Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley || At the Ice Museum, ALL of the assets are frozen!

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley || At the Ice Museum, ALL of the assets are frozen!

This article is another experiment. Please bear with me.

Q: What is an asset worth?

A: An asset is worth whatever the highest bidder will pay for it at the time you offer it for sale.

Q: Come on, the value of an asset must be more enduring than that.  You look at the balance sheets of corporations, and they don’t list their assets at sales prices.

A: That’s for a different purpose.  We can’t get the prices of all assets to trade frequently.  The economic world isn’t only about trading, it is about building objects, offering services… and really, it is about making people happier through service.  Because the assets don’t trade regularly, they are entered onto the balance sheet at:

  • Cost, which is sometimes adjusted for cost and other things that are time-related, and subject to writedowns.
  • The value of the asset at its most recent sale date before the date of the statement
  • An estimated value calculated from sales of assets like it, meant to reflect the likely markets at the time of the statement — what might the price be in a deal between and un-coerced buyer and seller?

Anyway, values in financial statements are only indicative of aspects of value.  Few investors use them in detail.  Even value investors who use the detailed balance sheet values in their investment decisions make extensive adjustments to them to try to make them more realistic.  Other value investors look at where the prices of similar companies that went private to try to estimate the value of public equities.

Certainly the same thing goes on with real estate.  Realtors and appraisers come up with values of comparable properties, and make adjustments to try to estimate the value of the property in question.  Much as realtors don’t like Zillow, it does the same thing just with a huge econometric model that factors in as much information as they have regarding the likely prices of residential real estate given the prices of the sparse number of sales that they have to work from.

Financial institutions regularly have to estimate values for variety of illiquid assets in a similar way.  I’ve even been known to help with those efforts on occasion, though management teams have not always been grateful for that.

Q: What if it’s a bad day when I offer my asset for sale?  Is my asset worth less simply because of transitory conditions?

A: Do you have to sell your asset that day or not?

Q: Why does that matter?

A: If you don’t need the money immediately, you could wait.  You also don’t have to auction the asset if you think that hiring an expert come in and talk with a variety of motivated buyers could result in a better price after commissions.  There are no guarantees of a better result there though.

The same problem exists on the stock market.  If you want the the money now, issue a market order to sell the security, and you will get something close to the best price at that moment.  That said, I never use market orders.

Q: Why don’t you use market orders?

A: I don’t want to be left at the mercy of those trading rapidly in the markets.  I would rather set out a price that I think someone will transact at, and adjust it if need be.  Nothing is guaranteed — a trade might not get done.  But I won’t get caught in a “flash crash” type of scenario, or most other types of minor market manipulation.

Patience is a virtue in buying and selling, as is the option of walking away.  If you seem to be a forced seller, buyers will lower their bids if you seem to be desperate.  You may not notice this in liquid stocks, but in illiquid stocks and other illiquid assets, this is definitely a factor.


That’s all for now.  If anyone has any ideas on if, where, or how I should continue this piece, let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail.  Thanks for reading.



This is a story of triumph and tragedy.  Jesse Livermore is notable as one of the few people who ever made it into the richest tiers of society by speculating — by trading stocks and commodities — betting on price movements.

This is three stories in one.  Story one is the clever trader with an intuitive knack who learned to adapt when conditions changed, until the day came when it got too hard.  Story two is the man who lacked financial risk control, and took big chances, a few of which worked out spectacularly, and a few of ruined him financially.  Story three is how too much success, if not properly handled, can ruin a man, with lust, greed and pride leading to his death.

The author spends most of his time on story one, next most on story two, then the least on story three.  The three stories flow naturally from the narrative that is largely chronological.  By the end of the book, you see Jesse Livermore — a guy who did amazing things, but ultimately failed in money and life.

Let me briefly summarize those three aspects of his life so that you can get a feel for what you will run into in the book:

The Clever Trader

Jesse Livermore came to the stock market in Boston at age 14, and was a very quick study.  He showed intuition on market affairs that impressed the most of the older men who came to trade at the brokerage where he worked.  It wasn’t too long before he wanted to invest for himself, but he didn’t have enough money to open a brokerage account, so he went to a bucket shop.  Bucket shops were gambling parlors where small players gambled on stock prices.  He showed a knack for the game and made a lot of money.  Like someone who beats the casinos in Vegas, the proprietors forced him to leave.

