Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar || Do you control the elephant, or does the elephant control you?

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar || Do you control the elephant, or does the elephant control you?

I’m currently reading a book about the life of Jesse Livermore.  Part of the book describes how Livermore made a fortune shorting stocks just before the panic of 1907 hit.  He had one key insight: the loans of lesser brokers were being funded by the large brokers, and the large brokers were losing confidence in the creditworthiness of the lesser brokers, and banks were now funding the borrowings by the lesser brokers.

What Livermore didn’t know was that the same set of affairs existed with the banks toward trust companies and smaller banks.  Most financial players were playing with tight balance sheets that did not have a lot of incremental borrowing power, even considering the lax lending standards of the day, and the high level of the stock market.  Remember, in those days, margin loans required only 10% initial equity, not the 50% required today.  A modest move down in the stock market could create a self-reinforcing panic.

All the same, he was in the right place at the right time, and repeated the performance in 1929 (I’m not that far in the book yet).  In both cases you had a mix of:

  • High leverage
  • Short lending terms with long-term assets (stocks) as collateral.
  • Chains of lending where party A lends to party B who lends to party C who lends to party D, etc., with each one trying to make some profit off the deal.
  • Inflated asset values on the stock collateral.
  • Inadequate loan underwriting standards at many trusts and banks
  • Inadequate solvency standards for regulated financials.
  • A culture of greed ruled the day.

Now, this is not much different than what happened to Japan in the late 1980s, the US in the mid-2000s, and China today.  The assets vary, and so does the degree and nature of the lending chains, but the overleverage, inflated assets, etc. were similar.

In all of these cases, you had some institutions that were leaders in the nuttiness that went belly-up, or had significant problems in advance of the crisis, but they were dismissed as one-time events, or mere liquidity and not solvency problems — not something that was indicative of the system as a whole.

Those were the warnings — from the recent financial crisis we had Bear Stearns, the failures in short-term lending (SIVs, auction rate preferreds, ABCP, etc.), Bank of America, Citigroup, credit problems at subprime lenders, etc.

I’m not suggesting a credit crisis now, but it is useful to keep a list of areas where caution is being thrown to the wind — I can think of a few areas: student loans, agricultural loans, energy loans, lending to certain weak governments with large liabilities and no independent monetary policy… there may be more — can you think of any?  Leave a comment.

Subprime lending is returning also, though not in housing yet…

Parting Thoughts

I’ve been toying with the idea that maybe there would be a way to create a crisis model off of the financial sector and its clients, working off of a “how much slack capital exists across the system” basis.  Since risky borrowers vary over time, and some lenders are more prudent than others, the model would have to reflect the different links, and dodgy borrowers in each era.  There would be some art to this.  A raw leverage ratio, or fixed charges ratio in the financial sector wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it probably wouldn’t be enough.  The constraint that bind varies over time as well — regulators, rating agencies, general prudence, etc…)

In a highly leveraged situation with chains of lending, confidence becomes crucial.  Indeed, at the time, you will hear the improvident squeal that they “don’t have a solvency crisis, but just a liquidity crisis! We just need to restore confidence!”  The truth is that they put themselves in an unstable situation where a small change in cash flows and collateral values will be the difference between life and death.  Confidence only deserves to exist among balance sheets that are conservative.

That’s all for now.  Again, if you can think of other areas where debt has grown too quickly, or lending standards are poor, please e-mail me, or leave a message in the comments. Thanks.

Too often in debates regarding the recent financial crisis, the event was regarded as a surprise that no one could have anticipated, conveniently forgetting those who pointed out sloppy banking, lending and borrowing practices in advance of the crisis.  There is a need for a well-developed model of how a financial crisis works, so that the wrong cures are not applied to the financial system.

All that said, any correct cure will bring about a predictable response from the banks and other lending institutions.  They will argue that borrower choice is reduced, and that the flow of credit and liquidity to the financial system is also reduced.  That is not a big problem in the boom phase of the financial cycle, because those same measures help to avoid a loss of liquidity and credit availability in the bust phase of the cycle.  Too much liquidity and credit is what fuels eventual financial crises.

