Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

This is What a Giant Vampire Squid Looks Like

Via Greg Mitchell’s Twitter feed, lying isn’t just for the IB branch any more:

Goldman declined for three years to confirm their suspicions that it had bought their mortgages from a subprime lender, even after they wrote to Goldman’s then-Chief Executive Henry Paulson — later U.S. Treasury secretary — in 2003.

Unable to identify a lender, the couple could neither capitalize on a mortgage hardship provision that would allow them to defer some payments, nor on a state law enabling them to offset their debt against separate, investment-related claims against Goldman.

This one has something of a happy ending:

In July, the Beckers won a David-and-Goliath struggle when Goldman subsidiary MTGLQ Investors dropped its bid to seize their house. By then, the college-educated couple had been reduced to shopping for canned goods at flea markets and selling used ceramic glass.

But it required a judge who is more sane than Gretchen Morgenson of the NYT, and therefore knew to ignore false equivalencies:

“In bankruptcy court, they tried to portray us as incompetent or deadbeats,” said Celia Fabos-Becker, blinking back tears as she sat with her husband in their living room, with boxes of mortgage-related documents surrounding them….

As the months dragged on, Fabos-Becker finally found a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission confirming that Goldman had bought the mortgages. Then, when a lawyer for MTGLQ showed up at a June 2007 court hearing on the stock battle, U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California demanded to know the firm’s relationship to Goldman, telling the attorney that he hates “spin.”

The lawyer acknowledged that MTGLQ was a Goldman affiliate.

That was an understatement. MTGLQ, a limited partnership, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman that’s housed at the company’s headquarters at 85 Broad Street in New York, public records show.

In July, after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Roger Efremsky of the Northern District of California threatened to impose “significant sanctions” if the firm failed to complete a promised settlement with the Beckers, Goldman dropped its claims for $626,000, far more than the couple’s original $356,000 in mortgages and $70,000 in missed payments. The firm gave the Beckers a new, 30-year mortgage at 5 percent interest.

If anyone in ObamaNation wonders why the voters hate the bailouts, go read the whole thing.

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TARP, Yet Again: Inflationary?

Back in the old days of derivatives (the mid-1980s), there was an international commercial bank that was famous for declaring how much good derivatives had done for it.

It was famous because it was common knowledge in the marketplace that the bank would have its swap counterparties “buy out” the positions where it was due money, while those on which it had a debit debit were kept on its books.

So I wasn’t exactly either surprised or believing when the NYT announced, to much fanfare, that there was a “profit” being made on the bailout funds. As Bruce Webb noted here at the time:

These early returns are by no means a full accounting of the huge financial rescue undertaken by the federal government last year to stabilize teetering banks and other companies.

The government still faces potentially huge long-term losses from its bailouts of the insurance giant American International Group, the mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the automakers General Motors and Chrysler. The Treasury Department could also take a hit from its guarantees on billions of dollars of toxic mortgages.

But it got nice headlines at the end of August, when talk of “green shoots” and “inflation fears”needed to get momentum.

Featured less prominently is a now-week-old LAT article with a more realistic perspective:

The Treasury is unlikely to get back the full amount of money lent under the Troubled Asset Relief Program despite a recent spate of repayments from large banks, warned the program’s watchdog.

The program “played a significant role” in rescuing the financial system from a meltdown, Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for TARP, testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. But it was “extremely unlikely that the taxpayer will see a full return on its TARP investment,” according to his prepared testimony.

The official story remains that the large banks will be paying everything back. If that’s true, then the answer to Rebecca’s question of how to drain liquidity from the financial system is clear: take the paybacks and disappear the monies. It’s only if there is an excess shortfall on the securities that excess money will be in the system.

So, if the NYT was correct at the end of August, or the cheerleaders are correct now, there will not be an inflation issue, or an excess bubble, just a little “extra lubricant” making certain that valuable securities attain their full value that will naturally be removed from the system (both as cash and as Lines of Credit) as the value is realized.

Indeed, the only reason to fear inflation from TARP/TAF sources is if you expect a significant shortfall in the actual values, something for which you can only compensate by leaving a large quantity of excess lendings in the market. Which, by definition, will not and cannot happen if all the major players repay their allocations in full (let alone with interest).

Second derivatives don’t make inflation. And money loaned by the Fed that is fully repaid doesn’t make inflation unless it is loaned out (“multiplier effect”), which hasn’t been and still isn’t happening.

