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
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.
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.
- 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act deregulated Derivatives creating a Wild West environment for “Derivatives financial innovation”. See this link for a excellent Brooksley Born interview
- 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
The WSJ has an interesting list of folks contributing to “Academics on What Caused the Financial Crisis“. You’ll find a lot of the usual suspects that we’ve talked about around here. There’s some interesting comments on the housing and subprime bubbles, the increased use of exotic financial instruments, and our old friend moral hazard. I’m going to a highlight just a few for you.
Some of the more interesting comments focused on how the housing bubble was enabled by government. Some blame low interest rates by the FED, others see that it wasn’t just a U.S. phenomenon and look for bigger reasons. Many folks see securitization and the pass-the-trash loan model as the big factors.
Dwight Jaffee, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley
On the government’s role in creating the housing bubble: “I find the GSEs [government sponsored enterprises including Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae] to have been a significant factor in expanding the mortgage crisis as a result of their high volume of high-risk mortgage purchases and guarantees. Furthermore, I find that the GSE housing goals for lending to lower-income households and in lower-income regions were secondary to profits as a factor motivating the GSE investments in high-risk mortgages.
Christopher Mayer, Columbia Business School
On the housing bubble: “For the housing market, the picture is much more complex than it might first appear. The housing bubble was global in nature and also included commercial real estate, so simple explanations that rely solely on predominantly American institutions like subprime lending or highly structured securitizations cannot be the only factor leading to real estate market excesses. …My own research shows the important role played by declining long‐term, real interest rates in helping drive real estate prices to high levels, at least up to 2005. However, at some point, speculation by both borrowers and lenders took over, leading to excessive appreciation in many parts of the United States and the rest of the world.”
Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, University of California at Berkeley:
How did subprime bust trigger a financial tsunami? “Three factors ensured that the collapse in what was a minor segment of the U.S. financial markets turned into a global financial conflagration. First, profound structural changes in the banking system, with the emergence of the ‘originate-and-distribute’ model, coupled with an increased securitization of credit instruments, led to a decline in lending standards and a general inability to re-price complex financial products when liquidity dried-up.
Randall Kroszner, University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a former Fed governor:
On reducing moral hazard: “Given the extent of interventions world-wide, issues of moral hazard will remain. The Rubicon cannot be uncrossed and financial market behavior will surely anticipate the return of the “temporary” programs and guarantees in the event of another crisis. To maintain the stability of the system and to protect taxpayers, the “too interconnected to fail” problem needs to be addressed in two ways: through improvements in the supervision and regulation framework as well as improvements in the legal and market infrastructure to make markets more robust globally.”
“Ultimately, to mitigate the potential for moral hazard, policy makers must feel that the markets are sufficiently robust that institutions can be allowed to fail with extremely low likelihood of dire consequences for the system.”
These are just a few brief excerpts from a few of the contributors. You should really go check out the full article.
In the same vein, I wanted once again to go behind the unemployment number released to day and the WSJ has a pretty good explanation of the figure that I follow closely. It is called the U-6 unemployment rate. It not only focuses on people without jobs but people that are ‘underemployed’. This rate, unlike the unemployment rate itself which is staying around 9.7%, went up last month.
The U.S. jobless rate was unchanged at 9.7% in February, following a decline the previous month, but the government’s broader measure of unemployment ticked up 0.3 percentage point to 16.8%.
The comprehensive gauge of labor underutilization, known as the “U-6″ for its data classification by the Labor Department, accounts for people who have stopped looking for work or who can’t find full-time jobs. Though the rate is still 0.6 percentage point below its high of 17.4% in October, its continuing divergence from the official number (the “U-3″ unemployment measure) indicates the job market has a long way to go before growth in the economy translates into relief for workers.
Again and despite what AZ Senator John Kyle says–as highlighted in Krugman’s recent op-ed “Bunning’s Universe”–most folks cannot make ends meet on unemployment benefits and must find jobs that are way beneath their job skills, their income requirements, or the lower the number of hours they wish to work. This more realistic rate accounts also for people who simply have given up on finding a job. These folks don’t even collect unemployment benefits. Just to remind you on Kyle’s priorities, here’s a good bit of prose from Krugman.
Consider, in particular, the position that Mr. Kyl has taken on a proposed bill that would extend unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless for the rest of the year. Republicans will block that bill, said Mr. Kyl, unless they get a “path forward fairly soon” on the estate tax.
Now, the House has already passed a bill that, by exempting the assets of couples up to $7 million, would leave 99.75 percent of estates tax-free. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for Mr. Kyl; he’s willing to hold up desperately needed aid to the unemployed on behalf of the remaining 0.25 percent. That’s a very clear statement of priorities.
