Derivatives – The Dark Market

[Dakinikat here:  We at Sky Dancing would like welcome fiscalliberal to the Front page!!!]

The major objective of this article is to begin the process of understanding the financial market to enable intelligent discussion on the blog.

One of the major pillars of financial collapse was Derivatives. They are very complex financial instruments with a wide diversity. They are described by a gaggle of terminology used by the high priests of finance. Because of complexity most of the books on the collapse skirt the detail of the Derivative Market. After we get through some basic definitions, we will focus on Credit Default Swaps (CDS); a subset of the Derivatives offerings. We will see how the government created a non regulated environment where fraud, compromised regulators and incompetent people ran the Investment Financial community in a very high risk mode.

Derivatives Defined

A Derivative is a financial instrument whose value is dependent on the value of another entity at a future time. Its primary function is to mitigate risk. A simple analogy would be your Home insurance. These policies guarantee that you will be remunerated if the value of your home falls due to fire, wind, or accident.  A relatively small premium of money can mitigate a large potential financial catastrophe. State regulators are in charge of most regular Insurance products and solvency is less of an issue as adequate capital reserves are defined.

We need to think of Derivatives as a “risk tool” meant to stabilize the financial businesses (markets). The wide variety of Derivatives creates confusion, so we are going to restrict our discussion to Credit Default Swaps (CDS).   Anticipating problems with Sub Prime mortgages, Securities were insured by investors. It was the Credit Default Swaps inability to perform that was a party to the financial collapse after the Lehman bankruptcy. They did not have the financial reserves to back up the policies they wrote How did that happen?

Deregulation

For our discussion today, three government deregulation actions are relevant.

  • 1999 Graham Leach Bliley Act repealed the 1933 Glass Steagall act. The Glass-Steagall Act prohibited any one institution from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company.
  • April 28, 2004 SEC drastically relaxed leverage standards for the Big Five Investment Banks: Goldman, Merrill, Bear, Lehman and Morgan Stanly. This created a very high risk environment.  The session can be viewed here.

Financial self regulation brought the system down in 8 years. Bush de-funded Federal regulation. Greed, incompetence and corruption reigned supreme. Enron people went to jail. As of 2010, under Obama only bit players have been jailed. Civil fines are a joke.

Securitization Market

We need to understand the environment created by the above regulation changes  to understand the role of CDS Derivative failure. We will concentrate on the Real Estate Industry

Traditionally, the real estate industry was handled by local banks who retained the loans. Their exposure to losses resulted in more careful origination of loans. For a long time, Fannie, Freddie and FHA were packaging (securitizing) mortgages and selling them to Investors. They enjoyed a good reputation because they had good loan origination standards. These were categorized as Prime mortgages. Generally these securities obtained a AAA rating which rarely changed. Good consistent returns were recorded with these products.

Early in the 2000 decade the Investment banks adopted the securitization model called Private Label Securities. They purchased their mortgages from unregulated brokers (Country Wide, Ameriquest etc) who had little or no standards regarding underwriting of loans. The private label market latched on to the fact that high risk “Sub Prime”  loans carried higher interest rates, hence higher profits. They had no exposure to the failure of the loan as risk was passed on to the Investors. They simply collected the lucrative fee’s.

Investment Banks packaged the loans (millions and billion level). They paid the rating agencies (S&P. Moody and Fitch) for ratings structuring the packages to get AAA ratings. It is clear the rating agencies did not do their job as traditionally solid AAA ratings were changed as the packages started to fail. These packages were sold to the domestic and world markets. Trillions of dollars were involved. The banks simply passed the risk on to the investors and collected the origination and servicing fee’s

CDS Market

Risk could be mitigated by purchasing a CDS against the failure of the security. So if the security failed the investor was held harmless. Remember that as of 2000 the CDS  market was unregulated. AIG – London Financial Services is the poster child of the CDS industry. AIG wrote most of the CDS contracts cheaply as they held inadequate reserves (in the event of a default) and had a good company rating based on the parent insurance company whose operations were regulated. Office of Thrift Supervision was the responsible regulator, but their presence was effectively non existent, Goldman Sachs (Hank Paulson as CEO) was one of their major clients.

However, late 2006 / 2007 AIG FP realized they were over exposed and got out of the market retaining the previous contracts. Recall in the unregulated market anyone could write CDS and the big banks did. As the Mortgage Backed Securities began to fail, the banks started writing CDS between the banks to mitigate risk always falsely believing the market would recover. This was necessary because When Bear and Lehman started to fail the banks were joined at the hip, guaranteeing each others toxic securities. Based on the 2004 SEC relaxing reserve requirements, that banks were leveraged up and things were starting to fail. In a leveraged market things get serious to critical in a matter of hours.

The daily, weekly and monthly credit markets froze up because nobody trusted anybody. Even GE was having trouble borrowing for daily operations. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book‘Too Big to Fail’– gives a good account of the scenario in 2008. Fannie and Freddie were in conservator ship, near bankruptcy Bear was bought on a fire sale by JP Morgan, Lehman was bankrupt, Merrill near bankruptcy was bought by Bank Of America and AIG had to be rescued by the Federal Government. Morgan Stanly and Goldman were within days of bankruptcy, but got bailed out by Warren Buffet and a Korean financial entity.