He then had more than enough money to meet his current needs, and set up a brokerage account.  But the stock market did not behave like a bucket shop, and so he lost money while he learned to adapt.  Eventually, he succeeded at speculating on both stocks and commodities, leading to his greatest successes in being short the stock market prior to the panic of 1907, and the crash in 1929.  During the 1920s, he started his own firm to try to institutionalize his gifts, and it worked for much of the era.

After the crash in 1929, the creation of the SEC and all the associated laws and regulations made speculating a lot more difficult, to the point where he could not make significant money speculating anymore.

The Poor Financial Risk Manager

Amid the successes, he tended to aim for greater wins after his largest successes, which led to him losing much of what he had previously made.  One time he was cheated out of much of what he had while trading cotton.

Amid all of that, he was well-liked by most he interacted with in a business context.  Even after great losses, many wanted him to succeed again, and so they bankrolled him after failure.  Before the Great Depression, he did not disappoint them — he succeeded in speculation and came roaring back, repaying all of his past debts with interest.

In one sense, it was live by the big speculation, and die by the big speculation.  When you play with so much borrowed money, it’s hard for results to not be volatile.

A Rock Star of His Era

When he won big, he lived big.  Compared to many wealthy people of his era, he let spending expand far more than many who had  more reliable sources of income.  Where did the money go?  Yachts, homes, staff, wives, women, women, women…  Aside from the last of his three wives, his marriages were troubled.

His last wife was a nice woman who was independently wealthy, and after Livermore lost it all in the mid-’30s, he increasingly relied on her to stay afloat.  When he could no longer be the hero who could win a good living out of the market via speculation, his deflated pride led him to commit suicide in 1940.

A Sad Book Amid Amazing Successes

Sadly, his son and grandson who shared his name committed suicide in 1975 and 2006, respectively.  On the whole, the story of Jesse Livermore’s life and legacy is a sad one.  It should disabuse people of the notion that wealth brings happiness.  If anything, it teaches that money that comes too easily tends to get lost easily also.

The author does a good job weaving the strands of his life into a consistent whole.  The book is well-written, and probably the best book out there on the life of the famous speculator that so many present speculators admire.  A side benefit is that in passing, you will learn a lot about the development of the markets during a time when they were less regulated.  (The volatility of markets was obvious then.  It not obvious now, which is why people get surprised by it when it explodes.)



Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

This is a comprehensive book that explains the life and times of Jesse Livermore, one of the greatest speculators in history.  It will teach you history, but it won’t teach you how to speculate.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Jesse Livermore – Boy Plunger: The Man Who Sold America Short in 1929.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from a kind PR flack.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

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.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence.  I’ve been a bond manager, with a large, complex (and illiquid) portfolio, and I have been a selector of managers.  Thus the current squabble between Jeffrey Gundlach and Morningstar isn’t too surprising to me, and genuinely, I could side with either one.

Let me take Gundlach’s side first.  If you are a bond manager, you have to be fairly bright.  You need to understand the understand the compound interest math, and also how to interpret complex securities that come in far more flavors than common stocks.  This is particularly true today when many top managers are throwing a lot of derivative instruments into their portfolios, whether to earn returns, or shed risks.  Aspects of the lending markets that used to be the sole province of the banks and other lenders are now available for bond managers to buy in a securitized form.  Go ahead, take a look at any of the annual reports from Pimco or DoubleLine and get a sense of the complexity involved in running these funds.  It’s pretty astounding.

So when the fund analyst comes along, whether for a buy-side firm, an institutional fund analyst, or retail fund analyst who does more than just a little number crunching, you realize that the fund analyst likely knows less about what you do than one of your junior analysts.

