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Derivatives are useful for Asset-Liability Management. Nu?

I was going to post something a couple of days ago on Greece’s derivatives deal, but knew I was missing a key piece.

It became prominent yesterday, and Felix’s summary today gets it spot on:

So while it’s entirely fair to blame Greece for trying to hide its debt, and to blame Eurostat for letting it do so, I think that blaming Goldman is harder. It was surely not the only bank involved in these transactions, and the swaps were simple enough to be shopped around a few different banks to see which one could provide the best deal. Structuring swaps transactions is one of those things which investment banks do. If countries like Greece buy swaps in order to hide their true fiscal status, then that’s the country’s fault, not the banks’. No self-respecting bank would decline such a transaction because they felt it was unfair to Eurostat.

Yes, I’m sure that Goldman put a team of people onto the Eurostat rules and made that team available to the Greeks. But let’s not blame the advisers here, for structuring something entirely legal and which the Greeks and Italians clearly wanted to be able to do all along. This is a failure of European transparency and coordination; Goldman is a scapegoat. [emphases mine]

In the “good old days,” some corporate treasurers would use swaps because they were an off-balance sheet way to bet on the movement of Treasuries. But the good ones were using them for asset-liability management: reducing their cost of funds and/or the risks associated with that funding.

Greece is Asset-Liability Management Writ Large—and they made certain that the Eurostat agreements specifically permitted them to do it. Only an economist would call the result an unintended consequence; the finance world will be surprised if they were the only ones.

Three to Read for the Solvency Crisis

Simon Johnson on the possible consequences of Goldman Going Greek.

Economics of Contempt explains why economist John Cochrane should not be allowed to talk about finance. (Bonus coverage: EofC’s previous piece on John Taylor)

Alea’s jck on how all the talk about risk management became mainstreamed.

Geithner’s Baa Humbug to Jobs and Labor

Geithner’s Baa Humbug to Job’s and Labor
(h/t Run75441)

“Ebenezer: Since you ask me what I wish sir, that is my answer. I help to support the establishments I have named; those who are badly off must go there.”

Daniel Gross at Slate interviews Tim Geithner here: “We Will Be Judged on How We Dealt with the Things that were Broken”  Some rather revealing statements by Tim Geithner to Daniel Gross’s questions:

GROSS: There’s a perception that you regard your portfolio narrowly, as primarily focused on the health of Wall Street, with Main Street a distant second.
GEITHNER: “My first and essential responsibility was to fix and reform the financial system. That was necessarily going to be the principal part of what people saw. About half my time from the beginning has been spent on the design of the broader economic strategy. The idea that we did not do much for the broader challenges facing the country is completely unjustified. The Recovery Act itself was not just a sweeping, essential force for growth but included a bunch of targeted investments in education, energy, environment, health care that will have huge long-term benefits.”
(Run here: Geithner misses the point or makes the point that finance is the number one concern over Main Street, even though Main Street is financing the rescue of W$. The constituency doesn’t want charity in targeted investments in education, energy, education, and environment when it can pay for those investments itself if they are working. Main Street wants jobs? Main street is still waiting for that tsunami of job creation which is one of the broader challenges of any administration and no administration has put into play any package to stimuli it or companies to do more. Jobs are left to free market influences which is content with investing profits elsewhere other than job creating infrastructure.)

GROSS: So you don’t think the bailouts were too friendly to Wall Street?
GEITHNER: “The idea that the strategy was unfair and has principally benefited a small number of institutions in New York is a mischaracterization of the design and result of the strategy. I thought people would have understood this after the failure of Lehman Bros. But when you do too little and you leave the system with real fear that everything is going to fall apart, like any financial crisis, it hurts the poorest most. A just and fair strategy, even if it is politically hardest to explain and justify, is to use well-designed but massive force to stabilize the system.“

(Run here: Over at Naked Capitalism, they are debating whether Goldman Sachs drove the collapse of AIG by calling for the mark down of CDO by companies holding too many of them thereby forcing AIG to raise collateral after it was downgraded and eventually paying off on CDO that never were expected to payoff. While AIG is at fault for seeing too many pie in the sky dollars in risk and having too little collateral to cover it, one has to wonder why Goldman Sachs should have received 100% on the dollar on its CDS for its risk with AIG and not knowing how over leveraged AIG was at the time. Goldman Sachs certainly benefited by Geithner’s negotiated settlement of AIG’s liabilities at 100% on the dollar.)

GROSS: The biggest downside surprise?

GEITHNER: “The [high] level of unemployment relative to what was happening in the economy as a whole. I’m not an economist, but almost all forecasters missed that. And that’s hugely consequential, because it’s the prism through which most people view basic economic health.”

(Run here:He is kidding right? During every economic downturn, it has consistently been Main Street that has been shown the street from their jobs or homes.)

Simple Answers to Simple Questions, Floyd Norris/GS Edition

Floyd Norris is Shocked! Shocked! to Find Goldman Sachs controls Congress as well as the Treasury. Where has he been for the past three years?