The AIG story is discussed in this newspaper article ‘Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk’.

It is interesting to know that just before the 2008 collapse, the rating agencies down graded AIG forcing them to hold more reserves. They were forced to raise cash in a collapsing market.  In a high leverage industry, when it rains it pours.

Naked CDS

Investors can buy CDS on securities even though they do not own the security. This is equivalent to a neighbor buying insurance on your house. So if you know that a Mortgage Backed Security has a lot of high risk loans in it and is headed to failure, you buy a CDS anticipating the default. Michael Lewis’ book‘The Big Short’–is all about the people who anticipated the failures and bought CDS products. A Bloomberg video interviews Lewis and it provides a lot of insight into the mess that evolved.

I look to Dakinkat, Gillian Tett, Yves Smith, and Janet Tavakoli on technical issues of Derivatives. Lewis’ forte is being able to write to the general public. His book gives a lot of insight to the CDS market nuances. It is interesting that Smith and Tavakoli consider Lewis to be a light weight. Yet, his book sales exceed theirs.

To get a notion of the size of the CDS market we need to look at these numbers. The size of our national economy this year is roughly $15 trillion. The whole world GDP is about $56 trillion. At the time of the 2008 failure, the size of the Credit Default Swaps (CDS) market was $64 trillion. The exposure at the time of the collapse was huge. The magnitude of the Naked CDS is not known, but is understood to be huge.

Given that the unregulated CDS underwriters were prone to not provide adequate capital reserves for defaults, there was a massive liquidity problem, hence the government had to step in and bail out the likes of AIG and banks who wrote these products.

The whole CDS market is described as being part of the Casino Gambling image in the financial markets

Current Status

The Dodd Frank Bill has a moderate approach for Derivatives Regulation. However it is up to the regulators for implementation and the banks are attempting to minimize the impact of regulation. This is documented by two recent NYT articles.

It’s Not Over Until It’s in the Rules

A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives

A short summary of the above articles is that the big banks are attempting to save their Oligopoly through the Risk Committees of the Clearing Houses. This is being done by imposing high capital reserve requirements for participants. This has the effect of limiting competition which limits price competition and transparency. The elephant in the room is the risk committee’s saying certain derivatives are to complex to be cleared. This gets us right back to where we were in the financial crisis. Over the Counter non clearing house products are the most profitable and open to risk.

In the spirit of Brooksly Born regulation, It has been proposed that Derivatives be run using a Clearing House or a Exchange Trading Requirement.

From The Economist:

Clearing House: A clearing requirement is a requirement that all eligible derivatives be cleared on a central clearinghouse (also known as a central counterparty, or CCP). A clearinghouse provides critical counterparty risk mitigation by mutualizing the losses from a clearing member’s failure, netting clearing members’ trades out every day, and requiring that parties post collateral every day. Clearinghouses also centralize trade reporting, and can provide any level of post-trade transparency to the OTC derivatives markets that your heart desires — same-day trade reporting, including prices, aggregate and counterparty-level position data, etc. Virtually all of the harmful opacity and murkiness of the current OTC derivatives markets can be ended with just a clearing requirement — that is, a clearing requirement is a prerequisite for getting rid of the harmful opacity in OTC derivatives

Exchange Trading: An exchange-trading requirement, on the other hand, is simply a requirement that all eligible derivatives use a particular type of trade execution venue: exchanges (also known as “boards of trade”)..The exchange is just the trade execution venue (think NYSE vs. Nasdaq). The only thing that an exchange-trading requirement adds to the clearing requirement is “pre-trade price transparency.”

The clearing house is obviously the better because it brings a degree of financial integrity and transparency. It certainly is the more expensive of the options, but its cost  is minuscule when we think of the financial collapse.

However based on the articles above, it is clear that the big bankers are attempting to preserve their oligopoly in terms of the CDS market. They also want to preserve the option to take the market back to the opaque high risk environment because of profit opportunities.  The Opaque Over the Counter market is the biggest threat to the stability of the market

In Dodd – Frank, the CFTC and SEC have co-jurisdiction The CFTC commission seems to be moving to the bankers view. SEC has been relatively quiet on this subject

We need to remember that Mary Schapiro (SEC)  and Gary Gensler (CFTC) were part of the problem before the 2008 Financial Crisis. It remains to be seen how well they address the problem. Will they do the right thing or are they financial industry moles?


Tuesday Reads

Good Morning!

I had a productive day yesterday for a change and I hope you did too!  Dare I go shop for plumbing stuff today?  I was bemoaning a shortage of headlines on Sunday.   I should be a bit  more careful about wishing for things because today’s list of reads will be long.

The other good news for me is that we’re going from hard freeze warnings to weather in the 70s this weekend.  It sounds like it’s going to be a fun New Year’s Eve here in New Orleans!  That should explain the picture!  I also wanted to give you a bit of  New Orleans News before I moved on to other things.