To get to a place where we could have a decent model of the state of overall financial credit, we would have to have models that work like this:

  1. The models would have to have both a cash flow and a balance sheet component to them — it’s not enough to look at present measures of creditworthiness only, particularly if loans do not fully amortize debts at the current interest rate.  Regulatory solvency tests should not automatically assume that borrowers will always be able to refinance.
  2. The models should try to go loan-by-loan, and forecast the ability of each loan to service debts.  Where updated financial data is available on borrowers, that should be included.
  3. The models should try to forecast the fair market prices of assets/collateral, off of estimated future lending conditions, so that at the end of the loan, estimates can be made as to whether loans would be refinanced, extended, or default.
  4. As asset prices rise, there has to be a feedback effect into lowered ability to finance new loans, unless purchasing power is increasing as much or more than asset prices.  It should be assumed that if loans are made at lower underwriting standards than a given threshold, there will be increasing levels of default.
  5. A close eye would have to look for situations where if the property were rented out, it would not earn enough to pay for normalized interest, taxes and maintenance.  When asset prices are that high, the system is out of whack, and invites future defaults.  The margin of implied rents over normalized interest, taxes and maintenance would be the key measure, and the regulators would have to have a function that attributes future losses off of the margin of that calculation.
  6. The cash flows from the loans/mortgages would have to feed through the securitization vehicles, if any, and then to the regulated financial institutions, after which, how they would fund their future liabilities would have to be estimated.
  7. The models would have to include the repo markets, because when the prices of collateral get too high, runs on the repo market can happen.  The same applies to portfolio margining agreements for derivatives, futures, and other types of wholesale lending.
  8. There should be scenarios for ordinary recessions.  There should also be some way of increasing the Ds at that time: death, disability, divorce, disaster, dis-employment, etc.  They mysteriously tend to increase in bad economic times.

What a monster.  I’ve worked with stripped-down versions of this that analyze the Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities [CMBS] market, but the demands of a model like this would be considerable, and probably impossible.  Getting the data, scrubbing it, running the cash flows, calculating the asset price functions, implied margin on borrowing, etc., would be pretty tough for angels to do, much less mere men.

Thus if I were watching over the banks, I would probably rely on analyzing:

  • what areas of credit have grown the quickest.
  • where have collateral prices risen the fastest.
  • where are underwriting standards declining.
  • what assets are being financed that do not fully amortize, including all repo markets, margin agreements, etc.

The one semi-practical thing i would strip out of this model would be for regulators to score loans using a model like point 5 suggests.  Even that would be tough, but even getting that approximately right could highlight lending institutions that are taking undue chances with underwriting.

On a slightly different note, I would be skeptical of models that don’t try to at least mimic the approach of a cash flow based model with some adjustments for market-like pricing of collateral and loans.  The degree of financing long assets with short liabilities is the key aspect of how financial crises develop.  If models don’t reflect that, they aren’t realistic, and somehow, I expect that non-realistic models of lending risk will eventually be the rule, because it helps financial institutions make loans in the short run.  After all, it is virtually impossible to fight loosening financial standards piece-by-piece, because the changes seem immaterial, and everyone favors a boom in the short-run.  So it goes.

This will be the post where I cover the biggest mistakes that I made as an institutional bond and stock investor. In general, in my career, my results were very good for those who employed me as a manager or analyst of investments, but I had three significant blunders over a fifteen-year period that cost my employers and their clients a lot of money.  Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses, and let’s take a learning expedition through my failures.

Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates

In 2001, I lost my boss.  In the midst of a merger, he figured his opportunities in the merged firm were poor, and so he jumped to another firm.  In the process, I temporarily became the Chief Investment Officer, and felt that we could take some chances that the boss would not take that in my opinion were safe propositions.  All of them worked out well, except for one: The — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates of Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities [MHABS].  What were those beasts?

Many people in the lower middle class live in prefabricated housing in predominantly in trailer parks around the US.  You get a type of inexpensive independent living that is lower density than an apartment building, and the rent you have to pay is lower than renting an apartment.  What costs some money is paying for the loan to buy the prefabricated housing.

Those loans would get gathered into bunches, put into a securitization trust, and certificates would get sold allocating cash flows with different probabilities of default.  Essentially there were four levels (in order of increasing riskiness) — Senior, Mezzanine, Subordinated, and Residual.  I focused on the middle two classes because they seemed to offer a very favorable risk/reward trade-off if you selected carefully.

In 2001, it was obvious that there was too much competition for lending to borrowers in Manufactured Housing [MH] — too many manufacturers were trying to sell their product to a saturated market, and underwriting suffered.  But, if you looked at older deals, lending standards were a lot higher, but the yields on those bonds were similar to those on the badly underwritten newer deals.  That was the key insight.

