling the unemployment rolls by one idiotic reporter might be the kind of change I can believe in. Oh, and let’s finally close down the value-destroying open-outcry trading pits. Maybe removing that friction in our economy can help us save a few dollars.

I was going to stop here, but I’ll be honest… the complete and total stupidity of Santelli and those knuckle dragging dinosaurs who still use hand motions to make money, add trnsaction costs, and keep the computers at bay (not all of them, but most of them, I’m sure) on the floor of the C.M.E. are the reason middle America hates everyone in finance. Further, it’s the reason we need a bailout. How often did I hear “not my problem” or “because that’s where the market is” or any number of other, totally tone-deaf incantations from the mouths of people making seven-digit bonuses? Often. And, to be honest, do we have even single piece of tape with Mr. Santelli yelling about taxpayers paying for Citi? Bank of America? How about AIG? No? Well, we gave Merrill Lynch $15 billion and around $4 billion of that was immediately blown through to mint 696 seven-digit bonuses.

At least I can take comfort in knowing that Mr. Santelli will be forgotten in 100 years and that his rant likely has no lasting impact on our society–it showcases the worst, most base and uninformed stupididty. Children, pay attention in school or you’ll wind up working on the CME trading floor for CNBC.

Blunt Regulatory Instrument

February 20, 2009

Clusterstock decides to bludgeon the whole thought of regulators beginning intensive reviews of banks. Although they don’t do it themselves–the post essentially highlights a quotation from Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. The post there (at NC) makes this statement:

In the early 1990s, when Citi almost went under, it had 160 bank examiners working SOLELY on its commercial real estate portfolio (Citi has a lot of junior debt against buildings that turned out to be see-throughs).

I would welcome reader input … but it is pretty clear 100 people and a few weeks (or even a few months) is grossly inadequate for a bank the size and complexity of a Citigroup. Citi has operations in over 100 countries. All 100 examiners can do is make queries along narrow lines, and work with the data presented. This scale of operation won’t allow for any verification or recasting of data. There isn’t remotely enough manpower.

And do you think these examiners are in any position to assess the risks of CDS, CDOs, swaps, foreign exchange exposures, Treasury operations, prime brokerage, to name just a few? I cant imagine US bank examiners have much competence in FX risk (Citi trades in a lot of exotic currencies, too), and that’s one of the easier to assess on the list above.

(Emphasis mine.)

Now, let’s be honest, this seems like a pretty simple claim to make: there’s so much going on, how can 100 people really analyze a complex institution? Well, I’ve never heard of a “proof by question” so I’ll assume there’s some sort of reason behind this claim. I also wonder what people who make this claim think of management’s ability to understand and analyze the positions of the firm. Surely there are many fewer than 100 members of senior management who make decisions affecting the entire firm. Can these people actually understand the ship they are steering? Here, I think we can make a stronger, more substantiated claim: history supports the answer of “no.” When Chuck Prince, Stan O’Neil, Dick Fuld, Ken Lewis, and Jimmy Cayne would get on earnings calls and talk to analysts about their comapnies’ workings and risk exposures, we all learned they didn’t know what they were talking about. The predictions turned out to be wrong–they had exposures they didn’t know about and did an extremely poor job of disclosing. So, having 100 people, less focused on all the fluff (P.R., dealing with analysts, managing egos, staff turnover, the decor of the firm, meeting with clients, etc.) can only give an improved understanding of the firms.

It’s important to make some further distinctions. First, the bank regulators have no purview over the investment bank, at all. As a matter of fact, banks go through a lot of trouble to ensure that there is no cross-pollution between these sorts of entities for exactly this reason, they don’t want investment banks to be regulated according to bank rules and regulations. Anyone who has ever heard the term “bank chain vehicle” or “broker dealer entity” knows what I’m talking about. Nothing in the article indicates that bank regulators will be going into broker dealers and breaking them down beyond, possibly, what has already been ringfenced and moved to the bank chain. Further evidence in support of this is when a regulator in the article specifically refers to “Tier 1 capital,” which is purely a bank metric. I’ll re-assert my belief that larger banks that have received aid due to issues in their broker dealer (Citi and BofA) will most likely have their troubled assets subject to the same scrutiny JP Morgan’s banking operations or a large bank like Fifth Third Bank will endure.

