Saturday, December 8, 2012

Securitization’s House of Cards

After reading Felix Salmon’s post about the Australian judge who stood up to ratings giant Standard & Poor’s (which slapped a AAA grade on some securitizations that all too quickly crapped out), I got curious.

How badly did S&P and ABN Amro (the creator of the investment) behave? What exactly happened with these odd products (called “constant proportion debt obligations,” or CPDOs for short)?

Felix made it sound pretty bad. After digging around some, I’m convinced now that it was even worse.

What follows are some damning things about the case that Felix -- and sometimes even the judge herself, in her decision -- didn’t touch upon.

Judge Jayne Jagot found S&P liable for losses suffered by investors that trusted their shoddy ratings. That was a big blow to S&P, which in the U.S. is used to hiding behind the skirt of the First Amendment, protesting that its ratings are only “opinions,” as if the company’s analysts were no more than film critics for a free alternative weekly.

Now CPDOs are awfully complex (Jagot approvingly quotes a description of them as “grotesquely complicated”). The way you rate one of these Rube Goldberg-ian securitizations is through a model, into which you feed a bunch of variables, then observe how the original investment fares in a series of random trial runs.

Investors in the ill-fated “Rembrandt” 10-year CPDOs were basically selling insurance (in that credit default swap kind of way) on the members of a couple of CDS indexes, known together as the Globoxx. The insurance protects against default on the debt of the companies in the indexes (each has 125 members, I think). That put the investors in a “long” position on the underlying bonds. So they benefit when the debt becomes safer and doesn’t default.

Sort of.


Because here’s the problem with a CPDO.

It needs higher credit spreads (which indicate higher risk, which leads to fatter “insurance premiums”), while at the same time it paradoxically needs lower credit spreads (as they indicate a lower risk of default, and thus a smaller chance of taking losses).

How the heck do you square that circle? Well, ABN Amro started by jamming bad, incomplete data into the model. And the bank succeeded because S&P stunningly accepted whatever ABN Amro spoon-fed it, like a lapdog with its eye solely on the milk bone (that would be the rating fee it was promised).

To see the problems with one bit of data in particular, you need to take a closer look at the plumbing of these things:

The Rembrandt CPDOs were actually selling insurance in a rolling series of contracts. They started out by issuing protection through 5 1/4 year default swaps on the Globoxx basket. Six months later, they exited that position and sold a fresh 5 1/4 year contract on the new Globoxx (every six months, companies that no longer meet the investment-grade criteria are replaced in the indexes). By that time, of course, the original 5 1/4 year contract has become a 4 3/4 year contract. The process of changing over from the old index to the new is called “the roll.” The old “off the run” contract gives way to the new “on the run” one.

ABN Amro won a coveted AAA rating on the CPDO partly because of its wrongheaded exploitation of “the roll.”


See, credit risk curves for a company (of investment-grade quality anyway) tend to slope slightly upwards. Not by a whole lot -- but enough. Generally the longer you commit to insuring debt, the more you want to receive each year, because the more scary unknowns may be lurking way out in the future.

Why did that matter for a Rembrandt CPDO investor? Simple: When the CPDO does “the roll,” it buys a 4.75 year Globoxx contract (in CDS land, if you’ve sold a contract, you can later buy the exact same contract to cancel out your earlier position) and starts selling a 5.25 year default swap. So, assuming nothing else has changed, you reap a neat little benefit from the six-month difference in term. You buy a 4.75 year contract at x and sell a 5.25 year at x plus a little something.

ABN Amro calculated that “little something” at 7 basis points, or 0.07%. Seems like a puny, negligible number. Yet it was anything but. The CPDO could be as much as 15 times leveraged (and 15 times 7 is 105, or more than a full percentage point). Without that 7 basis points of roll-down benefit, occurring every six months, this AAA investment would have received a junk rating.

Yet this 7 points of roll-down benefit was a grossly flawed number -- and ABN Amro’s own model inputs showed as much!


It was never adjusted for the danger of “ratings migration,” which Jagot describes as “the phenomenon ... by which the rating of a reference entity might decrease between rolls without default.” That’s an especially insidious problem with an investment-grade index that’s changing its composition every six months.

Here’s an example of how ratings migration could sting the CPDO: It sells a Globoxx contract at 60 basis points. The economy lurches south, and some of the companies that belong to the index (what the judge refers to as “reference entities”) slip a few notches, into junk territory. After six months, let’s say the Globoxx has climbed to 80, indicating higher levels of risk. The “junk” members are replaced by new investment-grade companies, so let's suppose the new Globoxx contract is at 60 again. Got that?

