Posted tagged ‘writedowns’

Maybe Charlie Gasparino is Too Simple to Grasp The Obvious

August 10, 2009

Yes, that’s right… The guy whose only role, as far as I can tell, is to parrot back gossip, rumors, and “trial balloons” from P.R. people and executives has gone and proved that he is as irrelevant as he seems to be uncomplex. Did you read his attack on Matt Taibbi’s “piece” on Goldman Sachs? Well, I did… and I bled IQ points from doing so. Here’s where Mr. Gasparino shows his inability to reason:

It’s one thing to watch half-literate bloggers in desperate need of attention jump on the Goldman is the root of all evil story; it’s quite another to see respected news organizations with experienced reporters and presumably more experienced editors do it and in the process obscure the fact that Goldman, for all of its sins during the bubble years, was probably the least culpable for the system’s eventual collapse.

(Emphasis mine.)

Oh, and Mr. Gasparino is (highly, highly ironically!) writing this in a section entitled “Blogs and Stories”–since Gasparino’s post/article/whatever falls far short of the reasoned, cogent, logical, and expertise-based sorts of things one gets from the the blogosphere, I’ll let you decide which of these two headings applies to his writing.

Writing a particular piece of drivel and attacking the blogosphere isn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things–it is, however, a good reason people should stop reading what he says and watching his appearances on air (and people are doing just that). More damning is Mr. Gasparino’s inability to see that he is a major part of the problem. If he went even the slightest bit beyond the drivel he usually passes off as reporting (aforementioned gossip, rumors, and “trial balloons”) he might have been able to educate people to the point where they wouldn’t buy into hyperbole-laden articles. Mr. Taibbi’s job isn’t to be a journalist and provide a fair and dispassionate accounting of the facts–he even says as much:

I’m aware that some people feel that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to “give both sides of the story” and be “even-handed” and “objective.” A person who believes that will naturally find serious flaws with any article like the one I wrote about Goldman. I personally don’t subscribe to that point of view. My feeling is that companies like Goldman Sachs have a virtual monopoly on mainstream-news public relations; for every one reporter  like me, or like far more knowledgeable critics like Tyler Durden, there are a thousand hacks out there willing to pimp Goldman’s viewpoint on things in the front pages and ledes of the major news organizations.

(Emphasis mine.)

(By the way, Mr. Gasparino says what amounts to the same thing: “I have to admit I love to beat up on Goldman; I do it for The Daily Beast and on CNBC every chance I get.”)

Mr. Taibbi’s job is to get page views and tell a story. He even admits that members of the blogosphere (Tyler Durden being a reference to the blog whose traffic has experienced a meteoric rise–Zero Hedge) have a better grasp of whats actually going on than he does. I would hope, for example, that most bloggers wouldn’t make the mistake (I’m being about as charitable as one can be by not calling it “lying” or “misleading” or “taking advantage”) of confusing leverage with VaR as Mr. Taibbi does. Mr. Taibbi, in that same piece, also glosses over technical details of primary dealers of treasury securities (I wonder if he understands bid-to-cover and direct versus indirect) and nuances of equity underwriting (What sort of limits are in place for fees? How does a greenshoe work? What does an investment banker do versus an equity capital markets person? What about a syndicate person?). In his original piece, there is a ton of faulty reasoning and thin (well, mostly non-existent, actually … mostly the reasons for things or support are “because I say so”) evidence for his theories. But, who’s to know? The public knows almost nothing about how the financial system works.

Which brings me back to my original point–Charlie Gasparino is to blame for Matt Taibbi’s drivel. Not solely, obviously, but he is a very public face of a very dumbed-down financial media that is the personification of the phrase, “Couldn’t find his ass with both hands.” If Mr. Gasparino and the financial media can’t report on the markets and financial system reasonably–and instead dumb down their reports, thus helping feed the financial illiteracy of the mainstream public–then he has allowed Matt Taibbi’s piece to gain traction in the minds of the public, not the bloggers. He and his colleagues have completely failed in their charge: to keep the public well-informed when it comes to matters of finance and markets.

If Charlie Gasparino had even the slightest bit of a clue, or if even the most modest degree of intelligence was peeking through his rants and gossip column style of reporting, he might understand that blogosphere should be his friend and best resource. Where else can anyone get a peek into the extremely technical, often changing worlds of trading, banking, finance, etc.? You literally have dozens of people who are giving away their domain expertise for free (anonymous authors–the brave, intrepid, good-looking genius champions of truth and justice that they are [hyperbole included at no extra cost]–don’t even take credit for their work, they are doing it for themsevles and their readers solely!). Mr. Gasparino (and other CNBC personalities whose brains seem to be disconnected during the day to conserve energy–go to the link, but don’t watch the clip, you’ll start spilling IQ points all over the floor) should be looking to these bloggers to help him understand complex issues that it would take years of experience to understand, give him ideas for how to report on an issue and explain the nuances, and even as sources that he can cite to increase the authority of his conclusions.

