Posts tagged ‘Credit Default Swap’

California Checking Under the Derivatives Hood

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Bill Lockyer, California’s State Treasurer, is in charge of driving “The Golden State’s” budget, but as he maneuvers the finances, he is hearing some strange knocks and pings as it relates to the pricing of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) on California debt obligations. CDSs, like virtually all derivatives, can either be used to speculate or hedge (see also, Einhorn CDS and Financial Engineering articles), so the existence of strange noises does not necessarily indicate foul play or problems that cannot be fixed.

Checking Under the Banks’ Hoods

 At the heart of the CDS markets lie the major investment banks, so that is where Lockyer is looking under the hood and requesting information on the role the banks are playing in the municipal bond CDS market. Specifically, Lockyer has sent letters requesting information from Bank of America – Merrill Lynch (BAC), Barclays, Citigroup (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM),and Morgan Stanley (MS). California pays the banks millions of dollars every year to market bonds on behalf of the state. The I-banks operate in some way like a car dealership – the state produces the cars (bonds) and the banks buy the bonds and resell them to buyers/investors.

The financial transaction doesn’t necessarily stop there, because the banks can further pad their profits by selling and making markets in credit default swaps. After the state issues bonds, speculators can then pay the banks to place bets on whether the cars (bonds) fail (default), or investors can also buy insurance from the banks in the form of swaps. As you can probably surmise, there is the potential for conflicts of interest between the state and the banks, which partly explains why Lockyer is conducting his due diligence.

California…the Next Greece or Kazakhstan?

As the housing market came crashing down, credit default swaps were at the center of financial institution collapses and the billions made by John Paulson (see also the Gutsiest Trade Ever). More recently, CDSs were cited as negative contributors to the Greek financial crisis. Lockyer tries to deflect California comparisons with Greece by stating the European country’s budget deficit is 13 times larger than California’s (as % of GDP) and the foreign country’s accumulated debt is 25 times larger on GDP basis as well (read California’s Debt Hole story).

Beyond making sure the profit rules of the game are not stacked against California, Lockyer wants to understand what he perceives as a mispricing in the default risk of California debt obligations. He is worried that the state’s borrowing costs on future bond issues could be artificially escalated because he says the credit default swaps “wrongly brand our bonds as a greater risk than those issued by such nations as Kazakhstan, Croatia, Bulgaria and Thailand.”

Clarity on these issues is important because the state is exploring the expansion into taxable municipal bonds. The government has been subsidizing taxable munis, termed Build America Bonds (BABs), to stimulate the economy and bring down borrowing costs for municipalities. According to Thomson Reuters, BABS accounted for approximately 26% of overall muni bond issuance ($25.8 billion) in the first quarter.

If California were a car, I’m not sure how much cash they would get for their clunker ($16 billion budget deficit), but I tip my hat to State Treasurer Lockyer for holding the investment banks’ feet to the fire. All investors and financial product consumers stand to benefit by looking under the hood of their financial institution and asking tough questions.

Read Full Financial Times Article on California CDS Market 

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 BAC, C, GS, JPM, and MS 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 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm Leave a comment

Making Safer Asbestos: Einhorn on CDS

Asbestos

David Einhorn, founding hedge fund manager of Greenlight Capital, exploited Credit Default Swaps (CDS) derivative contracts to their fullest in the midst of the financial crisis and now he says any effort to keep them in existence is like making “safer asbestos.” Hypocritical?

As toxic debt devices that profit from credit default triggers, CDSs have created “large correlated and asymmetrical risks,” which have “scared authorities into spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to prevent speculators who made bad bets from having to pay,” according to Einhorn.

The abolishment of the CDS market would have no impact on me (I have never traded a CDS in my life), but in principle Einhorn has no leg to stand on. Just because these unregulated insurance contracts were not properly disclosed or collateralized by American International Group, Inc. (AIG) does not mean a transparent, properly collateralized, central clearing exchange could not be created to efficiently meet the needs of counterparties.

