Posts tagged ‘options’

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

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

Nation’s CEOs Suffering Severely: Pay Down -0.08%

Cry Baby

Hold on, let me pull out my violin to play some sympathetic consoling music for our nation’s Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). According to a Corporate Library survey of 2,700 publicly traded companies, CEO compensation declined -0.8% in 2008. I guess that 4th Ferrari and 3rd yacht will have to be put on hold. With some creative perseverance and a little elbow grease, I’m sure the class of underprivileged CEOs can still salvage a healthy package of stock options and restricted stock (to pad the paltry multi-million dollar salaries).

This is what Payscale.com had to say in a report from 2008:

“In 1970, CEO salary and bonus packages were typically about $700,000 – 25 times the average production worker salary; by 2000, CEO salaries had jumped to almost $2.2 million on average, 90 times the average salary of a worker, according to a 2004 study on CEO pay by Kevin J. Murphy and Jan Zabojnik. Toss in stock options and other benefits, and the salary of a CEO is nearly 500 times the average worker salary, the study says.”

 

Of course, Congress and the public are looking for scapegoats to blame for the global financial crisis. There is no better group to blame than highly compensated CEOs.  As a result, we are seeing more “say on pay” proposals brought to shareholder votes, thereby removing power from the hands of self-appointed compensation committees and chummy board members. Currently, a Shareholder Bill of Rights Act is making its rounds through Congress that would establish an annual shareholder vote to approve executive compensation of executive management along with have a separate vote on “golden parachute” payments in the context of a company merger or acquisition.

The U.S. is not the only country to implement these types of shareholder rights. As David Ellis at CNN Money wrote, “In 2002, the United Kingdom embraced the practice, and it has subsequently been taken up in Australia and Sweden.” In the U.S. such proposals being considered are on a “non-binding” basis, which means that if “say on pay” is approved there will be no obligation for management to implement the changes – rather “shame” will be the strategic lever used by shareholders.

Everyone has been impacted in one shape or form by the financial crisis, so when you tuck-in your child or lay your head on the pillow tonight, rest assured our poor corporate CEOs are sharing in the pain…just remember, they only kept 99.2% of their pay last year.

Read More About Corporate Library Survey

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

October 6, 2009 at 2:01 am 2 comments

Buffett Sells Insurance: Weapons of ANTI-Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Those same “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that Warren Buffett so ardently warned investors against are the same derivatives that catapulted Berkshire Hathaways (BRKA) Q2 earnings performance. Chris McKhann at OptionMonster summarized Buffet’s moves:

Buffett has sold a large number of puts on four major indexes starting in 2007: the S&P 500, the FTSE 100, the Euro Stoxx 50, and the Nikkei 225. He took in $4.9 billion, with a potential loss of more than $35 billion–but only if all four indexes were at zero come the expiration date (at which point we would be worrying about other things).

 

Derivatives are like a gun, if used responsibly for gaming or for self-defense, then they can be a useful tool. Unfortunately, like guns, these derivatives are used irresponsibly in many instances. This point is especially true in areas like Credit Default Swaps where there were inadequate regulations and capital requirements to prevent disastrous outcomes (e.g., AIG’s collapse). With proper transparency, capital requirements, and proper regulation, derivatives can be used to manage risk rather than create additional risk. 

Although I wouldn’t categorize myself as a value investor like Warren, I would prefer to call myself a growth investor with a value conscience. With that said, if you incorporate valuation within your investment discipline, I believe writing (selling) options is a brilliant idea. I can make this assertion because I’ve used this strategy for myself and my hedge fund. Volatility has a direct impact on the amount of premiums collected; therefore the trading levels of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) will have a directly correlated impact on option writing profitability. For example, if I’m selling flood insurance, I’m going to collect much higher rates in the period right after Katrina occurred.

If you are willing to accept free money from speculators betting on short-term swings in prices (Warren sold long-term, multi-year options), while being forced to sell/buy stock at price levels you like, then why not?! However, buying and selling puts and calls is a different game in my book, and one I personally do NOT excel at. I’ll keep to utilizing “Weapons of Anti-Destruction” and collect premiums up-front, like Warren, from speculators and leave the rest of the options strategies to others.

Read Seeking Alpha Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do not have direct positions in AIG or BRKA/B at the time the article was published. Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do have long exposure to TIP shares. 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.

August 19, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment


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