What there is is “excess” cash sitting on bank balance sheets in lieu of full repayments. But it’s not being used for other things—no multiplier effect—and it can be disappeared by the Fed as it is paid back.

So where is the inflation, unless money has been added to the system without there being value behind it?

Somewhere, an old derivatives manager is watching. Maybe he recognizes his strategy in the story unfolding. Maybe, just maybe, he also kept underlying deals that didn’t have losses as big as the gains he took.

It’s possible. But it was never the way to bet.

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Thanks to Ben Bernanke, Ben Bernanke Doesn’t Need to be Reappointed as Fed Chair

by Tom Bozzo

Back in 2005, I argued at Old Marginal Utility that “Greenspan exceptionalism” was not very well founded in that observers rarely engaged in a proper counterfactual analysis of how well Alan Greenspan performed relative to the next best monetary policy technocrat. That’s a fairly stringent evaluation criterion, and even Brad DeLong’s glass-half-full response revealed what could be considered major errors in Greenspan’s judgment. 2009 hindsight of course shows that there was another major error in inflating the housing bubble, failing to recognize it, and allowing his Rand discipleship to overcome common sense in using Fed powers even to skim the froth.

Now some elite opinion favors Ben Bernanke’s reappointment, but politicians are irritated over Fed stonewalling of bailout oversight and others (e.g. Dean Baker) point out that Ben Bernanke who put the Fed throttles to the firewall to save the world is also the Ben Bernanke who carried over Greenspan policy until it was too late among other things.

So what should the counterfactual-based evaluation of Bernanke say? What would the hypothetical panel of smart graduate students have done? It seems even harder to suggest that Bernanke was essential than Greenspan — in this case, because well-read economists should have had it from Ben Bernanke the academician that in a depression-level crisis you don’t skimp on the monetary policy intervention. Meanwhile, Bernanke gets no points for prescient instincts as the save-the-world interventions have seemed to be firmly of the close-the-barn-doors-after-the-horses-have-bolted variety.

Meanwhile, significant elements like the opaque lending programs have the appearance if not reality of being in part the predator state (a la Jamie Galbraith) in action. There’s a line of ‘b-b-but Bernanke and Paulson saved the world’ opinion along the lines of this bit of fail from the often incisive Joe Nocera:

So why the anger? Why the suggestions of “cover-up” and “lies”? On Thursday, as I watched Mr. Paulson being castigated, it dawned on me. Seven months later, with the palpable fear of a financial collapse largely subsided, it really all boils down to how you view what happened last year. Was it, as Mr. Towns believes, a bailout of a handful of unworthy but too-big-to-fail institutions? Or was it, in the eyes of Mr. Paulson, a rescue of a teetering financial system? My vote is for the latter.

To which the obvious response is, duh, who says it has to be one or the other? A reality-based critique of the bailouts allows them to be both effective at saving the world and unconscionable screw-jobs that kept an array of bad actors from paying for their greed and incompetence. (The latter clearly feeds a lot of the underlying sentiment of the tea partiers, even if it’s ultimately the greedy and incompetent who are marshalling it.) However, considering Team Obama’s political tone-deafness, it’ll be a pleasant but major surprise if they don’t let Bernanke go back to Princeton for some R&R.

(Cross-posted at Marginal Utility.)

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Peter Dorman of Econospeak Writes, So I Don’t Have To

I’m just going to “Go Thoma” on him, since I can’t find anything to cut:

Barack Obama tells us we should not investigate American intelligence agents or their overlings who are responsible for torturing hundreds of suspects in their custody. We have to forget about the past, he says, to concentrate our attention on the future. That might be a convincing argument if Obama were going all out for an ambitious program to remake our economy and our relationship to the rest of the world. But the future is on hold because the number one job today is bailing out the financial system, so we can preserve the money moguls who juiced our economy in the past.

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PPIP: Bad, Maybe, But Not THAT bad

Tom Bozzo

I’ve been hearing about various potential schemes to game the PPIP, and Jeffrey Sachs gets in on the action with a pure self-dealing scenario (via Americablog):

Here’s how. Consider a toxic asset held by Citibank with a face value of $1 million, but with zero probability of any payout and therefore with a zero market value. An outside bidder would not pay anything for such an asset. All of the previous articles consider the case of true outside bidders.

Suppose, however, that Citibank itself sets up a Citibank Public-Private Investment Fund (CPPIF) under the Geithner-Summers plan. The CPPIF will bid the full face value of $1 million for the worthless asset, because it can borrow $850K from the FDIC, and get $75K from the Treasury, to make the purchase! Citibank will only have to put in $75K of the total.