But, of course, this “get information from where information lives” approach to journalism completely escapes the financial media (I’ve explained how problems like this can be fixed before). Mr. Gasparino prefers, instead, to refer to bloggers as “half-literate” and thinks New York Magazine, because it’s a “respected news organization” (Of course! When I think of the news I think of New York Magazine!), will do a better job than the people in the trenches every day. This is why finance is the reverse of every other major news category I can think of–usually the primary value of the mainstream media is to dig up facts and write complex stories (that show cause and effect or intricate interconnections) while the blogosphere adds a layer of gossip, conjecture, spin, and/or analysis. In finance, the complex picture gets painted by the blogs and the mainstream media reports singular, one-dimensional little tidbits (think, “Chuck Prince gets fired!” or “Goldman Reports profits for this quarter!”). The notable exceptions are some of the detailed timelines published by the WSJ (like Kate Kelly’s three part Bear Stearns article) and a large swathe of the content from Dealbook (Is it a coincidence that Dealbook has bloggers writing for it and contains both the single fact/headline-driven articles as well as detailed analysis and complex reporting? Nope. Although, the reporting done for much of the longer articles isn’t blogger driven.).

In fact, keeping with the clueless theme, Gasparino directly addresses some of Taibbi’s conjecture, attempting to disprove some of the moreimflamatory claims:

Okay, sure, maybe there’s some evidence somewhere proving that the entire regulatory apparatus of the Fed run by an appointee of a Republican president, Ben Bernanke, to the Treasury Department run by a lifelong Republican (Paulson once worked for Richard Nixon) … would drop everything to save Goldman Sachs[.] … But if there is good evidence to that effect, I haven’t seen it. A more plausible explanation for the Goldman bailout via AIG’s bailout (borne out by my reporting for my upcoming book The Sellout) goes something like this: There was panic in Paulson’s office … not because they saw their retirement money tied up in Goldman stock ready to disappear, but because after Lehman fell, the other dominoes would be teetering.

(Emphasis mine.)

Whew! With an expert reporter like Mr. Gasparino on the case (including the reporting he has done for his book), then if he hasn’t seen any evidence, who has? Oh, right, the New York Times:

During the week of the A.I.G. bailout alone, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Blankfein spoke two dozen times, the calendars show, far more frequently than Mr. Paulson did with other Wall Street executives.

On Sept. 17, the day Mr. Paulson secured his waivers, he and Mr. Blankfein spoke five times. Two of the calls occurred before Mr. Paulson’s waivers were granted. […]

But Mr. Paulson was closely involved in decisions to rescue A.I.G., according to two senior government officials who requested anonymity because the negotiations were supposed to be confidential.

And government ethics specialists say that the timing of Mr. Paulson’s waivers, and the circumstances surrounding it, are troubling. […]

While that agreement barred him from dealing on specific matters involving Goldman, he spoke with Mr. Blankfein at other pivotal moments in the crisis before receiving [conflict of interest] waivers.

Mr. Paulson’s schedules from 2007 and 2008 show that he spoke with Mr. Blankfein, who was his successor as Goldman’s chief, 26 times before receiving a waiver. […]

At the height of the financial crisis, Mr. Paulson spoke far more often with Mr. Blankfein than any other executive, according to entries in his calendars. […]

According to the schedules, Mr. Paulson’s contacts with Mr. Blankfein began even before the height of the crisis last fall. During August 2007, for example, when the market for asset-backed commercial paper was seizing up, Mr. Paulson spoke with Mr. Blankfein 13 times. Mr. Paulson placed 12 of those calls.

By contrast, Mr. Paulson spoke six times that August with Richard S. Fuld Jr. of Lehman, four times with Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and only twice with John Thain of Merrill Lynch.

Seems like a pretty clear pattern that strikes right at the heart of the matter. I’m sure it was just bad luck for Mr. Gasparino that the one place he tried to move the conversation into a more rational zone, and also the one point he used to show why his upcoming book has any value at all, was the place more professional news outlets actually did some serious reporting and proved him naive. The Times’ piece doesn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, conclusively, or to any other standard one would like to use that what Taibbi alleges occurred, but its pretty good evidence that Hank Paulson conducted himself in a way that is questionable ethically. Well, don’t forget that Mr. Gasparino has a better theory in his book–which you can pre-order for $27.99! What’s this magical book about? From the Amazon description:

[Gasparino] shows how and why several of these storied institutions have suffered staggering losses in assets and influence since [2002], triggering the vast financial crisis that is now devastating individual and institutional wallets through the United States and across the globe. Gasparino is known as a dogged reporter who regularly breaks news about Wall Street’s inner workings and who has a direct line into Wall Street’s most prominent dealmakers. His book promises to be one of the first books out of the gate in what will prove to be a crowded market of ‘financial crisis’ books, but his talent for delivering a dramatic narrative and colorful anecdotes and explaining complex financial maneuvers in accessible terms.

(Emphasis mine.)

