Archive for the ‘Financial Markets’ Category.

The Virtues of Short-Selling

Is there anything that rankles populists who are "anti-speculator" more than the ability to short stocks?  From time to time countries that are upset about falling markets will ban short-selling.  But I have defended stock (and other asset shorting) as a critical market mechanism that helps to limit damaging bubbles.  I wrote waaaaaay back in 2008, after the US temporarily banned short selling of certain assets:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote [on] the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

I am remembering this old post because Arnold Kling links an interesting bit on economists discussing the Big Short, who among a number of interesting things say this:

Shorting the market in the way they did is very risky, and one has to be very confident, perhaps overconfident, in one’s forecast to take such risks. As a consequence, many people who were pessimistic about the housing market simply stayed on the sidelines—which in turn meant that for a while, valuations in the market primarily reflected the beliefs of optimists.

The timing issue is key.  I have been right probably in 4 of out the 5 major market shorting opportunities I have identified in the last 10 years, but have been on average 2 years early with all of them, meaning I lost money on most of them, or made money after enduring some really big paper losses for a while.

You Know It Is Time to Short the Economy When...

.... your paper prints headlines that say "Economists: Zero chance of Arizona recession."  I am sure Houston would have said the exact same thing, right up until oil prices dropped to $30 and suddenly there was like a 100% chance.  When the Arizona Republic makes a definitive economic prediction, bet the other side.

Anyway, I am considering this headline to be a flashing indicator of the top.  In 2005 I wrote about another such indicator that told me the housing market had peaked:

So, to date [May 31, 2005], I have been unconvinced about the housing bubble, at least as it applied to our community.  After all, demographics over the next 20-30 years are only going to support Scottsdale area real estate.

However, over the weekend I had a disturbing experience:   At a social function, I heard a dentist enthusiastically telling a doctor that he needs to be buying condos and raw land.  The dentist claimed to be flipping raw land parcels for 100% in less than 6 months.

For those who don't know, this is a big flashing red light.  When doctors and dentists start trying to sell you on a particular type of investment, run away like they have the plague.  At Harvard Business School, I had a great investment management class with a professor who has schooled many of the best in the business.  If an investment we were analyzing turned out to be a real dog, he would ask us "who do you sell this to?" and the class would shout "doctors!"  And, if the investment was really, really bad, to the point of being insane, the class would instead shout "dentists!"

Which reminds me that in the last 6 months I have started hearing radio commercials again urging folks to get into the house-flipping business and make their fortune.  Whenever institutions start selling investments to you, the average Joe, rather than just investing themselves, that should be taken as a signal that we are approaching a top**.  About 12-18 months before oil prices tanked, I started getting flooded with spam calls at work trying to sell me various sorts of oil exploration investments.

** Postscript:  In 2010, when house prices were low and some were going for a song in foreclosure, there were no house flipping commercials on radio.   That is because Blackstone and other major institutions were too busy buying them up.  Now that these companies see less value, you are hearing house flipping commercials.   You know that guy who has a book with his fool-proof method for making a fortune?  So why is he wasting his time selling books for $2 a copy in royalties rather than following his method?

The Fed Wins!

I have observed before that the central bank of every major industrialized country is trying to devalue its currency.  Since in some sense this is a zero sum game, they are all locked into a race to the bottom, a competition to see who can be most successful in hammering their consumers and individual savers in order to boost sales of their domestic companies dependent on export markets.

It looks like the US is winning!  Yay for us, we have destroyed our currency the fastest!  Our government has been most successful in making our domestic consumers relatively poorer vs. those of other nations.  Who says the Obama Administration can't do anything right?

The article goes on to point out something I have been saying for years -- that the unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus steps that governments are taking today at the peak of the economic cycle (though admittedly a relatively weak peak) is going to leave the tank completely empty when it comes to the next downturn.

While the ECB’s initial move to cut interest rates into negative territory in June 2014 sparked a sharp plunge in the euro, further cuts last December and last week have had little effect on the currency.

“The ECB’s hand has been played out,” said Alan Ruskin, head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Deutsche Bank AG. “The currency market isn’t as responsive to the ECB anymore.”

