Posted tagged ‘equity’

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):

yearendgraph

(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.

currentgraph

(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.

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Citi’s Earnings: Even Cittier Than You Think

April 20, 2009

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

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

Revenues from 1Q09 Earnings Reports

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

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

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

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

credittrendsconsumertrendsmortgagetrends

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

jpmsubprimetrendshomeequitytrendjpmprimemortgagetrend

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

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

cva-graphic

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

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

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

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

CVA Methodology

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

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

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

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

cvatable

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

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

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

TARP Performance: Way Too Early to Judge

January 18, 2009

Felix has a post focused on some of the numbers in the CBO report on TARP. Specifically, it looks at subsidy rates (amount lost from various “bailouts” due to mark-to-market as a percentage of the original investment). First, I’ll note my strong objections to using mark-to-market at any given point in time as a true measure of what something has “cost” taxpayers. One issue that permeates this crisis is the government officials managing their response to (and this is borrowed from somewhere, but I simply cannot remember from where or find it) have something released before the asian markets open. Mark to market, however, is definitely the easiest to measure, hence the use of it. Things like economic activity, bank lending, credit rates for banks, etc. should be used as measures of TARP effectiveness.

Now, let’s move on to my other point–this is like calling the winner in the first few minutes of a game. Any analysis of the effectiveness of the bailouts is likely to be a bit skewed since what would have happened without them isn’t truly known. But drawing any conclusion on a five year investment less than three months after it was made is especially premature. The probability of taxpayers’  investments seeing an actual loss is, actually, quite low in my estimation. Why? These institutions were bailed out already, and that is, in some sense, an endorsement of not letting them fail in the near future. Be dismantled? Perhaps. Be sold? Possibly. But die, like Lehman did? Certainly not. In fact, if Bank of America and Citi prove anything, it’s that politicians are more likely to buy back into the game than face the taxpayers and explain how they lost tens of billions of dollars backing the wrong horse. Don’t get me wrong, I think there significant holes in the strategy for TARP.

This situation, of course, defines moral hazard when the current management is allowed to stay. Citi management can go around doing whatever they want to fix Citi, if they fail we pay. If they win, they look good. Same for Bank of America… Ken Lewis decides to acquire Merrill in a shotgun wedding and then plays chicken to get a subsidy. Did they lower the price of the Merrill acquisition? No. As a matter of fact, the government didn’t just have a right to put their boot on the professional throat of Ken Lewis, but they had a responsibility to–Mr. Lewis actually showed an active interest in leveraging the financial crisis and government strategy. But, I digress.

The point is we won’t know how our investments perform for quite some time, and if the strategy the government employs remains constant then taxpayers are unlikely to lose a dime. So, you won’t find me with a real-time accounting of the TARP investments in Bloomberg anytime soon.

More Bear! (Part One)

May 28, 2008

Well, today begins the three part story of Bear Stearns, as told by the WSJ. Deal Journal has a great summary post … A few thoughts:

1. It struck me that Bear wasn’t able to see the forst through the trees when it came to it’s strategy, specifically demonstrated with the “Chaos” trade. When one thinks about how these sorts of things can play out, especially in unprecedented times, how the decision to unwind these trades came about makes perfect sense. Someone puts on a unique trade and management asks them to justify it. Well, there’s a slide with four or five bullet points explaining why this trade should work (mostly qualitative/anecdotal). Also, there there’s a chart presented that shows a pretty bad history for the trade if it had been put on in the past. Indeed we can examine Mr. Schwartz’s history with the trade to see this:

For some of the assets, the market was frozen, Mr. Schwartz reasoned, so selling was out of the question. On others, he had mixed feelings. He didn’t want to unload tens of billions of dollars worth of valuable mortgages and related bonds at distressed prices, creating steeper losses.

The [hedge, called “the Chaos trade”] was a deeply pessimistic bet — essentially a method for making money if the mortgage and financial markets cratered. The traders bet that the ABX, a family of indexes made up of securities backed by subprime mortgages, would fall. They made similar moves on indexes tracking securities backed by commercial mortgages. Finally, they placed a series of bets that the stocks of major financial companies with exposure to mortgages … would decrease in value as well.

