Posted tagged ‘hedging’

The Real Problem with the Citi Bailout

December 3, 2008

We all know that Citi was “bailed out” last week. However, as far as I can see, Citi’s is a unique situation for several reasons:

  1. The company was not taken over, and
  2. Management was allowed to stay on, and
  3. The government is shouldering losses coming from securities that are already identified.

Taken together, these leave a huge hole in this “living bailout” (I call it that because, obviously, Citi was in dire straights but was allowed to survive, essentially, as it existed before) that, obviously, Treasury never thought out (setting aside my prior concerns). I’ll put the problem into a single statement…

When taxpayers agree to pay for losses of a company that is continuing to operate, but the losses being referenced pertain only to specific assets, there are a huge amount of games that can played and the government has no way to stop or monitor what is truly going on.

As a matter of fact, as I write this the news of the G.A.O. report (PDF) on T.A.R.P. is making the rounds. One of the main criticisms is the lack of monitoring of bailed-out institutions. And those institutions don’t have explicit guarantees like Citi does. It is extremely surprising to me that, for example, there aren’t auditors or officials from Treasury meeting with traders and executives of Citi’s mortgage groups regularly. As a matter of fact, I would station some people on the trading desks where these assets are being managed to give status reports and monitor the situation. Further, Hank Paulson’s and Vikram Pandit’s interests are aligned here. Vikram shouldn’t want these assets languishing or Citi being accused of sitting on assets that might lead to a taxpayer loss in the future and Hank Paulson should want to know Citi still feels some obligation to minimize taxpayer’s exposure to losses.

Now, the question of what “games” can be played is the next natural question. Well, if I’m a trader, I mark my own position every day. In mortgages, there is little to no verification of these prices–the markets are so illiquid that only the people that trade the product know the actual value of a given instrument. This conflict, in general, is controlled for by the organizational structure: the person most likely to know the product as well as, if not better than, the trader is the trader’s boss. Obviously, the trader’s boss has little incentive to allow his employees to incorrectly mark the trading book because he can be held accountable. With this “living bailout” though, what incentive does Citi have to sell assets in a liquidity-challenged environment? If no pressure is applied from Treasury, and how can they apply pressure without being deflected if they aren’t “on the ground,” then why wouldn’t Citi just hold assets they currently view as having positive value? Citi likely has assets that are obviously going to go bad, in which case there is likely no way they can offload those assets (perhaps around, oh, say… $29 billion worth…), and assets they view as merely undervalued due to liquidity concerns. Why would I seek out a guarantee on further losses for assets I can sell today? If losses are guaranteed then what’s my downside in just holding illiquid assets?

Because Citi won’t absorb all the losses on the assets viewed as undervalued, those assets are worth more to Citi than others. And, as a trader that gets paid based on his/her personal P&L, I have every incentive to avoid losses that I view as not being inevitable and I have a defensible reason to not mark my position merely to the price I can sell it today. Another nuance comes from how traders actually mark their books…

  1. A trader buys mortgage bonds, loans, or any other security. The current profit or loss of that trade (we’ll call it “the bonds” or “the position”) is the purchase price and there is no net P&L.
  2. The trader then enters into another transaction that is considered a hedge for the position. This transaction could be buying credit protection, shorting treasury bonds, or any number of other possibilities. We’ll refer to these transactions as “the hedges.” This trade generates no net P&L.
  3. On an ongoing basis the position is marked “flat” to the hedges. This means that, dollar for dollar, any loss or gain in the hedges is added or subtracted from the original position so as to generate no net P&L. This isn’t perfect, but it’s theoretically very clean since the point of the hedges is to eliminate the risk in the position.
  4. Generally, a price movement in the position that isn’t reflected in similar price movements in hedges is marked manually–usually this takes place at month-end. However, if the original position is sold then the difference between the most recent marked price and the sale price will generate positive or negative P&L as well.

So here’s a good question: Why does a trader, now, have any incentives to hedge? A better question, though, is why would I mark my positions accurately versus hedges? Can’t I make the claim that all the gains in the position, as evidenced by losses in the hedges, should be taken as P&L but only 10% of the losses, as reflected by gains in the hedges, should be taken as P&L? Because the positions hedging the guaranteed mortgage positions are either derivatives or other products that likely aren’t also guaranteed this asymmetry becomes problematic. It’s not even clear that whatever scheme generates the most profits for Citi isn’t the correct way to account for the gains and losses of a typical hedged mortgage position in this atypical arrangement. I know that traders are asking these very questions. However, the possibility that taxpayers could shoulder costs while Citi also books profits whose existence depends on taxpayer-funded guarantees is troubling.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that this arrangement is complicated enough that a higher degree of oversight is required (and should be desired by all parties) to ensure that nothing improper is going on for the sake of taxpayers and Citi’s reputation. One thing we’ve learned from A.I.G. is that even if billions of dollars are at stake expenditures on the order of one hundred thousand dollars can become P.R. nightmares. Treasury should be auditing all of Citi’s mark-to-market procedures and setting standards to protect taxpayers (more so than non-“living” bailouts). Also, as I stated before, there is no reason that there shouldn’t be some sort of watchdog presence on the trading floors to ensure Treasury is keeping watch and being kept in the loop.