One day, I was able to confirm that insight by talking with my rep at Lehman Brothers.  I talked to him about the idea, and he said, “Did you know we have a database on the loss stats of all of the Green Tree (the earliest lender on MH) deals since inception?”  After the conversation was over, I had that database, and after one day of analysis — the analysis was clear: underwriting standards had slipped dramatically in 1998, and much further in 1999 and following.

That said, the losses by deal and duration since issuance followed a very predictable pattern: a slow ramp-up of losses over 30 months, and then losses tailing off gradually after about 60 months.  The loss statistics of all other MH lenders aside from Vanderbilt (now owned by Berkshire Hathaway) was worse than Green Tree losses.  The investment idea was as follows:

Buy AA-rated mezzanine and BBB-rated subordinated MHABS originated by Green Tree in 1997 and before that.  The yield spreads over Treasuries are compelling for the rating, and the loss rates would have to jump and stick by a factor of three to impair the subordinated bonds, and by a factor of six to impair the mezzanine bonds.  These bonds have at least four years of seasoning, so the loss rates are very predictable, and are very unlikely to spike by that much.

That was the thesis, and I began quietly acquiring $200 million of these bonds in the last half of 2001.  I did it for several reasons:

  • The yields were compelling.
  • The company that I was investing for was growing way too rapidly, and we needed places to put money.
  • The cash flow profile of these securities matched very well the annuities that the company was selling.
  • The amount of capital needed to carry the position was small.

By the end of 2001, two things happened.  The opportunity dried up, because I had acquired enough of the bonds on the secondary market to make a difference, and prices rose.  Second, I was made the corporate bond manager, and another member of our team took over the trade.  He didn’t much like the trade, and I told my boss that it was his portfolio now, he can do what he wanted.

He kept the positions on, but did not add to them.  I was told he looked at the bonds, noticed that they were all trading at gains, and stuck with the positions.

Can You Make It Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

I left the firm about 14 months later, and around that time, the prices for MHABS fell apart.  Increasing defaults on MH loans, and failures of companies that made MH, made many people exceptionally bearish and led rating agencies to downgrade almost all MHABS bonds.

The effects of the losses were similar to that of the Housing Bubble in 2007-9.  As people defaulted, the value of existing prefabricated houses fell, because of the glut of unsold houses, both new and used.  This had an effect, even on older deals, and temporarily, loss rates spiked above the levels that would impair the bonds that I bought if the levels stayed that high.

With the ratings lowered, more capital had to be put up against the positions, which the insurance company did not want to do, because they always levered themselves up more highly than most companies — they never had capital to spare, so any loss on bonds was a disaster to them.

They feared the worst, and sold the bonds at a considerable loss, and blamed me.

[sigh]

Easy to demonize the one that is gone, and forget the good that he did, and that others had charge of it during the critical period.  So what happened to the MHABS bonds that I bought?

Every single one of those bonds paid off in full.  Held to maturity, not one of them lost a dime.

What was my error?

Part of being a good investor is knowing your client.  In my case, the client was an impossible one, demanding high yields, low capital employed, and no losses.  I should have realized that at some later date, under a horrific scenario, that the client would not be capable of holding onto the securities.  For that reason, I should have never bought them in the first place.  Then again, I should have never bought anything with any risk for them under those conditions, because in a large enough portfolio, you will have some areas where the risk will surprise you.  This was less than 2% of the consolidated assets of the firm, and they can’t hold onto securities that would likely be money good amid a panic?!

Sadly, no.  As their corporate bond manager, before I left, I sold down positions like that that my replacement might not understand, but I did not control the MHABS portfolio then, and so I could not do that.

Maybe $50 million went down the drain here.  On the bright side, it helped teach me what would happen in the housing bubble, and my next employer benefited from those insights.

Thus the lesson is: only choose investments that your client will be capable of holding even during horrible times, because the worst losses come from panic selling.

Next time, my two worst stock losses from my hedge fund days.

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

I wish I could tell you that it was easy for me to stop making macroeconomic forecasts, once I set out to become a value investor.  It’s difficult to get rid of convictions, especially if they are simple ones, such as which way will interest rates go?

In the early-to-mid ’90s, many were convinced that interest rates had no way to go but up.  A few mortgage REITs designed themselves around that idea.  Fortunately, I arrived at the party late, after their investments that implicitly required interest rates to rise soon, fell dramatically in price.  I bought a basket of them for less than book value, excluding the value of taxes that could be sheltered in a reverse merger.