Here’s the math: +7 basis points of roll-down benefit, -20 points of ratings migration. That equals a net loss of 13 basis points.

What’s worse is ABN Amro practically assures this negative ratings migration will occur -- then apparently never adjusts the model for it!

We know that because ABN Amro had to feed another bit of data into the model called “long-term average spread” (LTAS), which we’ll call “average spread,” to keep things simple. This starts at 40 in year one, then balloons to 80 in year two. In other words: ABN Amro itself expected the average level of the Globoxx to jump 40 basis points. So it’s highly likely, if that’s true, that at least a few companies were going to migrate right out of the index. This alone should have knocked out a chunk of that roll-down benefit.


But it didn’t. One reason: a glaring weakness of the model was that various key parts apparently didn’t “talk to each other” -- which made it ripe for exploitation.

Never was this weakness more apparent than with the interaction between the model’s assumptions for average spreads and volatility and default probabilities. Quite simply, there didn't seem to be any! Each variable lived in its own walled-off silo, informing the model without disturbing variables anywhere else. That’s beyond absurd.

Here’s one illustration why.

Initially ABN Amro made certain observations about the Globoxx: there was a certain expected default rate for companies in the indexes, the historical volatility was 15% (wrong, by the way -- it was actually almost twice that, and S&P never bothered to check either), the average spread was 40 to start out with (inexplicably, this simple, easily confirmable fact was wrong too -- by 25 percent!).

But, in the real world, these variables don’t live in separate silos. Actually, they’re more like joined at the hip. So when ABN Amro estimated that average spread would increase from 40 to 80 after one year -- a big jump -- to be thorough and honest and reflect reality -- it should also have adjusted volatility higher and the default rate higher as well.

The CPDO should have performed worse, not better, when average spread increased. But the investment actually did better when credit risk doubled!


If you’re getting the impression that ABN Amro cleverly worked the S&P model like deaf, dumb, and blind Tommy would a cheap pinball machine, you’re not the only one.

From Judge Jagot’s summary: “At least one person within S&P considered that ABN Amro, whether intentionally or not, had effectively ‘gamed’ the model.” The bank would have been in a good position to figure out how to game the model, too, because two former employees of S&P were on its payroll.

One way to game a model for a CPDO, as this Federal Reserve working paper by Michael B. Gordy and Sren Willemann shows:
If spreads widen early in the life of the CPDO and then hold steady, the higher carry on future index positions can outweigh the initial loss of NAV [net asset value].
And what scenario for spreads did ABN Amro predict? 40 basis points for the first year, then widening out to 80 basis points in the second year, and holding steady for the next nine years! Sheer coincidence?


So ABN Amro crammed bad data into the model, exploited weaknesses of the model ... but wait, there’s more. The CPDO models being used at the time, it turns out, were intrinsically flawed anyway. They assigned extremely low probabilities to credit spreads blowing out to the levels seen in late 2007. Now, this isn’t late 2008 we’re talking -- only 2007.

The Fed paper notes:
The spread levels realized in late 2007 are qualitatively comparable to the levels seen in 2002, so ought not to have been taken as extreme events.
(By the way, I haven’t even really explored the question of whether any investment using 15 times leverage, and thus susceptible to the smallest of price movements, should ever be rated AAA. Also the CPDO used a “doubling down” gambler’s strategy: whenever credit spreads moved the wrong way, leverage was increased, to a maximum of 15 times. Interestingly, the CPDO began its life at 15 times leverage, underscoring the absurdity of this strategy. How could it double down when it’s already at its limit? This is like Dumb and Dumber go to the casino with $1,000 in pocket, intending to use the “double down” approach, then put the whole thousand on the very first bet.)


What ABN Amro did -- and what S&P contributed to -- seems pretty much like fraud to me. But here’s the thing: at the heart of most (if not all) securitizations, I bet you’ll find similar kinds of “fraud” -- negligent and poor modeling, wrong or unrealistic data inputs, massaging of data to barely achieve desired ratings. It may not occur to this degree, but it’ll be there.

That’s because, as I’ve said before in looking at CLOs, the complexity of securitization disguises a simple truth: amid all the fee extraction and other costs, there simply isn’t enough yield available in the underlying assets -- whether they’re loans, or mortgages, or credit default swap contracts -- to justify all the high ratings, after all the slicing and dicing. This is the mathematical fraud at the heart of securitizations (liquidity and diversification arguments notwithstanding).