Faced with the fierce divide among his top executives, Mr. Schwartz, who was generally supportive of the chaos trade, decided to abandon it. He wanted specific pessimistic plays that would offset specific optimistic bets, rather than the broader hedges Mr. Marano had employed. Frustrated, Mr. Marano ordered the trades undone.

(emphasis mine).

Now, everything until the last part follows naturally. The last part (matching your hedges to your positions one-to-one) is fine, until you realize that it’s impossible to do this in a liquidity-challenged market. Also, with a massive re-pricing of risk, due to liquidity constraints, one should take a broader view. The CDO market drove demand in securitized products generally and mortgages specifically. Inventories in loans and bonds were sitting on firm’s balance sheets while credit concerns were coming to fruition. So, firms can’t sell risky products, which are losing value from a fundamental re-pricing, and, also, the lack of buying (overall liquidity) is causing a further, more broad technical re-pricing. That is the subtle point from above–why bet on “financial markets cratering” if you own mortgages and call that a hedge? Well, given the widespread ownership of these products, their credit impairment caused widespread credit concerns. With credit worthiness in doubt, liquidity became scarce. Scarce liquidity means less available money to buy these products, and leads to a technical problem with markets and drives prices lower (lower demand … easy, right?). Clearly this requires a deeper understanding of how interconnected markets are and exactly how they work together–potentially a leap of faith or a layer of complexity a firm wasn’t willing to bet on.

There was, however, evidence markets were behaving this way. Spread product was moving in lock step (directionally). LCDX (index of loans, generally made to high yield companies) was moving wider, corporate bonds had a secular widening, and mortgage product was impossible to trade, commanding a larger and larger liquidity premium… Also, LIBOR was rising and banks were finding it harder and harder to borrow. But, instead of using relatively liquid indices and stocks to bet on these “second order” effects, Mr. Schwartz started asking for specific bets that offset highly illiquid positions. Good luck. To ask for relevant hedges is logical, follows from first principles, seems safer, and wasn’t executable–easy for risk managers and executives to demand and impossible to do, leaving the problems unsolved. Keep in mind, too, that the stock market hedges could easily be unwound in the event they failed to be correlated to the loans they were hedging. Would the “specific” hedges that would, themselves, be highly illiquid? No chance. CMBX and ABX have been known to trade in markets that are 5-10 points, or percentage of notional value, and that’s for small size (5-10 million dollars). To hedge the size here … well, I can’t imagine the costs.

Just to review: They had toxic positions, hedged them, and then removed the hedges, but (from what I can tell) didn’t sell the positions (while trying to one-to-one hedge the). There’s something to be said for taking the hit you know about today instead of trying to call a bottom.

2. Regulators were having calls, as regular as daily, with Bear. From the article:

Bear Stearns’s … risk officers were meeting in the sixth-floor executive offices with staffers from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The regulators had traveled from Washington to make sure Bear Stearns had access to the day-to-day loans it needed to fund its trading operation. After scrutinizing the firm’s $400 billion balance sheet well into the afternoon, the regulators agreed to reconvene with Bear Stearns managers for daily briefings until the market crisis passed.

Now, uness Bear is different from ever other financial institution, when it’s regulators come knocking it’s unusual–everyone walks more straight and takes much more care when dealing with them. The reason is simple: there’s nothing to be gained when a regulator is pleased, the best thing that can come from making regulators happy is avoiding the situation where said regulators are unhappy and consequences arise. I wonder if, ever, in the history of Bear, regulators called in to check on their situation daily. This should have been a major warning sign and left employees involved extremely uncomfortable as it was going on.

3. Many sophisticated investors walked away from a deal with Bear.

  • KKR walked away, and we never learn what their concerns were (Bear was focused on not crossing clients)
  • Allianz SE’s Pacific Investment Management Co. (PIMCO) had discussions with Bear that “fell apart”
  • Fortress discussed a merger with Bear (sounds similar to what I wrote about recently) that never went anywhere

Now, J.C. Flowers walked away because both sides had issues, so I don’t count them. Similarly, I don’t count the hiring of Lazard, and that effort failing to bearing fruit. I’m not sure why each of these potential transactions fizzled, but certainly it seems like a pattern that one can read into.

