Posts tagged ‘CDO’

The Big Short: The Silent Ticking Bomb

A bomb was ticking for many years before the collapse of Bear Stearns in March of 2008, but unfortunately for most financial market participants, there were very few investors aware of the looming catastrophe. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, author Michael Lewis manages to craft a detailed account of the financial crisis by weaving in the exceptional personal stories of a handful of courageous capitalists. These financial sleuths manage not only to discover the explosive and toxic assets buried on the balance sheets of Wall Street giants, but also to realize massive profits for their successful detective skills.

Lewis was not dabbling in virgin territory when he decided to release yet another book on the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Nonetheless, even after slogging through Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever (see my reviews on Too Big to Fail  and The Greatest Trade Ever),  I still felt obligated to add Michael Lewis’s The Big Short to my bookshelf (OK…my e-reader device). After all, he was the creator of Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, and The Blind Side, among other books in his distinguished collection.

Genesis of the Bomb Creations

Like bomb sniffing dogs, the main characters that Lewis describes in The Big Short (Michael Burry/Scion Capital; Steve Eisman/Oppenheimer and Co. & FrontPoint Partners; Gregg Lippman/Deutsche Bank (DB); and Jamie Mai & Charlie Ledley/Cornwall Capital) demonstrate an uncanny ability to smell the inevitable destruction, and more importantly have the conviction to put their professional careers and financial wellbeing at risk by making a gutsy contrarian call on the demise of the subprime mortgage market.

How much dough did the characters in the book make? Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley (Cornwall Capital) exemplify the payoff for those brave, and shrewd enough to short the housing market (luck never hurts either). Lewis highlights the Cornwall crew here:

“Cornwall Capital, started four and a half years earlier with $110,000, had just netted from a million-dollar bet, more than $80 million.”

Lewis goes on to describe the volatile period as “if bombs of differing sizes had been placed in virtually every major Western financial institution.” The size of U.S. subprime bombs (losses) exploding was estimated at around $1 trillion by the IMF (International Monetary Fund).  When it comes to some of the large publicly traded financial institutions, these money bombs manifested themselves in the form of about $50 billion in mortgage-related losses at Merrill Lynch (BAC), $60 billion at Citigroup (C), $9 billion at Morgan Stanley (MS), along with many others.

The subprime market, in and of itself, is actually not that large in the whole scheme of things. Definitions vary, but some described the market at around 7-8 million subprime mortgages outstanding during the peak of the market, which is a small fraction of the overall U.S. mortgage industry. The relatively small subprime market became a gargantuan problem when millions of lucrative subprime side-bets were created through investment banks and unregulated financial behemoths like AIG. The spirits of greed added fuel to the fire as the construction of credit default swap market and synthetic mortgage-backed CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) were unleashed.

Triggering the Bomb

Multiple constituents, including the rating agencies (S&P [MHP], Moodys [MCO], Fitch) and banks, used faulty assumptions regarding the housing market. Since the subprime market was a somewhat new invention the mathematical models did not know how to properly incorporate declining (and/or moderating) national home prices, since national price declines were not consistent with historical housing data. These models were premised on the notion of Florida subprime price movements not being correlated (moving in opposite directions) with California subprime price movements. This thought process allowed S&P to provide roughly 80% of CDO issues with the top AAA-rating, despite a large percentage of these issues eventually going belly-up.

Lewis punctuated the faulty correlation reasoning underlying these subprime assumptions that dictated the banks’ reckless actions:

“The correlation among triple-B-rated subprime bonds was not 30 percent; it was 100 percent. When one collapsed, they all collapsed, because they were all driven by the same broader economic forces. In the end, it made little sense for a CDO to fall from 100 to 95 to 77 to 70 and down to 7. The subprime bonds beneath them were either all bad or all good. The CDOs were worth either zero or 100.”

Steve Eisman adds his perspective about subprime modeling:

“Just throw the model in the garbage can. The models are all backward looking.”

Ignorance, greed, and other assumptions, such as the credibility of VAR (Value-at-Risk) metrics, accelerated the slope of the financial crisis decline.

Eisman had some choice words about many banking executives’ lack of knowledge, including his gem about Ken Lewis (former CEO of Bank of America):

“I had an epiphany. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God he’s dumb!’ A lightbulb went off. The guy running one of the biggest banks in the world is dumb!”