First, if you haven’t had a chance to read Sandy Rosenthal’s piece at HuffPo on the failure of the Levees during Hurricane Katrina, please do so.  There are still folks out there that think our devastation was from Hurricane Katrina and that just isn’t so.  I was on the edge of the bowl.  I know.  My house experienced very little actual damage because my house was on high ground and above the waters.  A failure of engineering devastated my city. It was not an act of nature.  I signed the petition.  Will you?

Last week, I wrote to the New York Times asking them to please resist using fast and easy “Katrina shorthand.” Forty-eight hours passed and we heard no response, so we decided to let our supporters step in. We urged our followers to sign our petition to the NY Times urging the paper to be more specific when referencing the flood disaster.

Over 1,000 people all across the nation signed our petition in under 48 hours. This immediate huge response – during the holiday no less – will hopefully show the New York Times that informed citizens understand that “Katrina” did not flood New Orleans. Civil engineering mistakes did.

Saying Katrina flooded the city protects the human beings responsible for the levee/floodwall failures. It is also dangerous since 55% of the American people lives in counties protected by levees.

If you haven’t yet, please sign our petition. We will keep it live until Jan 4, 2011.

In a similar vein, I would like to shout out HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRY!!! to fellow New Orleans Blogger, neighbor, actor, musician, and polymath Harry Shearer (12/23/49) who made his film debut in the great epic  ‘Abbott and Costello Go To Mars’ in 1953.   There’s another New Orleans connection in that movie.  The Abbot and Costello characters–Lester and Orville–accidentally launch a rocket that should’ve been Mars bound.  They land in New Orleans for Mardi Gras instead.   Harry plays an uncredited “Boy”.

I also want to offer up a plug for Shearer’s wonderful documentary on the Levee Failure called The Big Uneasy’ that was released last August on our 5th Katrina Anniversary.  It’s going to be re-released in 2011.    I’m including an interview with him by local radio show host Kat (not me).  You’ll learn that the Golden Globes are a simple piece of business and that Harry’s songstress wife is spoonable.   Who knew?  Also there seems that there’s a chance his documentary will be shown on PBS so you may get to see it there. I wonder if we can help encourage that situation.

I’d like to take another chance to remind you that we’re still living with the results of the BP Oil Gusher here on the Gulf Coast. There also appears to be covered-up as well as forgotten stories down here.  You may want to take a look at this from Open Channel on MSNBC.com: ‘ Is dispersant still being used in the Gulf?” This story reports on pictures and samples take in early August that are being investigated now. I’d written about some of these reports earlier.

Kaltofen is among the scientists retained by New Orleans attorney Stuart Smith to conduct independent environmental testing data from the Gulf on behalf of clients who are seeking damages from BP. (Click here to read about their effort.)

An independent marine chemist who reviewed the data said that their conclusion stands up.

“The analytical techniques are correct and well accepted,” said Ted Van Vleet, a professor at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “Based on their data, it does appear that dispersant is present.”

Why responders would continue to use chemical dispersants after the government announced a halt is a mystery. If the oil was gone or already dispersed, as the federal government and BP have said, what would be the point? And, because dispersants don’t work very well on oil that has been “weathered” by the elements over long periods of times, there would be little point in spraying it that situation.

I wanted to share a New Orleans and indeed a Southern New Year’s eve tradition. We serve a concoction of black eyed peas, cabbage and sausage/ham called ‘Hoppin’ John’ to bring us luck and wealth in the New Year.  I evidently didn’t make enough of it last year, so I’m planning to cook more this year.  The pea’s black eyes represent coins, the cabbage represents cash, and the sausage or ham is meat that always symbolizes luxury to hungry, poor people.

Here’s  Emeril’s ‘Hoppin’ John’ recipe provided courtesy the Food Network:

Hoppin’ John

Prep Time: 15 min    Cook Time:50 min     Serves: 10

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large ham hock
1 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
1 quart chicken stock
Bay leaf
1 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
Salt, black pepper, and cayenne
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
3 cups steamed white rice

Directions

Heat oil in a large soup pot, add the ham hock and sear on all sides for 4 minutes. Add the onion, celery, green pepper, and garlic, cook for 4 minutes. Add the black-eyed peas, stock, bay leaves, thyme, and seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes, or until the peas are creamy and tender, stir occasionally. If the liquid evaporates, add more water or stock. Adjust seasonings, and garnish with green onions. Serve over rice.

Okay, so enough about my home town.

The AFL-CIO wants to talk unions this holiday season because there is so much misinformation about these days. It’s a nice list of myths and facts that you may want to arm yourself with when talking to those right wing nattering nabobs of negativism.

MYTH: Unions only care about their members.

FACT: Unions are fighting to improve the lives of all workers.

  • It’s easy to forget that we have unions to thank for a lot of things we take for granted today in today’s workplaces: the minimum wage, the eight-hour work day, child labor laws, health and safety standards, and even the weekend.
  • Today, unions across the country are on the frontlines advocating for basic workplace reforms like increases in the minimum wage, and pushing lawmakers to require paid sick leave.
  • Studies show that a large union presence in an industry or region can raise wages even for non-union workers. That means more consumer spending, and a stronger economy for us all.
  • So it’s no wonder that most Americans (61 percent) believe that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person,” according to Pew’s most recent values survey.