Did Sachs read the PPIP Legacy Securities term sheet [PDF] before writing that? [Though see the addendum below.] That sort of transaction appears to be forbidden under the ‘Governance and Management’ section of the summary terms:

A Fund Manager may not, directly or indirectly, acquire Eligible Assets from or sell Eligible Assets to its affiliates, any other Fund or any private investor that has committed 10% or more of the aggregate private capital raised by the Fund. Private investors may not be informed of potential acquisitions of specific Eligible Assets prior to acquisition.

Geithner and Summers may or not be the poster children for ‘regulatory capture,’ but they’re not stupid. (For that matter, Sachs’s scenario presumes that only Citi can detect the underlying worthlessness of the asset, so FDIC will permit the maximum leverage under the program.)

There are also some more complicated scenarios that use secret deals and kickback schemes to get around the anti-self-dealing provisions of the PPIP. For now, I would judge those to represent descriptions of serious frauds rather characterizations of actual PPIP loopholes. Such time as Treasury (or DOJ) is caught playing see-no-evil with those, then there may be something more than an attempt to pile on.

This is not at all to say that there are not serious and valid concerns regarding PPIP design. Among other things, I’d be much happier if I saw the likes of Larry Ausubel and Peter Cramton hired to ensure that the private managers effectively compete for the public subsidies and do not overpay relative to some reasonable assessment of fundamental (not necessarily ‘market’) asset values.

Added: The anti-self-dealing terms from the Legacy Securities program, quoted above, are from a 4/6 revision of the term sheet (thanks to KHarris for pointing that out) and may have crossed paths with Sachs’s article (also of 4/6); they’re a little different from the Legacy Loans terms sheet where a prohibition on self-dealing has been a feature all the time. Here’s the original (and apparently current) language for the Legacy Loans sheet:

Private Investors may not participate in any PPIF that purchases assets from sellers that are affiliates of such investors or that represent 10% or more of the aggregate private capital in the PPIF.

It would take a lawyer to determine how this compares to the Legacy Securities terms. The ban on communication prior to asset sales looks new and makes it clear that schemes to coordinate Legacy Securities sales with purchasers are improper.

An issue with many of these critiques is that they seem to combine elements of the two programs. Sachs’s example is based on leverage ratios allowed under the Legacy Loans program but not Legacy Securities, in which case other Legacy Loans program terms should apply.

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Back-of-the-Envelope: Making Sense of TARP

Suppose I told you that there was a crisis with a stock, say, GE. That the price of the stock had dropped around 75% in the past year. And you responded, “But the problem is solved; the prices of long-term Call Options (say, the January 2011 20s) has gone up, as has their Open Interest.

You will (rightly) point out that this won’t revitalise the assets themselves and I will (rightly) note that option markets rather saved the equity markets in 1987, for instance. You will note that I am too optimistic, and I will agree, holding up a Brad DeLong mask (since I’d rather have DeLong’s [relative to mine] abundant hair than Geithner’s abundant forehead).

Then I will drop the other shoe and say that the toxic (“legacy”) assets should be priced as if the Fed-supported trades were options, with the underlying current price worked out by Black-Scholes. (As I’ve noted before, B-S is specifically INappropriate for this exercise, as it will overvalue the option. And therefore anyone suggesting the toxic [“legacy”] assets should be priced—or carried on their books—at a level higher than that model will clearly be insane.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The TARP Solution. Details beneath the fold.

TARP is the Treasury Department’s attempt to confront two realities: (1) it isn’t a “market” in any reasonable sense of the word if the Fed is putting up 85% of the cash. (People who tell us that this means firms are committing a “large amount” to the process either do not understand the English language,or are hedge fund managers trying to sell something.) So let’s put some random numbers together.

Those “legacy” assets are trading in the market around 30. The Big C and others are carrying them on their books around 80. Several people who should know better (Summers, Geithner, DeLong) have conflated “the market is underpricing the assets” with “the true price of the assets will make the banks solvent again.”*

So we know three things. (1) People are willing to pay 30% of their own money to buy these assets, (2) the Fed is only requiring them to pay 15%, and (3) the fair value is between 30 (the current market price) and 80, and probably closer to the former than the later.

