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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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One is History, One Parody: You Make the Call

George Will, guest-posting chez Berube:

But hope is not a financial plan, and rewards come only to those who work for them. It is time for the Democrats to grow up, learn the lessons of adulthood, and begin dismantling a tax system which creates so many disincentives to wealth creation. Justice demands that bonuses must be paid, yes. But true justice demands that bonuses be tax-free.

The WSJ editorial page on “the real AIG outrage,” a piece that appears to have been written by Hank Greenberg’s publicist:

AIG can argue that it needs to pay top dollar to survive in an ultra-competitive business, or it can argue that it offers services not otherwise available in the market, but not both.

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Why Can Asset Prices Fall

Robert Waldmann

Brad DeLong boldly attempts to exhaustively list the factors which can affect the value of a fixed income asset. This is some Mac generated i document and I can’t cut and paste. Go here and search for “there are four”.

The four are called “default”, “the safe real interest rate”, “risk”, and adverse selection.

I view the assertion that “there are four” as a challenge and quibble after the jump.

First the instruments in question promise nominal payments so the safe interest rate in question is the safe nominal interest rate not the safe real interest rate. The word “real” is essentially a typo.

Second “default” and “risk” are the same things for fixed income instruments (clearly what Brad is discussing). By “risk” I assume he means “risk bearing capacity” or “risk aversion”. However, default is a much broader problem than Brad seems willing to admit. He counts exactly two sources of default risk — 1 trillion in housing related defaults and 3 more trillion from defaults caused by the recession. This leaves out other sources of changes in estimated default risk (not risk aversion or risk bearing caspacity but risk).

That is, I see a fifth cause of the decline in asset values. I think many assets were over-valued in the past, because the ratings agencies were tricked or cashing in on their late lamented excellent reputations (or both). The loss of confidence in said agencies causes an increase in estimated risk not because risk has increased or risk aversion has increased but because the old estimates are now known to be bogus.

More generally, risk modeling by traders was similarly complete nonsense. I don’t know to what extent the traders were tricked and to what extent they were in on the scam (nor I suspect do they).

Structured finance created a huge illusion of wealth by creating an illusion of safety. The financial engineers knew how the agencies rated (the agencies explained for a consulting fee) and how traders estimate “value at risk”. They knew people assumed (or pretended to assume) that all stochastic variables are normally distributed. Thus it was profitable to sell instruments with skewed returns (fat lower tails) unless the rare negative event occurred during the testing period (in which case the instruments could be re-engineered). A senior tranche of a pool of moderately risky assets has a skewed distribution.

Similarly money could be made by reducing own variance for a given beta by pooling assets and issuing claims on the pool. The variance of an average is less than the average variance. The covariance of an average and the market portfolio is the average covariance. Thus a claim on a pool of BBB rated corporate bonds was rated AAA. Turning BBB to AAA is worth a lot of money except for the fact that it was a scam (investors could pool themselves — they don’t seem to have understood that pre-pooling reduces the benefit to them of their own pooling — or they were in on the scam).

That is there were trillions of fantasy dollars created out of nothing by financial engineering (on top of whatever real wealth had been created by financial engineering which genuinely made better insurance and diversification possible). The loss of that illusion can’t be estimated easily as “housing related defaults” (and note my example has nothing to do with housing or recessions).

The risk of a nationwide decline in house prices was estimated at 0 by S&P (I am not exaggerating). Now there has been such a decline, and they must admit that there is the risk of another such decline in the future. Even if the current decline costs just $ 1 trillion, the future possible declines also cost money.

So much of the wealth was an illusion which won’t come back soon. This end of systematic miss-estimation of risk is not on your list.

Also institutions took huge gigantic bets against each other (as in AIG lost writing CDSs). This increases counter party risk. No one knows if a counter party is solvent. That reduces the value of a huge number of instruments. The damage could have been done without involving the housing industry or the stock market if, say, investment bank CEOs played a really high stakes poker game and all claimed to have won money. Also bankruptcy is costly. Even if the CEOs had played hundred billion ante poker on camera, wealth would have been destroyed and more wealth would have been shifted from investors to lawyers. This is another item not on your list.

