Posts tagged ‘CDO’

## 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.

## Risk and CDO's

This is one of the better simple explanations of both the appeal and hidden risk of CDO's. The example, which is short and is worth working through, ends this way:

Suppose that we misspecified the underlying probability of mortgage default and we later discover the true probability is not .05 but .06.  In terms of our original mortgages the true default rate is 20 percent higher than we thought--not good but not deadly either.  However, with this small error, the probability of default in the 10 tranche jumps from p=.0282 to p=.0775, a 175% increase.  Moreover, the probability of default of the CDO jumps from p=.0005 to p=.247, a 45,000% increase!

The dark magic of structured finance conjured many low-risk securities out of many risky securities.  Like all dark magic, however, the conjuring came at a price because if you didn't get the spell exactly correct it was easy to create something much more risky and dangerous than you were likely to have ever imagined.

As an ex-engineer who used to do a lot of operations analysis as well as post-disaster failure analysis, this shares a central theme that I have found in many such failures -- people tend to overestimate their own knowledge.

Coming in to a class at HBS, the professor had us all do a 20 question survey.  It asked us questions like "what is the population of Argentina" and then asked us to give the lowest and highest number we thought it would be such that the answer had a 95% chance of being in that range.  Based on this, only one of our 20 answers should have been out of my limits.  About eight of the answers were out of my ranges.  It was a really good lesson in overestimating one's knowledge.

Which leaves me with a thought -- if we define a large part of the problem as overestimating our understanding of a certain phenomenon, from your observation of the Obama administration and its personalities, what gives you any confidence that a new lager of government regulators will solve this problem?

## Did Obama Cross the Line Yesterday?

I am starting to wonder if Barack Obama crossed the thin red line between traditional American liberalism and socialism yesterday.  Traditionally, liberals in the US have taken pains to generally argue that the rich need to pay for their programs because theyare most able to pay.  This differs a bit from socialists, who would argue that the rich should pay because they are guilty.    For a libertarian like myself, it tends to be a pretty subtle difference, but I think it is important -- are taxes on the rich enforced charity, or are they reparations?

I woke up this morning profoundly depressed, which is unusual for me.   I have a good friend who is having some personal problems, so it is hard for me to separate effects in my mind, but I really feel like Obama stepped over a line yesterday.  TARP pissed me off, but we have bailed out companies before (though not for this much).  The stimulus bill absolutely offended me, but we have seen stupid pork spending insanities before (though not for this much).  But Obama's plan to remake tax law and the budget began with this paragraph:

This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history, we arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions from some of our largest companies' executive suites to the seats of power in Washington, D.C.

From the rest of the rhetoric in this document, and that of Obama and his supporters, the overriding message is that "the rich are being taxed more because they have sinned.  This is pennance."  This is all the more amazing to me because Obama (and to be fair, his predecesors in the Bush administration) have gone out of their way to interrupt the normal market processes that punish failed behavior.  Normally, if you take out a mortgage you can't afford, you default and lose your home, and are hopefully wiser the next time.  If you lend to someone who can't pay, you lose your principal.  If you make products no one wants to buy, you go bankrupt.

But every one of these market mechanisms are being interrupted.  Its as if Obama and the feds not only want to hand out penance, they want to have a monopoly on the process.  No longer will the market dictate winners and losers -- we in Washington will.  It's thoroughly depressing.

Postscript: I guess I am the last person in America to believe it, but I DO believe that this is "a normal turn of the business cycle," or at least that it started out that way until everyone from Paulson to Obama worked to convince folks otherwise.   It is clear that there was an international over-exuberance of lending that goes far beyond just CDO's as the culprit, or even mortgages in general.  And such bubbles do occur from time to time.

PPS: It will be interesting to see which race is tighter -- Obama's race to spend money so he can take credit for a third quarter recovery which is going to happen anyway, or Obama's race to put in CO2 limits in time to take credit for the global cooling cycle many solar observers are starting to predict.

PPPS: I really didn't want to open global warming discussions in general with the last bit of snark.  I have a whole website for that.  I have a subtle enough understanding of the issue to know both that 1) CO2 is causing some warming 2) warming estimates are likely way overblown, for a variety of reasons that include feedback assumptions and 3) behaviors of temperatures over decade-long periods are not necesarily indicative on long-term trends.  If we want to talk about climate modeling and model accuracy vs. current trends, see this post or this post.