Derivatives Description

Conceptually, a CDS is no different than a derivatives option contract. Take for example a put contract. Like a CDS, a put contract can be purchased as insurance (hedging against price declines on a current holding) or it can be purchased for speculative purposes (profit from future potential price declines if there is no underlying ownership position). All derivatives are structured for hedging or speculation, whether you are talking about options, futures, swaps, or other exotic forms of derivatives (i.e., swaptions). CDSs are no different.

Einhorn is not the first person to disingenuously speak about derivatives. The “do as I say, not as I do” principle holds true for Warren Buffett too. Buffett blasted derivatives as “weapons of mass destruction,” yet he has made billions of dollars (read about Buffett on derivatives) in premiums from writing (selling) multi-year options on various indexes.

Derivatives History

Derivative trading goes as far back as Roman and Greek history when similar contracts were used for crop insurance and shipping purposes. After the Great Depression, the Investment Act of 1934 legitimized options under the watchful eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Subsequently, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) began trading listed options in 1973. Since then, the investment banks and other financial players have created derivative products making up many different flavors.

The Solution

How does Einhorn feel about central clearing exchanges?

“The reform proposal to create a CDS clearing house does nothing more than maintain private profits and socialised risk by moving the counterparty risk from the private sector to a newly created too big to fail entity.”

 

Oh really? If the utility of hedging contracts has been documented for hundreds of years, then why wouldn’t we create a standardized, transparent, adequately capitalized central clearing house for these tools? Whether Einhorn is asking for the eradication of all derivatives, I cannot be sure.  If his extermination comments apply equally to all derivatives, then I guess we’ll just have to shutter entities like the CBOE, which handled 1.19 billion options contracts last year alone. If eliminating speculation was the focal point of Einhorn’s argument, then perhaps regulators could simply raise the reserve requirements for those merely gambling on price declines or default triggers.

In the end, if what Einhorn recommended came to fruition, he would only be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. CDSs, and other derivatives, serve a healthy and useful purpose towards the aim of creating more efficient financial markets. I agree that the AIG flavor of CDSs were like lethal asbestos, so let’s see if we can now replace it with some safer insulation protection.

Read Financial Times Editorial on David Einhorn

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) or its clients owns certain exchange traded funds, but currently has no direct position in AIG, or BRKA/BRKB. 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.

November 16, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Compensation: Pitchforks or Penalties

Pitchfork-Referee

Currently there is witch hunt under way to get rid of excessive compensation levels, especially in the financial and banking industries. Members of Congress and their constituents are looking to reign in the exorbitant paychecks distributed to the fat-cat executives at the likes of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the rest of the banking field. According to The Financial Times, Goldman has set aside $16.7 billion so far this year for compensation and benefits and pay is on track to meet or exceed the $661,000 employee average in 2007. The public is effectively calling these executive bankers “cheaters” because they are receiving benefits they don’t deserve. The backlash resembles the finger-pointing we see directed at the wealthy steroid abusers in football or cork-bat swingers in baseball. Americans seem OK with big payouts as long as they are achieved in a fair manner.  No one quibbles with the billions made by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, but when you speak of other wealth cheaters like Jeff Skilling (Enron), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), or Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco), then the public cringes. The reaction to corporate crooks is similar to the response provoked by steroid use allegations tied to Major League Baseball players (i.e., Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens).

Less clear are the cases in which cheaters take advantage of a system run by regulators (referees) who are looking the other way or have inadequate rules/procedures in place to monitor the players. Take for example the outrage over $165 million in bonuses paid to the controversial AIG employees of the Financial Products division. Should AIG employees suffer due to lax rules and oversight by regulators? There has been no implication of illegal behavior conducted by AIG, so why should employees be punished via bonus recaptures? The rules in place allowed AIG to issue these lucrative Credit Default Swap (CDS) products (read more about CDS) with inadequate capital requirements and controls, so AIG was not shy in exploiting this lack of oversight. Rule stretchers and breakers are found in all professions. For example, Lester Hayes, famed All-Pro cornerback from the Oakland Raiders, used excessive “Stickum” (hand glue) to give himself an advantage in covering his opponents. If professionals legally operate within the rules provided, then punishments and witch hunts should be ceased.