Someday I think someone from the world of academic finance will take a deep look at this issue, and expose securitization’s house of cards. That person could do worse than starting with such egregious instruments as these Australian CPDOs and their clearly flagrant abuses of models and ratings.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Australian Judge Sees the Light, Rules Against S&P

Felix Salmon has a good post saluting Jayne Jagot. The Australian judge (color me amazed) actually took the time to understand what was going on with CPDO securitizations that Standard & Poor's rated AAA and that later tanked. Once she did, she was a bit horrified, one gathers. She ruled that S&P must pay damages to the suckers investors that believed its ratings were professionally derived in good faith.

Here's the "why it matters":
The coverage of the decision (Quartz, FT, WSJ, Bloomberg, Reuters) concentrates, as it should, on the hugely important precedent being set here: that a ratings agency — in this case, S&P — is being found liable for losses that an investor suffered after trusting that agency.
Jagot found that S&P wasn't even "reasonably competent" (actually, the insinuation is they were grossly incompetent). Her decision spans a numbing 635,000 words (context: an average longish novel runs about 100,000).

The upshot: S&P never bothered to develop its own models or assumptions; it just lazily accepted what it was fed by its "boss" (ABN Amro, which paid for the ratings).

One of my favorite parts of the post was actually post-post, in the comment section:
Very good article. The question that you don’t ask is: why is an Australian judge the first to do this research, and what have the SEC and FSA been doing for the last five years?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Smartest Paper Ever From a Regulator

In case you missed it, Andrew Haldane's "The Dog and the Frisbee," the paper he recently presented at Jackson Hole, was brilliant.

According to the understated prose of the Bank of England, the paper by the Bank of England's head of financial stability "explores why the type of complex financial regulation developed over recent decades may be sub-optimal for crisis control."

In other words, fighting complexity with complexity is a prescription for failure. The financial system has evolved into mind-numbing complexity, partly in attempts to creatively evade letter-of-the-law regulatory regimes.

Regulators will always be outgunned, if they choose to do battle on this field. The banks have the intellectual firepower, the sheer manpower, the profit incentives -- basically, everything in their favor -- to keep running circles around hapless regulatory officials.

So Haldane (my bold):
...calls for a fresh approach to financial supervision, one which is less rules-focused and more judgment-based. He notes that this approach: “...will underpin the Bank of England’s new supervisory model when it assumes prudential regulatory responsibilities next year.” To be effective, he says that will require more experienced regulators working to a smaller, less detailed rulebook. He adds that greater simplicity and consistency in disclosure practices could also strengthen market discipline.
As I wrote on this blog three years ago (arguing for a new philosophy of regulation based more on principles than on a myriad of rules purporting to cover every relevant situation):
One problem right now is that we lay out rules, in staggering detail, and anything not prohibited is generally assumed to be legal. That invites the creation of a loophole-seeking culture in the financial system.
I don't think the U.S. has any visionaries of Haldane caliber in the upper ranks of its regulatory bodies. Maybe the best we can hope for is that if England develops a regulatory system that's smarter, better -- and simpler -- we might have someone bright enough in our country to realize that, and copy the best parts of it.

P.S. For evidence of the complexity rampant in the financial system, that exists only to arbitrage regulations, check out SunTrust’s postpaid bifurcated collateralized variable share forward on its stake in Coca-Cola in this wonderfully titled Dealbreaker piece, "Spoilsport Regulators Ruin Another Derivative That Was Too Beautiful to Live."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rhetoric of the Ridiculous

Did you happen to see this recent dramatic quote:
We are in a POW camp, trying to survive.
That's Christopher Donahue, chief executive officer of Federated Investors Inc., whose firm has most of its assets in money market funds.

So who has taken Donahue prisoner? The Afghans? Syrians? Iraqis? How did he smuggle out this message, past his captors? Who else is trapped in the camp? How long have they been held against their will? Why doesn't the U.S. --

Oh right. He's just straining for a metaphor.

Well, at least it's a richly deserved metaphor, yeah?

Judge for yourself.

Here's the context: SEC chairman Mary Schapiro believes that, in an effort to rein in the systemic risks of shadow banking, money market funds should declare a floating NAV (net asset value). That would replace the current fake $1 a share NAV that leads a dumb schmuck investor to believe the funds are invested in fairy tale assets that can never go down in price. Alternatively, the money market funds could hold higher levels of capital or put limits on withdrawals, to better protect themselves.