## So Just What Was the Omitted Intervention

In a post earlier today on the mortgage market meltdown, I wrote:

And that is what the argument usually boils down to - someone smart should have been watching them.  But lots of smart people were watching all the time.  You can see one such person featured in Lewis's article.  Guys run all over Wall Street looking every day for some single digit basis point spread they can make money off of.  But untold wealth was just sitting there for someone who was willing to call bullshit on the whole CDO/CDS pyramid game.  These guys playing this game were searching for people to bet against them.

And despite this, despite untold wealth as an incentive, and companies looking for folks to take the other side of their transactions, only a handful saw the opportunity.  Thousands of people steeped in the industry with near-perfect incentives to identify these issues ... did not.  What, then, were our hopes of having some incremental government bureaucrats do so?  Usually, after this kind of crisis, there are lines of pundits and writers ready to suggest, with perfect hindsight, new regulations to avert the prior crisis.  But, tellingly, I have heard very few suggestions.

So in this context, I found these comments by leftish Kevin Drum, certainly no knee-jerk advocate of free markets, quite interesting:

No argument on the greed and ideology front, but I'm curious: was there really anyone who made the right call on all this at a policy level? There were, of course, plenty of people who recognized the housing bubble for the idiocy that it was (Alan Greenspan notably not one of them), but were there any major voices making specific policy proposals to slow down the bubble? Or rein in the mortgage market? Or regulate the CDO/CDS market in a way that would have prevented some of
the damage? I'm talking specifics here, not just general observations that the FIRE sector was out of control. Arguments about interest rates being too low count, if they were made for the right reason, but I'm interested mainly in more detailed recommendations.

I don't have any big point to make here. I'm genuinely curious. There were many moments in the past few years when perhaps something could have been done, but what? And who was proposing serious measures that would have helped? Any major Dems? Economic pundits? Wall Street mucky mucks? Who were the unsung heroes? Help me out here.

## Seductive Technocracy

The technocratic compulsion is very seductive to a lot of people (including, I think, our President-elect).  I can't tell you how often I hear "if we just had one smart person to clean up the mess..."  But it never works.  Just think about this auto czar idea being trial-ballooned this week.  Even if you could find someone brilliant enough to perfectly discern and synthesize the diverse buying interests of a hundred million consumers, he can never have the right incentives sitting in that government job.  Pretty soon he has group A insisting that he needs to mandate more fuel economy and group B that he needs to protect union jobs and group C that he needs to save jobs in Michigan in preference to Ohio and group D advocating for Ohio over Michigan and... you get the point.  All rolled up with the incentive problem that if he actually solves the problem at hand, he will be out of a job, so you can bet the problem is never fully solved.

My wife read the Michael Lewis article and comes back to me and says "I can't imagine how you can read that and still oppose government intervention and increased regulation."  I said, "why?"  Sure, people screwed up and did stupid stuff, but no defender of capitalism promises that won't happen.  Besides, what regulation would you propose?  "I don't know, but someone smart should have been watching them."

And that is what the argument usually boils down to - someone smart should have been watching them.  But lots of smart people were watching all the time.  You can see one such person featured in Lewis's article.  Guys run all over Wall Street looking every day for some single digit basis point spread they can make money off of.  But untold wealth was just sitting there for someone who was willing to call bullshit on the whole CDO/CDS pyramid game.  These guys playing this game were searching for people to bet against them.

And despite this, despite untold wealth as an incentive, and companies looking for folks to take the other side of their transactions, only a handful saw the opportunity.  Thousands of people steeped in the industry with near-perfect incentives to identify these issues ... did not.  What, then, were our hopes of having some incremental government bureaucrats do so?  Usually, after this kind of crisis, there are lines of pundits and writers ready to suggest, with perfect hindsight, new regulations to avert the prior crisis.  But, tellingly, I have heard very few suggestions.

Back in the 1980's, everyone was freaked out about junk bond-financed hostile takeovers, greenmail, leveraged buyouts and the like.   Since, while this activity has not disappeared, the wackiest of this behavior has really died down.  Do you remember that act of Congress and subsequent regulation that really curtailed this behavior?  Yeah, neither do I.  The fact is that, if they are allowed -- and if they are not shielded by taxpayer-funded bailouts from the consequences of their actions -- individuals learn from their excesses.  Or they go bankrupt.

## Michael Lewis on ... Whatever the Hell is Happening on Wall Street

As usual, Michael Lewis is a great and informative read, trying to unravel the whole subprime mortgage / CDS / CDO bundle somewhat for laymen.  The article does not excerpt well, but I would summarize it in saying he identified four mistakes by the financial world.  The first two I would describe as real problems but not really new mistakes -- something similar could have been said about S&L's in the 1980's.  These are:

1. A lot of subprime loans were issued to people with no freaking hope of repaying them, in an incredible general lowering of underwriting standards.  (we all should remember, though, the government and the media was trumpeting this as good news -- increase in home ownership rates, blah blah blah).
2. People who bought these securities grossly underestimated the default risks, particularly in the crappiest tranches  (securitized packages of loans are resold in tiers, with a AAA tranche getting first call on any payouts, and the tail end BBB tier getting high interest rates but who takes the first principal losses if the loans default).