Let’s also not forget that bank regulators have a very different relationship with the institutions under their purview than securities and investment banking regulators. For example, the OCC and other bank regulators actually have personnel that are housed within the institutions. Securities regulators, by contrast, get reports and speak with compliance people and lawyers at investment banks. Personnel at investment banks are actively discouraged from speaking with S.E.C. staffers, for example, without being chaperoned by other people and without being pre-briefed. While I doubt this is how things continue to operate, it shows a huge difference in what sort of head start these regulators likely have in understanding these banks already.

One also needs to consider the advances in technology (since the 1990’s, referenced above) and the fact that government staffers have poured over the books of these firms several times now. Given all this information, it seems that someone needs a better argument than “It’s clearly very hard!” to show that this new regulatory scrutiny can’t get a handle on the problem, let alone that regulators aren’t able to make better decisions with the information they will gain.

Commercial Developers: Not a Credible Threat

January 9, 2009

Ok, I’ve been tardy in posting. I’m very sorry about that, lot’s of things are going on. This post is, obviously, a bit delayed, but I think it’s important that people realize why this is amongst the dumbest ideas ever and will demonstrate how one can try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.

On December 22nd I was startled to see a WSJ news alert title “Developers Ask U.S. for Bailout as Massive Debt Looms” in my email. This is potentially the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of.  There are a few reasons I believe this. First, though we’ll need to know a few things about commercial properties and how they are financed…

1. Unlike residential mortgages, there are multiple metrics for value and credit worthiness of a commercial property. Residential properties can be looked at with a few paramters in mind, but there is a certain amount of behavioral science that undergirds mortgage models. For residential mortgages, one mainly considers FICO score and LTV (ratio of loan amount to value). However, these are not created equal: FICO is used to ascertain probability of default and LTV is used to figure out loss severity with a binary “under water or not” input into default probability as well. The intuition here is that how much one expects to lose is the probability you lose anything at all times the severity (percentage of loan value) of that loss. We can debate if the world is this simple (it isn’t, I’ll win that one), but that’s how one analyzes individual mortgages in the context of a pool. Note what is NOT in there, the actual rate of interest or income of the borrower (theoretically contributes to FICO, but FICO is largely a black box).

Commercial mortgages, on the other hand, are sized to two parameters: LTV and DSCR. DSCR is the Debt Service Coverage Ratio and is net cash flow (NCF) from the property divided by the monthly interest payment, and has traditionally been constrained to 1.20x as the minimum acceptable ratio. Further, the cashflow is the result of a detailed underwriting process where every line item (most important being rent, obviously) is analyzed and researched to find the correct assumptions. Values, unlike residential properties which are dollars per square foot, are determined by capitalization rates or cap rates for commercial properties. The cap rate is the NCF divided by the value of the property. So, if a property that generates $10 million “trades” at a 10% cap rate (which is ridiculously high, bubble cap rates were around 4% and normal cap rates are around5-7% for regular properties), it would “trade” at $100 million (trades being used to denote the theoretic level it could be bought or sold).

What we see here is that there are three elements of analyzing a loan here: the actual cashflow the property generates is scrutinized, the ability to service debt from that cash flow constrains the size of the loan, and the valuation of properties constrains the size of the loan along a different, but not unrelated, dimension.

2. The riskiest properties in the commercial mortgage market are structured as much shorter-term loans. If you are a developer and you aren’t refinancing a mortgage on a cashflowing property, you don’t get a 10-year fixed-rate loan. You get a two-year loan whose interest rate floats (although there is a cap purchased, so the property or developer has a maximum payment) and is extendable if you meet certain conditions and pay certain fees. These sorts of loans are made on newly-constructed complexes with no current cashflow, properties undergoing a severe renovation or being repositioned in such a way as to introduce a lot of uncertainty (adding floors, changing building type, etc.), and other risky properties.

Less risky properties get 10-year fixed rate loans, but they aren’t 10-year amortizing loans, they are 30-year amortizing loans that come due in 10 years. This is called a 10-year balloon payment. This means that in ten years the average commercial property will only have paid back 20% of their loan when the remaining 80% comes due. Clearly this is a regime meant to discourage unlevered ownership.