One of the issues that Morningstar had  was with DoubleLine’s holdings of nonagency residential mortgage-backed securities [NRMBS].  These securities lost a lot of value 2007-2009 during the financial crisis.  Let me describe what it was like in a chronological list:

  1. 2003 and prior: NRMBS is a small part of the overall mortgage bond market, with relatively few players willing to take credit risk instead of buying mortgage bonds guaranteed by Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie.  Much of the paper is in the hands of specialists and some life insurance companies.
  2. 2004-2006 as more subprime lending goes on amid a boom in housing prices, credit quality standards fall and life insurance buyers slowly stop purchasing the securities.  A new yield-hungry group of buyers take their place, with not much focus on what could go wrong.
  3. Parallel to this, a market in credit derivatives grows up around the NRMBS market with more notional exposure than the underlying market.  Two sets of players: yield hogs that need to squeeze more income out of their portfolios, and hedge funds seeing the opportunity for a big score when the housing bubble pops.  At last, a way to short housing!
  4. 2007: Pre-crisis, the market for NRMBS starts to sag, but nothing much happens.  A few originators get into trouble, and a bit of risk differentiation comes into a previously complacent market.
  5. 2008-2009: the crisis hits, and it is a melee.  Defaults spike, credit metrics deteriorate, and housing prices fall.  Many parties sell their bonds merely to get rid of the taint in their portfolios.  The credit derivatives exacerbate a bad situation.  Prices on many NRMBS fall way below rational levels, because there are few traditional buyers willing to hold them.  The regulators of financial companies and rating agencies are watching mortgage default risk carefully, so most regulated financial companies can’t hold the securities without a lot of fuss.
  6. 2010+ Nontraditional buyers like flexible hedge funds develop expertise and buy the NRMBS, as do some flexible bond managers who have the expertise in staff skilled in analyzing the creditworthiness of bunches of securitized mortgages.

Now, after a disaster in a section of the bond market, the recovery follows a pattern like triage.  Bonds get sorted into three buckets: those likely to yield a positive return on current prices, those likely to yield a negative return on current prices, and those where you can’t tell.  As time goes along, the last two buckets shrink.  Market players revise prices down for the second bucket, and securities in the third bucket typically join one of the other two buckets.

Typically, though, lightning doesn’t strike twice.  You don’t get another crisis event that causes that class of securities to become disordered again, at least, not for a while.  We’re always fighting the last war, so if credit deterioration is happening, it is in a new place.

And thus the problem in talking to the fund analyst.  The securities were highly risky at one point, so aren’t they risky now?  You would like to say, “No such thing as a bad asset, only a bad price,” but the answer might sound too facile.

Only a few managers devoted the time and effort to analyzing these securities after the crisis.  As such, the story doesn’t travel so well.  Gundlach already has a lot of money to manage, and more money is flowing in, so he doesn’t have to care whether Morningstar truly understands what DoubleLine does or not.  He can be happy with a slower pace of asset growth, and the lack of accolades which might otherwise go to him…

But, one of the signs of being truly an expert is being able to explain it to lesser mortals.  It’s like this story of the famous physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

Like it or not, the Morningstar folks have a job to do, and they will do it whether DoubleLine cooperates or not.  As in other situations in the business world, you have a choice.  You could task smart subordinates to spend adequate time teaching the Morningstar analyst your thought processes, or, live with the results of someone who fundamentally does not understand what you do.  (This applies to bosses as well.)

In the end, this may not matter to DoubleLine.  They have enough assets to manage, and then some.  But in the end, this could matter to Morningstar.  It says a lot if you can’t analyze one of the best funds out there.  That would mean you really don’t understand well the fixed income business as it is presently configured.  As such, I would say that it is incumbent on Morningstar to take the initiative, apologize to DoubleLine, and try to re-establish good communications.  If they don’t, the loss is Morningstar’s, and that of their subscribers.

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.


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: Matthias Ripp

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp || Some bad ideas should be locked away…

Dan Primack of Fortune wrote in his daily email:

Saving unicorns from themselves? There was an interesting piece last week from Martin Peers in The Information (sub req), arguing that the private markets need some sort of shorting mechanism so that there is a check on unreasonable valuation inflation. It would make the market more efficient, Peers argues, even though implementation would require several structural changes (particularly to stock transfer rules). He writes:

“Private companies will probably resist the development of a short-selling market, given it would hurt valuations, which in turn can undermine the value of employee option programs, and give them less control over their shareholder group. But those risks are likely to be outweighed by the long term benefits of bringing more buyers into the market and ensuring the company’s valuation can be sustained outside of the constraints of the private market.”