4. Two institutions with a major financial stake in Bear’s viability expressed concerns. One of these, PIMCO, unless I’m missing something glaring, had been in talks to acquire a stake in Bear and declined (second bullet point above). Maybe they knew something the rest of us didn’t, from their earlier talks and whatever due diligence they had performed? It would make sense, but would probably also be illegal. More likely? PIMCO was focused on Bear and extrapolated to the current market conditions. Perhaps, also, some unease exuded from the senior PIMCO ranks…

On a side note, what’s with the illustrations? Maybe this is going to be a chapter or section of a book? It reads that way almost… Newscorp swooping in to add a fresh (and awkward) feel to the WSJ? It was distracting to say the least. Of course Dealbreaker goes (almost scarily) deeper with this observation (as is their charge), and they have some amusing thoughts.

I can’t wait for part two!

Dear John Thain: Think Outside the Box with T.P.G.

May 26, 2008

Dear John Thain,

I am intrigued to see you talking to T.P.G., although the media seems to only care about discussing capital infusions from the P.E. firm and hedge fund manager. With the recent Clear Channel conflict reverberating throughout the financial system it’s never been more clear the friction points that exist between investment banks and the other firms with which they interact. Building a collaborative relationship with a large private equity firm will give Merrill the ability to innovate their business model and profit where other banks are trying to mitigate losses. Would T.P.G. be in a better position with Merrill seeding their funds? Absolutely. Would Merrill have a better franchise if they were assured to be retained as an adviser for all/most of T.P.G.’s acquisitions (and likewise for portfolio companies)? Absolutely. Would financing large deals be easier if both sides (lender and borrower) have a stake in the transaction being completed and the total P&L of the deal (debt and equity)? Absolutely.

The best part is the model already exists and been proven out: Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs Capital Partners is one of the top fee payers amongst private equity funds, showing a clear benefit to Goldman’s advisory business. Goldman has been able to be aggressive in moving loans throughout the recent credit market turmoil–having a large P.E. operation, the fee income from their equity investments provides a positive balance to the negative marks for loans. In good times Goldman’s private equity arm generated profitable loans for itself and other banks (wow, how far those days seem) and added to their total income associated with a transaction. Clearly this dynamic is superior to the situation the Clear Channel financing consortium found themselves in, suing the financial sponsors because the sponsors are making money and the banks aren’t.

Merrill would also have an extremely valuable asset in the T.P.G. brand, proven fund raising ability, and long track record–a benefit that other investment banks have pursued but not had much success in achieving, Goldman being the closest to an exception (or perhaps Morgan Stanley in the form of M.S.R.E.F.). Clearly these considerations are extremely similar to the considerations that drove Merrill’s decision to invest in a top brand in money management (Blackrock). Oh, and let’s not forget the alternative asset management platform Merrill will gain access to with T.P.G.-Axon.

So, Mr. Thain, what is my proposal? Well, I’m hardly an expert on structuring these sorts of transactions, but some specific points worth exploring come to mind:

  • Merrill should take an equity stake in T.P.G. to align it’s interests with the performance of T.P.G.’s funds.
  • Merrill and T.P.G. could form a J.V. where Merrill’s leveraged loan business would, partially or in its entirety, reside. This unit would be responsible for financing buyouts and servicing T.P.G.’s needs. Leveraged finance professionals, leveraged loan trading, and distribution of loans would occur in this unit.
  • Merrill and either T.P.G.-Axon or T.P.G. itself (or both) could create an actively managed debt fund to opportunistically purchase corporate loans, real estate loans, etc. Merrill would provide some amount of leverage with T.P.G. using it’s deep relationships to acquire the rest. Some Merrill loans in inventory would seed this venture.
  • Merrill would become an adviser to the various T.P.G. funds. I’m not sure if it’s permissible to “lock up” future advisory business, but certainly there would need to be an understanding for a strong preference for Merrill to be included on all advisory work.
  • Merrill’s current private equity business, where allowed and not in violation of any agreement (O.M. terms, perhaps), would sell it’s private equity business to T.P.G.
  • Merrill and T.P.G. could institute a program for high net worth brokerage/private wealth clients to invest in T.P.G. funds.