Finally, much of the strange new finance was designed to help agents avoid prudential rules and regulations which they considered to be costly. Now they have learned two things. First that the regulations weren’t so pointless so they will have to pay that cost to avoid bankruptcy. Second they will be audited by banking regulators, trustees etc and found wanting. This last point is semi redundant as it amounts to an increase in perceived risk or a reduction in perceived capacity to bear risk (default or risk in Brad’s terms). However, it explains why I keep speculating that this that or the other operator was in on the scam.

UPDATE: DeLong indirectly replies here. [klh]

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WAPO on AIG III

Robert Waldmann

ended my last post 5 minutes ago wishing for part III of the saga and here it is !
The final act for AIG by Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Brady Dennis

The collapse was, of course, quick when it came. One interesting fact is that AIG Financial Products (AIGFP) stopped writing new CDSs in 2005. Another is that, until then, they had little idea what they were doing.

In fall 2005, Eugene Park was asked to take over Alan Frost’s responsibilities at Financial Products. Frost had done exceedingly well in marketing the credit-default swaps to Wall Street, and was getting a promotion. He would now report to Cassano directly on other strategic projects.

Park …was worried about the subprime component of the CDO market. He had examined the annual report of a company involved in the subprime business. He was stunned, he told his colleagues at the time.

What a fascinating new idea — how about examining the annual report of a firm whose securities one insures. I mean not all of them (what a bore) but just one.

From this passage it seems that AIGFP just assumed that mortgages were what they had been in the past. I mean it’s not their problem. The non bank mortgage lenders were loaning all they could, because they figured they could pass on the risk (well sometimes risk sometimes certainty of default) to people making CDOs who could pass it on to people buying CDOs who could pass it on to AIGFP which doesn’t seem to have wondered what they were insuring.

I give you a hint. If you tell the world that you are glad to bear all of some vaguely defined kind of risk, then it will get riskier.

AIG was a major factor in the market:

Financial Products had $2.7 trillion worth of swap contracts and positions; 50,000 outstanding trades; 2,000 firms involved on the other side of those trades; and 450 employees in six offices around the world.

That’s $ 6 billion in exposure per employee!

Obviously AIGFP had decided that to write CDSs on AAA rated securities was to get money for nothing. They couldn’t possibly examine the securities they were insuring. Notice how Frost’s role was described: “Frost had done exceedingly well in marketing the credit-default swaps to Wall Street.” You can do very well at selling something if you are charging too low a price.

I guess they can blame the credit rating agencies. In fact they do, but not for rating toxic sludge AAA but for rating them AA. The final words “There was no system in place to account for the fact that the company might not be a Triple A forever.”

In fact AIG hasn’t paid out on CDSs, they ran $150 billion short of ready cash, because they had to post collateral: ‘If additional downgrades occurred, either in AIG’s credit rating or in the CDO ratings, Financial Products would have to come up with tens of billions of dollars in collateral it did not have.’

AIG was downgraded from AAA to AA when Eliot “socks on” Spitzer caught him cooking the books.

On March 14, 2005, Greenberg stepped down amid allegations about his involvement in a questionable deal and accounting practices at AIG. The next day, the Fitch Ratings service downgraded AIG’s credit rating to AA. The two other major rating services, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, soon followed suit.

I guess that explains why he didn’t go after anyone with a pitchfork.

Back to my usual anti CDS rant after the jump.