For some time, the stocks continued to fall, though not rapidly.  I became familiar with what it was like to go through coercive rights offerings from cash-hungry companies in trouble.  Bankruptcy was not impossible… and I burned a lot of mental bandwidth on these.  The rights offerings weren’t really good things in themselves, but they led me to buy in at a good time.  Fortunately I had slack capital to deploy.  That may have taught me the wrong lesson on averaging down, as we will see later.  As it was, I ended up making money on these, though less than the market, and with a lot of Sturm und Drang.

That leads me to my main topic of the era: Caldor.  Caldor was a discount retailer that was active in the Northeast, but nationally was a poor third to Walmart and KMart.  It came up with the bright idea of expanding the number of stores it had in the mid-90s without raising capital.  It even turned down an opportunity to float junk bonds.  I remember noting that the leverage seemed high.

What I didn’t recognize that the cost of avoiding issuing equity or longer-term debt was greater reliance on short-term debt from factors — short-term lenders that had a priority claim on inventory.  It would eventually prove to be a fatal error, and one that an asset-liability manager should have known well — never finance a long term asset with short-term debt.  It seems like a cost savings, but it raises the likelihood of insolvency significantly.

Still, it seemed very cheap, and one of my favorite value investors, Michael Price, owned a little less than 10% of the common stock.  So I bought some, and averaged down three times before the bankruptcy, and one time afterwards, until I learned Michael Price was selling his stake, and when he did so, he did it without any thought of what it would do to the stock price.

Now for two counterfactuals: Caldor could have perhaps merged with Bradlee’s, closed their worst stores, refinanced their debt, issued equity, and tried to be a northeast regional retail player.  It didn’t do that.

The investor relations guy could have given a more understanding answer when he was asked whether Caldor was having any difficulties with credit lines from their factors.  Instead, he was rude and dismissive to the questioning analyst.  What was the result?  The factors blinked and pulled their lines, and Caldor went into bankruptcy.

What were my lessons from this episode?

  • Don’t average down more than once, and only do so limitedly, without a significant analysis.  This is where my portfolio rule seven came from.
  • Don’t engage in hero worship, and have initial distrust for single large investors until they prove to be fair to all outside passive minority investors.
  • Avoid overly indebted companies.  Avoid asset liability mismatches.  Portfolio rule three would have helped me here.
  • Analyze whether management has a decent strategy, particularly when they are up against stronger competition.  The broader understanding of portfolio rule six would have steered me clear.
  • Impose a diversification limit.  Even though I concentrate positions and industries in my investing, I still have limits.  That’s another part of rule seven, which limits me from getting too certain.

The result was my largest loss, and I would not lose more on any single investment again until 2008 — I’ll get to that one later.  It was my largest loss as a fraction of my net worth ever — after taxes, it was about 4%.  As a fraction of my liquid net worth at the time, more like 10%.  Ouch.

So, what did I do to memorialize this?  Big losses should always be memorialized.  I taught my (then small) kids to say “Caldor” to me when I talked too much about investing.  They thought it was kind of fun, and I would thank them for it, while grimacing.

But that helped.  Remember, value investing is first about safety, and second about cheapness.  Cheapness rarely makes something safe enough on its own, so analyze balance sheets, strategy, use of cash flow, etc.  This is not to say that I did not make any more errors, but this one reduced the size and frequency.

That said, there will be more “fun” chapters to share in this series, because we always learn more from errors than successes.

Photo Credit: ~Sage~ || King of the Beasts, eh?

Photo Credit: ~Sage~ || King of the Beasts, eh?

It was winter in early 1995, and I was wondering if I still had a business selling Guaranteed Investment Contracts [GICs].  Confederation Life had gone insolvent the August prior, and I noticed that fewer and fewer stable value funds wanted to purchase my GICs, because our firm was small, and as such, did not get a good credit rating, despite excellent credit metrics.  The lack of a good rating kept buyers away.

Still, I felt I needed to try my best for one more year or so, despite my feelings that the business was dying soon.  With that attitude, I headed off in January to sunny Southern California, to attend GICs ’95, something my opposite number at AIG referred to as a Schmoozathon.

Schmoozathon?  Well, you took your opportunities to ingratiate yourself with current and potential clients, across four days and three nights of meetings, with a variety of parties going on.  I was not the best salesman, so I just tried to play it as straight as I could.