Remember something: this is an industry that could have undergone a catastrophic meltdown during the financial crisis. The Boston Fed recently reported that 21 money market funds had to be bailed out by their parents. Rules for money market funds need to be reformed. These funds are critical players in the unregulated shadow banking system.

And Mr. Donahue's response is to suggest ... we do nothing, while he spouts war rhetoric of the aggrieved and besieged.

Of course he's still not the winner in over-the-top, completely ridiculous rhetoric from the financial industry. That honor, as CBS recently reminded us, is still held by Blackstone chairman and co-founder Steve Schwarzman, who two years ago said, also choosing battleground imagery:
It's war. It's like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
Schwarzman, if you recall, was talking about President Obama's suggestion to close the carried interest loophole that enables private equity bigwigs to pay a tax rate of only 15 percent on millions of dollars of income.

CBS breaks down what that's all about:

Fund managers earn a management fee, typically 2 percent of assets under management, and a share of the profits, typically 20 percent ... In some cases, Bain charged 2 and 30. The 2 and 20 structure makes for a nice tax deal: While the 2 percent management fee is taxed as ordinary income, the 20 is treated as a long-term capital gain, which is taxed at 15 percent. In private equity lingo, the income from profits is called "carried interest." Many people, including Warren Buffett, have criticized the tax treatment of carried interest, arguing that it's simply compensation, and ought to be taxed as such.

Indeed, it's a distortionary tax break that encourages excessive takeover activity.

And by the way, that 15 percent is the same marginal tax rate that someone with $9,000 of taxable income is paying ... and Mr. Schwarzman is worth oh, let's say, $5.5 billion (according to Forbes).

It's amazing how out of touch some people are.

Friday, May 11, 2012

JPMorgan and the House of Spin

Wow, talk about ironic biteback.

JPMorgan, with golden boy Jamie Dimon at the helm, has apparently lost $2 billion on bad credit derivative bets.

What's most revealing is how Dimon is furiously spinning the activities of the unit that screwed up. They were doing nothing more than hedging. Not proprietary trading, but hedging. Nothing to see here, just a few hedges that went bad, cough cough, move along people.


(Insert eyeroll.)

So Dimon shows us how the banks have recast prop trading. Meanwhile, that silence you hear is the sharp knives going quiet in the next room, as those regulators and others busily gutting the carcass of the Volcker Rule pause in their labors, wondering what happens now.

Should be interesting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Must Read of the Week

Great lineup of papers from the Russell Sage Foundation and Century Foundation conference on the financial crisis on Friday.

Behavioral finance, efficient market theory revisited ... your inner finance wonk will rejoice. (The only one so far that I've found head-wagging is "Shadow Finance" and its theory of "cream skimming," which seems way out in left field -- more on that later, I hope.)

The "talker" of the set is this paper that, fundamentally, questions the intrinsic value of financial innovation by showing that, over the last century and a half, the industry has become more inefficient at its core role of intermediation, not less. Yes, there are numbers and charts.

In brief:
The finance industry that sustained the expansion of railroads, steel and chemical industries, and the electricity and automobile revolutions was more efficient than the current finance industry.
The conclusion:
In the absence of evidence that increased trading led to either better prices or better risk sharing, we would have to conclude that the finance industry's share of GDP is about 2 percentage points higher than it needs to be and this would represent an annual misallocation of resources of about $280 billions for the U.S. alone.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ben Bernanke's Great Delusion?

Ben Bernanke made a speech Friday in which he made a couple of curious comments about the financial crisis.

First (my bold):
The multiple instances of run-like behavior during the crisis, together with the associated sharp increases in liquidity premiums and dysfunction in many markets, motivated much of the Federal Reserve's policy response. Bagehot advised central banks--the only institutions that have the power to increase the aggregate liquidity in the system--to respond to panics by lending freely against sound collateral.
And then:
The Federal Reserve's responses to the failure or near failure of a number of systemically critical firms reflected the best of bad options, given the absence of a legal framework for winding down such firms in an orderly way in the midst of a crisis--a framework that we now have. However, those actions were, again, consistent with the Bagehot approach of lending against collateral to illiquid but solvent firms.

Was the Fed really lending against sound collateral, or was it more the fact that, whatever it chose to lend against became, ipso facto, "sound collateral."

And were these really "illiquid but solvent firms" or "illiquid and insolvent firms" that the Fed, through a bevy of support programs, succeeded in reviving?

I can't tell if Bernanke really believes what he's saying or, deep inside, realizes it's a necessary intellectual cover for a spate of unprecedented Fed activism.