Similarly, markets have ignored the Bank of Japan’s hints at its monetary-policy meeting this week of more rate cuts to come. Not only has the mechanism transmitting ultraloose policy into the real economy appeared to be broken, but some unconventional policy tools—such as negative interest rates—have been deleterious to banks and rattled financial markets.

And maybe that's OK - maybe at some point some government starts thinking about fixing structural regulation, taxation, and government resource reallocation policies that are the true source of economic weakness.

Probability of A Stock Market Correction

The Wall Street Journal has a good article on investor sentiment, relying heavily on the work by Robert Shiller.  He argues that investor sentiment looks much more like a hindcast than a forecast.  In other words, investors tend to be optimistic after the market just rose, and pessimistic after the market just fell.

The more stocks go up and the faster they rise, the more likely you become to expect more of the same. And when they go down, your expectations fall with them. Investors are often told not to get caught up in other people’s emotions — but it’s at least as important not to get swept away by your own.

New research hammers that point home. Finance professors William Goetzmann and Robert Shiller of Yale, along with Dasol Kim of Case Western Reserve University, have analyzed the Yale surveys and found that investors’ forecasts regularly look more like aftercasts — simple projections of the recent past into the future.

I have no reason not to believe this to be true.

But I think there is something a little wrong with this logic:

You can ask yourself one of the key questions: What are the odds of a one-day crash of at least 12% in the U.S. stock market over the next six months?

You probably answered at least 10% — even though that is roughly 10 times the likely chance of a disastrous daily crash in the coming six months, based on the historical record. (The 87 years from 1929 through 2015 consisted of 174 six-month periods. But, with only two single-day crashes of at least 12% over that span, such declines occurred in just over 1% of the half-year periods.)

Remarkably, professional investors exaggerate the odds almost as badly as individual investors do. Over time, both groups overall have tended to put the odds of a crash at around 20%, with the institutional investors’ estimates ranging only about one to three percentage points below that.

Again, I have no problem with the statement that most people, in a given year, overestimate the chance of a stock market crash.  20%, for any random year, is likely a high estimate.   But that is not the same as saying it is a high estimate for this year.  One could argue that we know more about our current year than to treat it simply as a random year.  For example:

  • We are in the midst of what is soon to be the 2nd longest bull market in the market's history.  Are the odds of a significant correction higher on a particular day 2500 days into a bull market than on a random day in history?
  • Stock prices have risen faster than earning for 5 years.  Is a market correction more likely in that environment than on a random day?
  • Shiller's CAPE is close to the third highest it has ever been, and at a level that has nearly always been followed by a large correction.  Should I treat today's risk of correction as just the last century's average or is it realistically higher?

I don't think 10-20% is a bad estimate given where we are.

Revisiting the Financial Crisis

This video below is pretty good, though it addresses only one of the two major distortions created by government.  In addition to the incentives, even mandates, to issue risky mortgages discussed below, Basel II capital standards created really strong incentives for banks to prefer holding mortgage-backed securities.

Doesn't The Government Know That It Has A Duty to Prop Up The Stock Market?

Fortunately, Suze Orman and Jim Cramer are on the case.   Because why do we have a government if not to keep asset bubbles inflated as long as possible?

Must Make for Interesting Family Dinners: If Anything, Ellen Pao's Husband is In The Middle of An Even Bigger Mess

Ellen Pao has had some career problems of late, but as I wrote yesterday, if she takes some responsibility for her own mis-steps and stops blaming it all on misogyny, she might learn something useful and build positive things on the experience.

A very loyal reader gives me a heads up that her husband, who is never mentioned in recent stories, actually faces a LOT more serious trouble (it is probably journalistically appropriate to leave her husband out of the recent stories, but one wonders if the New York Times would show the same scruples on a story about the CEO of Exxon if, say, his wife were independently in the midst of some sort of scandal).