Advertisements

Fannie and Freddie: We All Support You (Even if We Don’t Support That Decision!)

September 7, 2008

Well, it seems like this slow motion trainwreck is finally going to compel some action.  Jeeze. The more one reads the more ridiculous this whole thing is…

1. Fannie and Freddie are not created equal (no one “in  the know” ever thought they were…). Apparently Freddie is under-capitalized and Fannie is still smelling the flowers on their way to being under-capitalized (from the NYT article):

Then, last week, advisers from Morgan Stanley hired by the Treasury Department to scrutinize the companies came to a troubling conclusion: Freddie Mac’s capital position was worse than initially imagined…

While Freddie Mac’s accounting woes make it easier for regulators to force the company into conservatorship, there was more resistance from Fannie Mae, according to people familiar with the discussions. Once the government took action against Freddie Mac, however, confidence in Fannie Mae would certainly waver. Given Fannie Mae’s declining financial condition, the company has few options but to concede to the government’s demands.

Fannie Mae is resisting? 

2. Taxpayers are about to own a whole lot of crap. Of course I already noted the large amount of non-prime mortgages sitting on the G.S.E.’s books (and the poor credit metrics)… But, apparently, the marking to market of these securities isn’t hurting their capital position. Oh, holdon, stop celebrating–it’s because they don’t mark the portfolio. Here ya go (from the NYT article):

Freddie Mac’s portfolio contains many securities backed by subprime loans, made to the riskiest borrowers, and alt-A loans, one step up on the risk ladder, the company has not written down the value of many of those loans to reflect current market prices.

Executives have said that they intend to hold the loans to maturity, meaning they will be worth more, and they need not write down their value. But other financial institutions have written down similar securities, to comply with “mark-to-market” accounting rules. Freddie Mac holds roughly twice as many of those securities as Fannie Mae.

(emphasis mine).

3. It also seems that complaints from foreigners are causing the Treasury to take these steps:

The proposal to place both companies, which own or back $5.3 trillion in mortgages, into a government-run conservatorship also grew out of deep concern among foreign investors that the companies’ debt might not be repaid. Falling home prices, which are expected to lead to more defaults among the mortgages held or guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie, contributed to the urgency, regulators said.

Investors who own the companies’ common and preferred stock will suffer. Holders of debt, including many foreign central banks, are expected to receive government backing. Top executives of both companies will be pushed out, according to those briefed on the plan.

(emphasis mine).

Now, let me make a point here: The decision to back only debt and not preferreds and common stock is completely arbitrary.

Let’s fly off on a tangent and ask ourselves what would happen if government backing of the debt occurred as a singular event–nothing else happened. Well, then, the guarantee that everyone thought was in place would be in place. The market, credit conditions, and the housing market would most likely wipe out equity anyway. So, then, why does the government need to do this explicitly? Just take over day-to-day operations… They are regulated entities, it’s not a stretch to strike a deal where the regulator ousts management and takes over!

Making this guarantee explicit, by the way, will also make holders a hefty profit as spreads will undoubtedly rally for agency debt–a nice gift to foreign holders of this debt at the expense of the shareholders current financial holdings, it seems.

4. I would look for a very, very serious revisiting of a lot of transactions. This would clearly be very controversial, but if I were advising regulators and the government, I would start taking a strict view of the G.S.E.’s charters, and unwinding whatever I could. No way the G.S.E.’s should have ever owned subprime loans or bonds. I also have a feeling that there are clauses that allow for some kind of “regulatory put” on many transactions if  deemed outside the G.S.E.’s authority or charter. Will the government go through these? Maybe. Truth be told, they need to de-lever these behemoths and raise capital cushions somehow. 

5. Look for a big Merrill-like trade. Who could be the buyer? I wonder…

Did you catch Bill Gross on CNBC just now? They asked if he had been approached by the Treasury about any government-led solution, presumably asking if PIMCO would participate. Gross said he couldn’t comment, which means the answer is yes.

Okay… now about an hour until the details are confirmed. We’ll see what happens.

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!