Actually, instead of spending $27.99 on this book, by the guy who didn’t see any evidence of something the New York Times found significant evidence of (now that its published, maybe he’ll see it … when he reads the Times), you can just read blogs to understand “how and why several of these storied institutions have suffered staggering losses in assets and influence.” You’ll understand it better when you’re done and the information you read has a much, much higher probability of being both correct and complete. Oh, and reading a blog is free…

P.S. Maybe I’ll write a point by point refutation of Taibbi and Gasparino’s remaining arguments at some point… But please don’t think that because the Times found some evidence consistent with what Taibbi alleged that he is correct. Stopped watch and all that.

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Notes and Predictions: The Stress Test

May 6, 2009

As the results of the stress test start leaking out slowly, it’s a fun exercise to make some educated guesses/predictions about what the future holds and take note of pertinent facts. As we’ve discussed before, there is a lot to take issue with when considering the results of the stress test at all, especially given the added layers of uncertainty stemming form the limited information provided in the scenarios. So, without further delay, let’s get started.

1. The baseline scenario will prove wholly inadequate as a “stress test.” Please, follow along with me as I read from the methodology (pdf).  I’ll start with the most egregious and reckless component of the mis-named baseline scenario (I would rename it the, “if payer works” scenario) : what I will refer to as “the dreaded footnote six.” From the document:

As noted above, BHCs [(Bank Holding Companies, or the firms being stress tested)] with trading account assets exceeding $100 billion as of December 31, 2008 were asked to provide projections of trading related losses for the more adverse scenario, including losses from counterparty credit risk exposures, including potential counterparty defaults, and credit valuation adjustments taken against exposures to counterparties whose probability of default would be expected to increase in the adverse scenario.(6)

[…]

(6) Under the baseline scenario, BHCs were instructed to assume no further losses beyond current marks.

(Emphasis mine.)

Holy <expletive>! In what alternate/parallel/baby/branching universe is this indicative of anything at all? Assume no further losses beyond current marks? Why not assume everything returns to par? Oh, well, that actually was a pretty valid assumption for the baseline scenario. From the document:

New FASB guidance on fair value measurements and impairments was issued on April 9, 2009, after the commencement of the [stress test].  For the baseline scenario supervisors considered firms’ resubmissions that incorporated the new guidance.

(Emphasis mine.)

Thank goodness! I was worried that the “if prayer works” scenario might have some parts that were worth looking at. Thankfully, for troubled banks, I can skip this entire section. (Confidence: 99.9999%)

2. Trading losses will be significantly understated across all five institutions that will need to report them. First, only institutions with over $100 billion in trading assets were asked to stress their trading positions. Second, from the section on “Trading Portfolio Losses” from the document:

Losses in the trading portfolio were evaluated by applying market stress factors … based on the actual market movements that occurred over the stress horizon (June 30 to December 31, 2008).

(Emphasis mine.)

Okay, well, that seems reasonable, right? Hmmmm… Let’s take a look. Here is what some indicative spread movements for fixed income products looked like January 9th of 2009, according to Markit (who has made it nearly impossible to find historical data for their indices, so I’m resorting to cutting and pasting images directly–all images are from their site):

yearendgraph

(Click on the picture for a larger version.)

Well, looks like a big move is taken into account by using this time horizon. Clearly this should provide a reasonable benchmark for the stress test results, right? Well, maybe not.

currentgraph

(Click on the picture for a larger version.)

Yes, that’s right, we’ve undergone, for sub-prime securities a massive widening during 2009 already. Also, as far as I can tell, the tests are being run starting from the December 2008 balance sheet for each company. So, if I’m correct, for the harsher scenario, trading losses will be taken on December 2008 trading positions using December 2008 prices and applying June 2008 to December 2008 market movements. For sub-prime, it seems pretty clear that most securities would be written up (June 2008 Spread: ~200, December 2008 Spread: ~1000, Delta: ~800, Current Spread: ~2600, December 2008 to Today Delta: ~1600, Result: firms would take, from December 2008 levels, half the markdown they have already taken).

Also, it should be a shock to absolutely no one that most trading assets will undergo a lagged version of this same decline. Commercial mortgages and corporate securities rely on how firms actually perform. Consumer-facing firms, as unemployment rises, the economy worsens and consumption declines, and consumers default, will see a lagged deterioration that will appear in corporate defaults and small businesses shuttering–both of these will lead to commercial mortgages souring.  Indeed we’ve seen Moody’s benchmark report on commercial real estate register a massive deterioration in fundamentals. That doesn’t even take into account large, exogenous events in the sector. Likewise, we see consistently dire predictions in corporate credit research reports that only point to rising defaults 2009 and 2010.