Ellen Pao's husband is Buddy Fletcher, former Wall Street Wunderkind and now subject of a LOT of regulator scrutiny and pension fund lawsuits.  Here is one:

The firefighters’ system eventually said yes, and along with two other pension funds — the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System and the New Orleans Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund — invested a combined $100 million in one of Mr. Fletcher’s funds, FIA Leveraged. As they understood it, the fund would invest in liquid securities that could be sold in a matter of weeks.

The details sounded, as one board member put it, “too good to be true.”

In fact, they were.

Mr. Fletcher’s hedge fund has since been described by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee as having elements of a Ponzi scheme, and four retirement systems are fighting to recover their money. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in March on a plan to liquidate the fund’s assets, which the trustee deemed “virtually worthless” in a report last November.

And another:

New York investment manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. is being sued by the MBTA Retirement Fund and some of his own hedge funds on accusations that he defrauded them of more than $50 million.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in New York, accuses Fletcher and his firm, Fletcher Asset Management , and other parties of conducting a “long-running fraud” in which they misused money for their own benefit, inappropriately took inflated management fees, and overstated the value of assets.

As previously reported, the MBTA pension fund invested $25 million with Fletcher in 2007 on the advice of the fund’s former executive director, Karl White.

White pitched the investment to the pension fund just nine months after he had resigned to work for Fletcher.

The pension fund’s holding is now worthless, and the bankruptcy trustee investigating the case has alleged that Fletcher never invested the money as promised.

And here is an older, in-depth look at Fletcher.

It is starting to look like most of the money went to his family (e.g. $8 to his brother to fund a film), to buffing his image (e.g. $4+ million donation to Harvard), and to an incredibly opulent lifestyle (e.g. 4!! apartments in the Dakota).

Despite the fact that he seems to have grossly overstated income and assets of his funds, no one -- regulators, clients, auditors -- figured it out.  The most interesting part to me was the first group to detect the potential fraud was, of all groups, the governing board of the Dakota.  This group, full of successful Wall Streeters, looked at his financial statements and turned down his application to buy yet another apartment, coming to the conclusion he not only did not have the funds to buy this apartment but they were unsure how he was paying the vig on the $20 million loan securitized by his existing apartments.

One thing Fletcher apparently has in common with his wife is that he seems to respond to every negative business decision with a discrimination lawsuit.  This one backfired, however, and only served to point public attention to the fact that a group of savvy financiers thought Fletcher's wealth was potentially imaginary.  Government investigations and lawsuits have followed.

He still has a chance to escape, though.  Despite Jon Corzine's outright theft of funds from MF Global commodity investor accounts, he got off scott-free due to his close ties to the Democratic Party.  Time for Fletcher to start giving any free assets he still holds (if there are any) to Hillary's campaign.

97% Mortgages are 100% Insane

I am not sure there was ever any excuse for considering a 97% loan-to-value mortgage as "sensible" or "responsible."  After all, even without a drop in the market, the buyer is likely underwater on day one (net of real estate commissions).  Perhaps for someone who is very wealthy, whose income is an order of magnitude or two higher than the payments, this might be justfiable, but in fact these loans tend to get targeted at the most marginal of buyers.

But how can this possibly make sense when just 5 years ago the financial markets collapsed in large part due to these risky mortgages?  Quasi-public, now fully public guarantors Fannie and Freddie had to be bailed out by taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars.  There are still a non-trivial number of people trapped deep underwater in such mortgages, still facing foreclosure or trying to engineer a short sale after seeing the small bits of equity they invested swamped by a falling housing market.

But, here they go again:  Fannie and Freddie, now fully backed by the taxpayer, are ready to rush out and re-inflate a financial bubble by making what are effectively nothing-down loans:

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt has one heck of a sense of humor. How else to explain his choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for his Monday announcement that he’s revving up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to enable more risky mortgage loans? History says the joke will be on taxpayers when this federal gamble ends the same way previous ones did.

At his live appearance at Sin City’s Mandalay Bay, Mr. Watt told a crowd of mortgage bankers that “to increase access for creditworthy but lower-wealth borrowers,” his agency is working with Fan and Fred “to develop sensible and responsible guidelines for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios between 95 and 97%.”

