Posted tagged ‘mortgages’

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.

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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.

Why Stress Test Really Means Guesswork

March 15, 2009

Well, we’ve heard a ton about stress tests recently. Want some details on what a stress test entails? The Journal has some details about the tests here. Now, as much as I think GDP and unemployment are fine things to project forward for economists, let’s walk through the way one would use this to actually price an asset. Let’s start with something simple, like a 10-year treasury note (note that treasury bond specifically refers to bonds with a 30-year maturity). Here are all the components one would need to stress test the value of a treasury note.

  1. Characteristics of the note itself: coupon, payment dates, maturity dates, etc.
  2. What the yield curve would look like at the date you’re pricing the note.

Why would one need to know the shape of the yield curve (term structure of rates)? This is important, in order to “PV” the bond’s cashflows most accurately, one would discount each cashflow by it’s risk–the simplest proxy is to discount each cash flow by the rate of interest one would need to pay to issue a bond maturing on that date. For the government, this rate of interest is the point on the treasury yield curve (actually, the par zero curve) with the same maturity date. An example would be, if I were going to price a cash payment I will receive in two years, and the government can currently issue two-year debt at 5%, I should discount my cash payment (also from the government, since it’s a treasury note) at 5%. Treasuries are the simplest of all instruments to value.

Here’s an example, form the link above, of what a treasury yield curve might look like:

Normal Yield Curve

Now, it is completely and totally guesswork to figure out, given unemployment and GDP figures, what the yield curve will look like at any date in the future. Indeed, one can plug these projections into a model and it can come up with a statistical guess… But the only thing we know for sure about that guess is that it won’t be accurate, although it might be close. However, things like inflation will drive the longer end of the yield curve and monetary policy will drive the shorter end, so these certainly aren’t directly taken from the stress test parameters, but would need to be a guess based on those parameters. This is a large source of uncertainty in pricing even these instruments in the stress test.

Next, let’s examine a corporate bond. What would we need for a corporate bond?

  1. Characteristics of the bond: coupon, payment dates, maturity dates, special features (coupon steps, sinking funds, call schedules, etc.), where in the capital structure this bond sits, etc.
  2. What the yield curve would look like at the date you’re pricing the bond.
  3. The spreads that the corporation’s debt will carry at the date you’re pricing the bond.

Oh no. We already saw the issues with #2, but now we have #3. What will this corporations credit spread (interest/yield required in excess of the risk free rate) at the time of pricing? Will the corporations debt, which could trade at a spread of anywhere from 5 to 1500 basis points, be lower? higher? Will the corporations spread curve be flatter? steeper?

Here is a good illustration of what I’m referring to (from the same source as the figure above):

Credit Spread

There, the spread is the difference between the purple line and the black line. As you can see, it’s different for different maturity corporate bonds (which makes sense, because if a company defaults in year two, it’ll also default on it’s three year debt.. but the companies’ two year debt might never default, but the company might default during it’s third year, creating more risk for three year bonds issued by that company than two year bonds). It shouldn’t be a surprise, after our exercise above, to learn that the best way to compute the price of a corporate bond is to discount each cashflow by it’s risk (in my example above, regardless of whether the company defaults in year two or year three, the interest payments from both the three year and two year debt that are paid in one year have the same risk).

Well, how does one predict the structure of credit spreads in the future? Here’s a hint: models. Interest rates, however, are an input to this model, since the cost of a firm’s borrowing is an important input to figuring out a corporation’s cashflow and, by extension, creditworthiness. So now we have not only a flawed interest rate projection, but we have a projection of corporate risk that, in addition to being flawed itself, takes our other flawed projections as an input! Understanding model error yet? Oh, and yes unemployment and the health of the economy will be inputs to the model that spits out our guess for credit spreads in the future as well.

Next stop on the crazy train, mortgage products! What does one need to project prices for mortgage products?

  1. Characteristics of the bond: coupon, payment dates, maturity dates, structure of the underlying securitization (how does cash get assigned in the event of a default, prepayment, etc.), etc.
  2. What the yield curve would look like at the date you’re pricing the bond.
  3. The spreads that the debt will carry at the date you’re pricing the bond.
  4. What prepayments will have occurred by the date you’re pricing the bond and what prepayments will occur in the future, including when each will occur.
  5. What defaults will have occurred by the date you’re pricing the bond and what defaults will occur in the future, including when each will occur.

Oh crap. We’ve covered #1-3. But, look at #4 and #5 … To price a mortgage bond, one needs to be able to project out, over the life of the bond, prepayments and defaults. Each is driven bydifferent variables and each happens in different timeframes. Guess how each projection is arrived at? Models! What are the inputs to these models? Well, interest rates (ones ability to refinance depends on where rates are at the time) over a long period of time (keep in mind that you need rates over time, having rates at 5% in three years is completely different if rates where 1% or 15% for the three years before). General economic health, including regional (or more local) unemployment rates (if the south has a spike in unemployment, but the rest of the country sees a slight decrease, you’ll likely see defaults increase). And a myrid of other variables can be tossed in for good measure. So now we have two more models, driven by our flawed interest rate projections, flawed credit projections (ones ability to refinance is driven by their mortgage rate, which is some benchmark interest rate [treasuries here] plus some spread, from #3), and the unemployment and GDP projections.

I will, at this point, decline to talk about pricing C.D.O.’s … Just understand, however, that C.D.O.’s are portfolios of corporate and mortgage bonds, so they are a full extra order of magnitude more complex. Is it clear, now, why these stress tests, as they seem to be defined, aren’t all that specific, and potentially not all that useful?

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.

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…).

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.

The Financial Markets Stabilization Act We Should Have Seen

October 14, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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