In short, for all securities, it seems clear that using data from 2H2008 and applying those movements to December 2008 balance sheets should produce conservative, if not ridiculously understated loss assumptions. (Confidence: 90%)

3. Bank of America will have to go back to the government. This, likely, will be the end of Ken Lewis. It’s not at all clear that Bank of America even understands what’s going on. First, if I’m correctly reading Bank of America’s first quarter earnings information, the firm has around $69 billion in tangible common equity. Also, it should be noted that the FT is reporting that Bank of America has to raise nearly $34 billion.  Now, with all this in mind, let’s trace some totally nonsensical statements that, unlike any other examples in recent memory, were not attributed to anonymous sources (from the NYT article cited above):

The government has told Bank of America it needs $33.9 billion in capital to withstand any worsening of the economic downturn, according to an executive at the bank. […]

But J. Steele Alphin, the bank’s chief administrative officer, said Bank of America would have plenty of options to raise the capital on its own before it would have to convert any of the taxpayer money into common stock. […]

“We’re not happy about it because it’s still a big number,” Mr. Alphin said. “We think it should be a bit less at the end of the day.” […]

Regulators have told the banks that the common shares would bolster their “tangible common equity,” a measure of capital that places greater emphasis on the resources that a bank has at its disposal than the more traditional measure of “Tier 1” capital. […]

Mr. Alphin noted that the $34 billion figure is well below the $45 billion in capital that the government has already allocated to the bank, although he said the bank has plenty of options to raise the capital on its own.

“There are several ways to deal with this,” Mr. Alphin said. “The company is very healthy.”

Bank executives estimate that the company will generate $30 billion a year in income, once a normal environment returns. […]

Mr. Alphin said since the government figure is less than the $45 billion provided to Bank of America, the bank will now start looking at ways of repaying the $11 billion difference over time to the government.

(Emphasis mine.)

Right around the time you read the first bolded statement, you should have started to become dizzy and pass out. When you came to, you saw that the chief administrative officer, who I doubt was supposed to speak on this matter (especially in advance of the actual results), saying that a bank with $69 billion in capital would be refunding $11 billion of the $45 billion  in capital it has already received because they only need $34 billion in capital total. Huh? Nevermind that the Times should have caught this odd discrepancy, but if this is the P.R. face the bank wants to put on, they are screwed.

Now, trying to deal with what little substance there is in the article, along with the FT piece, it seems pretty clear that, if Bank of America needs $34 billion in additional capital, there is no way to get it without converting preferred shares to common shares. There is mention of raising $8 billion from a sale of a stake in the China Construction Bank (why are they selling things if they are net positive $11 billion, I don’t know). That leaves $26 billion. Well, I’m glad that “once a normal environment returns” Bank of America can generate $30 billion in income (Does all of that fall to T.C.E.? I doubt it, but I have no idea). However, over the past four quarters, Bank of America has added just $17 billion in capital… I will remind everyone that this timeframe spans both T.A.R.P. and an additional $45 billion in capital being injected into the flailing bank. Also, who is going to buy into a Bank of America equity offering now? Especially $26 billion of equity! If a troubled bank can raise this amount of equity in the current environment, then the credit crisis is over! Rejoice!

I just don’t see how Bank of America can fill this hole and not get the government to “bail it out” with a conversion. The fact that Bank of America argued the results of the test, frankly, bolsters this point of view. Further, this has been talked about as an event that requires a management change, hence my comment on Lewis.  (Confidence: 80% that the government has to convert to get Bank of America to “well capitalized” status)

Notes/Odds and Ends:

1. I have no idea what happened with the NY Times story about the results of the “Stress Test.” The WSJ and FT are on the same page, but there could be something subtle that I’m misunderstanding or not picking up correctly. Absent this, my comments stand. (Also, if might have been mean.unfair of me to pick on the content of that article.)

2. The next phases of the credit crisis are likely to stress bank balance sheets a lot more. The average bank doesn’t have huge trading books. However, they do have consumer-facing loan and credit products in addition to corporate loans and real estate exposure. In the coming months, we’ll see an increase in credit card delinquencies. Following that, we’ll see more consumer defaults and corporations’ bottom line being hurt from the declining fundamentals of the consumer balance sheet. This will cause corporate defaults. Corporate defaults and consumer defaults will cause commercial real estate to decline as well. The chain of events is just beginning. Which leads me to…

3. Banks will be stuck, unable to lend, for a long time. I owe John Hempton for this insight. In short, originations require capital. Capital, as we see, is in short supply and needed to cover losses for the foreseeable future. Hence, with a huge pipeline of losses developing and banks already in need of capital, there is likely not going to be any other lending going on for a while. This means banks’ ability to generate more revenue/earnings is going to be severely handicapped as sour loans make up a larger and larger percentage of their portfolios.

4. From what I’ve read, it seems that the actual Citi number, for capital to be raised, is between $6 billion and $10 billion. This puts their capital needs at $15 billion to $19 billion, since they are selling assets to raise around $9 billion, which is counted when considering the amount of capital that needs to be raised (according to various news stories). Interestingly, this is 44% to 55% of Bank of America’s needed capital. This paints a very different picture of the relative health of these two firms than the “common wisdom” does. Granted, this includes a partial conversion of Citi’s preferred equity to common equity.