In the middle of the whole affair was a special lunch where Bill Gross was to be the Keynote Speaker.  Because I was talking with a client, I got to the lunch a little late, and ended up at a table near the back of the room.

Things were running a little behind, but Bill Gross got up and gave a talk that borrowed heavily from a recent Pimco Investment Outlook that he had written, comparing the current market opportunities to Butler Creek (see paragraph 6), a creek that he grew up near as a kid, which gently meandered, went kinda straight, kinda not, but didn’t vary all that much when you looked at it as a whole, rather than from a nearby point on the ground.

The point? Sell volatility.  Buy mortgage bonds.  Take convexity risk.  Clip yield.  Take a few chances, the environment should be gentle, and you can’t go too wrong.

After the horrible investment environment for bonds of 1994, this was a notable shift.  So he came to the end of his talk, and it was time for Q&A.  Suddenly, the moderator stormed up to the front of the room and said, “I’m really sorry, but we’re out of time.  We’ve got a panel waiting in the main meeting room to talk about the Confederation insolvency.  Please head over there now.”

Everyone got up, and dutifully headed over to the Confederation panel.  I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get a chance to ask Bill Gross a question, so as I started to leave, I looked to the front of the room, and I saw Bill Gross standing there alone.  It struck me. “Wait.  What don’t I know about Confederation? The best bond manager in the US is standing up front.”

So I walked up to the front, introduced myself, told him that I was an investment actuary, and asked if I could talk with him about mortgage bonds.  He told me that he could until his driver showed up.  As a result, for the next 15 minutes, I had Bill Gross to myself, asking him how they analyzed the risks and returns of complex mortgage securities.  His driver then showed up; I thanked him, and he left.

Feeling pretty good, I wandered over to the Confederation panel.  As I listened, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything significant.  Then I realized that the rest of the audience had missed a significant opportunity.  Oh, well.

As it turned out, I made many efforts in 1995 to resuscitate my GIC business.  It survived for one more year, and collapsed in 1996, with little help from senior management.  It was for the best, anyway.  It was a low margin, capital intensive business, and closing it enabled me to focus on bigger things that improved corporate profitability.  I never went to another Schmoozathon as a result, but the last one had a highlight that I would not forget: meeting Bill Gross.

Photo Credit -- Javier || Buffett believes in America

Photo Credit — Javier || Buffett believes in America

Yesterday there was an article where Buffett was quoted on getting mortgages to buy houses. Let me quote the most relevant portion:

“You would think that people would be lining up now to get mortgages to buy a home,” Buffett said today at a conference hosted by Fortune magazine in Laguna Niguel,California. “It’s a good way to go short the dollar, short interest rates. It is a no-brainer. But so far home construction pickup has been slower than I had anticipated.”

Now, when I read the comment stream on the article, I was not surprised at the level of disagreement, but the vitriolic nature of the the disagreement.  Buffett is certainly not made of Teflon anymore, and fame has led to its share of detractors.

Now, I don’t think that Buffett is giving the right advice to everyone here, but I also don’t think that he is talking his book because has has investments in firms that sell:

  • Real estate
  • Manufactured housing
  • Building materials
  • Mortgages
  • Etc.

Indeed, Buffett has enough investments that almost anything he says could be talking his book.  I think his character is such that he does not talk his book — his firm is one that is built on “low hype” attitudes, at least, low hype for a company of its size and complexity.

Should everyone run out and get a mortgage because it is a cheap time to be borrowing money?  That is an individual question, hinging on how secure and high your income is versus the likely payment on the mortgage, and other housing-related expenses.

The interest rate may indeed be low relative to history, but how well will the economy do in the future?  Maybe residential housing is too expensive in some areas to get a lot of people excited about buying.

Buffett also said:

“Household formation falls off dramatically in a recession, at least initially,” he said. “But that doesn’t last long. Hormones kick in and in-laws get tiresome, too.”

Unless something changes in US culture, there have been changes to the demand for homes, driven by the following factors:

  • People are marrying later and less frequently
  • They are having fewer kids
  • Urban areas are more attractive for many people to live in, reducing commute time and costs.  Even car-buying is affected.
  • There are fewer move-up buyers because of the financial crisis.
  • The ability of lower middle class people to afford homes has been reduced, particularly in high cost of living areas.
  • The financial crisis has ruined the illusion that residential real estate is an investment that can’t lose money.

There may be more reasons, but even though the 30-year mortgage is the cheapest long-term financing that an average person can get, there are more people than before who are not interested in buying a home.  Renting suits their goals fine.