Leaving out the technical difficulties — including the lack of ongoing price discovery — one big counter could be that shorts didn’t so much to stop the earlier dotcom bubble (which largely took place in the public markets).

Adam D’Augelli of True Ventures pointed me to a 2002 academic paper (Princeton/London Biz School) that found “hedge funds during the time of the technology bubble on the Nasdaq… were heavily tilted towards overpriced technology stocks.” They add that “arbitrageurs are concerned about attacking the bubble too early without support from their peers,” and that they’re more likely to ride the bubble until just a few months before the end.

That would seem to be too late to impose price discipline in private markets, but I’m curious in your thoughts. Does some sort of private shorting system make sense? And, if so, how would it be structured?

I’m going to take a stab at answering the final questions.  There is often a reason why the financial world is set up the way it is, and why truly helpful financial innovations are rare.  The answer is “no, we should not have any way of shorting private companies, and it is not a flaw in the system that we don’t have any easy way to do it.”

Two notes before I start: 1) I haven’t read the paper at The Information, because it is behind a paywall, but I don’t think I need to do so.  I think the answer is obvious.  2) I ran into this question answered at Quora.  The answers are pretty good in aggregate, but what exists here are my own thoughts to present the answer in what I hope is a simple manner.

What is required to have an effective means of shorting assets

  1. An asset must be capable of being easily transferred from one entity to another.
  2. Entities willing to lend the asset in exchange for some compensation over a given lending term.
  3. Entities willing to borrow the asset, put up collateral adequate to secure the asset, and then sell the asset to another entity.
  4. An entity or entities to oversee the transaction, provide custody of the collateral, transmit payments, assure return of the asset at the end of the lending term, and gauge the adequacy of collateral relative to the value of the asset.

Here’s the best diagram I saw on the internet to help describe it (credit to this Latvian website):

short selling

I’m leaving aside the concept of naked shorting, because there are a lot of bad implications to allowing a third party to create ownership interests in a firm, a power which is reserved for the firm itself.

The Troubles Associated with Shorting Private Assets

I can think of four troubles.  Here they are:

  1. The ability to sell, lend, or buy shares in a private company are limited by the private company.
  2. Lending over long terms with no continuous price mechanism to aid in the gradual adjustment of collateral could lead to losses for the lender if the borrower can’t put up additional capital.
  3. The asset lender can decide only to lend over lending terms that will likely be disadvantageous to the borrower.  Getting the asset returned at the end of the lending term could be problematic.
  4. It is difficult enough shorting relatively illiquid publicly traded assets.  Liquidity is required for any regular shorting to happen.

The first one is the killer.  There are no advantages to a private company to allow for the mechanisms needed to allow for shorting. That is one of the advantages of being private.  Information is not shared openly, and you can use the secrecy to aid your competitive edge.  Skeptical short-sellers would not be welcome.

The second problem is tough, because sometimes successive capital rounds are at considerably higher prices.  The borrower will likely not have enough slack assets to increase his collateral, and he will be forced to buy shares in the round to cover his short because of that.  The lender could find that the borrower cannot make good on the loan, and so the lender loses a portion of the value his ownership stake.

But imagining the first two problems away, problem three would still be significant.  If the term for lending were not all the way to the IPO, next capital round or dissolution/sale, at the end of the term, the borrower would have to look for someone to sell shares to him.  It is quite possible that no one would sell them at any reasonable price.  They know they have a forced buyer on their hands, and there could be informal collusion on the price of a sale.

Perhaps another way to put it is don’t play in a game where the other team has significant control over the rules of the game.  One of the reasons I say this is from my days of a bond manager.  There were a lot of games played in securities lending, and bonds are not the most liquid place to short assets.  I remember it being very difficult to get a bond back from an entity that borrowed it, and the custodian and trustee did not help much.  I also remember how we used to gauge the liquidity of bonds we lent out, and if one was particularly illiquid, we would always recall the bond before selling it, which would often make the price of the bond rise.  Games, games, games…

What Might Be Better

Perhaps using collateralized options or another type of derivative could allow bets to be taken, if the term extended all the way to the IPO, the next capital round, or dissolution/sale of the company.  The options would have to be limited to the posted collateral being the most the seller of the option could lose.  Some of the above four issues would still be in play at various points, but aside from issue one, this would minimize the troubles.

