It ain’t over until the Greek Tragedy Chorus Sings

I was beginning to think that EU was going to be the only hope for sorting through the mess Goldman Sachs has made of the financial markets of the world. I’ve mentioned the Issa documents which show how deeply Goldman Sachs was involved with the failure of AIG. We’ve also seen mounting evidence that Greece was part and parcel of the Goldman Sachs side bet operations also. It’s looking more and more that the side bets weren’t placed as hedging or insurance tools which is technically their function in financial markets. Hedging is a tool for locking in a rate of return when prices could possibly move against you. I used to hedge commercial mortgage originations with GNMA contracts back in the early 1980s. This was because interest rates were moving around so much, that we needed to insure the market wouldn’t move against us while we contracted with the home buyer. Farmers use hedges to lock in a price in the future for their crops when they harvest based on the costs they incur at planting. Businesses that sell things overseas and collect money in foreign currencies later, also using hedging. I won’t go into the details of how these things work or how you value them, because this is a real math exercise, but believe me in certain instances and markets, hedging works like a form of insurance. It’s to help a business manage its risk.

In the case of Goldman Sachs, it looks like they put together deals that they knew were problematic then used the side bets to reap the rewards of the shoddy deals. In other words, the purposefully seemed to invest in things that were going to blow up, sucked markets and the investors into thinking the deals were okay, and then waited to collect the true profits from the side bets. Oh, and they also seemed to have put the same sidebets on their own stock during the entire financial crisis. If this is found to be true, I can’t even imagine how big the consequences are going to be. If you want another take on this go see Naked Capitalism. It appears Yves Smith actually worked there for awhile and she’s talking about the experience.

However, my original thought was that it was going to be the EU that actually went after them. It appears–according to today’s NY Times–that the FED is looking into this too.

Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, told Congress Thursday that the Fed was “looking into a number of questions relating to Goldman Sachs and other companies and their derivatives arrangements with Greece.”

Mr. Bernanke said the Securities and Exchange Commission was also concerned about how derivatives — financial instruments that are largely unregulated and do not trade on public exchanges — have contributed to Greece’s problems. “Obviously, using these instruments in a way that intentionally destabilizes a company or a country is counterproductive,” he said.

The S.E.C., in a statement, said that it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” but added that it was cooperating with United States and international regulators in examining “potential abuses and destabilizing effects related to the use of credit-default swaps and other opaque financial products and practices.”

It is about time some one look into these activities. Not to be left out of the loop, Congress appears to have gotten a bit more educated on the situation, despite its heavy reliance on the FIRE lobby for campaign contributions.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, also took aim at credit-default swaps, which allow banks and hedge funds to wager on whether a company or country might default.

Critics say the swaps have contributed to Greece’s problems and increased the odds of a financial collapse.

“We have a situation in which major financial institutions are amplifying a public crisis for private gain,” he said.

The Fed inquiry was begun about three weeks ago, according to an official involved in the investigation who was not authorized to comment publicly. Fed examiners are focusing on whether Goldman and other banks complied with guidance the Fed issued in 2007 outlining how to manage the risk of complex financial vehicles. The investigation is still in its early stages, he added, as officials sift through records detailing how the derivatives were created, what compliance procedures were followed and what internal analysis was performed. The Fed is also looking at whether Wall Street made additional financial arrangements for Greece that have not been disclosed.

The Greek situation is bad. The country may default and because it’s part of the monetary union, it’s bringing the Euro down and the interest premiums up. If Greek sovereign debt (debt guaranteed by the government) goes into default, the costliness to Greece and the contagion that creates for the rest of the EU cannot be understated. Given that, even Goldman Sachs with all its White House connections will not be able to escape the number of Captain Ahab’s that will go after the Great White Vampire Squid. I can imagine there will be a lot of folks that will be glad to supply the harpoons.


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.)