Friday, April 13, 2012

More Games Played by Ratings Agencies With Securitizations

I found this paper this morning: "Ratings, Mortgage Securitizations and the Apparent Creation of Value."

Some excerpts below (my bold):
Structured products are designed to produce desired ratings. The company issuing a bond has no easy way of restructuring itself to change the rating assigned to a bond if it does not like the rating.
The apparent creation of value happens when any portfolio of debt-like assets is securitized. It is therefore a potential explanation for popularity of re-securitization and re-re-securitization.
Double yup.

On to the summary:
The creation of tranches with AAA ratings was the key to the success of the securitization of subprime mortgages during the 2000 to 2006 period. Indeed, the profitability of a securitization to the structurer depended critically [on] the volume of AAA-rated tranches that were created ...

Pension funds, endowments and other large investors often establish rules governing how their assets can be invested. These rules often specify that the credit rating of instruments must be above a certain level, and sometimes that the credit rating must be AAA. There is a limited supply of AAA-rated corporate and sovereign bonds in the world ...

Was a AAA-rated tranche equivalent to a AAA-rated bond? The answer ... should be clear from our analysis ... If the rating agencies applied their criteria appropriately, one dimension of the loss distribution of a AAA-rated tranche was the same as that of a AAA-rated corporate bond, but other aspects of the loss distribution were liable to be quite different ...

Consider a bond and a thin tranche, both rated BBB by S&P or Fitch. They will have approximately the same probability of default. However, in the case of the bond, the expected loss in the event of default is about 60% whereas, in the case of the tranche, it is almost 100%.

There are other reasons why investors should have been wary ... regarding a AAA bond as equivalent to a AAA tranche. As pointed out by Coval et al. (2009), AAA-rated tranches have high systematic [sic, should be "systemic"] or market risk. They tend to lose money when the market as a whole performs very poorly and there are many defaults. AAA-rated bonds do not have as much systematic risk.

Another difference concerns the probability of downgrade. As explained earlier, structurers knew the models used by rating agencies and were able to show proposed structures to rating agencies before creating them. As a result, it is likely that AAA-rated tranches had just made it to the AAA category.
I won't even comment on the unmentioned here, regarding systemic risk -- that these instruments that are likely to perform more poorly during periods of systemic risk are themselves, with their shiny AAA veneers, contributors to the eventual appearance of that systemic risk.

So those are some of the games. Investors, note well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are We Finally Ready to Do Something Meaningful About Shadow Banking?

I've been heartened by a growing number of news stories that pose the question: "What to do about shadow banking?". Here's the latest, from the New York Times, to pop up on my screen (though this piece isn't very substantive).

Barry Ritholtz shows us with this graphic from the Wall Street Journal that shadow banking never went away after the big financial crisis; the Fed and Treasury just stepped in to pick up the slack.

Finally: Be very, very wary of people peddling solutions that make the world's central banks the shadow bankers of last resort.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why You Should Be Very Depressed About Climate Change

This is a bit off topic, but for years I've been following the climate change debate. Today I came across this terrific list of "myths vs. what the science says". There are 173, total.

So that's 173 myths that nothing's really wrong, debunked.

Still, part of me wanted to cry at the earnest thoroughness of the debunkers. They even break down their answers into basic/intermediate/advanced, to suit everyone from pea-brained U.S. Senators (doesn't Jim Inhofe actually, physically look like a dinosaur?) to climate scientists who can handle advanced formulas and charts.

But it's all just spitting into the wind.

Even if the science were agreed upon by 100 percent of the population -- yes, climate change is coming if we don't restrain levels of carbon dioxide -- does anyone really think anything would change in any significant way?

One problem is, we all live on one planet, share the same air, but are governed by hundreds of different political systems. And we can't compel global cooperation. So there's a huge incentive for any one country to cheat while others cleave to aggressive carbon-dioxide lowering rules -- and that's if we ever got close to agreeing on anything substantial globally, which we won't.

Another problem is, in the U.S. (the worst of the carbon-spewers per capita), we don't do pain. We don't want our lifestyle threatened. Just look at the federal gas tax. It's been frozen at 18.4 cents per gallon for almost two decades. If you double, triple, quadruple (or more) that tax, that will change driving habits and fill up some of those one-person cars you see everywhere zooming down the freeways.

There are lots of great reasons to do this -- reduce pollution, encourage energy independence, generate revenue for a cash-strapped budget, fight global warming. Conservative economists like Greg Mankiw have gotten behind this proposal. But the average American hates the idea, so don't hold your breath.