Or Eisman’s short fuse regarding the rating agency’s refusal to demand critical information from the investment banks due to fear of market share loss:

“Who’s in charge here? You’re the grown up. You’re the cop! Tell them to f**king give it to you!!!…S&P was worried if they demanded the data from Wall Street, Wall Street would just go to Moody’s for their ratings.”

A blatant conflict of interest exists between the issuer and rating agency, which needs to be rectified if credibility will ever return to the rating system. At a minimum, all fixed income investors should wake up and smell the coffee by doing more of their own homework, and relying less on the rubber stamp rating of others. The credit default swap market played a role in the subprime bubble bursting too. Without regulation, it becomes difficult to explain how AIG’s tiny FP (Financial Products) division could generate $300 million in profits annually, or at one point, 15% of AIG’s overall corporate profits.

My Take

The Big Short may simply be recycled financial crisis fodder regurgitated by countless observers, but regardless, there are plenty of redeeming moments in the book. Getting into the book took longer than I expected, given the pedigree and track record of Lewis. Nonetheless, after grinding slowly through about 2/3 of the book, I couldn’t put the thing down in the latter phases.

Lewis chose to take a micro view of the subprime mortgage market, with the personal stories, rather than a macro view. In the first 95% of the book, there is hardly a mention of Bear Stearns (JPM) Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs (GS), Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE), etc. Nevertheless, at the very end of the book, in the epilogue, Lewis attempts to put a hurried bow around the causes of and solutions to the financial crisis.

There is plenty of room to spread the blame, but Lewis singles out John Gutfreund’s (former Salomon Brothers) decision to take Solly public as a key pivotal point in the moral decline of the banking industry. For more than two decades since the publishing of Liar’s Poker, Lewis’s view on the overall industry remains skeptical:

“The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they’re still all wrong.”

His doubts may still remain about the health in the banking industry, and regardless of his forecasting prowess, Michael Lewis will continue sniffing out bombs and writing compelling books on a diverse set of subjects.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AIG subsidiary debt, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in BAC, JPM, FRE, FNM, DB, MS, GS, C, MCO, MHP, Fitch, any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

July 19, 2010 at 1:19 am 3 comments

Goldman Cheat? Really?

Really? Am I supposed to be surprised that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has dug up a CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) deal with $1 billion in associated Goldman Sachs (GS) losses? The headline number may sound large, but the billion dollars is not much if you consider banks are expected to lose about $3 trillion dollars (according to an International Monetary Fund report)  from toxic assets and bad loans related to the financial crisis. Specifically, Goldman is being charged for defrauding investors for not disclosing the fact that John Paulson (see Gutsiest Trade), a now-famous hedge fund manager who made billions by betting against the subprime mortgage market, personally selected underlying securities to be included in a synthetic CDO (a pool of mortgage derivatives rather than a pool of mortgage securities).

Hurray for the SEC, but surely we can come up with more than this after multiple years? More surprising to me is that it took the SEC this long to come up with any dirt in the middle of a massive financial pigpen. What’s more, the estimated $1 billion in investor losses associated with the Goldman deal represents about 0.036% of the global industry loss estimates. These losses are a drop in the bucket. If there is blood on Goldman’s hand, my guess is there’s enough blood on the hands of Wall Street bankers to paint the White House red (two coats). The Financial Times highlighted a study showing Goldman was a relative small-fry among the other banks doing these type of CDO deals. For 2005-2008, Goldman did a little more than 5% of the total $100+ billion in similar deals, earning them an unimpressive ninth place finish among its peers. As a matter of fact, Paulson also hocked CDO garbage selections to other banks like Deutsche Bank, Bear Stearns, and Credit Suisse. The disclosure made in those deals will no doubt play a role in determining Goldman’s ultimate culpability.

Context, with regard to the fees earned by Goldman, is important too. Goldman earned less than 8/100th of 1% of their $20 billion in pretax profits from the Abacus deal. Not to mention, unless other charges pile up, Goldman’s roughly $850 billion in assets, $170 billion in cash and liquid securities, and $71 billion in equity should buttress them in any future litigation. These particular SEC charges feel more like the government trying to convict Goldman on a technicality – like the government did with Al Capone on tax evasion charges. At the end of the day, the evidence will be presented and the courts will determine if fraud indeed occurred. If so, there will be consequences.

Demonize Goldman?

How bad can Goldman really be, especially considering their deep philanthropic roots (the firm donated $500 million for small business assistance), and CEO Lloyd Blankfein was kind enough to let us know he is doing “God’s work,” by providing Goldman’s rich menu of banking services to its clients.