5. I see a huge correlation between under-performing portfolios and a bank trying to negotiate it’s required capital lower by “appealing” the stress test’s assessment of likely losses in both the baseline and adverse scenarios. As I’ve talked about before, not all portfolio performance is created equal. Citi has seen an increasing (and accelerating) trend in delinquencies while JP Morgan has seen it’s portfolio stabilize. So, for the less-healthy banks to argue their losses are overstated by regulators, they are doubly wrong. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out–for example, if JP Morgan’s credit card portfolio assumes better or worse performance than Citi and Bank of America.

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?

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.

Detailed Causes of the Crisis and Post-Crisis

November 9, 2008

Since this is a political season, and with the economic crisis, I think everyone in finance understands there is a sort of “silly season” that ensues. We certainly noted the sort of irrational behavior that would immediately make an economist question their beliefs. To me, though, the most offensive form of this stupidity comes from those who believe the Community Reinvestment Act and Fannie and Freddie sparked the whole crisis. Mr. Ritholtz rails against this notion over and over again. Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone else tackle this issue… Of course, I’m also way behind on reading my feeds. I even wrote Mr. Ritholtz an email (something I always tell myself is useless afterwards, since I don’t ever get a response, but is usually cathartic) noting that he was being very informative by setting the record straight. Well, maybe I expressed this sentiment with a tirade…

Every time I hear a Republican talking head on a news program saying Fannie and Freddie caused the problem I want to jump through my T.V., explain that the answer “betrays not even a modest understanding of the contributing factors to the current crisis, it’s scope, and magnitude” and begin to rattle off about flawed ratings agencies, excessive leverage (for investment banks and funds), over-reliance on models, a flawed compensation model for Wall St., managements needs to one-up their own earnings and those of competitors, explosive year over year growth of unproven financial technologies, over-reliance on “fast money” to distribute risk, fund’s need to earn outsized returns to attract assets, funds’ need to buy crappy bonds to build a “relationship” that would allow them to get “good” bonds from banks, poor disclosure from companies (specifically investment banks, as I’ve discussed on my blog), and extremely low rates for a very long time. Of course I’m just a normal guy who actually knows what’s going on, I don’t get invited onto these shows.

(Emphasis added, mine.)

Let’s tackle these, shall we?