As such, I think Buffett is wrong here, and that borrowing to buy residential housing will not be as prominent as it was in the past.  But I don’t think he has any bad intentions in what he said — he believes in America, and thinks that we will return to the consumption patterns of the past, which relied on too much debt in my opinion.

Final note: I’m getting tired of reading comment streams.  The people there are often too cynical, and too loose with the truth.  Their expectations for what they deserve in this life are also inflated beyond what is reasonable.  Some turn to conspiracy theories to keep themselves from blaming their bad fortune on their own actions.

Buffett is generally a good guy, and a good example as far as businessmen go — he does not deserve the abuse.  I don’t agree with Buffett’s politics, but I don’t think that he is not sincere.

Full disclosure: long BRK/B and WFC

Photo Credit: Michael Daddino

Photo Credit: Michael Daddino

I am mystified at why people might be outraged or surprised that the Federal Reserve does a poor job of overseeing banks.  The Fed is an overstaffed bureaucracy.  Overstaffed bureaucracies always tend toward consensus and non-confrontation.

I know this from my days of working as an actuary inside an overstaffed life insurance company, and applying for work in other such companies.  I did not fit the paradigm, because I had strong views of right and wrong, and strong views on how to run a business well, which was more aggressive than the company that I worked for was generally willing to do.  Note that only one such company was willing to hire me, and I nearly got fired a couple of times for proposing ideas that were non-consensus.

This shouldn’t be too surprising, given the past behavior of the Fed.  In 2006, the Fed made a few theoretical noises about residential real estate loan quality, but took no action that would make the lesser regulators do anything.  It’s not as if they didn’t have the power to do it.  One of the great canards of financial reform is that regulators did not have enough power to stop the bad lending.  They most certainly did have enough power; they just didn’t use it because it is political suicide to oppose a boom.  (Slide deck here.)

As a result, I would not have enacted Dodd-Frank, because I like my laws simple.  Instead, I would have fired enough of the regulators to make a point that they did not do their jobs.  How many financial regulators were fired in 2008-2009?  Do you hear the crickets?  This is the #1 reason why you should assume that it is business as usual in banking regulation.

You won’t get assiduous regulation unless regulators are dismissed for undue leniency.  I have heard many say in this recent episode with Goldman Sachs, the New York Fed, and Carmen Segarra that those working for the Fed are bright and hard-working.  I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; my own dealings with those that work for the Fed is that most of them, aside from bosses, are quiet, so you can’t tell.

Being quiet, and favoring the powerful, whether it is bosses, politicians, or big companies that you regulate is the optimal strategy for advancement at the Fed over the last 30 years.  It doesn’t matter much how bright you are, or how hard you work, if it doesn’t have much impact on the organization’s actions.

I try to be an optimistic kind of guy, but I don’t see how this situation can be changed without firing a lot of people, including most of the most powerful people at the Fed, lesser banking regulators, and US Treasury.

And if we did change things, would we like it?  Credit would be less available.  I think that would be an exceptionally good thing, but most of our politicians are wedded to the idea that increasing the availability of credit is an unmitigated good.  They think that because they don’t get tagged for the errors.  They take credit for the bull market in credit, and blame everyone except themselves and voters for the inevitable bear market.

Also, if we did fire so many people, where would we find our next crop of regulators?  Personally, I would hand banking regulation back to the states, and end interstate branching, breaking up the banks in the process.

Remember, the insurance industry, regulated by the states, is much better regulated than the banking industry.  State regulators are much less willing to be innovative, and far more willing to say no.  State regulation is simple/dumb regulation, which is typically good regulation.

But whether you agree with my policy prescription or not, you should be aware that things are unlikely to change in banking regulation, because it is not a failure of laws and regulations, but a failure of will, and we have the same sorts of people in place as were there prior to the financial crisis.

Postscript

I would commend the articles cited by Matt Levine of Bloomberg regarding this whole brouhaha:

A bit more on Carmen Segarra.

Apparently the place to discuss regulatory capture is on Medium. Here is Dan Davies:

Regulated institutions generally have better contacts and relationships with the top central bankers than their supervisors do. And for whatever reason, top central bankers never developed the necessary knee-jerk aggressive response to any attempts to make use of these relationships to affect the behaviour of supervisors.
So banks never need to listen to their line-level regulators because they can always get those regulators’ bosses’ bosses’ bosses to overrule them. Here is Felix Salmon, mostly agreeing. And here is Alexis Goldstein with a litany of Fed enabling of banks. Elsewhere, Martien Lubberink explains the transaction that got so much attention in the Fed tapes, in which Goldman agreed to hang on to some Santander Brasil stock for a year before delivering it to Qatar. He thinks it was pretty vanilla. And Adam Ozimek has a good point:

This American Life ep should lower avg est corruption belief. Goldman and NY Fed secretly taped & all u get is in non-confrontational nerds?

