My Jaded Crystal Ball

Okay, this is wonky.  I’ve been avoiding writing about securitization for awhile because it can even get the best of people that know financial markets. You may remember that some one asked me where the next bubble lurked and I said commodities.  Now, that’s actually a dangerous place for a bubble because commodities are things you eat and things that make your house light up and your car run.  The housing bubble pretty much wiped out middle class wealth in the west.  What would a commodities bubble burst do in the right markets?  Well, think Mad Max or at least The Grapes of Wrath. Conversely, it could lead to a massive drop in key prices like that of oil.  Imagine that one!

Here’s some interesting finds from FT Alphaville on the securitization of commodities. It’s titled “The subpriming of commodities” for effect.

It’s always been common practice for commodity inventory to be financed by banks by being pledged as security for the loans in question.

The problem comes if such enterprises, instead of using the inventory for general business purposes, are encouraged to stockpile for the sole purpose of liquidity provision and the opportunity to punt on the underlying commodities themselves. It’s a process which arguably artificially pumps up demand for the underlying inventory.

Bundle all those loans together, meanwhile — ideally into a product that can be sold to buyside investors seeking exposure to  commodities — and suddenly you’ve got a direct source of funding for an ever-more speculative game.

When it comes to the larger players,  meanwhile, this arguably transcends ‘trade finance’ even further — especially if it involves the setting up of a large number of special purpose vehicles to accomplish the process.

Here, for example, are the thoughts of Brian Reynolds, chief market strategist at Rosenblatt Securities, regarding what’s going on:

A little more than a year ago we picked up on a trend that we termed the “sub-priming” of commodities. Wall Street has been increasingly been doing structured finance deals wrapped around commodities, and this has added a bid for them while also making them vulnerable to downdrafts.

We know that many equity investors think (or at least hoped) that, after the disastrous record of wrapping pipeline and telecom assets in the 1990’s and sub-prime housing in the last decade, financial market reforms such as Dodd-Frank would have eliminated structured finance as a macro driver. When Dodd-Frank was proposed it envisioned standardized derivatives being placed on exchanges and clearinghouse. We felt it would encourage more non-standardized, exotic, and opaque structures to be created, and in the two years since it was enacted that’s what seems to have happened.

Important trends indeed. Yet, as Reynolds also notes, they’re also very hard to quantify given they mostly occur off-balance sheet:

This process is virtually impossible to quantify. We know that’s a disappointment to equity investors who are used to dealing with voluminous information, but that’s the nature of structured finance. Many structured finance deals are private in nature. As such most people, even those in the credit markets, did not know the full extent of the structuring going on in the 1990’s or the last decade until those firms, which were trapped by “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs), such as Enron, WorldCom and Citigroup, became forced sellers. But over the last year we’ve heard more and more anecdotal evidence of Wall Street increasingly structuring commodity deals, such as structured notes and swaps and even using commodities as collateral.

In Reynold’s opinion — even though he’s not a commodity expert per se — this activity significantly increases the risk of a sharp drop in oil in the coming year, especially since structured finance transactions usually come with caps and floors, which act as important support and resistance levels.

That’s an interesting analysis for oil or copper.  However, what happens if the commodities in question happen to be food?  The only place this used to happen significantly was the gold market.  Actually, it’s understandable for oil too.  But is Wall Street so hungry for  financial innovation that they’re willing to bet the world’s food supply on it?  Yes, of course.  They’ve already done it several times.  History teaches us that it drives the prices up to unreasonable and unsustainable levels that take all kinds of people down when prices collapse.

Here’s an interesting bit on a contango that happened in the wheat market that already led to a food price crisis in 2007-2008.  This one had the Goldman Sachs brand all over it.  Last year, a similar situation occurred with the Oil Market and the same player.

On Monday, April 11, Goldman Sachs told its clients to sell commodities, and the market reacted with a $4 tumble in the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil and sell offs in other commodities.

On Thursday, April 14, the leaders of the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), meeting in Sanya, China, continued to press for a new world monetary system that has a much lower reliance on the dollar, and called for stronger regulation of commodity derivatives to dampen excessive volatility in food and energy prices.

We are in another commodity price run up, like that experienced in the 2005-2008 period.  Such commodity price frenzies have devastating consequences for the world’s poor who, in some instances, already spend half of their income on food.  Today, in the U.S. itself, the rise in the price of gasoline to more than $4 per gallon threatens an economy still struggling to free itself from the still lingering effects of the last bursting bubble.