The incredible part is that the Obama administration is justifying this based on all the people still underwater from the last time such loans were written.   The logic, if one can call it that, is to try to re-inflate the housing market now, and worry about the consequences -- never, I guess.  Politicians have an amazing capacity to mindlessly kick the can down the road, where short-term is the next morning's papers and unimaginably far in the distant future is after their next election.

A Slightly Different Take on High Frequency Trading (HFT)

My guess is that HFT will soon become one of those bogeyman words that people automatically associate with "bad stuff" without ever actually understanding what it means.  But it is worth understanding the underlying problem, and that problem is not high speed or frequency per se.

As I understand it, when an order to buy, say, 10,000 shares of Exxon gets placed, the purchase will get pieced together by searching across multiple servers where offers are listed and putting together the 10,000 shares in bits and pieces from these various servers.  What HFT's are doing (and I am sure this is grossly oversimplified) is that once it sees this order pinging  a server, it runs ahead at high speed to other servers and buys up blocks of Exxon at price A and then offers it up to the pokey buying search when it finally arrives at those servers at A+a bit more.  That "a bit more" may be less than a penny, but the pennies add up and if done right, there is almost no trading risk.

This is bad, though generally not for us small investors but for our mutual fund companies.  For my little trade of 100 shares that might be cleared on the first server, HFT's have no opportunity to play.  Moreover, I may not even notice a penny or two difference in the price I get.  This is a much bigger deal for mutual fund companies and large investors clearing larger trades, where a few pennies can add up to a lot of money.

An exchange always has to be really careful to maintain its image of fairness, and systematically allowing such behavior, called front-running, is not good for the health of the market.   Which is why you are hearing a lot about this.

Here is what you are not hearing, and I will admit that it is all a hypothesis of mine.  But it may well be possible that HFT's actually reduce the total cost of front-running to investors.  It may be that HFT's real crime is that what they are doing is more transparent and visible than what market makers were doing in the past -- ie they are not increasing the volume of front-running, they are just making it more obvious.   I would not be at all surprised if such front-running always existed in market-making (certainly Goldman Sachs has been accused of it) and that HFT's are actually the Wal-Mart or Amazon of front-running -- not doing anything new but doing it cheaper on tighter margins.   Kind of ironically, I suppose this is what efficient markets theory would predict for the market in front-running.

If this is the case, while we would rather see front-running eliminated entirely, HFT's may actually be reducing the cost of front-running and making things more rather than less efficient.

Words That Mean the Opposite: "Shareholder Rights Plan"

Today's entry:  "shareholder rights plan."  Example usage:

Less than a week after activist investor Carl Icahn announced a 10 percent stake in Netflix, the online video company is moving to protect itself against hostile takeovers.

The Los Gatos, Calif., company said Monday that it has adopted a shareholder rights plan.

Icahn disclosed his stake in Netflix Wednesday.

Under the plan, rights are exercisable if a person or group acquires 10 percent of Netflix, or 20 percent in the case of institutional investors, in a deal not approved by the board.

This is basically a poison pill that can be triggered by the Board that can dilute the value of a hostile investor's share of the company.  What it does is force investors to negotiate with management for takeover of the company, rather than directly with shareholders.  As such, it is actually a "management rights plan" as it empowers management at the expense of shareholders  (as evidence of this, in a rising market today Netflix stock fell on this news -- shareholders know that such moves have nothing to do with their well-being).  Managements use it either to protect their jobs (by disallowing hostile takeovers their shareholders would otherwise support) or at least to get a nice payoff on the way out the door as the price for agreeing to the deal.

Well, I Was Wrong

I have been a stock market bear for some months now.  I don't really think the US economy is going to double dip on its own, but I felt like Europe and Asia would bring us down.  Well, I simply underestimated both the Fed's and the ECB's willingness to goose financial assets.  If the Fed and ECB are going to inflate our way out of, uh, whatever it is we are in, then I certainly don't want to be holding bonds, particularly at these absurdly low interest rates.  Stocks are not as good of an inflation hedge as some hard assets, but they are a hell of a lot better than most bonds.  I'm  certainly not going to buy back in the current euphoric highs, but I am giving up on trying to predict that market based on fundamentals.  It seems that fundamentals are a suckers game, and you better not be timing the market unless you have an inside line to government policy, because that seems to be what drives the train.

