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:
- The company was not taken over, and
- Management was allowed to stay on, and
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.