Kabuki Financial Regulation

kuniyoshi-kabuki-musicians

Much speculation has been made recently about the possible similarities between Japan’s lost decade and financial crisis during the 1990s and the current US Financial crisis.  It’s impossible to get through any graduate program in either finance or economics without spending time with the mounds of research the decade ignited.  Since many folks are talking and writing about this period in the popular business press and speculating on the chance of an L-shaped recovery similar to the one experienced by Japan, I thought I’d focus some on Japan’s Lost Decade.   There are some similarities but some important differences too.

About a month ago, The Economist asked if America’s crisis could rival Japan’s. Their answer was yes.  This article examines something we’ve looked at twice before. That would the IMF study of banking crises. Both the Nordic banking crisis and the Japanese banking crisis are including in the database and highlighted by the study.  The experience of these  rich country crashes have both been bandied about as possible road maps to financial system recovery.  Sweden nationalized its banks.  There was also the lesson from South Korea. This country recovered after two years. The there was Japan. It  let its banks languish. Japan became infamous for its decade of economic stagnation. Are we turning Japanese?

Japan’s property bubble burst in the 1980s and its run up prior to the bubble was smaller than ours.  Additionally, Japan has a high domestic savings rate.  America is the world’s largest debtor.

Judged by standard measures of banking distress, such as the amount of non-performing loans, America’s troubles are probably worse than those in any developed-country crash bar Japan’s. According to the IMF, non-performing loans in Sweden reached 13% of GDP at the peak of the crisis. In Japan they hit 35% of GDP. A recent estimate by Goldman Sachs suggests that American banks held some $5.7 trillion-worth of loans in “troubled” categories, such as subprime mortgages and commercial property. That is equivalent to almost 40% of GDP.

The authors of The Economist articles see both other differences too.

Japan’s central bank took too long to fight deflation; its fiscal stimulus was cut off too quickly with an ill-judged tax increase in 1997; and it did not begin to clean up and recapitalise its banks until 1998, almost a decade after the bubble had burst. But the history of bank failures suggests that Japan’s slump was not only the result of policy errors. Its problems were deeper-rooted than those in countries that recovered more quickly. Today’s mess in America is as big as Japan’s—and in some ways harder to fix.

Let’s look at the first statement about deflation.  We’re not experiencing deflation in all sectors.  The latest numbers from the BLS still show slight inflation.    However, we are looking at some tax increases in the near future.  Both Japan and the Roosevelt administration in 1937 instituted tax increases before both of these major financial crisis had be solved.  In 1937, it led to a second economic and financial market down turn. In 1997 Japan, it slowed down recovery.

Our dollar is strengthening as the financial crisis impacts the global economy.  Japan’s yen is similarly a strong world currency.  The dollar is still seen as a kabuki-dancersafe-haven asset.  However, Japan is a net exporter while the US is a net importer.  Japan is not a debtor nation, but a creditor nation.  Japan could still rely on exports to deliver some economic stimulus.  The US does not have that luxury.  However, while South Korea and Sweden’s currencies weakened and helped make their exports look cheap, Japan’s yen stayed somewhat strong.  This crippled Japan’s ability to fully use exports as stimulus making its recovery much longer than either those of South Korea or Sweden.  The dollar continues to strengthen which also makes any exports we send to the rest of the world relatively expensive.  It also continues our reliance on imports as they stay relatively cheap.

In some ways America’s macroeconomic environment is even trickier than Japan’s. America may have a big current-account deficit, but the dollar has strengthened in recent months. America’s reliance on foreign funding means the risk of a currency crash cannot be ruled out, however. That, in turn, places constraints on the pace at which policymakers can pile up public debt. And even if the dollar were to tumble, the global nature of the recession might mean it would yield few benefits.

I already mentioned that Japan’s households were historically good savers.  This meant only the Japanese corporations had to ‘deleverage’ or get rid of debt during the Japanese crisis.  I remember watching Japanese commercials at the time from the government extolling patriotic Japanese households to go spend like crazy at the same time the US government was telling Americans to consider saving.  Well, that trend is reversing.  Japanese households are beginning to decrease their savings rates, while Americans have rediscovered thrift.  This is also something we’ve talked about.  Here’s how that played in Japan and could play out differently here.

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