One last problem (though there are many; this is the short list): To combat global warming, we would be asked to make real, immediate sacrifices for a hypothetical, distant problem. That just won't happen.

So what now?

If we wait too long, and the effects of global warming are as serious as we've been told, we'll just find a way to cope. If half of New York City winds up under water, we'll just adjust. Highways on stilts. Floating homes. Water taxis.

On global warming, I'm sorry: I just don't think there's anything to be optimistic about.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Must Read: A Smart Takedown of Economist's Cheerleading on Financial Innovation

Recently the Economist had a terrible report on the benefits of financial innovation. I read only part of it, but the jejune, spirited prose suggested an earnest college student who has discovered all he thinks he needs to know about the free market and economics via a couple of high-level courses.

I was pleased afterwards to read this smart, extremely thorough takedown by frequent guest poster at Naked Capitalism, Satyajit Das. It's a great piece (though has Das's singular failing -- he can't write a shopping list in less than 500 words ;)). Everyone should read Das on financial "innovation" to learn how the Economist comes up woefully, naively short in its analysis.

A few highlights I plucked out are below.

First, Das has a terrific section on risk transference (my bold):
Securitisation for the last 15-20 years entailed shifting assets from banks to structure[s] which reduced the amount of capital required, arbitraging regulatory capital requirements.

If a bank already held a loan funded with deposits, then in aggregate by selling the loan to the same depositors does not increase the supply of credit. The increase in credit is a function of the several things: (1) shifting risk into the shadow banking system; (2) alchemy (tranching) to create highly rated securities (AAA or AA) which acts as collateral to allow further re-leveraging; and (3) the ability to re-hypothecate the collateral over and over again, such as in re-securitisation.

The process increased leverage (crudely the capital against risk in reduced), model risk, liquidity risk, complexity and linkages via counterparty risk. It also moves risk from somewhere where it is highly visible to where it is less visible. In cutting and dicing risk, it encourages mis-pricing.
Das also includes quotes from Fabrice Tourre of Goldman Sachs, whose candid e-mails captured the arrogance and reckless complexity of the industry:
“More and more leverage in the system. The whole building is about to collapse anytime now?.?.?.? Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab[rice Tourre] standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!”

“Anyway, not feeling too guilty about this, the real purpose of my job is to make capital markets more efficient and ultimately provide the U.S. consumer with more efficient ways to leverage and finance himself, so there is a humble, noble, and ethical reason for my job :) amazing how good I am in convincing myself!!!"
Finally, Das concludes with this withering paragraph:
Information on the issues is all in the public domain. There are a plethora of reports, such as Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report, the Turner Report etc, which explore financial innovation and the financial crisis. There is also, I understand, a relatively new innovative Internet-based tool – the “search engine” – with could have been used by The Economist to check and research such facts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is Australia About to Slay the Ratings Monster?

Uh oh. Looks like Standard & Poor's may be on the verge of getting its comeuppance for all those hallucinatory, fee-inspired AAA ratings, in of all places, Australia. A 10-week court case has just concluded.

So what happened? The AAA rated investments weren't really all that bad, were they?
The twelve [NSW] councils bought a bunch of “Rembrandt” toxic structured-finance products in 2007. They tanked 90 per cent in six months and now the councils are suing investment bank ABN Amro for making the Rembrandts, Local Government Financial Services (LGFS) for selling them and S&P for appending their once-hallowed AAA credit rating.
Okay, okay. Let's be philosophical. Things tank sometimes. That's life in Market Land. At least this was the kind of well-established, safe product upon which S&P has historically bestowed a AAA rating right?
Looking at the closing submissions which have now been filed with the Federal Court, the councils contend that S&P failed to exercise reasonable care and had “no reasonable grounds” for its AAA rating on the Rembrandts.

The councils argue that this is supported by the limited historical data relied upon to rate the product. This was a new product, a “CPDO”, even more risky than a CDO and based on an index of derivatives which had only been going for a couple of years.
Have no fear, legal team! In court, S&P undoubtedly showed itself to be tough and independent when modeling these particular investments. Yes?
They also say S&P made a “critical error” when it relied on the advice of investment bank ABN Amro regarding the Rembrandt's historical volatility.
Fine. One mistake. But that was surely just one input into S&P's otherwise complex model, so we can overlook this lapse in judgment?
“The evidence at trial established that S&P did not conduct any modelling for the Rembrandt 2006-3 Notes, or discuss the results of such modelling at any ratings committee."
Yipes! Looking grim. But at least things can't get any worse, huh?
“Further, the Rembrandt 2006-3 Notes were assigned AAA ratings “because S&P did not want to reveal to investors the error they had made in assigning a AAA rating to the Rembrandt-2”.
Oops. Can you say "slam dunk," Timmy?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

One Prediction, and One Quiet Cheer

First, the quiet cheer: regulators seem to be moving on shadow banking. For one, the SEC is talking about a floating net asset value for mutual funds and thicker capital buffers, which has predictably set off a howl of protest from the industry.