What Might Be Better Still

The value of the shorts is that they share information with the rest of the market that there is a bearish opinion on an asset.  Short-sellers are nice to have around, but not necessary for the asset pricing function.  It is not unreasonable to live with the problem that some assets will be overvalued in the intermediate-term, rather than set up a complex method to try to enable shorting.  As Ben Graham said:

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

The weighing machine will do its job soon enough, showing that the overvalued asset will never produce free cash adequate to justify its current high price.  Is it a trouble to wait for that to happen?  If you don’t own it, you shouldn’t care much.

If you want to short it, I’m not sure that will hasten the price adjustment process that much, unless you can convince the existing owners of the asset that it isn’t worth even the current price.  Given that buyers have convinced themselves to own the asset, because they think it will be worth more in the future, intellectually, convincing them that it is worth less is a tough sell.

In the end, only asset and liability cash flows count, regardless of what secondary buyers and sellers do.  Secondary trading does not affect the value of assets, though it may affect the perception of value in the short run.  Thus, you don’t need short sellers to aid in setting secondary market prices, but they are an aid there.  In the primary markets, where whole companies are bought and sold, the perceived cash return is all that matters.


Ergo, live with short run overvaluation in private markets.  It is a high quality problem.  Sell overvalued assets if you own them.  Watch if you don’t own them.  Shorting, even if possible, is not worth the bother.

Media Credit: Bloomberg

Media Credit: Bloomberg

I get fascinated at how we never learn. Well, “never” is a little too strong because the following article from Bloomberg, Meet the 80-Year-Old Whiz Kid Reinventing the Corporate Bond had its share of skeptics, each of which had it right.

The basic idea is this: issue a corporate bond and then package it with a credit default swap [CDS] for the same corporate bond, with the swap cleared through a clearinghouse, which should have a AAA claims-paying ability.  Voila! You have created a AAA corporate bond.

Or have you?  Remember that bond X guaranteed by Y has many similarities to bond Y guaranteed by X, because both have to fail for there to be a default.  I used to help manage portfolios that had many different types of AAA bonds in them.  Some were natively AAA as governments, quasi-governments (really, Government Sponsored Enterprises) like Fannie and Freddie, or corporations.  Some were created by insurance guarantees from MBIA, Ambac, FGIC, or FSA.  Others were created via subordination, where the AAA portion took the losses only if they were greater than a highly stressed level.  Lesser lenders absorbed lesser losses in exchange for the ability to get a much greater yield if there was no default.

There is a lot of demand for AAA bonds if they have a high enough yield spread over Treasuries.  The amount of spread varies based on the structure, but greater complexity and greater credit risk tend to raise the spread needed.  Here are some simple examples: At one time, you could buy GE parent corporate bonds rated AAA, or GE Capital corporate bonds with an identical rating, but no guarantee from GE parent.  The GE Capital bonds always traded with more yield, even though the rating was identical.  AIG had a AAA credit rating, but its bonds frequently traded cheap to other AAA bonds because of the opacity of the financials of the firm (and among some bond managers, a growing sense that AIG had too much debt).

So how would one get a decent yield spread under this setup?  The CDS will have to require less spread to insure than the spread over Treasuries priced into the corporate bond.

How will that happen? Where does the willingness to accept the credit risk at a lower spread come from?  Note that the article doesn’t answer that question.  I will take a stab at an answer.  You could get a number of hedge funds trying to make money off of leveraging CDS for income, the excess demand forcing the CDS spread below that implied by the corporate bond.  Or, you could get a bid from synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligations [CDOs] demanding a lot of CDS for income.  I can’t think of too many other ways this could happen.