PS-  I wish Milton Friedman were still around.  QE was as much his idea as anyone else's.   I wonder what he would have thought of the results, or of this particular implementation.

Risks of QE

So far, I have mainly been concerned about inflationary risks from quantitative easing, which is effectively a fancy term for substituting printed money for government debt (I know there are folks out there that swear up and down that QE does not involve printing (electronically of course) money, but it simply has to.  Operation Twist, the more recent Fed action, is different, and does not involve printing money but essentially involves the Fed taking on longer-term debt in exchange for putting more shorter term debt on the market.

Scott Minder in the Financial Times highlights another potential problem:

In 2008, just before the first of two rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve had $41bn in capital and roughly $872bn in liabilities, resulting in a debt to equity ratio of roughly 21-to-one. The Federal Reserve’s portfolio had $480bn in Treasury securities with an asset duration of about 2.5 years. Therefore, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would have caused the value of its portfolio to fall by 2.5 per cent, or $12bn. A loss of that magnitude would have been severe but not devastating.

By 2011, the Fed’s portfolio consisted of more than $2.6tn in Treasury and agency securities, mortgage bonds and other fixed income assets, and its debt-to-equity ratio had dramatically increased to 51-to-one. Under Operation Twist, the Fed swapped its short-term securities holdings for longer-term ones, thereby extending the duration of its portfolio to more than eight years. Now, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would cause the market value of the Federal Reserve’s assets to fall by about 8 per cent, or $200bn, leaving it insolvent, with a capital deficit of about $150bn. Hypothetically, a 5 per cent rise in interest rates could cause a trillion dollar decline in the value of the Federal Reserve’s assets.

As the economy continues to expand, the Federal Reserve will eventually seek to normalise monetary policy, resulting in higher interest rates. In this scenario, the central bank could find that the market value of its portfolio has declined to the point where it no longer has enough sellable assets to adequately reduce the money supply and maintain the purchasing power of the dollar. Given US dependence on foreign capital flows, if the stability of the dollar is drawn into question, the ability of the US to finance its deficits may falter. The Federal Reserve could then find itself the buyer of last resort for Treasury securities. In doing so, the government would become hostage to its printing press, and a currency crisis or runaway inflation could take hold.

George Dorgan observes, on the pages of Zero Hedge, that European countries are taking even large balance sheet risks.  The most surprising is the Swiss.

New Greek Bailout Announced

It is an open question how long this bailout will plug the dam.  I continue to maintain the position that Greece is going to have to be let out of the Euro. Pulling this Band-Aid off a millimeter at a time is delaying any possible recovery of the Greek economy, and really the European economy, indefinitely.  All to protect the solvency of a number of private banks (or perhaps more accurately, to protect the solvency of the counter-parties who wrote the CDO's on all that debt).

Anyway, the interesting part for me is that with this bailout, the total cumulative charity sent the Greek's way by other European countries now exceeds Greek GDP, by a lot.

Shoe on the Other Foot

Just six months ago, governments were criticizing ratings agencies for letting threats by debt security issuers cow them into keeping ratings for bad debt higher than they should be (emphasis added)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Wall Street’s two largest credit rating agencies, were roundly criticized in the Levin-Coburn Senate reportfor betraying investors’ trust and triggering the massive mortgage-backed securities sell-offs that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide independent, third-party credit assessments to help investors understand the risks in buying particular securities, debts and other investment offerings. For example, securities that have earned the highest ‘AAA’ rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) should have an “extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments” or have “a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults.” Investors would use the ratings to help evaluate the securities they’re seeking to buy.

However, the standard practice on Wall Street is fraught with conflicts of interest. In reality, the credit rating agencies have long relied on fees paid by the Wall Street firms seeking ratings for their mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), or other investment offerings. The Levin-Coburn report found the credit agencies “were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom.” Between 2004 and 2007, the “issuer pay” business model fostered conflicts of interest that have proven disastrous for investors.