You can see from various folks quoted on top (some from liberal and some from staunchly conservative b-schools), they do not place the blame for the last financial catastrophe on folks who don’t want to work and simply want to sit around collecting government money. Yet, if you look at today’s unemployment numbers, it’s just plain working folks that are not recovering from the financial global crisis. They are not getting the policy or money to deal with what the crisis did to them. Instead, the people who cause it are the one’s getting giant bonuses, boosts in stock prices, and continued government goodies.
Life isn’t necessarily fair, but does macroeconomic policy have to be so too during a Democratically led Congress and White House?
If you still need motivation to get on my bandwagon for new bank regulation, go read “Back to Business: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance.” While the nation is having a good scream over communists in the White House and Bolshevik health care reform, the bankers are playing Risk with your tax dollars.
After the mortgage business imploded last year, Wall Street investment banks began searching for another big idea to make money. They think they may have found one.
The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” policies for life insurance for elderly parents which allow the ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.
The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money.
Either way, Wall Street would profit by pocketing sizable fees for creating the bonds, reselling them and subsequently trading them. But some who have studied life settlements warn that insurers might have to raise premiums in the short term if they end up having to pay out more death claims than they had anticipated.
The idea is still in the planning stages. But already “our phones have been ringing off the hook with inquiries,” says Kathleen Tillwitz, a senior vice president at DBRS, which gives risk ratings to investments and is reviewing nine proposals for life-insurance securitizations from private investors and financial firms, including Credit Suisse.
“We’re hoping to get a herd stampeding after the first offering,” said one investment banker not authorized to speak to the news media.
Oh, that’s just great! The same folks left unregulated and un-rebuked from the mortgage meltdown (and rewarded with subsidies) get to misprice yet another set of iffy securities. If this isn’t a more “exotic” investment than credit default swaps and harder to price, I’ll turn in all my Phd class credits (including the one specifically geared to Risk Theory) for an electrician’s license. Investment bankers seem to be on hyperdrive to find the next big thing before congress even realizes the horses are back out of the barn again.
Yuliya Demyanyk, a senior research economist at the Cleveland Fed, has done a fascinating job debunking some of the bigger memes floating around main stream media outlets about the Subprime Mortgage Market. Her Economic Commentary piece here distills the more germane information found in the research published here. Her bottom line is that it was not so much the meltdown of the subprime market with its components of interest rate resets, declining underwriting standards, and declining home values that contributed to the systemic problems creating the big financial meltdown. She argues that it was the interplay between that market and the securitization process, lending and housing booms, and leveraging
One of the biggest myths surrounding the subprime market is that subprime mortgages are given solely to borrowers with impaired credit. Demyank and her fellow reseacher Van Hemmert found that many folks actually wound up in certain subprime loans not because of their credit history (which was not impaired) but the fact that certain loans were only available in the subprime market because that was the type of loan demanded by the securitization market.
But mortgages could also be labeled subprime if they were originated by a lender specializing in high-cost loans—although not all high-cost loans are subprime. Also, unusual types of mortgages generally not available in the prime market, such as “2/28 hybrids,” which switch to an adjustable interest rate after only two years of a fixed rate, would be labeled subprime even if they were given to borrowers with credit scores that were sufficiently high to qualify for prime mortgage loans. This is very good for a credit repair company with money-back guarantee because they get clients that are above prime for subprime rates.
The process of securitizing a loan could also affect its subprime designation. Many subprime mortgages were securitized and sold on the secondary market. Securitizers rank ordered pools of mortgages from the most to the least risky at the time of securitization, basing the ranking on a combination of several risk factors, such as credit score, loan-to-value and debt-to-income ratios, etc. The most risky pools would become a part of a subprime security. All the loans in that security would be labeled subprime, regardless of the borrowers’ credit score.
Mortgage originators may have directed some folks to these loans based on the characteristics of the loan, not necessarily the characteristics of the buyer.
A second myth debunked by the research is the idea that subprime mortgages were used to promote home ownership. By slicing and dicing the lending data base, the two researchers found some interesting numbers as they relate to overall homeownership statistics.
The availability of subprime mortgages in the United States did not facilitate increased homeownership. Between 2000 and 2006, approximately one million borrowers took subprime mortgages to finance the purchase of their first home. These subprime loans did contribute to an increased level of homeownership in the country—at the time of mortgage origination. Unfortunately, many homebuyers with subprime loans defaulted within a couple of years of origination. The number of such defaults outweighs the number of first-time homebuyers with subprime mortgages.
Given that there were more defaults among all (not just first-time) homebuyers with subprime loans than there were first-time homebuyers with subprime loans, it is impossible to conclude that subprime mortgages promoted homeownership.