Certainly, if Goldman broke securities laws, then there should be hell to pay and heads should roll. But if Goldman was really trying to defraud investors in this particular structured deal (called Abacus 2007-ACI), then why would they invest alongside the investors (Goldman claims to have lost $90 milllion in this particular deal)? I suppose the case could be made that Goldman only invested for superficial reasons because the fees garnered from structuring the deals perhaps outweighed any potential losses incurred by investing the firm’s own capital in these deals. Seems like a stretch if you contemplate the $90 million in losses overwhelmed the $15 million in fees earned by Goldman to structure the deal.

Maybe this will be the beginning of the debauchery flood gates opening in the banking industry, but let’s not fully jump on the Goldman Scarlet Letter bandwagon just quite yet. Politics may be playing a role too. The Volcker rule was conveniently introduced right after Senator Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, and political coincidence has reared its head again in light of the financial regulatory reform fury swelling up in Washington.

Waiting for More teeth

There is a difference between intelligent opportunism and blatant cheating. There is also a difference between immorally playing a game within the rules versus immorally breaking laws. Those participants breaking the law should be adequately punished, but before jumping to conclusions, let’s make sure we first gather all the facts. While the relatively minute Abacus deal may be very surprising to some, given the trillions in global losses caused by toxic assets, I am not. Surely the SEC can dig up something with more teeth, but until then I will be more surprised by Jesse Jame’s cheating on Sandra Bullock (with Michelle “Bombshell” McGee) than by Goldman Sachs’s alleged cheating in CDO disclosure.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in GS, DB, Bear Stearns (JPM), and CSGN.VX/CS.N or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

April 19, 2010 at 4:35 pm 2 comments

John Paulson and the “Gutsiest” Trade Ever

Although the pain and suffering of the 2008-09 financial crisis has been well documented and new books are continually coming out in droves, less covered are the winners who made a bonanza by predicting the collapse of the real estate and credit markets. Prizewinning Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman decided to record the fortunes made by hedge fund manager John Paulson in his book The Greatest Trade Ever (The Behind-the-Scenes story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History).

Paulson’s Cartoonish Cut

Zuckerman puts Paulson’s massive gains into perspective:

“Paulson’s winnings were so enormous they seemed unreal, even cartoonish. His firm, Paulson & Co., made $15 billion in 2007, a figure that topped the gross domestic products of Bolivia, Honduras, and  Paraguay…Paulson’s personal cut was nearly $4 billion…more than the earnings of J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods put together.”

 

As impressive as those gains were, Paulson added another $5 billion into his firm’s coffers and $2 billion into his personal wallet over 2008 and early 2009. 

There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are countless strategies used by the thousands of hedge fund managers looking to hit the jackpot like Paulson. John Paulson primarily made his multi-billion fortune thanks to his CDS positions (Credit Default Swaps), the same product that led to massive multi-billion bailouts and government support for various financial institutions.

Bigger Gamble than Perception

One surprising aspect I discovered from reading the book was the uncertainty surrounding Paulson’s negative real estate trade. Here’s how Zuckerman described the conviction level of John Paulson and Paolo Pelligrini (colleague) as it related to their CDS positions on subprime CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) debt:

“In truth, Paulson and Pellegrini still were unsure if their growing trade would ever pan out. They thought the CDOs and other risky mortgage debt would become worthless, Paulson says. ‘But we still didn’t know.’”

 

Often the trades that cause you to sweat the most tend to be the most profitable, and in this case, apparently the same principle held.

Disingenuous Dramatic License

Before Paulson made his billions, Zuckerman uses a little dramatic license in the book to characterize Paulson as a small fry manager, “Paulson now managed $1.5 billion, a figure that sounded like a lot to friends outside the business. But the firm was dwarfed by its many rivals.” Zuckerman goes on to call Paulson’s hedge fund “small potatoes.” I don’t have the industry statistics at my fingertips, but I’ll go out on a limb and make an educated guess that a $1.5 billion hedge fund has significantly more assets than the vast majority of hedge fund peers. Under the 2 and 20 model, I’m guessing the management fee alone of $30 million could cover Paulson’s food and shelter expenses. Before he struck the payload, the book also references the $100 million of his personal wealth he invested with the firm. I think John Paulson was doing just fine before he executed the “greatest trade.”