I have no problem with this analysis.  But it's ironic in contrast to the very same governments' reactions to their own downgrades over the last 6 months.  In fact, the general government reaction from Washington to Paris has to be to ... wait for it ... threaten the agencies in order to keep their ratings up.  And these threats go farther than just loss of business - when the government issues threats, they are existential.  It's hard to see how the US or French government's behavior vis a vis downgrades has been any different than that of banks or bond issuers that have faced downgrades.

In general, the tone of government officials has been "what gives them the right to do this to us?"  The answer to that question is ... the government.  These self-same governments were generally responsible for mandating that certain investors could only buy certain securities if they are rated.  And not just rated by anyone, but rated by a handful of companies that have been given a quasi-monopoly by the government on this rating business.

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Fannie and Freddie: Worse Than We Thought

From Edward Pinto at the American

Fannie and Freddie entered into agreements accepting responsibility for misleading conduct discovered by the SEC, including:

1.    As of June 30, 2008, Freddie had $244 billion in subprime loans, while investors were told it had only $6 billion in subprime exposure.

a.    Freddie knew it was inadequately compensated for the risks it was taking. For example, it was taking on “subprime-like loans to help achieve [its] HUD goals” that were similar to private fixed-rate subprime, but the latter typically received “returns five to six times as great,” says the complaint.

b.    Freddie had concerns about risk layering on loans with an LTV >90% and a FICO <680. (Yet, in Freddie’s disclosures it only noted risk layering concerns on loans with an LTV >90% and a FICO <620. This is a major difference since only 10 percent of its loans fell into the LTV >90% and a FICO <620 category, while nearly half fell into the LTV >90% and a FICO <680 one.)

2.    As of June 30, 2008, Fannie had $641 billion in Alt-A loans (23 percent of its single-family loan guaranty portfolio), while investors were told it had less than half that amount ($306 billion, or 11 percent of its single-family loan guaranty portfolio).

3.    The SEC complaint disclosed that Freddie had a coding system to track “subprime,” “other-wise subprime,” and “subprime-like” loans in its loan guaranty portfolio even as it denied having any significant subprime exposure.

These suits are important because they demonstrate that Fannie and Freddie “told the world their subprime exposure was substantially smaller than it really was … and mislead the market about the amount of risk on the companies’ books,” said Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division.

Greek Government Essentially in State of Default

Nice tax refund you have coming .... we think we'll keep it

The [Greek] government has decided to stop tax returns and other obligation payments to enterprises, salary workers and pensioners as it sees the budget deficit soaring to over 10 percent of gross domestic product for 2011.

For all the supposed austerity, the budget situation is worse in Greece.  Germany and other countries will soon have to accept they have poured tens of billions of euros down a rathole, and that they will have to do what they should have done over a year ago - let Greece move out of the Euro.

Government workers and pensioners simply will not accept any cuts without rioting in the street.  And the banks will all go under with a default on government debt.  And no one will pay any more taxes.  And Germany is not going to keep funding a 10% of GDP deficit.  The only way out seems to be to print money (to pay the debt) and devalue the currency (to effectively reduce fixed pensions and salaries).  And the only way to do all that is outside of the Euro.  From an economic standpoint, the inflation approach is probably not the best, but it is the politically easiest to implement.

The Goldman Sachs Strategy

For a while now, a few authors have been quipping at Zero Hedge that the best investment strategy is to do the opposite of what Goldman Sachs is telling is retail customers.  The theory is that if Goldman tells the public to buy, it means that they are selling like crazy for their own account.

This seemed a bit cynical, but on Friday Zero Hedge observed that Goldman was telling its retail customers to buy European banks.  This advice seemed so crazy -- the European agreement last weekly explicitly did not contain anything to help banks in the near term with over-leveraged bets on shaky sovereign debt -- that for the fun of it I played along.  I shorted a couple hundred shares of EUFN, a US traded fund of European financial firms (took a bit of work to find the shares to borrow).

Made 6% in one day.  Thanks Goldman.