  1. Excessive Leverage — If the plot of the credit crisis had included a deus ex machina it would have been an instant de-levering of troubled investment firms. This didn’t happen and several collapsed. I don’t want to be repetitive, but the Deal Professor says it plainly when he says, “Sometimes, You Can Only Raise Capital When You Don’t Need It” … If a firm is highly levered, as Bear was, Lehman was, Fannie was, Freddie was, and A.I.G. was, then when the market gets bad, losses pile up, and credit tightens it’s a death spiral. There’s a large distance between well-capitalized and insolvent, but once you move from adequately-capitalized to under-capitalized it’s probably impossible not to hit insolvent or bankrupt. Oh, and let’s not forget how this became a problem in the first place … the rules were relaxed in 2004.
  2. Flawed Rating Agencies — This is pretty obvious. Moodys errors. Rating agencies noting any deal, even one “structured by cows,” would be rated. And lastly, the smoking gun that seems to be the largest caliber, the fact that … well, I’ll let Mr. Raiter speak for himself:… “Mr. Raiter said that the residential mortgage rating group at S.& P. had captured the largest market share among its main competitors — 92 percent or better — ‘and improving the model would not add to S.& P.’s revenues.‘” Wow! Honesty, stupidity, incompetence … all on display. Now, to be honest, I have no idea what difference these problems made. What I do know is that the rating agencies were used as a means of outsourcing risk management and credit analysis. While it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the rating agencies missed the mark, the magnitude by which they missed is a huge problem if everyone took their ratings as fundamentally true. What these “statistical rating agencies” should have been doing is running securities and mortgage loans through abhorrently conservative scenarios and fixing ratings based on those…. they didn’t. They were argued down to “realistic” scenarios based on past experience. The issues above merely compound the problem.
  3. Over-Reliance on Models — Related to the rating agencies’ issues, this one is a great catchall for terrible risk management. Let’s be honest, no one saw the fundamentals in housing getting so bad. That’s not the issue, I didn’t see it so I can’t exactly blame others for not seeing it. What I can do, however, is blame risk management professionals for not preparing for it. When you have, as Citi did, tens of billions of dollars in highly correlated assets, you should know there’s a risk of tens of billions of dollars in writedowns. When you have tens of billions of dollars in commercial mortgages, as Lehman did, you should realize the risks there. Similar lessons for WaMu, Wachovia, and CountryWide. Instead, though, like the rating agencies, there was a push to have “realistic” or “back tested” results. Let’s go to Mr. Viniar, C.F.O. of Goldman, for his take: “Even scenario analysis, which can address some of VAR’s deficiencies, came up short … [This] ’caused us to look at more-extreme scenarios than we used to look at,’ says Viniar. ‘It made us expand out the tails of what we deemed a realistic possibility.'” Logical, concise, and conservative. It seems Goldman didn’t attempt to show lower risk numbers so that they could deploy more capital or be looked upon as safer by the stock market. No, they looked at more extreme scenarios. They reacted quickly. However, in quoting this passage I sandbagged you, dear readers. This quotation is actually much more relevant to this situation than one would think–it comes from 2001! Mr. Viniar, people probably won’t remember (seems like a lifetime ago), but I noted before, was the guy who convened a firm-wide meeting on exposure to the housing markets. The takeaway is that the firm that looked at the most extreme scenarios, not the ones that models said were most likely, weathered the storm the best.
  4. Flawed Compensation Model — This one is pretty obvious. Lots of money flowed into people’s P.A.’s (that’s “personal account”) each year based on fees and mark-to-market gains for complex structured products. In many instances these risks were distributed and off the balance sheets of investment banks. However, these businesses were grown, and none of the risks were well understood–the people in the lead, though, lead the charge to increase their compensation. I was personally aware of a senior trader/banker/whatever that pushed a firm, one that has seen tens of billions in writedowns and may or may not still be alive, who pushed for balance sheet commitment of 2-3x the current size in the C.D.O. business. This would have exposed this institution to writedowns larger than most firms equity base. This proposal was shot down, but still… Clearly making eight digits was going to someone’s head. Now, we all know that I believe one should be accountable for their decisions, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when one has made tens of millions of dollars in bonus and salary, but their decisions lead an institution to take massive losses, reduces shareholder value significantly (keeping in mind shareholders might be woefully unaware of the risks being taken), and leads to thousands of people losing their jobs, merely being fired isn’t enough. Especially since these issues are only beginning to be understood when these people are fired, usually. Becoming an instant millionaire is a huge, huge problem. It’s the “swing for the fences if you’re down” mentality, and it’s also the “worry about the tail events if they happen” mentality. Put simply, there should be the ability to claw-back compensation based on performance for years. Perhaps a ten year lockup of wealth is extreme, but given these issues and famous blowups in the past, and taking into account the tradition of good times to last several years, maybe ten years is harsh but not extreme. Maybe employees should be allowed to hedge exposure to stock prices after a few years, but still have risk if negligence is discovered or things go wrong that were set in motion by that person. Obviously something drastic needs to be done, perhaps merely paying less is sufficient, but I doubt it.
  5. Management Pressures — Highly correlated to the flawed compensation model, it’s the case that management was pushed hard to get earnings up. Having seen the “budget” process (an odd name, I thought, since a budget, to me, merely means expenditures) up close, I saw people come up with reasonable numbers, submit them to senior management, and be told, “More!” Well, guess what <expletive>s? If someone tells you they can reasonably deliver something and you always add 10-20% to those numbers, there is more risk taking and less rationality to how that profit is achieved. Maybe the long term effects of pushing the envelope are much worse than not taking those risks to begin with. This is one reason Goldman seems to outperform so often, they understand what they are getting themselves into. They truly work together and achieve revenues through teamwork instead of edict. Now, underperformance is punished, but setting reasonable goals is step one when trying to exceed them. The next generation of management should fight their bosses tooth and nail not to set unreasonable baseline expectations and should figure out objective measures that reflect an employee or business’s effectiveness. The tyranny of quarterly earnings shouldn’t make grown ups act stupidly because they can’t “just say no.” Here’s a hint: if you run a company with a nine- or ten-digit balance sheet and you don’t realize your business is complex enough that you shouldn’t manage to the next ninety days, then you should step aside. Seems simple to me. Maybe that’s why Google doesn’t bother with quarterly guidance.
  6. Explosive Growth of Unproven Financial Technologies — Being a bit of a purist I am hesitant to call financial products or methods “technologies,” but I’ll use that word for now. The truth of the matter is, these products had never seen a massive downturn. Sub-prime loans as we know them today hadn’t seen a recession until now. C.D.O.’s backed by structured products hadn’t existed during a protracted period of fundamnetal credit distress before. This was known and talked about often. For as much as this was talked about, it was an observation that was never extrapolated. Hedging and risk management still looked at historical levels of distress and credit problems. The market had grown by orders of magnitude, but that wasn’t part of the equation. Quite simply, the fact that these markets grew so much so fast meant no one had a good handle on the feedback effects of this growth. This is somewhat obvious and very moot, so I won’t dwell on the problems of such massive growth.
  7. Over Reliance on “Fast Money” To Distribute Risk — Anyone who knows structured products understand this point. Basically, the fair-weather buyers are “fast money.” This client based is distinct from “buy and hold” or “real money” accounts. Here is where the shell game of wall street really kicked into high gear. Hedge funds would buy bonds with the intention of selling at a profit later. Investment banks would, to show strength of the market, put out “bids” or interest to purchase securities they had just created at a higher price than they had just sold said securities at. Hedge funds would then immediately sell back to Wall St. firms, at a profit, to take advantage of their desire to show the market their securitizations “trade well” or “at a premium.” When firms are making money on the securitization, they can afford this. Speaking more generally, hedge funds just “trade bonds around” more. In recent years insurance companies and banks, the institutions that buy securities and rarely sell them (for a myriad of reasons), went from 70+% of the buying base for structured products to 20-30% of the buying base. This means that in a bad market 70-80% of the bonds that exist can be sold (dumped?) at a moments notice. Add in the fact that during this period there was explosive growth (as noted above) and you see why when the markets hit trouble the huge wave of selling occurred, liquidity dried up, and prices plummeted.
  8. The Flawed Model for Relationships Funds have with Wall St. (coupled with Funds’ Needs for High Returns to attract Assets) — The way a bank figured out if a hedge fund was a good customer was, basically, how much a fund helped that bank get out of risk (stupidly, as stated above, since banks were likely to be more hurt by a fund owning assets and were more likely to wind up needing to repurchase those assets, but I digress…). However, when assets were in short supply relative to demand, only the top clients were able to purchase securities banks were creating. So, one might wonder, how did a nascent fund, at the bottom of the food chain, get access to the desirable securities? Easy solution: they purchased the undesirable securities to “help out” a Wall St. firm. These were more risky, although they were generally carried a higher rate of return in the event of no credit problems. These new funds, then, showed higher returns, attracted more money, and bought more securities from banks. Net effect? Most funds had a poor mix of products–higher risk bonds or assets that would get hit much harder than generic securities and more generic securities. Keep in mind that, to get high returns, funds were buying C.D.O. products and other structured products that had higher returns in general, but funds also levered these products and thus funds were much more exposed to moves in the market. Funds, as everyone knows, get paid a percentage of assets under management and returns, so to grow their revenue stream many funds just had to buy lots of securities (and, to establish a strong enough relationship to be allocated enough securities, plenty of lower quality securities). This was the prisoner’s dilemma of the syndicate system–funds cooperated every time. (Just to put some numbers on it, when a fund would try to buy residential or commercial mortgage backed securities it was possible for demand to outstrip supply 2- or 3-to-1. Accounts with strong relationships usually got 100% to 80% of the requested amount of bonds being issued. Weak relationships or smaller firms could receive as little as 10-20% of their desired allocation.) This is a complex process and nuanced point, feel free to email me for more explanation.
  9. Poor Disclosure from Companies — This is a point I’ve raised before. I won’t go over it again. The short story is that firms got away with a lot because they didn’t tell anyone what they were doing.
  10. Extremely Low Rates for a Very Long Time — I’ve raised this point before as well (between the numbered lists). Rates were very low and, suddenly, a product that trades at 50-100bps over L.I.B.O.R. traded 50-100% higher than L.I.B.O.R. If your benchmark was treasury rates to outperform your benchmark meaningfully you needed to get much higher spreads, and thus take higher risk. This is why C.D.O.’s experienced such explosive growth (see the problems the growth cased above). Low rates also made it more attractive to get a floating rate mortgage, which a huge majority of sub-prime mortgages were. This was part of the ex-post concern with Alan Greenspan’s encouraging people to take out A.R.M.’s.

