Posted tagged ‘Risk’

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.

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?

How to Fix the Crisis in Six Easy Steps

February 26, 2009

There is a lot of chatter about different plans, market anticipations, and pitfalls when it comes to “fixing” the economy and, specifically, nationalization. Despite the fact that I don’t have the same reach as several uneducated members of the media, I figured I’d share what I think the way forward is, regardless.

Step 1: Nationalize Citi and Bank of America. Let’s be honest, with recent talks of expanded stakes, ringfenced assets, and no end of the losses in sight, it’s probably time the U.S. Government came to grips with the fact that they already own the losses and the positive impact of letting shareholders keep the upside is nonsensical. Further, these institutions will need more money for a long time to come. And, if you’re paying attention, you know that the markets seem to twist and turn with the news coming out of financial institutions. Nationalization rumors depress the markets, talks of further government action scare away new capital, and the fundamental health of these firms makes current investors run.

Step 2: Begin lending. With so much chatter and anger about institutions not lending, it almost makes me wonder why there is such a deep lack of understanding. These sick institutions are trying to shrink their balance sheets and have a ton of souring assets on them. They have to raise capital to support their current asset base, so why do we really expect these banks and other firms to lend? Some would claim that lending for the sake of lending got us into this mess, but they are either telling only part of the story or don’t get it–excessive leverage and poor risk management got us to this point. In fact, I suspect that defaults on even the riskiest loans would be much lower if bank capital was free enough to continue making mortgage loans based on normal requirements for returns and risk/reward.

So, how do we begin lending? Simple, start a government bank. Well, not exactly, but the government now owns Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Citi, and BofA (see step 1). Clearly the government now (by step 2) has the infrastructure and technical know-how to manage the logisitical issues of setting up and running a lending platform. Now the government can lend directly and not wait for sick banks to do it. Further, they can underwrite to fairly normal lending standards and get a premium return on their capital. Also, rather than poaching the nationalized entitites’ “talent,” the government cam employ many out of work finance workers throughout the country (after all, lending in Missouri should probably be done by people in Missouri).

Step 3: Begin replenishing bank assets with new, cleaner assets. With all of these souring assets on the books of banks, their capital base being eroded, and leverage decreasing, TARP capital is probably being deployed very inefficiently and, obviously, conservatively. Well, since step 2 involves lending and creating assets, the government should then implement an auction process–all assets the government creates would then be auctioned off, much like treasury bonds are, to banks. Since the government would be lending based on normal underwriting standards (as compared to the previous paradigm of loan underwriting), these assets would have a strong credit profile and will likely perform much better than legacy assets. JP Morgan, for example, should jump at the chance to generate higher levels of retained earnings by buying assets when the rates it needs to pay are at historically low levels, once its capital frees up. This solves the chicken-and-egg problem of curing sick banks, hurting from consumer defaults and depressed economic activity, to free up the credit markets and getting economic activity to increase despite a lack of credit.

One could easily permute this plan in many ways. One possible way is to offer to swap new assets for legacy assets at current market levels to facilitate a much more immediate strengthening of the banks’ balance sheets. Another variation could include some partial government guarentee on assets it originates. I’m sure there are thousands more ways one could add bells and whistles.

Step 4: Broaden the Fannie and Freddie loan modifications and housing stabilization plan to the government’s new properties. I suppose this should be some sort of addendum to step 1, but it’s important enough to require some emphasis on it’s own. With Citi and Bank of America being so large, I’m sure the housing stabilization plan will have a much broader reach once those are wards of the state. We’ve all heard the arguments for stopping foreclosures and refinancing borrowers… When the house next door is foreclosed upon, your house loses tens of thousands of dollar in value, increases housing supply, etc.

Step 5: Break up the institutions that are owned by the government. Markets have been clamoring for Citi to be broken up for years. Bank of America shareholders probably want Merrill to be broken off A.S.A.P. (ditto for Countrywide). Chew up these mammoth institutions and spit out pieces that, in the future, could fail because they aren’t too big. This should be done to AIG, Citi, Bank of America, and both Fannie and Freddie.