Regulators, or league officials in sports, need to establish rules and police the players. Retroactively changing the rules after the game is over is not the proper thing to do. What the industry referees need is not pitchforks, but rather some yellow flags and a pair of clear glasses to oversee fair play.

Cash Givers Should Make the Rules

What should regulators and the government do when it comes to compensation? Simply let the “cash givers” make the rules. In the case of companies trading in the global financial markets, the shareholders should drive the rules and regulations of compensation. “Say on pay” seems reasonable to me and has already gained more traction in the U.K. On the other hand, if shareholders don’t want to vote on pay and feel more comfortable in voting for independent board members on a compensation committee, then that’s fine by me as well. If worse comes to worse, shareholders can always sell shares in those companies that they feel institute excessive compensation plans. At the end of the day, investors are primarily looking for companies whose goal it is to maximize earnings and cash flows – if compensation plans in place operate against this goal, then shareholders should have a say.

When it comes to government controlled entities like AIG or Citigroup, the cash givers (i.e., the government) should claim their pound of flesh. For instance, Kenneth Feinberg, the Treasury official in charge of setting compensation at bailed-out companies, decided to cut compensation across the board at American International Group, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors, GMAC , Chrysler, and Chrysler Financial for top executives by more than 90% and overall pay by approximately 50%.

Put Away the Pitch Forks

In my view, too much emphasis is being put on executive pay. Capital eventually migrates to the areas where it is treated best, so for companies that are taking on excessive risk and using excessive compensation will find it difficult to raise capital and grow profits, thereby leading to lower share prices – all else equal. Government’s job is to partner with private regulators to foster an environment of transparency and adequate risk controls, so investors and shareholders can allocate their capital to the true innovators and high-profit potential companies. Too big to fail companies, like AIG with hundreds of subsidiaries operating in over 100 countries, should not be able to hide under the veil of complexity. Even in hairy, convoluted multi-nationals like AIG, half a trillion CDS exposure risks need to be adequately monitored and disclosed for investors. That why regulators need to take a page from other perfectly functioning derivatives markets like options and futures and get adequate capital requirements and transparency instituted on exchanges. I’m confident that market officials will penalize the wrongdoers so we can safely put away the pitch forks and pull out more transparent glasses to oversee the industry with.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do not have a direct position in Goldman Sachs (GS), AIG, Berkshire Hathaway, BRKA/B, Citigroup (C), Enron, General Motors, GMAC , Chrysler, WorldCom, or Tyco International (TYC) shares at the time this article was originally posted. Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do have a direct position in Bank of America (BAC). 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.

October 27, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Cash Strapped Bond Issuers Should Follow Willie Sutton

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When infamous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robs banks, he coyly responded, “Because that’s where the money is.” Willie Sutton was one of the more prominent bank robbers in American history. During his long career he had robbed close to 100 banks from the late 1920s to 1952. He was known as “Slick Willie” or “The Actor.” As a master of disguise the FBI files show that Sutton masqueraded himself as a mailman, policeman, telegraph messenger, maintenance man and a host of other personas. The Credit Default Swap market has also been disguised in mystery and opaqueness.  

With many cash strapped bond issuers looking for ways to negotiate more favorable credit terms during these tough economic times, one strategy has been to approach holders of the CDS instruments. However, CDS holders have no reason to negotiate with corporate bond issuers (for pennies on the dollar) when they stand to collect a full dollar from their bank (due to terms in the CDS contracts). Cash starved corporations rather should listen to Willie Sutton and go straight to the money source – the banks that issued the CDS to the investors. As bankruptcies increase, and bank failures rise, the trio of bond holders, bond issuers, and CDS issuers (banks) will become closer friends (and/or enemies).

Research Reloaded delved more into this issue by discussing the tactics used by media companies, Gannett and McClatchy (Read Article Here). Lots of wrinkles need to be ironed out in the CDS market, measured in the tens of trillions in notional value, but part of the solution involves the bond issuer and investor going straight to the money source (the bank issuer of the CDS). Willie would be proud.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®          www.Sidoxia.com

July 10, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment


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