In short, Fannie and Freddie were part of the problem, but not in and of themselves. In fact, if Fannie and Freddie had caused these problems by selling banks their bonds, then we wouldn’t have a problem at all. Why? Because Fannie and Freddie would be “on the hook” for the bonds they guarantee. If these bonds went bad no firms would have taken losses on them (since the government stepped in to keep them solvent and backstopped their obligations). Okay, now that I’m done ranting I’m going to rant on something new. The post-crisis narrative of what went wrong… (don’t you love the rise of the word “narrative”?).

  1. The failure of rating agencies, risk managers, and risk management models. This has been getting the most press because it’s easy to explain (not why these things failed, but the fact they failed).
  2. Sheer size. This is pretty silly, if you ask me. Bigger doesn’t have to mean riskier. The practices that get a firm to a massive size could be an issue. Super-concentrating the health of the markets with very few players could be a huge problem. The “Too Big to Fail” issue might fit some situations, but didn’t cause this crisis. No one wants to have to rely on the government to save them.
  3. Executive pay. This is a limited view on the actual problem. In fact, in most firms, C.E.O.’s aren’t the highest earning individuals.
  4. Hedge funds and short selling. Really? Let’s trace the logic here (or lack thereof): a firm runs it’s business poorly and I bet it will decline in value. Clearly I am at fault there. The “free markets at all costs except losses” crowd, like those currently at Treasury, are putting a band aid on an amputated leg here. Especially with the very firms begging to be protected turning around and getting fees from products circumventing the bank on short selling. (What a stupid move, some firms deserve to be in worse trouble.)
  5. Everything else. Why get into the details of the actual causes when you can distill down issues to “good” versus “bad” and simple fights? No one has…. so I’m doing it! But I doubt all the other things will make it into the popular understanding of what went wrong.