Here’s a gift that keeps on giving er… taking from FT: “AIG secures $4.3bn in credit lines“.

AIG, took a step closer to independence from government as it said it had secured $4.3bn in credit facilities.
The US insurer bailed out by Washington during the financial crisis is is in the process of repaying the $95bn the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York lent following its disastrous decision to insure billions of dollars worth of securities backed by mortgages.

Under the facilities arranged by 36 banks and administered by JPMorgan Chase, AIG can borrow $1.5bn over three years and an additional $1.5bn over 364 days, according to a regulatory filing. Separately, Chartis, an AIG division, obtained a $1.3bn credit line.

Let’s just hope they clean up their act this time.  I’m not holding my breath or any stock offers that may come up. Notice one of the usual suspects is ‘facilitating’ the arrangements. Cue ‘The Godfather’ music, please.

There’s an item from Slate that you may want to check out.  It’s “A selection of gaffes from the 2010 campaign we should forgive”.  Here’s one from Pelosi that gave me a chuckle.

Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

On March 9, the Speaker of the House spoke to the National Association of Counties about the health care bill that was days away from final passage. This was the phrase that launched a thousand campaign ads. Nine months later, this is remembered as Pelosi admitting what Tea Partiers had feared: that Democrats were ramming through bad bills without reading them.

BostonBoomer sent me to Glenn Greenwald’s latest which really is a must read: ‘ The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired’.  Greenwald’s work on behalf of massacre leaker Bradley Manning is Nobel Peace Prize worthy. I don’t mean aspirational prizes either.

For more than six months, Wired‘s Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen has possessed — but refuses to publish — the key evidence in one of the year’s most significant political stories:  the arrest of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning for allegedly acting as WikiLeaks’ source. In late May, Adrian Lamo — at the same time he was working with the FBI as a government informant against Manning — gave Poulsen what he purported to be the full chat logs between Manning and Lamo in which the Army Private allegedly confessed to having been the source for the various cables, documents and video that WikiLeaks released throughout this year. In interviews with me in June, both Poulsen and Lamo confirmed that Lamo placed no substantive restrictions on Poulsen with regard to the chat logs:  Wired was and remains free to publish the logs in their entirety.

We’re waiting for a response from Wired since vacation seem to preempt media responsibility these days. Will we find out that there’s been some active media suppression of the truth regard Manning’s accusations today?   This morning, Greenwald continued his admonition to fellow journalists in the excellent article “The merger of journalists and government officials”.

From the start of the WikiLeaks controversy, the most striking aspect for me has been that the ones who are leading the crusade against the transparency brought about by WikiLeaks — the ones most enraged about the leaks and the subversion of government secrecy — have been . . . America’s intrepid Watchdog journalists.  What illustrates how warped our political and media culture is as potently as that?  It just never seems to dawn on them — even when you explain it — that the transparency and undermining of the secrecy regime against which they are angrily railing is supposed to be . . . what they do.

There’s another economics story covered on The New Yorker‘s The Financial Page headlined:  ‘The Jobs Crisis’ by James Surowiecki.  It’s a good explanation of a debate between economists and politicians right now.  Guess which one knows best on this?

Why have new jobs been so hard to come by? One view blames cyclical economic factors: at times when everyone is cautious about spending, companies are slow to expand capacity and take on more workers. But another, more skeptical account has emerged, which argues that a big part of the problem is a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills that people have. According to this view, many of the jobs that existed before the recession (in home building, for example) are gone for good, and the people who held those jobs don’t have the skills needed to work in other fields. A big chunk of current unemployment, the argument goes, is therefore structural, not cyclical: resurgent demand won’t make it go away.

Though this may sound like an academic argument, its consequences are all too real. If the problem is a lack of demand, policies that boost demand—fiscal stimulus, aggressive monetary policy—will help. But if unemployment is mainly structural there’s little we can do about it: we just need to wait for the market to sort things out, which is going to take a while.

The structural argument sounds plausible: it fits our sense that there’s a price to be paid for the excesses of the past decade; that the U.S. economy was profoundly out of whack before the recession hit; and that we need major changes in the kind of work people do. But there’s surprisingly little evidence for it. If the problems with the job market really were structural, you’d expect job losses to be heavily concentrated in a few industries, the ones that are disappearing as a result of the bursting of the bubble. And if there were industries that were having trouble finding enough qualified workers, you’d expect them to have lots of job vacancies, and to be paying their existing workers more and working them longer hours.

Here’s a fun read at New York Magazine about living large in a libertarian world.

No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal The Road to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.

It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.

Well, they must have both been impacted by the same disease or environmental catastrophe to share so many views so out of the mainstream and be so far removed from experience, data, and science.  I can’t help but believe the more the media shines a bright light on them, the more the warts and the brain damage will become noticeable.

So, one more suggested read comes via Lambert and CorrenteIt’s really interesting piece from The Atlantic on ‘The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks’. It talks about Hackers, Assange, and the Hacker code of conduct. Any one who as read Assange’s manifest can see the connect and disconnect that simultaneously occur in the ideas.  BB and had discussed that Assange might have a form of Aspergers disease about a month ago and I was also interested to see that Lambert, Valhalla, and some others had similar thoughts. It frequently runs in brilliant people who can decode a lot of things with the exception of other people. Anyway, here’s a taste of Jaron Lanier.