Imagine the reaction if, perhaps during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, a group of Republican legislators had threatened to block legislation unless a contributor to their campaigns received special treatment. Then imagine what would have happened if a powerful House committee chairman had called companies with a direct interest in legislation pending in his committee and asked them to help out that contributor.

Why is this any different?

It isn’t. But why is this any different that the pandering to Goldman that you have been applauding for the entire Paulson/Geithner/Summers maiming of Main Street?

How to Explain Moral Hazard

It took me many years to understand the phrase “moral hazard.” It’s a fundamental tenet of economics, usually used to explain that, since consumers are untrustworthy, businesses need to charge them more.*

It was finally cleared up for me in the midst of a presentation last year about how it’s a “moral hazard” issue that divorce rates go up as more women work outside of the house/family business. So I asked the presenter, “You mean it’s a moral hazard issue that women who have an independent income can now get out of an abusive relationship?”

Fortunately, one of the best Labor Economists in the world was in the room. He just looked up and said, “Or guys start leaving their wives because the wife can go to work now.”

Aha! The light dawns: moral hazard is, indeed, about power relationships: it allows arseholes to be even greater arseholes. (One step further, and you start spouting Ayn Rand.)

Preceding is preamble to correcting an error made by a worker in today’s Phialdelphia Daily News (h/t Dr. Black, of course):

Yesterday, Local 234 President Willie Brown said that the wage package was acceptable but that he was worried about the underfunded pension fund, funded only 52 percent. He said he believed that SEPTA had not contributed to it for 10 to 12 years….

“We could wake up and our pension could be completely gone,” [Brown] said. “We don’t want to end up like AIG,” referring to the international insurance giant who got $173 billion since last fall in a U.S. government bailout.

Mr. Brown should not worry about that. AIG’s creditors (e.g., The Great Vampire Squid) were paid in full, because Tim Geithner and Larry Summers want a veto-proof Republican majority by 2012, if not 2010.**

Pensioners, otoh, are subject to “moral hazard.” Believing their contracts were viable, reasonable, and negotiated by people who were working in the best interest of the firm—that is, people who were not writing a check with their mouth that their pockets couldn’t cash—clearly causes them not to do enough to save. Because they don’t understand that mismanagement of their pension is their fault, and that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will only ensure that their pensions will be paid “up to certain limits,” no matter how much extra Roger Smith or Michael Eisner or Jack Welch took from the company for performing almost as well as the rest of the stock market.

So, let us say to Mr. Brown and the rest of the workers who depend on their pensions being funded: Don’t worry about being treated the way AIG was. You’re going to be dealt with as a “moral hazard” problem for believing that the contract you negotiated will be enforced.

Why, if those workers were at all sensible, they would have taken the money upfront the way those Captains of Industry did, instead of gotten a false sense of security (“moral hazard”) from contractual negotiations about future payments.

As noted by Dr. Black, while management claims that they are fulfilling their legal obligations, management’s pension fund is almost 25% better funded than the workers fund (53% v 65%).

This is, of course, A Good Thing. After all, we wouldn’t want workers to believe that what they think of as Contractual Obligations is anything other than a case of “moral hazard.”

UPDATE: I see, via David Wessel’s Twitter feed, that Ricardo Caballero puts forth standard Economics Reasoning:

His idea is likely to give heartburn to many economists and policy makers, who worry about “moral hazard” — the idea that if financial institutions know they’ll be saved in an emergency, they’ll take even greater risks that will inevitably lead to greater disasters.

Don’t fret, says Mr. Caballero: “this moral hazard perspective is the equivalent of discouraging the placement of defibrillators in public places because of the concern that, upon seeing them, people would have a sudden urge to consume cheeseburgers.”

After all, we just have to acknowledge that “moral hazard” exemptions are the rule, not the exception, for mismanaged businesses. After all, paying out more in bonuses than you make in a year is a Perfectly Reasonable Business Strategy.

*Seriously. The standard example is that people “don’t tell the whole truth” on health insurance applications, so companies need to charge them more. The logical extension of this is that people who tell the whole truth are leaving money on the table, since no insurance company would ever take an ex poste action against people who omit or forget that sprained ankle from thirty years ago. For an alternate view, see Malcolm Gladwell.

**There may be an alternate explanation, but this one requires the fewest outlandish assumptions.

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.

What is a Bank, then?

I was trying to avoid mentioning this, partially because I half-suspected it was deliberately over the top, and I’m not reading tone well these days. After all:

Virtually every BHC has elected to become an FHC. Under 12 U.S.C. § 1843(k)(4)(H), FHCs are allowed to make “merchant banking investments” in nonfinancial companies, on a principal or agency basis, through affiliated private equity funds or other invesment funds. (Private equity affiliates are dealt with at length in 12 C.F.R. § 225.173.) Goldman carried out the investment in Greely Automotive Holdings through one of its private equity funds, GS Capital Partners VI Fund LP.