There you go. My hands are tired, so I’ll stop here. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

Disclosure? I Call B.S.

August 20, 2008

Disclosure and financial filings seem to be topical today with the S.E.C. announcing the Investment Banking Analyst Mercy Initiative. So, I’ll play ball. I have read a bunch of things recently making claims about the ability of a diligent investor to know what they are “getting into” and what the risks are for investing in a public company that has disclosure requirements. Actually, I haven’t been doing this for decades, so let’s quote someone that has… Tom Brown:

No one, inside or outside the company, could accurately predict what … ultimate losses would be. But what they could do—and what financial services investors can do now, regarding the banks in general–is make reasonable estimates of ranges of losses, and estimate companies’ future earnings power, then compare that to their market values.

(emphasis mine).

I emailed Tom to clarify a few thing, but never heard back. So, as I am prone to do, I’ll assume I’m correct in my interpretation and move on. I’m assuming that this was also the case in the past–how else would people be able to buy into a financial institution in the past if Tom didn’t think his words were just as true two to three years ago? (Nothing has really changed in disclosure requirements, right?) Surely, in the past, the issue would have been taking a view on the performance of the various financial institutions’ assets as well.

I looked at three firms’ disclosure, from 2006, related to C.D.O.’s … what I could find. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not trained to do this. I’m just a person, with some financial experience, looking at some S.E.C. filings. I knew i was looking for C.D.O. exposure, especially in the context of figuring out what banks would need to be responsible for if the market had a severe dislocation. Let me explain what I mean by this. Remember all the liquidity put chatter? While mostly related to S.I.V.’s, this is still a relevant concept for C.D.O.’s. As in any syndicated deal, most common for selling bond or stock offerings related to corporations but also relevant for securitized products, when an investment bank agrees to do a securitization they have most likely (call it 80+% of the time) agreed to “take down” or purchase the securities they are unable to sell to investors. Easy enough, right? Those assets are what has generated a huge amount of writedowns. It’s very easy to see the relationship between market share in the C.D.O. and securitized products space and magnitude of writedowns.

These relationships, however, are very complex. Multiple investment banks could be selling an individual deal and each could be responsible for purchasing different parts or different percentages of leftover securitizations. These are individually negotiated for each transaction. As a firm is building up assets (for example, sub-prime mortgage-backed securities), before they have enough to actually securitize and create a C.D.O., the bank/investment bank could have all the risk of those assets losing value or defaulting–if the C.D.O. doesn’t get done then it becomes a big problem. It’s also a big difference what types of assets or structures make up the C.D.O. securities. One sees the problem growing. There is a lot of information that needs to be processed to come up with a reasonable estimation of losses. I would claim that it is completely insufficient for a bank, as they have been, to disclose exposures once they start to become a problem.

So, what did I find? Terrible disclosure. I was able to find almost no information. Certainly no information that would have helped come up with an estimate for losses from these firms based in any sort of logic or fact. Now, I’m not saying one should be suspect of current disclosure–I don’t know what is next to blow up or cause big problems and none of these firms are run by the same regime that decided the previous level of disclosure. What I am saying is that I wouldn’t have been able, even if I had known exactly what was going to happen, to know the magnitude of the losses.

First, I looked at Citi. Citi had a notion of participating or structuring. Those numbers were combined and reported together. This helps to determine market share, perhaps. This does nothing to disclose the risk on the balance sheet. This number ($110 billion) could be made up entirely of bonds were Citi is at risk. It could also be entirely made up of bonds where Citi has no risk and is taking fees. There is nothing I found in the 10-K’s to say anything more helpful. So we know losses, if these C.D.O.’s (named V.I.E. or Variable Interest Entities in the disclosure) were sold at 22 cents on the dollar, as Merrill reportedly did, the losses would have been between zero and $86 billion. Whew! Nailed it down… Now, knowing that, do you buy or sell Citi’s stock?

Second, I looked at Merrill. They state some numbers and then footnote saying they might, potentially, hold a financial interest in some of the securitizations. Same situation as Citi. No disclosure as to what kinds of bonds these are. How much was retained? How much in financing obligations exist related to these? What percentage would have had to be retained by Merrill if unsold?

Last I looked at Bear’s filing. Bear was a slight improvement. They actually stated some of what they retained and have some exposure numbers which one could back out some other information from. Still, if I was modeling the losses I would be asking for a lot more information–while an improvement, in my opinion, it wasn’t enough.

Below are the tables from the various filings. Also, if one was looking for C.D.O.’s, I put the number of instances the term of interest appeared.

Now, since the S.E.C. is mandating and revamping filings and disclosure, perhaps they can do something about this. Maybe financial firms should be forced to disclose risk numbers and sensitivities. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one had the answers, nor did they have the specific questions, before this crisis occurred.

From the Citi 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Thirteen (lucky!)

From Merrill’s 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Zero

From Bear’s 10-K (2006):

Mentions of the word C.D.O. : Eight