The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren’t hurt. But he’s wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other.

While many individuals in Wikileaks would probably protest that they don’t personally advocate radical ideas about transparency for everybody but hackers, architecture can force all our hands. This is exactly what happens in current online culture. Either everything is utterly out in the open, like a music file copied a thousand times or a light weight hagiography on Facebook, or it is perfectly protected, like the commercially valuable dossiers on each of us held by Facebook or the files saved for blackmail by Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks method punishes a nation – or any human undertaking – that falls short of absolute, total transparency, which is all human undertakings, but perversely rewards an absolute lack of transparency. Thus an iron-shut government doesn’t have leaks to the site, but a mostly-open government does.

I’m still fascinated by the sideshow that is driving ad hominem attacks on Assange and the women involved with the charges.  Still, that does not cloud my appreciation of what’s being released by Wikileaks.  We’ll definitely have more coming.  I’m personally waiting for the BOA stuff as that’s the stuff that I can personally decode.  I’m glad we’re extending the Front Page Team to include more and more people that can tackle some of the other technical stuff from their vantage points.  Stay tuned for more on all of this.

Just ONE MORE NAWLINS THANG: New Orleans Saints 17 – Atlanta Falcons 14.  My home town continues to be the Great American Comeback Story.

So, what’s on your reading and blogging list today?

Label me ‘Not Surprised’

I should’ve stuck to my research agenda, but no, I just had to go look at business headlines. There’s a debate on at The Economist over Who benefits from financial innovation?” Nobel Prize winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz is arguing that financial innovation hasn’t been boosting economic growth but his position (which is mine) is currently in the minority.

The right kind of innovation obviously would help the financial sector fulfil its core functions; and if the financial sector fulfilled those functions better, and at lower cost, almost surely it would contribute to growth and societal well-being. But, for the most part, that is not the kind of innovation we have had.

In terms of that big question up there, the answer is found today on Bloomberg.com. If you answered “what is the vampire squid”,you’re absolutely right. The more relevant question appears to be what did that cost us? For that, I can only answer a lot and there’s more to come. Here’s the headline: Secret AIG Document Shows Goldman Sachs Minted Most Toxic CDOs.

Well, there’s your financial innovation for you.

So, the fun thing about the story is that the unlikely hero is Darrold Issa (Republican) member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who “placed into the hearing record a five-page document itemizing the mortgage securities on which banks such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA had bought $62.1 billion in credit-default swaps from AIG.” Oddly enough,it appears that Issa may have not really known exactly what he had just disclosed. It didn’t really attract any attention at the time. Luckily, some one who knew something eventually looked at it. This was essentially a list of the deals that made AIG insolvent. These were also the deals that the government basically bought when it rescued AIG.

The document Issa made public cuts to the heart of the controversy over the September 2008 AIG rescue by identifying specific securities, known as collateralized-debt obligations, that had been insured with the company. The banks holding the credit-default swaps, a type of derivative, collected collateral as the insurer was downgraded and the CDOs tumbled in value.

The public can now see for the first time how poorly the securities performed, with losses exceeding 75 percent of their notional value in some cases. Compounding this, the document and Bloomberg data demonstrate that the banks that bought the swaps from AIG are mostly the same firms that underwrote the CDOs in the first place.

Here’s an even more interesting analysis from a legal standpoint. I know the deal was shady, I just have never known exactly if shady=unethical=illegal. The devil is truly in the details placed into public record by Issa.

The identification of securities in the document, known as Schedule A, and data compiled by Bloomberg show that Goldman Sachs underwrote $17.2 billion of the $62.1 billion in CDOs that AIG insured — more than any other investment bank. Merrill Lynch & Co., now part of Bank of America Corp., created $13.2 billion of the CDOs, and Deutsche Bank AG underwrote $9.5 billion.

These tallies suggest a possible reason why the New York Fed kept so much under wraps, Professor James Cox of Duke University School of Law says: “They may have been trying to shield Goldman — for Goldman’s sake or out of macro concerns that another investment bank would be at risk.”

Okay, so we know who we’re speaking of when Cox says the New York Fed, right? That would be Treasury Secretary Timmy-really-in-the-well-this-time Geithner. Bloomberg is going as far as to label his actions a cover-up. I frankly think that looks like a mild charge. Interestingly enough, an earlier version of the information was released by AIG but the counterparty names were redacted at the time. Chris Dodd’s committee had requested the information. Without the names–or more truthfully the frequency of ONE name in particular–you can’t really see much of a conspiracy.

What this detailed list shows–because the names are now out there along with the deals–is that the very same folks that underwrote the original toxic securities were the same folks that went to AIG to bet against them. It doesn’t look like they were hedging or placing insurance on their risk which would be natural and understandable transactions. It appears they fully knew the securities were bad and were preparing to make money by placing offsetting bets. This activity could only be determined if you saw the names of the counterparties next to the deals themselves. So, the appropriate document to list the information on would be a Schedule A. AIG released a schedule A for several years during the crisis, but without some of the most relevant details. We know now that this was at the request of the NY Fed (aka Tim–I’ve got GS on speed dial–Geithner).