Those are just some of the points that could lead to a productive and profitable relationship. This would turn other firms’ weaknesses and conflicts into an opportunity for Merrill. There are, obviously, tons of places where such an arrangement could break down (valuation of businesses, legal constraints, logistical issues, compliance and conflicts, etc.) but innovating the business model of Wall St. is going to set the stage for the next boom, in much the same way firms have failed this time around by, for example, relying on the same distribution-centric business models for new, unproven products. Just a thought.

Sincerely,

DearJohnThain

Debt? Equity? Let’s Not be Nitpicky … Invested Capital!

April 14, 2008

Here’s an interesting trend: lots of investment banks and buyout firms buying debt from their own and others’ acquisitions (and, obviously, the most recent headline, something that sounds familiar). With recent developments it seems like some roadblocks have been removed to actually getting banks to sell these loans. However, one has to wonder what kinds of issues this will raise down the road… If, for example, Chrysler, TXU, or First data run into problems, how will things be different with the financial sponsor (P.E. firms) in the debt? (Although, for P.E. firms and investment banks that invest through funds that raise third party money, it’s obviously a requirement to have information barriers in place to prevent conflicts and all kinds of other illegal and improper behavior.)

Well, how about some current events to help answer the question? As one could read here Apollo’s portfolio company, Linens ‘n Things, is expected to file for protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code.  From the New York Post (as much as it pains me use this publication as a source…):

Apollo Management, which took the retailer private in 2005 for $1.3 billion, is weighing the idea of a potential “prepackaged” bankruptcy, sources said.

In such a plan, Apollo and creditors would settle on a restructuring plan before a Chapter 11 filing is made.

The speculation comes as the cash-strapped chain faces a clampdown on its $700 million revolving line of credit from GE Capital, sources said. While GE hasn’t cut off the flow altogether, sources said payments to vendors that supply sheets, towels, curtains and kitchenware have become more selective.

That, in turn, has prompted several of the largest suppliers to stop shipping merchandise during the past few weeks, sources said.

About half of the largest 25 vendors have halted deliveries because of late or insufficient payments, according to one source familiar with the matter.

(emphasis mine)

Now, this an interesting situation. Imagine “and creditors” reads “and Apollo’s debt fund” (or some other P.E. fund’s debt fund) or “and the institutions that depend on Apollo for fee revenue” (investment banks) … I wonder how things would be different. Anyone who works in finance, at some point, has seen a customer or other client of the firm go high up the food chain to make a “relationship call.” Certainly there are examples of very public outcomes that are both positive and negative for many “relationships.” But, honestly, isn’t a “top of the house” decision, when supportable, going to be in the favor of the house, versus the part of the house that has the upper hand in negotiating? The part about, “when supportable” is key, obviously. Why would Leon Black’s creditors accept his plan? As a matter of fact, if the company is going to default, then why would he even come out with a plan? Most likely because his plan doesn’t wipe out the equity holders. And why accept said plan? Because it’s probably unclear what the company is worth if it defaults (to the creditors). And, to be honest, can’t one almost always find a reason to go with a decision supported by numbers and projections instead of a protracted legal battle?

It’s instructive, also, to look at the entire process. P.E. firms were purchasing companies and financing those purchases with cheap debt that banks committed to providing. Some of these transactions, however, took over a year to close, like Harrah’s, for example. Now, with the credit crisis having gotten into full swing, the P.E. firms are relying on these below market debt commitments to generate their returns. Having seen this process from the inside, this isn’t really the intention. Have we seen any lowered purchase prices? Not really. Have we seen M.A.E. clauses engaged? Certainly a few, but mainly focused on business conditions and operating results (at least as reported and stated publicly), not related to financing. So what does this mean when a company is bought using debt, funded at 100 cents on the dollar, that is trading at 80 cents on the dollar? Twenty percent of th debt value is a wealth transfer from the financing institutions’ shareholders. Now, in ties of market turmoil, this kind of thing happens, but it’s certainly odd that some P.E. funds can wind up owning the entire capital structure (in different pockets or capital pools, most likely) of a company at a cost basis less than the purchase price. If a firm owns 100% of a company and paid greater than ten percent less than the buyout price that just sounds amiss soehow…

Now, also, think about this: If banks couldn’t even negotiate materially more favorable economics on these deals, and even refused to litigate or pursue valid avenues of breaking financing commitments, then how are they going to react when they own the debt o these same deals and these P.E. firms call them asking for amended terms? I wonder….