I’d say that was crazy. Given AIGs exposure they shouldn’t have been rated AA. I ask for the nth time, what is the point of a CDS ? Why can’t AIG issue AIG bonds and use the proceeds to buy assets rather than insuring them ? I think it is clear. If AIG had issued 3 trillion in debt they wouldn’t be rated AA. CDSs written appear on the balance sheet at market value. This is nonsense. In the long run, the two actions (write a CDS on assets or sell debt and buy those assets) have the same impact on AIG’s book equity, in the short run the only difference is that AIG can be forced to post collateral (which can be seized in full even if it is in chapter 11 and mere bond-holders have to wait and get cents on the dollar) if it writes CDSs.

I think that it is strictly better for bondholders if AIG issues debt and buys assets than if it insures those assets (I am considering the premia paid on CDSs). I think the only reason to do it with CDSs is to trick regulators and ratings agencies about AIGs liabilities.

On a basically different topic, I cut some boring stuff out of one of my posts and put it here.

Now I think it is fairly likely that, if they they had stuck to CDSs on corporate bonds, AIGFP would have done very well just as they would have done issuing AAA bonds of their own and buying AA bonds.

My guess is that, at first, the money was there to be made because of excessively prudent rules and regulations. It is also there, because prudential regulations do not consider covariances so a diversified pool of AAA bonds is treated as if it is as risky as one AAA bond. This is necessary as there was no covariance rating agency which was worthy of the trust earned by the credit rating agencies. Thus the only variable which was independently estimated with some reliability (back then in 1998) was the risk of default of a single instrument.

My current view is that this would be a reasonable approach to prudential regulation if there weren’t firms like AIG financial products. The entities subject to the rules and regulations are large enough that they can diversify their portfolio at a very modest cost. They don’t bear risk for the fun of it. It is safe to assume that they will diversify without being specifically required to do so … unless there is a financial engineering industry which sets up special purpose entities with diversified portfolios and issues single securities whose ratings are high because of that diversification. This means that the diversification (by the SPE) suddenly relaxes the prudential requirement.

By pre-diversifying the financial engineers reduce the further reduction in risk available from diversification. The limiting case would be reached if all securities were put in a huge pool which was cut into tranches. At that point, the risk of default on any portfolio of, say all existing AA securities would be as high as the risk of default on a single security, because there would only be one AA security. Thus for the same prudential regulations, banks would be allowed to bear much more risk.

This is not socially useful. If prudential regulations are optimally adjusted to take into account the increased correlation of different assets, then nothing is accomplished. Otherwise the regulations are effectively changed by agents who can pocket the expected value of future public bailouts.

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The Price of Gas will soon be $1.50, right?

This will teach them, right?

H.R. 6377 directs CFTC to use all its authority, including its emergency powers, immediately to curb the role of excessive speculation in the energy and swaps futures markets and take other corrective actions as necessary to eliminate any market disturbance that prevents energy markets from accurately reflecting the forces of supply and demand.

And what long-term supply (h/t Mark Thoma) is that?

As has been noted elsewhere, regulation at the CFTC isn’t in itself a bad idea. Indeed, it’s long overdue. But I’ll go back to Krugman and the FT:

The case for such a policy is based on a flawed concept of how these markets work. Those pushing for restrictions argue that an artificially high demand for essential commodities such as oil and corn has been created by the institutions’ purchase of long positions in futures contracts….

Now, if it were true that pension funds, insurance companies, evil hedge fund managers etc, were all buying large quantities of physical products such as silos of grain and storage tanks of oil, then the peasants with the torches, and their leaders, would have a point. But the investors aren’t buying physical product. [Nonsense about Lieberman being a Democrat omitted; italics mine]

So, if this bill passes the Senate and is ultimately enacted, the CFTC either will prevent some people from buying futures (by some miracle, unless they’re going to do this only for crude contracts, which would mean Lieberman is even stupider than I think he is) or, more likely, change some requirements in the booking, reporting, and buying of such contracts which will make it more difficult for outright speculators.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully expect to be paying $1.50 for gasoline in a couple of months: but that will be C$1.50/litre. The odds of those of you staying in the States being able to pay that per gallon—well, I wouldn’t take them. Even if I were “speculating.”

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