Step 6: Immediately implement a new regulatory regime. This is pretty much a “common sense measure.” President Obama has begun to call for this, and it’s pretty clear that with no more major investment banks around, the S.E.C.’s role needs to be re-defined. I’ve already laid out my thoughts on what this new structure should look like.

Between all of these steps, we should have the tainted institutions out of the system, credit will start to free up, banks asset base will become more reliable, and systemic risks will go down as we significantly decrease the number of firms that are “too big to fail.” Seems logical to me…

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.

Time For The Next Generation of Executives

February 4, 2009

Dear Shareholders:

I am writing to offer my name into consideration for the executive positions within your company–specifically, the Chief Executive Officer–and hope you will agree I am the perfect fit. I am well educated, resourceful, analytical, ethical, and decisive. However, this mix of qualities can be found in a myriad of candidates. What I would bring to your executive suite is much more valuable in these troubled times.

Before I elaborate, let me deal with an issue that I’m sure is at the forefront of your mind–my expectations for compensation. I am quite aware that there is an eminent move by the Obama administration to limit executive pay, and this is one reason I am currently writing to you. I realize that the common perception is, in the words of James F. Reda, “[that] $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus.” I wholeheartedly support others, who also seek this position, declining to be considered because of the meager pay. As a matter of fact, I will take the position for $400,000, if offered. Further, I encourage you to pay me three-quarters of that amount in equity. The reason I would suggest this is closely linked to my qualifications for the job, beyond the aforementioned.

First, I promise to be accountable. In these troubled times transparency is of the utmost importance. Companies’ leaders have to answer to their shareholders, their directors, their employees, and even, in some instances, the government. Uncertainty and the loss of confidence has caused the collapse of many firms. Too many executives have skated through the crisis by blaming problems on their predecessors (using codewords like “legacy assets”) a year or more later. Trumpeting a business model or a plan for months, or even years, to investors and the public alike, and then changing course abruptly shows a lack of leadership and ensures the market will assume the worst. In short, I will take responsibility for what happens on my watch, ensure my decisions are transparent, and will be ready to accept the consequences of my decisions and performance rather than deflect criticism.

Second, I will be a steward of our firm’s reputation and brand. Too many firms have consistently done the exact wrong thing. I will institute rules that ensure our sterling reputation emerges from this crisis intact. Further, I will hold employees accountable for actions that harm our image and will be harsh and swift to send the message that our firm doesn’t tolerate actions that cut against our values. Simultaneously, I will be a strong advocate for defensible decisions and use my position to ensure all relevant stakeholders understand our reasoning–I refuse to let the media scare me into making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of our firm. I will also ensure that tough decisions, like deferring or drastically reducing employee compensation, are made and explained. I promise not to tarnish our firm by repeating half truths and party-line nonsense in defense of the status quo.

Third, I promise to not be ruled by quarterly results and short-term gains. How many assets could have been sold and moved off of firm’s balance sheets, but for executives’ reluctance to miss out on any “upside” of these assets? How many buybacks and ill-conceived mergers were executed because they were the flavor of the day? How much more leverage was taken on because interest rates were low and competitors were doing the same? I will not bow to these “fads” and optical enhancements to earnings, at the expense of logic and long-term strength.

Fourth, I promise to get involved with every aspect of our business. I will make it my job to ensure I am very familiar with all of our products. Further, I promise to dive deeply enough into our business that I will be able to make intelligent decisions where others will not. If no one is asking the difficult questions, I will. If there is a poor incentive structure that leads to poor controls, risk management, or business practices, I promise to find out about it myself, not be told about the problem(s) when it starts adversely affect our firm.