 

138524447_df928490da_o

Photo Credit: Ron

There’s a significant problem when you are a supremely big and connected financial institution: your failure will have an impact on the financial system as a whole.  Further, there is no one big enough to rescue you unless we drag out the public credit via the US Treasury, or its dedicated commercial paper financing facility, the Federal Reserve.  You are Too Big To Fail [TBTF].

Thus, even if you don’t fit into ordinary categories of systematic risk, like a bank, the government is not going to sit around and let you “gum up” the financial system while everyone else waits for you to disburse funds that others need to pay their liabilities.  They will take action; they may not take the best action of letting the holding company fail while bailing out only the connected and/or regulated subsidiaries, but they will take action and do a bailout.

In such a time, it does no good to say, “Just give us time.  This is a liquidity problem; this is not a solvency problem.”  Sorry, when you are big during a systemic crisis, liquidity problems are solvency problems, because there is no one willing to take on a large “grab bag” of illiquid asset and liquid liabilities without the Federal Government being willing to backstop the deal, at least implicitly.  The cost of capital in a financial crisis is exceptionally high as a result — if the taxpayers are seeing their credit be used for semi-private purposes, they had better receive a very high penalty rate for the financing.

That’s why I don’t have much sympathy for M. R. Greenberg’s lawsuit regarding the bailout of AIG.  If anything, the terms of the bailout were too soft, getting revised down once, and allowing tax breaks that other companies were not allowed.  Without the tax breaks and with the unamended bailout terms, the bailout was not profitable, given the high cost of capital during the crisis.  Further, though AIG Financial products was the main reason for the bailout, AIG’s domestic life subsidiaries were all insolvent, as were their mortgage insurers, and perhaps a few other smaller subsidiaries as well.  This was no small mess, and Greenberg is dreaming if he thought he could put together financing adequate to keep AIG afloat in the midst of the crisis.

Buffett was asked to bail out AIG, and he wouldn’t touch it.  Running a large insurer, he knew the complexity of AIG.  Having run off much of the book of Gen Re Financial Products, he knew what a mess could be lurking in AIG Financial Products.  He also likely knew that AIG’s P&C reserves were understated.

For more on this, look at my book review of The AIG Story, the book that tells Greenberg’s side of the story.

To close: it’s easy to discount the crisis after it has passed, and look at the now-solvent AIG as if it were a simple thing for them to be solvent through the crisis.  It was no simple thing, because only the government could have provided the credit, amid a cascade of failures.  (That the failures were in turn partially caused by bad government policies was another issue, but worthy to remember as well.)

Spot the failure

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Jason Zweig at the Wall Street Journal had a very good piece on whether to follow Bill Gross as he goes from Pimco to Janus.  Let me quote one paragraph:

Morningstar estimates that over the past five years, the average investor fell behind Pimco Total Return’s 5.6% annual gain by 1.6 points a year—largely as a result of buying high and selling low. That gap is among the widest of any large bond fund; at the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund, for example, investors have earned returns only 0.4 point lower than those of the portfolio itself.

In the short run, this offers a reason to follow Bill Gross to Janus.  He is starting with a clean slate, and will be able to implement positions that seem attractive to him that would not have been attractive at Pimco because they would have been too small.  Managing less money lets Bill Gross be more choosy.

Second, in the short run, growth in bond assets at Janus will temporarily push up the prices of bonds held by Janus.  Those that get in early would benefit from that if bond assets grow under the management of Bill Gross.  Just keep your eye on when assets stop growing if you are buying for that speculative reason.

A third potential reason to follow Gross depends on how much Pimco continues to use his quantitative strategies.  If Pimco abandons them (unlikely, but not impossible), Janus would get the chance to use them on much less money, which would make the excess returns greater.  If I were considering this as a reason, I would watch the turnover in Pimco’s main funds, and see if certain classes of assets disappear.

My last point here is that the abilities of Bill Gross will do better managing less money, but the effect won’t be so great if he is competing with Pimco to implement the same strategies.  At minimum, he’s not likely to do worse than at Pimco, and in the short-run, there are some reasons why he will likely do better.