But Lewis highlights two mistakes that are in some sense brand new.  These mistakes were effectively vast increases in leverage that acted as a multiplier for the subprime problem, while simultaneously spreading the problem into the hands of AAA investors who accepted the higher returns without paying too much attention to how they were obtained

3. Someone started scooping up the BBB tranches from various securities packages, bundled these together, and somehow got a ratings agency to declare that the top 60% tranche of these repackaged dog turds were AAA.
4. Credit default swaps, originally insurance policies on loan portfolios, turned into a sort of futures market on subprime mortgage packages.  But, unlike futures markets, say in oil, where the futures trading volume are generally well under the total volumes of the underlying commodity flowing around the world, CDS values grew to as much as 100x the underlying commodity volume (in this case subprime mortgage securities).  CDS's went from a risk-management tool to a naked side-bet.

This is interesting stuff, and it was really only reading this piece that I think I started to understand #4 above (though if readers think I am describing this wrong, let me know).  All of this leads me to a few thoughts:

• Nothing about this convinces me any of these firms need to be saved or bailed out.  Let them die.  Maybe the guys who rebuild the industry in their place will be smarter and more careful.  The country is going to face a recession whether Wall Street is bailed out or not -- too much (paper) value disappeared from consumer's net worths (or their perceptions of their net worth) for that not to be the case.  I lived through Texas in the 1980s when the S&L industry went bust almost to the last institution.   Nearly every one of the top 10 banks in the state went into FDIC recievership.
• I have seen people observe that this is an indictment of capitalism because so many people made such bad mistakes.  Sure.  No one said capitalism is a gaurantee against stupidity, or even fraud.  The difference is that the consequences of said stupidity and fraud have to be less in a free market system than if the same people had the power of cersion via government.  In a free market, these guys will fail and be wiped out and get washed away.  The people who they drag down may consider themselves to be innocent, but they participated of their own free will -- if they did not understand what they were doing, that is their problem.  In a statist system, you still have mistakes like this, but they are infinitely more catastrophic, as the stakes in play are often higher.  And the people who made the mistakes are never punished financially, because they are in charge of the machinery of state  (or friends of those in charge).  They make damn sure the power of the state is used to make everyone else pay for their mistake, kind of like ... this \$700 billion bailout.
• Lewis seems to have a hypothesis that the main system change that allowed all this to happen was the shift in ownership structure from partnerships to publicly-held corporations.  And certainly you do get some added agency risks with this, though I find this explanation a bit shallow.  I do think that folks with money are going to approach Wall Street "experts" and rating agencies with a lot more skepticism for a long time, and that can't be a bad thing.
• The opportunity really exists for someone smart to start a brand new rating agency from scratch.  The only reason the current ones won't get wept away is simply that there are not many alternatives right now.  Warren Buffett should partner with someone well-connected with the new administration (Maybe Larry Summers, since there is no way he will survive a confirmation hearing with his men-are-from-large-standard-deviations-women-are-from-narrow-distributions baggage.)
• Lewis is unfair in depicting all the mortgage lenders as predatory.  I am sure some were cheats, but remember that as far as Congress, the Administration, the Federal Government, and the media were concerned, these lenders making subprime loans were doing God's work -- they were expanding home ownership and bringing the dream of owning a home to poor people historically redlined, blah blah blah.  It is only with hindsight that we demonize them for doing the wrong thing -- at the time, absolutely everyone on in the country was pushing them to do exactly what they did.  This is also why Democrats struggle to suggest a resposive regulatory package to this whole mess, as any real reform would have to address minimum underwriting standards, which in turn would have the direct effect of limiting lending to the poor, an outcome with which no Democrat wants to be associated.

Update:  Just to be clear, as I have said before, this is about half of what happened.  There are really two stories, and usually authors focus on one or the other.  Story 1 is the steps taken by the Federal Government  (Fannie, Freddie, Community Reinvestment Act, mortgage interest deduction, low interest rates) that fueled the housing bubble and the expansion of credit to questionable borrowers.  It is described here, among other places.  Story 2 is the one above, how private firms decided not only to purchase these questionable loans made on bubble-inflated assets, but to leverage these assets up to staggering levels.