I find it very difficult to believe that any serious bankers, no matter how “annoyed,” wouldn’t have known this. [links in original]

is difficult to treat seriously, given the infodump being followed by the snideness. But so it goes.

Until today, when Brad DeLong made it ones of his links of the day. Because now we have to go into context and depth, and remember a year ago.

Bear was sold to JPMChase in March. Six months later, IBs still had not lowered their leverage ratios, and credit was more difficult to find. So the IB that had six months to return to some semblance of sanity—Lehmann Brothers—dangled on the edge for a while and finally fell off, “murdered” we’re now told. (Whether it was murdered by its own CEO is left as an exercise.) But the best was yet to come.

So the weekend was going to be a rocky one. And various plans in various stages were executed:

  1. Endangered IB #3, the successor firm to Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, looked around for a sucker, saw Ken Lewis, and locked in their bonuses.
  2. Endangered IB #4, the successor firm to Dean Witter Sears, teetered on the edge, hoping for a life preserver. And, apparently, it was more like Leo-in-Titanic than anyone wanted to admit.
  3. Endangered IB #5, The Vampire Squid, called its buddies at Treasury.

Maybe it didn’t go exactly like that, but by the end of the weekend, there was the declaration that, so long as they re-incorporated as a Bank Holding Company (BHC), IB#4 and IB#5 would have full access to lootsupport from the U.S. Treasury.

And now we are told—in answer to the question Simon Johnson initially raised:

If this is temporary, is it envisaged that Goldman will cease being a bank holding company, or that it will divest itself shortly of activities not usually allowed (and with good reason) by banks? Or will all bank holding companies be allowed to expand on the same basis. (The relevant rules appear to be here in general and here specifically; do tell me what I am missing.)

Increasingly, the issue of “too big to regulate” in the public interest is being brought up – an issue that has historically attracted the interest of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in sectors other than finance. Should Goldman Sachs now be placed in this category? [italics mine; links, again, from the original]

The response appears to be that those regulations can be circumvented with impunity. Or, as Simon unbelievingly snarked initially, Goldman is doing nothing any other bank cannot do.

But all that does is beg the question: if a BHC can do everything that GS used to be able to do, what was the actual cost to Goldman and Morgan Stanley of converting their business. Or was it just a way for the Fed to save face while letting the taps flow wide?

Health insurance plans-Goldman Sachs and Congress


NYT reports on $40,000/year health plans as we discuss health payment options for health care.

Goldman Sachs is one of the nation’s richest banks, and hundreds of top Goldman employees have a health care package to match — one of the “gold-plated Cadillac” plans cited by those involved in the health care debate in Washington.

Reach of Subsidies Is Critical Issue for Health Plan (July 27, 2009) Goldman’s 400 or so managing directors and its top executive officers participate in the bank’s executive medical and dental program as part of their benefits, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The program generally costs the bank $40,543 in premiums annually for each participant’s family.

Those taking part in the plan include the company’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and four other top officers, as well as managing directors, whose base salary is $600,000.

Goldman’s medical coverage entered the health care discussion on Sunday when David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, cited the Goldman program as an example of the expensive benefits the administration might consider taxing to help pay for its health care program.

“The president actually was asked this the other day by Jim Lehrer, and what he said was that this was an intriguing idea to put an excise tax on high-end health care policies like the ones that the executives at Goldman Sachs have, the $40,000 policies,” Mr. Axelrod said.

Goldman did not return messages on Sunday to comment about Mr. Axelrod’s comments.

A proposal by Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, would impose an excise tax on the insurers that issue policies like Goldman’s, with the expectation that the insurers would pass along most, if not all, of the cost to employers who buy the plans.

Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, which is working on bipartisan version of the health care legislation in Congress, had long expressed interest in taxing some employer-provided benefits — a move many budget experts say would help slow the steep rise in health costs.

A number of Democrats opposed the plan, so negotiators began looking for other ways to cover the roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost of the bill.

Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota and an author of the Finance Committee’s health bill, endorsed taxing rich plans during an appearance Sunday on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on ABC.

Asked if Congress would tax high-end plans, Mr. Conrad said: “I think we’ve got to. Again, virtually every economist that’s come before us has said you’ve got to reduce that tax subsidy as part of an overall strategy to really contain costs.”

An aide to Republicans involved in the Finance Committee negotiations said the idea was “on the table in discussions as a serious effort by Senator Kerry to restart the conversation on bending down the cost curve.” Aides to Senator Max Baucus confirmed that he, too, was considering the proposal, and House leaders said they were as well.

Negotiators have not yet determined the value of the plans that would set off a tax on the insurance companies; the numbers under discussion range from $20,000 to $40,000 annually, a senior administration official said.

Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean Law Enforcement Isn’t Out to Help You

From the coolest possibly-corporate-espionage story of the week:

If only the FBI were to tackle cases of national security and loss of life with the same speed and precision as they confront presumed high-frequency program trading industrial espionage cases… especially those that allegedly involve Goldman Sachs.

The original is from Reuters.