In late November 2008, the insurer was planning to include Schedule A in a regulatory filing — until a lawyer for the Fed said it wasn’t necessary, according to the e-mails. The document was an attachment to the agreement between AIG and Maiden Lane III, the fund that the Fed established in November 2008 to hold the CDOs after the swap contracts were settled.

AIG paid its counter­parties — the banks — the full value of the contracts, after accounting for any collateral that had been posted, and took the devalued CDOs in exchange. As requested by the New York Fed, AIG kept the bank names out of the Dec. 24 filing and edited out a sentence that said they got full payment.

The New York Fed’s January 2010 statement said the sentence was deleted because AIG technically paid slightly less than 100 cents on the dollar.

Before the New York Fed ordered AIG to pay the banks in full, the company was trying to negotiate to pay off the credit- default swaps at a discount or “haircut.”

Read that date. We’re talking November 2008. If you read further into the Bloomberg article you’ll see that the names were withheld also during 2009. Issa put the names out because he wanted to show U.S. taxpayers where their money went. It’s unclear to me if he understood then or maybe even now that by putting out the details of the deals, he’s basically provided information that let’s us know how deeply Goldman Sachs was in on the financial innovations that blew up the economy. Not only that, it appears they knowingly may have been loading some of those innovations with assets they knew would explode and that they were actively placing bets on that outcome at AIG. As of the end of January, 2010 meeting, Geithner and the NY Fed still didn’t want the details released. No fucking wonder!

Janet Tavakoli, founder of Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm, says the New York Fed’s secrecy has helped hide who’s responsible for the worst of the disaster. “The suppression of the details in the list of counterparties was part of the coverup,” she says.

E-mails between Fed and AIG officials that Issa released in January show that the efforts to keep Schedule A under wraps came from the New York Fed. Revelation of the messages contributed to the heated atmosphere at the House hearing.

Tavakoli also says that the poor performance of the underlying securities (which are actually specific slices or tranches of CDOs) shows they were toxic in the first place and were probably replenished with bundles of mortgages that were particularly troubled. Managers who oversee CDOs after they are created have discretion in choosing the mortgage bonds used to replenish them.

“The original CDO deals were bad enough,” Tavakoli says. “For some that allow reinvesting or substitution, any reasonable professional would ask why these assets were being traded into the portfolio. The Schedule A shows that we should be investigating these deals.”

So, check this out.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, who delivered a report on the AIG bailout in November, says he’s not finished. He has begun a probe of why his office wasn’t provided all of the 250,000 pages of documents, including e-mails and phone logs, that Issa’s committee received from the New York Fed.

Okay, now, follow closely as I connect the dots to this one: U.S. Treasury loan plan may exclude TARP watchdog.

If you were Timothy Geithner, would you want Neil Barofsky poking around any more programs? Wouldn’t you be highly interested in controlling TARP oversight? No wonder Treasury officials and others have been after Barofsky for some time. (Here’s an outline of their actions and attempts to remove independency by Glenn Greenwald at Salon from last summer. )

Bottom line:

Geithner basically knew the vampire squid was a huge contributor to the fall of AIG. It looks like he may have actively encouraged covering-up that information. It also looks like GS actively securitized mortgages it knew would fail eventually and made huge counterbets based on that information using AIG as its personal bookie. Then, when AIG couldn’t cover the bets, GS refused to negotiate any deals (they must’ve known something like a bail out was forthcoming). Then knew exactly what was in those securities so they knew their real value. Geithner made AIG pay GS 100% of the value when it appears they were worth around 35%. When AIG tried to report the counterparties, the NY FED told them to withhold the information. (Yet, post Timmy, the NY FED appears to have released everything to Issa’s committee. During Timmy’s time, remember, everything was heavily edited and Barofsky appears not to have gotten the same information.) They also were told not to provide details on the mark downs. Timmy must’ve known that Goldman was betting against the toxic assets they had created. Not only that, it looks like Goldman was actually shorting themselves! AND these guys were Obama’s major contributors. Giethner must’ve been part of the packaged deal.

I got one thing to say now. A lot of folks should be doing a perp walk on this one. This looks like fraud. If this is the kind’ve financial innovation these folks voting on The Economist poll want, then they should just as well turn their life savings over to Bernie Madoff right now. I just wish they’d stop giving the likes of him mine too.

(I hope I’ve explained this adequately, cause this sure is one fucking twisted tale.)


Market Manipulation 101 or How to Rob Fort Knox in front of a Congressional Panel

Every day, as the AIG saga unfolds, I have to wonder if there is any vestige of a functional regulatory scheme left in this country. I’ve already decided that there is no shred of decency left in any one whose hand came close to unraveling the insurance giant and its deals. I know this is an area where eyes glaze over, but really, it’s like solving a crime that even Miss. Marple couldn’t fathom. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been robbed.