PS — please remember that Bill Gross has two hats: the showman and the quant.  The quant makes money for clients while the showman entertains them.  The showman opines about the Fed, politics, etc.  That can get investors interested because it sounds clever, but that is not how Bill Gross makes money.

This brings up one more point.  If you do decide to invest with him at Janus, review the prospectus to see what degree of flexibility with derivatives Gross will have.  If it similar to what he had at Pimco, he is likely following the same strategy.

Photo Credit: Matt Cavanagh

Photo Credit: Matt Cavanagh

There is a saying in the markets that volatility is not risk. In general this is true, and helps to explain why measures like beta and standard deviation of returns do not measure risk, and are not priced by the market. After all, risk is the probability of losing money, and the severity thereof.

It’s not all that different from the way that insurance underwriters think of risk, or any rational businessman for that matter. But just to keep things interesting, I’d like to give you one place where volatility is risk.

When overall economic conditions are serene, many people draw the conclusion that it will stay that way for a long time. That’s a mistake, but that’s human nature. As a result, those concluding that economic conditions will remain serene for a long time decide to take advantage of the situation and borrow money.

When volatility is low, typically credit spreads are low. Why not take advantage of cheap capital? Well, I would simply argue that interest rates are for a time, and if you don’t overdo it, paying interest can be managed. But what happens if you have to refinance the principal of the loan at an inopportune time?

When volatility and interest spreads are low for you, they are low for a lot of other people also. Debt builds up not just for you, but for society as a whole. This can have the impact of pushing up prices of the assets purchased using debt. In some cases, the rising asset prices can attract momentum buyers who also borrow money in order to own the rising assets.

This game can continue until the economic yield of the assets is less than the yield on the debt used to finance the assets. Asset bubbles reach their breaking point when people have to feed cash to the asset beyond the ordinary financing cost in order to hold onto it.

In a situation like this, volatility becomes risk. Too many people have entered into too many fixed commitments and paid too much for a group of assets. This is one reason why debt crises seem to appear out of the blue. The group of assets with too much debt looks like they are in good shape if one views it through the rearview mirror. The loan-to-value ratios on recent loans based on current asset values look healthy.

But with little volatility in some subsegment of the overly levered assets, all of a sudden a small group of the assets gets their solvency called into question. Because of the increasing level of cash flows necessary to service the debt relative to the economic yield on the assets, it doesn’t take much fluctuation to make the most marginal borrowers question whether they can hold onto the assets.

Using an example from the recent financial crisis, you might recall how many economists, Fed governors, etc. commented on how subprime lending was a trivial part of the market, was well-contained, and did not need to be worried about. Indeed, if subprime mortgages were the only weak financing in the market, it would’ve been self-contained. But many people borrowed too much chasing inflated values of residential housing.  As asset values fell, more and more people lost willingness to pay for the depreciating assets.

We’ve had other situations like this in our markets. Here are some examples:

  • Commercial mortgage loans went through a similar set of issues in the late 80s.
  • Lending to lesser developed countries went through similar set of issues in the early 80s.
  • The collateralized debt obligation markets seem to have their little panics every now and then. (late 90s, early 2000s, mid 2000s, late 2000s)
  • During the dot-com bubble, too much trade finance was extended to marginal companies that were burning cash rapidly.
  • The roaring 20s were that way in part due to increased debt finance for corporations and individuals.

At the peak some say, “Nobody rings a bell.” This is true. But think of the market peak as being like the place where the avalanche happened 10 minutes before it happened. What set off the avalanche? Was it the little kid at the bottom of the valley who decided to yodel? Maybe, but the result was disproportionate to the final cause. The far more amazing thing was the development of the snow into the configuration that could allow for the avalanche.

This is the way things are in a heavily indebted financial system. At its end, it is unstable, and at its initial unwinding the proximate cause of trouble seems incapable of doing much harm. But to give you another analogy ask yourself this: what is more amazing, the kid who knocks over the first domino, or the team of people spending all day lining up the huge field of dominoes? It is the latter, and so it is amazing to watch large groups of people engaging in synchronized speculation not realizing that they are heading for a significant disaster.

As for today, I don’t see the same debt buildup has we had growing from 2003 to 2007. The exceptions maybe student loans, parts of the energy sector, parts of the financial sector, and governments. That doesn’t mean that there is a debt crisis forming, but it does mean we should keep our eyes open.