It appears that the Western economic systems have become ever more volatile over the past decade.  That is, bubbles, followed by severe contractions, are appearing more often and with increased severity.  This is in stark contrast to the dampening of the business cycle we observed, and celebrated, in the 1980s and 1990s.  So, what changed?

In Harper’s last July, Fredrick Kaufman wrote an article entitled The Food Bubble, which explained the reasons for the run up in agricultural commodity prices just prior to the ’08 financial meltdown and worldwide recession.  The popular business media gave the article short shrift.  But, most of what Kaufman observed as the causes of the commodity price run up in the ’05-’08 period is now being repeated, a short three years later.

I’m finding all this interesting as I watch Jamie Dimon squirm on the big hedge loss reported by JP Morgan.  That’s the $2 billion mark to market loss that makes me thing we’re on the verge of 2007 redux.  Specifically, the market concentration is incredible because “the whale” created a huge problem for tons of hedge funds.  Also, the regulator appeared to be asleep at the switch.  You remember are old friends the Credit Default Swaps?

99 per cent of all CDS trades live in an information warehouse called DTCC, to which the regulators of the banks have access in however much detail they want!!! What kind of regulator doesn’t go and look at the that, when the mere public, aggregated info shows this?

Go check out the accompanying graph.

Anyway, I’m not going to get long winded and all financial economist on you, but sheesh, how many times does history have to repeat itself in markets before we get some one to do something useful?   I’m just reminded of all the little canaries that died on the way to the big 2007 blow up that people ignored.   How many canaries have to die this time out before we get another big one

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?


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, according to HBSwiss, 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?

Please! No More Kabuki Finance Reform!

Today’s Wall Street Journal highlights the Details Set for Remake Of Financial Regulations. The question on every one’s kabukimind is will it be real this time instead of some show that shuts down the minute the press leaves the room. (You know when Barny Frank and Chris Dodd trot out the single malt and the Cuban Cigars and party down to Chain, Chain, Chain … chain of Fools.

President Barack Obama is expected Wednesday to propose the most sweeping reorganization of financial-market supervision since the 1930s, a revamp that would touch almost every corner of banking from how mortgages are underwritten to the way exotic financial instruments are traded.

We shall see, we shall see. In today’s WAPO, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers are inkling their strategy in A New Financial Foundation. They identify five key problems in the article they see with the current regulation regime.

First, existing regulation focuses on the safety and soundness of individual institutions but not the stability of the system as a whole. As a result, institutions were not required to maintain sufficient capital or liquidity to keep them safe in times of system-wide stress. In a world in which the troubles of a few large firms can put the entire system at risk, that approach is insufficient.

Capital requirements are always nice in a fractional reserve system. After all, banks only make money by lending out the funds they hold at a higher rate, but this needs to be closely examined; especially with capital from government sources at the risk or implied government guarantee of assets. I talked before about Stiglitz’s concept of Banks Too Big to be Restructured. Many of us feel that these banks don’t need to be better regulatedbut completely busted up. The joint statement appears to say that the Obama Adminstration is prepared to let them dither in Zombie land while making them come up with more capital. (The only thing I can say is how long and with whose money?) I call this passage a stinker, but I’ll wait to see the details in the bill itself. If they regulate it the way they regulated Fannie and Freddie, hide your savings under your nearest mattress and try to get all your income in Eurodollars.

The administration’s proposal will address that problem by raising capital and liquidity requirements for all institutions, with more stringent requirements for the largest and most interconnected firms. In addition, all large, interconnected firms whose failure could threaten the stability of the system will be subject to consolidated supervision by the Federal Reserve, and we will establish a council of regulators with broader coordinating responsibility across the financial system.

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Banking on the Backroom Deal

While, GM’s bankruptcy and Chrysler’s emergence from bankruptcy grab front page headlines, yesterday’s banks withlogo-mr-monopoly issues are positioning themselves at the table to discuss future financial regulation. This comes as some of the premier researchers in financial economics look for systemic solutions. As you know, I’m a huge advocate for finding new regulations that promote transparency of process and recognize the importance of fiduciary responsibility when the financial industry takes on risk. Harvard’s Oliver Hart and University of Chicago’s Luigi Zingales, both NBER researchers, have just produced A New Capital Regulation For Large Financial Institutions. I want to review some of their findings and suggestions in conjunction with two more mundane articles.