It may be too complex for most journalists to report about, but the financial blog realm, full of individual investors, academics and pissed off Americans is keeping the story alive. The headline today from the Atlantic is there are $100 Million More in AIG bonuses. Don’t forget, we basically OWN this company so this is OUR money. Most voters are wise enough to know that this alone does not pass the threshold of decency. You don’t have to have a PHd with an emphasis on corporate governance to figure out that something is very wrong when people can bankrupt a company one year, and still collect bonuses the very next.

In the ongoing AIG bonus saga, the troubled insurer will distribute around $100 million in bonuses today, that’s likely much to the dismay of taxpayers who now own the firm. Despite the fact that AIG is technically under compensation restrictions, many so-called “guaranteed bonuses” that were in place before AIG’s collapse still must be honored by law. This is a regrettable situation, and speaks loudly to the messy problem that bailouts pose.

This is the headline today in many of the mainstream papers. This includes the NY Times that reports those bonuses may have been lowered by$20 million to lessen the blow. This is a mere trifling compared to what was pilfered from the dying AIG by Goldman Sachs as it was in the throes of death. Those Revenuers let Goldman Sachs pick clean the dead body of AIG before we got the bill for the funeral.

“A.I.G. has taxpayers over a barrel,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in a statement on Tuesday night. “The Obama administration has been outmaneuvered. And the closed-door negotiations just add to the skepticism that the taxpayers will ever get the upper hand.”

A.I.G. first promised the retention bonuses to keep people working at its financial products unit, which traded in the derivatives that imploded in September 2008, leading to the biggest government bailout in history.

The contracts, which were established in December 2007, were intended to keep people from leaving the company and called for the bonuses to be paid in regular installments to more than 400 employees in the unit. The final payment, which was for about $198 million, was due in mid-March, but was accelerated to Wednesday as part of the agreement to reduce its size.

Fearing a firestorm like the one last spring, A.I.G. had been working with the Treasury’s special master for compensation, Kenneth R. Feinberg, on a compromise that would allow it to keep its promise in part, without offending taxpayers.

So, the bonuses plays into the theme of the moment–Populist Outrage–which is driving everything from angry teabots to high ratings for media screamers like Glenn Beck. It hides a bigger problem. What is going on behind the schemes in the books and the deals as we attempt to bailout a group of bad gamblers is far worse. Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism lays out some of the issues on HuffPo as well as a series of thread at her own blog. While we rage at the bonuses, the real crime happened behind the curtains, where you’re not supposed to notice Timothy Geithner, pulling the strings and blowing the steam from the giant talking head of Glenn Beck.

Although the focus of press and public attention has been the decision to pay out “100%”, this issue has not been framed as crisply as it should be. Remember, the underlying transactions were crap CDOs that the banks (or bank customers, a subject we will turn to later) owned, and on which the banks had gotten credit default swaps from AIG. The Fed in fact paid out WELL MORE than 100% on the value of the AIG credit default swaps by virtue of also buying the CDOs.

That is one simple paragraph to describe the scheme behind the bailout of AIG. The facts are nearly beyond belief and as Congressman Dennis Kucinich put it, the testimony provided by Timmy-in-the-Well-again Geithner and among others doesn’t “pass the smell test.” I’m not sure how you miss the smells coming from an open, festering mass grave. But, the majority of Americans, and Congressio Critters, seem to think it could be just a few dead birds in the attic. The evil is the ledger accounts at the New York Fed.

Smith says the details show the FED as either captured regulator exhibiting ‘crony behavior’ or the behavior of Geithner was duplicitous and merits legal action. That is even mild. Her Huffpo article lays out the arguments for both scenarios. Either way, Giethner’s NY Fed comes off badly and Paulson and the Bush Treasury come off as co-conspirators to a heist.

Another article which demonstrates palpable anger at both the ineffective Fed and Congress is written in the financial/investment blog Money Morning by Shah Giliani who is a retired Hedge Manager. Again, the lack of knowledgeable staff could be the reason the pieces to the puzzle are being put together outside of the mainstream media. It could be the story is too complex to be glamorous and deemed beyond the reach of the average 5th grade reading level achieved at most major newspapers. It’s even possible no one wants to take on the financial industry. The deal is what happened as outlined in the testimony–had some one on that Congressional Panel actually had a background in something other than professional politics subsidized by the FIRE lobby and a plethora of worthless law degrees and knew finance–should’ve caused outrage around the country and sent subpoenas flying out of the justice department and the SEC. The central players in this are Goldman Sachs and the New York Fed whose people are so entrenched now in the Treasury and the West Wing that you have to wonder if there ever will be enough justice left in this country to counteract what should be the cries of lynch mobs. Following through with the legal obligations to pay out the bonuses–with the smallish $20 million concession–is just the sprinkles on the cake. Perhaps it’s easier to pay them than to have the AIG financiers talk about the details as the FED and Treasury unwound their deals.

The rationale for what is essentially the breaking of so many laws is the rescue of the U.S. and the world from another Great Depression. There are always ignoble deeds, however, done in the name of the most noble causes. This should go down in the press and in history as The Great U.S. Treasury and Financial Market Heist. The last two secretaries of Treasury-Paulson and Geithner–should be hauled before a government tribunal and stuck in Gitmo with the rest of the terrorists and enemies of the state. The dirty details follow the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


When Will They Ever Learn?