3. For very large loans, in addition to floating rate loans, commercial properties have low leverage mortgages and the additional debt comes in the form of mezzanine debt. Why is this important? Well, mezzanine debt, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is debt against equity–the owner puts up his/her ownership stake as the collateral of the debt. So, if one fails to make a payment on the mezzanine debt, the mezzanine debt holder can take the property. Note, however, this is unlike a bank foreclosing on your house–the mortgage in this scenario is above the mezzanine debt and is undisturbed by the default of the mezzanine debt. The mortgage holder is still owed money, but from whom the checks are coming is irrelevant to the mortgage holder. This structure exists for a number of reasons, including tax and accounting reasons, but one reason it is to often used is that mezzanine debt makes it much easier to transfer the property’s ownership versus having one large mortgage.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, though, that this complexity allows investment banks to get deep into the process of lending and distributing debt. The buyers of the lowest pieces of mezzanine debt are completely different than the buyers of the AAA bonds backed by the senior mortgages (yes, the mortgages are securitized, but mezzanine debt cannot be–for boring details on this to look into REMIC rules and other minutia).  The natural buyers of the lowest pieces of mezzanine debt are firms that, in the event of default, can own the property and operate it well. This is an important fact. Some buyers of commercial mortgage debt will refuse to purchase debt on a property, especially large or complex properties, if a smart firm with a good track record of operating properties isn’t in the first in line to take over the property in the event of a default (called the first-loss debt position).

Now, let’s explore what actually happened over the past few years. 2006 was the year underwriting standards totally died. Highly levered transactions became the norm, case-in-point is the EOP transaction. This was financed with floating rate debt and was very highly levered–EOP’s portfolio was yielding about 4% to 5% on the purchase price (although, this was on the final purchase price which was settled on in 2007, but the underwriting and debt commitments were all negotiated in 2006). Here’s another dirty secret about Blackstone’s buyout of EOP: the rating agencies, to rate debt, have to do their own underwriting of the properties and come up with their own, conservative, cashflow. Most, if not all, of the underwriting the rating agencies used was directly from Blackstone. This was not uncommon when the rating agencies were involved in a transaction with a large client who had a good brand name. EOP is merely illustrative of a top-of-the-market deal. Although, there are other huge examples.

Benchmark underwriting standards went from a 1.20x DSCR to 1.15x or 1.10x, although LTV’s stayed at 80% (although valuations were sky-rocketing).  A huge percentage of loans were interest-only, so the balloon payment went from 80% of the loan to 100% of the loan. Think about that… A borrower is constrained by their ability to make payments on the debt, but they are only constrained to 1.10x their debt payments, which don’t include amortization payments, and the constraint is based on your expected future cashflows (which, obviously, assume rent growth!), not your current cashflows. Starting to get the picture? Properties became over-levered in the instance where any problems developed.Who pushed for this? Developers and property owners. As a matter of fact, the push to grow market share and revenue meant that banks needed to lend more so they could sell more debt and securitize more. 2006, for these reasons was the peak of lending on commercial properties. Between 2005 and 2006, I would estimate, 40-50% of all the currently outstanding commercial mortgage debt was originated (the chart in the WSJ article bears this out).

2007 was the year that problems began to occur. Spreads blew out to record levels (at the time, those records are being smashed all the time). Within six months of relaxed standards being instituted, they were rolled back. It was also during this year that supply of debt, including the unsold inventory referred to as hung debt, far outstripped demand. Because of the large percentage of “fast money,” or hedge funds, in the real estate debt markets (see #7 in that post), when spreads moved against them the largest players took huge losses and shut down (“blew up”). Also, CDO’s were a huge consumer of this sort of debt, and the non-corporate CDO market stopped completely in 2007. Seeing the headwinds for reduced demand? So, in essence, the marginal buyers of debt who could live with relaxed underwriting standards, because they needed to get enough debt to issue a CDO or invest their new $1,000,000,000 they raised, disappeared.

2008 was, in essence, more of the same. The same pressures and lack of demand persisted and debt prices continued to sink. Also, more buyers of debt left the market or shutdown, compounding the problems.

So, now, we can examine the request for bailout funds by developers. In the next three years, there is, according to the article, citing some firm I never heard of, $530 billion coming due ($160 billion in the next year). Well, I can count, so let’s count backwards. The vast, vast majority of mortgages are 10 year mortgages with a balloon payment, so those loans made in 1998 with this structure will be coming due. Rents are up significantly since then (page 23), perhaps 40%. Cap rates have also compressed significantly. Taken together, these two facts mean that someone with a stable property, who got a mortgage in 1998, is coming due  this year and has 40% more cash coming in from the property and can lever that cashflow much more now. I think those people will be fine refinancing. Ditto for all normal loans coming due in the two years after that.