The first of these articles is an astounding piece on Alternet that finds information suggesting Larry Summers has been taking kickbacks from big troubled banks. Another article is in today’s NY Times that shows how the banks have been spending a good year–even as they took TARP funds and cheap money from them FED–girding for a fight on forthcoming regulations.

I would think that the big lesson from the last few years is this is not time to go back to business as usual. However, the mindset of those making major decisions in the White House (Treasury Secretary Geithner and CEA head Summers) is this is just a glitch and there’s no chance anything like this could happen again. In other words, we don’t need to look for systemic problems, we just need to send the patients home with some aspirin and they can call back in the morning. This aspirin prescription has been particularly expensive. It is either utterly naive or completely disingenuous to think that pouring money into financial institutions and waiting this out is going to prevent any future occurrence of financial meltdowns. We need to be prepared to offset what may be an elaborate hoax to convince that nothing really needs to change systematically and a major congressional influence- and administration influence- buying spree by the big banks. Even as we see Dow de-list Citibank, we see evidence that Citibank possibly manipulated its stress tests results through Summers.

If the Alternet article is correct, Summers should be in trouble and the trustworthiness of the large institutions should be questioned by a congressional committee. This sure looks like pay-to-play to me. (HT to Dr. BB for the link.) The post by Mark Ames is a must read.

Last month, a little-known company where Summers served on the board of directors received a $42 million investment from a group of investors, including three banks that Summers, Obama’s effective “economy czar,” has been doling out billions in bailout money to: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley. The banks invested into the small startup company, Revolution Money, right at the time when Summers was administering the “stress test” to these same banks.

A month after they invested in Summers’ former company, all three banks came out of the stress test much better than anyone expected — thanks to the fact that the banks themselves were allowed to help decide how bad their problems were (Citigroup “negotiated” down its financial hole from $35 billion to $5.5 billion.)

The fact that the banks invested in the company just a few months after Summers resigned suggests the appearance of corruption, because it suggests to other firms that if you hire Larry Summers onto your board, large banks will want to invest as a favor to a politically-connected director.

Last month, it was revealed that Summers, whom President Obama appointed to essentially run the economy from his perch in the National Economic Council, earned nearly $8 million in 2008 from Wall Street banks, some of which, like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, were now receiving tens of billions of taxpayer funds from the same Larry Summers. It turns out now that those two banks have continued paying into Summers-related businesses.

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Bernanke Rules

atlant-fed-eagleIs The Fed under Chairman Ben Bernanke  finally beginning to adopt the tougher lending regulations and rules that would’ve prevented much of the havoc of the last two years?  In a speech on April 17, Bernanke stated that damage done to the economy was not likely to be undone any time soon.  This gives more credence to the idea that we may see an L-shaped recovery.  In other words, be prepared to scuttle across the bottom for a very long time. But did the speech deliver the assurances we need that necessary steps and regulations w lending practices and financial innovations are in the works?  I don’t think so.

Here’s some interesting analysis by Craig Torres at

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the collapse of U.S. lending will probably cause “long-lasting” damage to home prices, household wealth and borrowers’ good credit score.

“One would be forgiven for concluding that the assumed benefits of financial innovation are not all they were cracked up to be,” the Fed chairman said today in a speech at the central bank’s community affairs conference in Washington. “The damage from this turn in the credit cycle — in terms of lost wealth, lost homes, and blemished credit histories — is likely to be long-lasting.”

The U.S. central bank has cut the benchmark lending rate to as low as zero and taken unprecedented steps to stem the credit crisis through direct support of consumer finance and mortgage lending. The Fed plans to purchase as much as $1.25 trillion in agency mortgage-backed securities this year to support the housing market and is providing financing for securities backed by loans to consumers and small businesses.

Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Board approved rules last July to toughen restrictions on mortgages, banning high-cost loans to borrowers with no verified income or assets and curbing penalties for repaying a loan early. The action came after members of Congress and other regulators urged the Fed to use its authority to prevent abusive lending.

This suggests Bernanke does not see home values going back up any time soon.  It also suggests that the lending markets are not likely to return to their heyday.  Does this mean, however, that we’re finally going to see the regulation and enforcement of prudent underwriting standards and no more hide the trash in a bundle and pass it to the next sucker?

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