I Could be Wrong, But I Think I See a Pattern

February 18, 2008

Well, let’s take a quick survey of the issues that have been plaguing the capital markets. (Note, these aren’t all completely in order, but the spike in “mind-share” of any given story should correspond with the order.)

First there is sub-prime. This problem can best be described as fundamental. I won’t bore anyone with the issues plaguing this market, they have been well documented and aren’t even the least bit vague. Go to the always complete Calculated Risk to read all the details. Do you know how banks would make money off of sub-prime securitizations? Once a group of whole loans was securitized, the banks would keep the bottom most piece–it would get marked to a high yield at a conservative speed and it would get held on balance sheet. Banks would be monetizing the mismatch between the bonds issued and the interest rates being paid by the sub-prime loans. Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter and safer assets was exploited.

Second, there was the C.D.O. issue. This was where enterprising structured product people went out and issued bonds with low interest rates off of underlying bonds with higher interest rates. This was done by creating credit support and safety for AAA bonds, which, due to the (perceived?) lesser risk garner less of a need for returns. The party holding the “equity” tranches take the difference between the underlying and the bonds issued. Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter and safer assets was exploited.

Third, there was the S.I.V. issue. This was an issue where some banks were funding longer liabilities with shorter ones and exploiting the difference in rates required for a more senior, safer (again, perceived?) set of bonds issues off of the underlying bonds. Sub-prime mortgage bonds were backing some of these vehicles’ liabilities, thus the problems. Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter and safer assets was exploited.

Fourth, there was an issue with overnight liquidity for banks. Here banks would borrow on a shorter time frame to fund liabilities by borrowing overnight. The Fed then lowered the discount window rate to facilitate borrowing because overnight funding had spiked and there was a major shortage of liquidity. Banks borrow overnight to more efficiently fund their balance sheet to match their ever-changing cash needs. To borrow more than they need would be “bad” if they paid interest on too large an amount, this would lower their earnings. By only borrowing overnight banks’ liabilities are minimized, and they maximize the spread between what their assets are paying and what the banks are required to pay to hold all the necessary capital against said assets. This works until liquidity is horded by banks and they can’t fund their liabilities when the current funding comes due. Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter liabilities was exploited.

Fifth, the T.O.B. market began to see problems (actually, a post I discovered on a blog I read, Accrued interest–he actually alludes to the same parallels I’m alluding to here)..  This was caused by bond insurers having less capital and the overall (perceived?) credit quality of insured municipal debt securities declining. T.O.B. programs allow an exploitation in rates that arise from municipal debt securities being structured to provide a higher amount of credit support. The enhanced credit support allows bonds to be issued with different rates and different durations from the bonds that back them. Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter and safer assets was exploited.

Sixth, the auction-rate securities market began to hit the skids. This audience probably remembers the WSJ article about the not-that-bad situation involving  some rich people. Well, the way those securities work is actually pretty simple. One takes some long term bonds and auctions off bonds, with a shorter maturity, backed by longer bonds. The interest rate required to take on the risk of default or some other risk during the short term of the auction-rate securities is, obviously lower because the risk is (perceived to be?) lower (isn’t it less risk to bet on something defaulting in the next year versus it’s entire life?). Essentially these structures allowed a more leveraged return for their equity. To do this, the mismatch between shorter and safer assets was exploited.

Hmmmmm…  As credit issues begin to build up, I wonder what might be next? Perhaps commercial paper issued by corporations as their credit quality deteriorates? Maybe real-estate holdings funded by shorter term loans mean to “bridge” to full financing?I guess we’ll find out.