So again, using back-of-the-envelope principles, let’s pretend that we think the recovery will be soon, that the defaults will slow (or at least that resales will be quick and frictionless), and that the market reaches that consensus quickly. And so fair value should be around 50.**

So let’s say the Fed offers to buy a MBS for 50. How, as an investor, do I make money off this? Three possible ways:

  1. If I own securities for which I paid
  2. If I own securities for which I paid >50, and which I cannot sell for 50 without revealing myself to be insolvent, I buy securities at 50 along with the Fed and “average in.” (This is the “how to stay solvent longer than the market can be rational” act.)
  3. If the Fed is buying securities at 50 so that I can no longer buy them at 30—I buy a LONG-dated Call Option on the security.

It is that last that explains TARP. Effectively, the co-investors with the Fed will be buying a Call option at 7.5 on the security at 50.***

Of course, it may not be an at-the-money Call option. More likely, the hedge fund effectively will be buying an out-of-the-money option (say, a 49.5 Call for 8) where some portion of the purchase is put up by the government.

Now you will note that, technically, TARP requires the hedge fund to buy the asset. So you might argue that this is not an option. But let’s look at the generic payoff diagram to the hedge fund of the two scenarios.

Amazingly, you can’t tell the difference on the payoff diagram as the security gains.**** In both cases, the hedge fund manager has just gone long volatility.

Expect that to have a ripple effect—I’m guessing dampening, cet. par.—on other option volatility trades.

All that is left is to back out what actual value of the security was assumed by the hedge fund when they bought the option. Which I will also leave as an exercise to the reader, while suggesting that a fair indication is min[x, TotalFedContribution] s.t. x a.s. approaches TotalFedContribution.

Will this bring the markets back, or make bank balance sheets more stable? I’m still saying “No,” and hoping to be proved wrong.

But what it should do is reduce volatility buying, especially in the other debt markets, for the foreseeable future. So if any of those Bankrupt “legacy asset constrained” institutions has a long volatility position, there will be even more “Unintended Consequences.”

*In fairness to Brad DeLong, I don’t believe he believes this. As Dr. Black noted, George Voinovich “wants to see a pile of money in flames before he’s willing to vote for what’s necessary,” and DeLong therefore sees this as a necessary evil. Having seen no evidence from the Obama Administration that they Have a Clue, I am naturally suspicious that this particular idiocy will do anything other than waste time and money—both of which are in increasingly short supply—but, since Larry Summers has shown his brilliant foresight before and clear has no skin in the game, I am reassured that there is no Principal-Agent problem at work here, as they was when Christopher “I never saw a regulation I like” Cox was named head of the SEC by the Previous Administration.

**While we’re at it, can we pretend that Amber Benson will be my next wife, which is probably very little less likely than those other possibilities (especially since I’m already married to an sf-writing actress/director)? (Amazingly, even without those conditions, we would be using a BotE number of 50: though there is a legitimate argument that 60 would be easier to work with, I’m assuming no one is that stupid.)

***This is why 60 would have been easier; 15% of 60 is 9, so I wouldn’t have to pay attention to decimal places. 40 would also have been easier—and both certainly more realistic than 60 and arguably more realistic than 50, but I want to maintain the pretense of the U.S. Treasury that this is a liquidity, not a solvency, crisis. (They’re wrong, but it’s their game.)

****The reason we can tell the difference on the losses is the possibility that the hedge fund treats the position as if it were an in-the-money Call option for which the Fed paid the in-the-money portion; the real returns to the hedge fund of the position in a TARP security are the same in both cases; there would be differences in the way the rest of the portfolio was managed, though, which are left as an exercise to the reader.

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Dear Brad and Mark (et al.)

This is why we don’t believe the bailout will work the way you think it will (i.e., to increase lending):

Recently, securities rated AAA have changed hands for roughly 30 cents on the dollar, and most of the buyers have been hedge funds acting opportunistically on a bet that prices will rise over time. However, sources said Citi and BofA have trumped those bids.

Instead of using the bailout monies to lend, or even make their balance sheets more creditworthy, the firms have been doubling-down on the assumption that they will be fellated by Timmeh and Larry. (At least Bill Gross and PIMCO (h/t Robert) did it when there was still a chance of sane monetary policy.)

I take back part of what I said earlier: this isn’t comparable to hitting on 17 because you’re drunk; it’s hitting on 19 because you’re desperate and insane. As Barry R. closes:

If anything, this argues against bailouts and in favor of nationalization, firing management, wiping out S/Hs, zeroing out debt, haircutting bond holders, etc.

Some economists may need to spend less time reviewing brilliant analysis from Barry Eichengreen (link is to PDF) and more reviewing Friedman and Savage (link is to PDF) in the context of principal-agent problems.

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