And Reuters wrote:

Watchdogs to Drag Shadow Banks Into the Light

Then, the prediction:

There will be something in the fine print of the as-yet undetailed giant mortgage settlement that will elicit a chorus of "we let the banks off the hook for that -- what the hell?"

Saturday, February 4, 2012

NYT's DealBook Gets It All Wrong on CLOs

This was a painful piece to read at the New York Times DealBook: "A Debt Market's Slow Recovery Is Burdened by New Regulation."

Steven Davidoff whips out his violin, tucks it under his chin, and plays a mournful lament for the market for collateralized loan obligations, which is under threat by none other than the act that the bankers have all flicked out their switchblades for: Dodd-Frank. Specifically, Dodd-Frank meanies want CLO originators to retain 5 percent of their funds, to prevent them from stuffing the investments with, er, crap.

The Times should have top-notch journalists who know more about CLOs and junk debt than Davidoff appears to here. Because, honestly, in this piece I can't tell sometimes if he is playing the fiddle or he is being played by someone else like a fiddle.

Here are five problems I have:

1. "CLOs are largely made up of loans that are at much lower risk of default than the risky high-yield, or "junk," bonds that also finance private equity buyouts."

He's trying to make these loans seem safer. But let's take the buyout for the old TXU, which as Davidoff notes, was made possible by leveraged loans and bonds. Right now TXU (renamed Energy Future Holdings) is rated CCC, deep into junk territory, only four levels from D (which, for non-credit junkies, means "D" for default).

If Energy Future goes belly up, the loans and bonds should both default. The loans will probably enjoy a better recovery rate, because they're higher on the capital structure and secured, but they will default. I'm not sure where Davidoff gets this idea that the default risk is "much lower" for leveraged loans than bonds. When a company is rated Total Junk, the default risk will be high for both.

2. "CLOs had a default rate of less than 1 percent even as the loans underlying them had a default rate of about 6.5 percent."

So? Davidoff seems to imply that CLO structurers have somehow transmogrified straw into gold by using this numerical comparison. Look! The default rate is much lower! But it's disingenuous and incomplete.

The CLO is the loans, in aggregate. Structuring doesn't magically conjure up a new income stream out of thin air. Those 6.5 percent of loans that defaulted -- they defaulted whether they're in the CLO, out of the CLO, or wrapped in something called a super duper wonderbar GCLO (giant CLO).

In fact, thought experiment: let's say you create that GCLO that almost never defaults, even when a mess of underlying loans do. Let's say the default rate is 6.5 percent for the loans, 0.8 percent for the CLO, and 0.001 percent for the GCO.

But let's say when the GCLO defaults, because it's so huge, there's a good chance the entire financial system will implode. So if I tell you that 6.5 percent of the loans have defaulted, but the GCLO has never defaulted, is that a good thing (by Davidoff's logic, it would seem to be)?

Or is it bad that when that GCLO explodes it's probably taking down the financial system, so you'd be better off having the loans outside of that only ostensibly super-safe structure -- out where they'll do less harm? (Note: if you've been thinking a lot about the financial crisis, you'll realize this is not an accidental sort of thought experiment.)

(3) "So new CLOs are crucial to support the corporate loan market. Without them, banks will be hampered from originating credit since they will be unable to sell these loans off their balance sheet."

Well, for decades preceding the invention of the CLO, the financial system seemed to bumble along just fine. In fact, banks were regarded as being safer because they kept loans on their balance sheet, because that meant they were more circumspect about what lending they did. Here, Davidoff is mourning an end to the easy money that securitization threw open the spigots to. But he doesn't really seem to reflect on whether being awash in easy money was a bad or a good thing.

(4) "Most managers do not actually originate the loans underlying these financial instruments [CLOs]. Instead, the manager buys these loans from originating banks."

So he claims that leads to a "secondary-market check" that "may be lacking with other structured products."