The Blogging Econ heads are still news makers today as we have more and more reports of record profits at Goldman pigs-playing-poker1Sachs and examples of blatant corportist propaganda at CNBC. I learned yesterday that many folks are listening, it just isn’t necessarily the ones shaping and setting policy. We also see a completely unsustainable budget coming down the pipe per the Director of the CBO. Why is it that policy makers seem to want us in dire straights? Are their sources of campaign funds so sacred that they’re willing to bring down the U.S. economy? Where does a Cassandra start?

Matt Taibbi and Paul Krugman focus in on the GS profits. So, I’m all for making a decent rate of return, that’s necessary to keep a company in business and it’s required to attract capital to grow a market. However, record setting, extraordinary profits are symptoms of a market out-of-whack. In the most simplest of analysis it could mean there are minimally too few providers of a service which can also lead to some form of market manipulation, information hiding, or information asymmetry allowing them to reap extraordinary profits. I basically think we’re seeing GS game the market based on raiding underpriced AIG assets with a free source of capital. This means the profits are straight from taxpayer funding. No wonder these guys don’t want to pony up any equity to us based on profitability and want to dump TARP funds (with their compensation restrictions) as quickly as possible. How can Washington miss that they’re back at their same old games?

This is from Taibbi who basically lays it out. They’re taking our tax dollars and buying assets with tax dollar in government-selected subsidized fire sales, creating arbitrage profits (some through their own huge market shares now that much of their competition is gone) and churning themselves some nice bonuses. In music, that’s called riding the gravy train. It’s a no risk, no brainer, no lose situation. Why would that require bonuses? [You can mark my words on this. They looted (with government enabling) AIG and the next one up will be CIT.]

So what’s wrong with Goldman posting $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits, what’s wrong with the company so far earmarking $11.4 billion in compensation for its employees? What’s wrong is that this is not free-market earnings but an almost pure state subsidy.

Krugman, a microeconomist with specializations in trade theory, sees it too.

The American economy remains in dire straits, with one worker in six unemployed or underemployed. Yet Goldman Sachs just reported record quarterly profits — and it’s preparing to hand out huge bonuses, comparable to what it was paying before the crisis. What does this contrast tell us?

First, it tells us that Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America.

Second, it shows that Wall Street’s bad habits — above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis — have not gone away.

Third, it shows that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely.

Meanwhile, back in the Main Stream Media, also known as the Wall Street and K Street propaganda factory, CNBC has tired to rosy up Dr. Doom’s forecasts to enable its masters arbitrage profits. Roubini made it clear that his views on the economy have remained unchanged despite the attempts to make it look otherwise.

Nouriel Roubini, the economist whose dire forecasts earned him the nickname “Doctor Doom,” said after markets closed Thursday that earlier reports claiming he sees an end to the recession this year were “taken out of context.”

“It has been widely reported today that I have stated that the recession will be over ‘this year’ and that I have ‘improved’ my economic outlook,” Roubini said in a prepared statement. “Despite those reports … my views expressed today are no different than the views I have expressed previously. If anything my views were taken out of context.”

Several business news outlets, picking up on a report initially from Reuters, earlier Thursday cited Roubini as saying that the worst of the economic financial crisis may be over.

The New York University professor was quoted by Reuters as saying that the economy would emerge from the recession toward the end of 2009.

Reports of his comments helped trigger a late rally in the stock market.

Did you read that bit about triggering a late rally in the stock market? Pity the poor suckers that believed CNBC and of course, watch the deposits grow of the folks that placed the offsetting market transactions. And, let’s see, which market insiders would probably know that was BS? I don’t think you have to be Ms. Marple or an SEC investigator to figure that one out. It was just a simple mistake, wasn’t it?

Factors Explaining Future Federal Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (Percentage of GDP)
Factors Explaining Future Federal Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (Percentage of GDP)

Another thing that really has sugared my cookies is this report coming out of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) one of the few bastions of economic thought in the beltway that tries to look out for the real constituents of Washington D.C.. The Director of the CBO,Doug Elmendorf, had this to say to a Senate Committee followed by a post to his blog.

The current recession and policy responses have little effect on long-term projections of noninterest spending and revenues. But CBO estimates that in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the federal government will record its largest budget deficits as a share of GDP since shortly after World War II. As a result of those deficits, federal debt held by the public will soar from 41 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to 60 percent at the end of fiscal year 2010. This higher debt results in permanently higher spending to pay interest on that debt. Federal interest payments already amount to more than 1 percent of GDP; unless current law changes, that share would rise to 2.5 percent by 2020.

There’s also his bottom line.

Under current law, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path, because federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run. Although great uncertainty surrounds long-term fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the aging of the population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario for current law. Unless revenues increase just as rapidly, the rise in spending will produce growing budget deficits. Large budget deficits would reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn would depress economic growth in the United States. Over time, accumulating debt would cause substantial harm to the economy.

Okay, am I just being a little too wonky here or are these three things perfectly clear to any one who has the audacity to be informed?

Norway, anyone?
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