What Drove the Greatest Trade

Hind sight is always 20/20, but looking back, there was ample evidence of the real estate bubble forming. Fortunately for Paulson, he got the timing generally right too. Here are some of the factors leading to the great trade:

  • CDO Leverage in Subprime: By the end of 2006, the subprime loan market was relatively large at around $1.2 trillion (representing around 10% of the overall mortgage market). But thanks to the introduction of CDOs, there were more than $5 trillion of risky investments created from all the risky subprime loans.
  • Liars & Ninjas: “Liar Loans” loans based on stated income (using the honor system) and “ninja loans” (no income, no job, no assets) gained popularity and prevalence, which just led to more defaults and foreclosures in the mid-2000s.
  • No Down Payments: What’s more, by 2005, 24% of all mortgages were completed with no down payment, up from approximately 3% in 2001. The percentage of first-time home buyers with no down payment was even higher at 43%.

Overall, I give kudos to Gregory Zuckerman, who spent more than 50 hours with John Paulson, for bringing something so abstract and homogenous (a skeptical real estate trade) to life. Zuckerman does a superb job of adding spice to the Paulson story by introducing other narratives and characters, even if the story lines don’t blend together perfectly. After reading The Greatest Trade Ever I came away with a new found respect for Paulson’s multi-billion dollar gutsy trade. Now, Paulson has reloaded his gun and is targeting the U.S. dollar. If Paulson’s short dollar and long gold position works out, I’ll keep an eye out for his next book…The Greatest Trad-er Ever.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VNQ), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in companies mentioned. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm 8 comments

Financial Engineering: Butter Knife or Cleaver?

Recently, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker blasted the banking industry for innefectual derivative producs (i.e., credit default swaps [CDS] and collateralized debt obligations [CDOs]) and a lack of true innovation outside of the ATM machine, which was introduced some 40 years ago. In my opinion, the opposing views pitting the cowboy Wall Street bankers versus conservative policy hawks parallels the relative utility question of a butter knife versus a cleaver. Like knives, derivatives come in all shapes and sizes. Most Americans responsibly butter their toast and cut their steaks, nonetheless if put in the wrong hands, knives can lead to minor cuts, lost fingers, or even severed arteries.

That reckless behavior was clearly evident in the unregulated CDS market, which AIG alone, through its Financial Products unit in the U.K., grew its exposure to a mind boggling level of $2.7 trillion in notional value, according to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail. The subprime market was a big driver for irresponsible CDO creation too. In The Greatest Trade Ever, Gregory Zuckerman highlights the ballooning nature of the $1.2 trillion subprime loan market (about 10% of the overall 2006 mortgage market) , which exploded to $5 trillion in value thanks to the help of CDOs.

Derivatives History

However, many derivative products like options, futures, and swaps have served a usefull purpose for decades, if not centuries. As I chronicled in the Investing Caffeine David Einhorn piece, derivative trading goes as far back as Greek and Roman times when derivative-like contracts were used for crop insurance and shipping purposes. In the U.S., options derivatives became legitimized under the Investment Act of 1934 before subsequently being introduced on the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1973. Since then, the investment banks and other financial players have created other standardized derivative products like futures, and interest rate swaps.

Volcker Expands on Financial Engineering Innovation

In his comments, former Chairman Volcker specifically targets CDSs and CDOs. Volcker does not mince words when it comes to sharing his feelings about derivatives innovation:

“I hear about these wonderful innovations in the financial markets, and they sure as hell need a lot of innovation. I can tell you of two—credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations—which took us right to the brink of disaster…I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information.”

 

When Volcker was challenged about his skeptical position on banking innovation, he retorted:

“All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations. Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.”

 

Cutting through Financial Engineering

The witch-hunt is on for a financial crisis scapegoat, and financial engineering is at the center of the pursuit. Certainly regulation, standardized derivative contracts, trading exchanges, and increased capital requirements should all be factors integrated into new regulation. Curbs can even be put in place to minimize leveraged speculation. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. CDSs, CDOs, securitization and other derivative products serve a healthy and useful purpose towards the aim of creating more efficient financial markets – especially when it comes to hedging. For the majority of our daily requirements, I advocate putting away the dangerous cleaver, and sticking with the dependable butter knife. On special occasions, like birthday steak dinners, I’ll make sure to invite someone responsible, like Paul Volcker, to cut my meat with a steak knife.

Read Full WSJ Article with Paul Volcker Q&A

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position in any company mentioned in this article, including AIG. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 8, 2010 at 12:08 am 4 comments


Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,798 other followers

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

More on Sidoxia Services

Recognition

Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View | Kitces.com

Wade on Twitter…

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Blog RSS

Monthly Archives