Davidoff says this to argue that CLOs are unlike the mortgage-backed securities that crashed and burned, and thus deserve to be exempt from a rule about securitization originators retaining 5 percent of the deal. But wait a minute -- check out this post about "Why Structured Finance?" -- because the securitization model for mortgages doesn't require that a structurer originate the debt either.

In fact, before the crisis there were plenty of Wall Street banks bundling mortgages that they never originated. So Davidoff's "secondary-market check" looks like a rather weak safeguard.

(5) "And of course, private equity would also be hurt if the CLO market dried up."

Ah, private equity. You know, Mike at Rortybomb just showed us that much private equity activity occurs because of our screwball tax code -- not because it makes sense, business-wise, and James Surowiecki at the New Yorker had a good bash on the subject too, revealing that these raw-meat capitalists actually get a lot of hidden supports that make them look more like welfare queens.

Davidoff never pauses to consider that it might be a good thing if private equity buccaneering was curtailed.

Of course Davidoff misses the really big story about the CLO market: mathematically, these things just don't make much sense. With all the fees that they suck out, they should collapse under their own weight.

Before the financial crisis, they were priced close to real AAA, as investors were fooled by the complexity into thinking they really were AAA safe. Today, investors aren't that dumb: they're onto the game and demanding higher, non-AAA yields for debt that's graded AAA.

But why would investors play along with such shenanigans? Check out:

The Ratings Charade Continues: A CLO Investigation (Part I)
The Ratings Charade Continues: A CLO Investigation (Part II)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Is Being an Ideologue a Contributor to Stupidity?

A gratuitously provocative question?

Maybe not.

Consider the following equation:

TA * TR = TB.

Let's say TB represents some "financial obligation" among a group of people. Further, let's say that at some point in time, the group has a TB of 40. And then, almost 30 years later, TB equals 55.

Now, if you don't know the values of TA and TR, what would be logical to conclude about how they must have changed over that period?

This one is so simple, it couldn't stump an eighth grader who wastes most of math class staring out the window. For TB to increase on the right side of the equation, one of the two variables on the left side of the equation must have increased -- or perhaps both did, in some combination.

But what if you're an ideologue? And what if your ideology leads you to think a "TB" of 40 for this particular group is already high? And what's more, you vehemently insist that TR should be as low as possible, and that a lot of economic problems result from a high TR?

So what happens when you see:

TA * TR = 40

Jump to:

TA * TR = 55

It's clear to you what the problem is. TR! Because TR is always the problem! You don't spend a lot of time mulling over what may be going on here. You fixate on TR, because that's what you always fixate on.

In which case, your name might be Ari Fleischer.

Because this equation is really: "Taxable Amount (taxable income of the top 10% of the population) times the Tax Rate (tax rate of the top 10% of the population) = Tax Burden (the percentage of overall federal taxes paid by the top 10% of the population)".

Fleischer, President Bush's former press secretary, recently tweeted that the "Tax Burden" of the richest 10 percent soared from 40 percent in 1979 to 55 percent in 2007. The implication: the TR (Tax Rate) on this group is already high enough, and this group is carrying more than its fair share of the TB (Tax Burden).

But ideology -- his visceral dislike of taxation, and the welfare state, and wealth redistribution -- has made him too dumb to see how a simple equation works.

Because consider this thought experiment: if in 20 years, the income of the top 10 percent explodes and the other 90 percent of the population become their slaves and earn no income (and meanwhile the Tax Rate doesn't change at all), the top 10 percent will pay 100 percent of taxes (up from 55 percent). But what does that show? That they're being taxed too much?

Of course not. It shows that we've regressed to something akin to a feudal society.

There are two variables on the left side of this equation, TA * TR = TB. If you're an ideologue you tend to miss stuff like that. (See Mark Thoma proving here that, yes, the answer to the mystery of what happened with the Tax Burden does lie with "TA," as the richest scored the biggest income gains over the last three decades.)

But ideologues don't do nuance well. They also abhor cognitive dissonance.

This is why I think Peter Wallison has become a sort of trivial hand puppet for the right, a useless one-note screech owl in his vehemence that it was Fannie and Freddie that caused the financial crisis (and he apportions no blame at all to Wall Street's securitization machine). He can't see beyond his ideological blinders.

P.S. For those of you thinking that Fleischer's "tax burden" is a percent, not a straight-up number like 40, yes, I've simplified. But the argument isn't impaired by this simplification. The ratio just introduces a second layer of complexity. If you understand math, you know what I mean. If you don't, I can write it all out ...