Fifth, and lastly, I promise to eschew the trappings associated with being an executive–I will lead by example. I will set the example for our employees. I will maintain a modest office, fly commercial whenever possible (and that does not translate to “whenever I want to”), and ensure the company never incurs expenses for my comfort or convenience. In an era where travel and expenses are highly restricted for legitimate business purposes, for me to use my position for my own convenience would be inappropriate.

It is clear to me that I will bring exactly the sort of fundamental, common sense changes to your executive office that your firm needs. The past few weeks have shown us all that the current generation of executives, seemingly uniformly, completely fail to meet the obvious standards needed to lead our companies. Recent events have left companies’ equity values depressed, morale crushed, and, in some instances, partial or total financial collapse because of executives’ poor decisions, poor management of their brand and perception, refusal to take personal responsibility, and inability to think objectively and dispassionately about their business. And, when these executives have been forced out, they have been paid handsomely for doing an atrocious job by any objective measure. Simply put, I offer something different–any reward I will reap will come from the same reward you, as an investor, expect: an increase in the value of the firm’s equity.

I hope you agree with me that I am a great fit for an executive position–specifically, Chief Executive Officer–at your firm. Should you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at DearJohnThain@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

Dear John Thain

Dear Pundits: Citi isn’t Proof of Financial Supermarket Viabilty

January 17, 2009

Let’s be honest, Citi has some serious problems it has to fix. I’ve touched on many of them on this blog. But Citi’s failure is hardly an indictment of the “one stop” business model. It stands to reason that Citi is the example of how one cannot merely staple business together, allocate capital according to best returns for shareholders, and hope that a finance company can be run like a portfolio (ala G.E.).

One need only look at two competitors (and I’m sure Jamie Dimon thinks about this right before he lulls himself to sleep)–JP Morgan Chase and Citi. JP Morgan Chase has had a recent history of successful integrations, merging of businesses, stable leadership, and a cohesive corporate culture. No one at JPM sits around wondering how they can squeeze out the “other guys.” If you’re a Chase person you’re not trying to get all the JP Morgan people fired. Citi, on the other hand, has had management change after management change–each one is followed by an exodus of top, experienced executives. Guess what happens when one cobbles together a management team of people who are holdovers, new guard, and new hires… Citi! Guess what happens when no one takes the time to integrate businesses that have redundant product lines and systems, but rather let them operate all on their own… Citi!

In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that standalone institutions are the business model in peril. Merrill, Lehman, and Bear, all pillars in the stand-alone investment bank community have disappeared from the landscape. Goldman and Morgan Stanley, the two remaining firms that were stand-alone investment banks six months ago, now include consumer banking in their business lines–much closer to the business mix of Citibank plus Salomon Brothers. Indeed, I would argue Citi’s investment bank performed like the lower tier of standalone investment banks, and ther mere existence of the consumer bank and deposit base “added in” allowed it to survive.

My theory is further bolstered by what Citi hopes to become and why. CitiCorp (Citi Corp? Citicorp?) is essentially a bank, an investment bank, and a brokerage all put together… And it’s half the size of Citi today. If that doesn’t say, we got the execution wrong but the model correct then I don’t know what does.

Oh, and don’t use BofA as a counter example… It was doing just fine on its own before swallowing Stan O’Neil’s mess whole (although the Ken Lewis negotiating tactics didn’t help). Further, Wachovia and Washington Mutual are examples for the opposite side of the equation–banks hoping to make money through capital markets operations and doing it poorly. Think of their problems as having evolved from having singularly focused, very poorly run investment banks attached to them.

The basic point: We’ve seen two financial supermarkets emerge here in the U.S. Both are still alive, and one is still profitable (The WSJ news alert shouldn’t have been “J.P. Morgan Chase’s Net Income Falls 76%” it should have been “J.P. Morgan Chase’s Net Income is Positive!”). The other’s problems are widely acknowledged as being cultural and borne of historical shortsightedness. Declaring the business model dead now would be silly.