What’s left? Well, all the risky, shorter term loans. These are 2 year loans that can be extended by one year up to a total term of five years, traditionally. In my estimation 95% of the floating rate loans I’ve seen conform to this structure.  Well, two years ago means originated in late 2006 or early 2007. Three years ago is 2006 or 2005 (very top of the market). You see the pattern. These loans are the riskiest projects, undertaken at the top of the market. These loans were made with aggressive assumptions underlying their underwritten cashflows, top-tick valuations, and higher levels of allowable leverage than at any other time in recent memory (certainly in the time this market has been considered mature). Seems like I just made the case for the developers, no? Absolutely not. Common sense tells us that these risky loans aren’t the normal apartment buildings, malls, retail space, and industrial space–those are the 10-year loans we talked about. These risky loans are for acquisition and re-positioning of hotels, construction projects resulting in marginal increases in commercial space, and highly levered purchases of portfolios of properties. Not exactly the sort of properties that are the backbone of our economy.

Even worse for developers is the fact we discussed above: short term loans are designed to transfer owners. Defaulting on a highly levered property usually means the property owner becomes someone as good, if not better, at running that same property type. No one will come to their office to see the front door padlocked and the bank selling the building for the majority of these loans. Oh, and the majority of those 40-50% of loans I estimated were made in 2005 and 2006, based on frothy valuations and underwriting, will be coming due in 2015 and 2016–those numbers, then, can’t be in the numbers presented by developers.

The conclusion? Devleopers are using big numbers to scare people into putting money up to backstop the riskiest of their highly-levered projects. As a matter of fact, there was quote in the WSJ article.

“The credit crisis has got so bad that refinancing of even good loans may be drying up,” says Richard Parkus, head of commercial-mortgage-backed securities research at Deutsche Bank.

(Emphasis mine.)

HA! “Even good loans” … The unread part of that is, “Not just bad loans, but…”

Further, this just can’t be true at all:

There’s widespread agreement that a record volume of commercial real-estate loans made during the boom years are starting to come due. According to Foresight Analytics, the $530 billion of commercial mortgages that will be maturing between now and 2011 includes loans held by banks, thrifts and insurance companies as well as loans packaged and sold as commercial-mortgage-backed securities — or CMBS.

(Emphasis mine.)

Unless we are defining “boom years” as 1998 to 2001, this isn’t just suspect it’s patently false. No significant amount of loans turned into CMBS is coming due between now and 2011. At least the WSJ is consistent…

Unlike home loans, which borrowers repay after a set period of time, commercial mortgages usually are underwritten for five, seven or 10 years with big payments due at the end. At that point, they typically need to be refinanced.


At the heart of the financing scarcity is the virtual shutdown of the market for CMBS, where Wall Street firms sliced and diced commercial mortgages into bonds. During the recent real-estate boom that took off in 2005 and lasted through early 2007, that market fueled the lending to real estate because banks could sell easily the loans they made.

(Emphasis mine.)

Wow! Five, seven, and ten year loans, made between 2005 and early 2007 are coming due between now and 2011! The disproving of these are left as a simple exercise for the reader.

Look, as a reader of Dear John Thain, you know that I’m not always right. I’m probably missing something. Let’s see what else the WSJ has to say:

What’s not clear is how soon the crunch will come. The Real Estate Roundtable, a major industry trade group, predicts that more than $400 billion of commercial mortgages will come due through the end of 2009. Foresight Analytics estimates that $160 billion of commercial mortgages will mature next year.

Jeff DeBoer, president and chief executive officer of the Roundtable, says the group came up with its estimate by looking at the $3.4 trillion of commercial real-estate loans outstanding. It’s not unusual for roughly 10% of the industry’s debt to roll over every year, he says, referring to refinancings.

This year, some $141 billion worth of commercial real-estate debt owed by property owners and developers to lenders came due, according to Foresight Analytics. Most of that was refinanced or extended by existing lenders. The lion’s share of those loans was made between five and 10 years ago. Despite the recent decline in property values, the underlying buildings were still worth well more than their mortgages and were generating sufficient cash to pay debt service.

(Emphasis mine.)

Well, I guess not. So, the larger number is a guess based on the “take a large number and multiply it by 10%” rule. The smaller number is similar to what was experienced in 2008, where most of the debt was refinanced or extended by lenders. Further, those properties that make up the “lion’s share” were worth much more than their mortgages and generating sufficient cash to pay their debt service. Oh, and they were originated between 5 and 10 years ago, as I conjectured above. Seems like there is no justification, whatsoever, for spending a dollar on “bailing out” commercial mortgage developers. (I really want to put a Q.E.D. here…).

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.