In either case, the CDS clearinghouse is dealing with weak counterparties in an event of default.  Portfolio margining should be capable of dealing with small negative scenarios like isolated defaults.  Where problems arise is when a lot of default and near defaults happen at once.  The article tells us what happens then:

ICE requires sellers of swaps to backstop their contracts with various margin accounts. If the seller fails to pay off, then ICE can tap a “waterfall” of margin funds to make the investor whole. In the event of a market crash, it can call on clearing members such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs to pool their resources and fulfill swap contracts.

There’s still a danger that the banks themselves may be unable to muster cash in a crisis. But this shared responsibility marks a sea change from the bad old days when investors gambled their counterparties would make good on their contracts.

That shared responsibility is cold comfort.  Investment banks tend to be thinly capitalized, and even more so past the peak of a credit boom, when events like this happen.  Hello again, too big to fail.  Clearinghouses are not magic — they can fail also, and when they do, the negative effects will be huge.

Two more quotes from the article by those that “get it,” to reinforce my points:

The bond is a simple instrument with a debtor and creditor that’s proven its utility for centuries. The eBond inserts a third party into the transaction — the seller of the swap embedded in the security who now bears its credit risk.

Such machinations may be designed with good intentions, but they just further convolute the marketplace, says Turbeville, a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

“Why are we doing this? Is our society better off as a result of this innovation?” he asks. “You can’t destroy risk; you just move it around. I would argue that we have to reduce complexity and face the fact that it’s actually good for institutions to experience risks.”


“The way we make money for our clients is by assessing risk and generating risk-adjusted returns, and if you have a security that hedges that risk premium away, then why is it compelling? I would just buy Treasuries,” says Bonnie Baha, the head of global developed credit at DoubleLine Capital, a Los Angeles firm that manages about $56 billion in fixed-income assets. “This product sounds like a great idea in theory, but in practice it may be a solution in search of a problem.”

And, of course, fusing a security as straightforward as a bond with the notorious credit-default swap does ring a lot of alarms, says Phil Angelides, former chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to conduct a postmortem on the causes of the subprime mortgage disaster. In September 2008, American International Group Inc. didn’t have the money to back the swaps it had sold guaranteeing billions of dollars’ worth of mortgage-backed securities. To prevent AIG’s failure from cascading through the global financial system, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department executed a $182 billion bailout of the insurer.

“When you look at this corporate eBond, it’s strikingly similar to what was done with mortgages,” says Angelides, a Democrat who was California state treasurer from 1999 to 2007. “Credit-default swaps were embedded in mortgage-backed securities with the idea that they’d be made safe. But the risk wasn’t insured; it was just shifted somewhere else.”

The article rambles at times, touching on unrelated issues like index funds, capital structure arbitrage, and alternative liquidity structures for bonds.  On its main point the article leave behind more questions than answers, and the two big ones are:

  • Should a sufficient number of these bonds get issued, what will happen in a very large credit crisis?
  • How will these bonds get issued?  When spreads are tight, no one will want to do these because of the cost of complexity.  When spreads are wide, who will have the capital to offer protection on CDS in exchange for income?

I’m not a fan of financial complexity.  Usually something goes wrong that the originators never imagined.  I may not have thought of what will go wrong here, but I’ve given you several avenues where this idea may go, so that you can avoid losing.

Photo Credit: Chris Piascik

Photo Credit: Chris Piascik

Most formal statements on financial risk are useless to their users. Why?

  • They are written in a language that average people and many regulators don’t speak.
  • They often don’t define what they are trying to avoid in any significant way.
  • They don’t give the time horizon(s) associated with their assessments.
  • They don’t consider the second-order behavior of parties that are managing assets in areas related to their areas.
  • They don’t consider whether history might be a poor guide for their estimates.
  • They don’t consider the conflicting interests and incentives of the parties that direct the asset managers, and how their own institutional risks affect their willingness to manage the risks that other parties deem important.
  • They are sometimes based off of a regulatory view of what can/must be stated, rather than an economic view of what should be stated.
  • Occasionally, approximations are used where better calculations could be used.  It’s amazing how long some calculations designed for the pencil and paper age hang on when we have computers.
  • Also, material contract provisions that are hard to model/explain often get ignored, or get some brief mention in a footnote (or its equivalent).
  • Where complex math is used, there is no simple language to explain the economic sense of it.
  • They are unwilling to consider how volatile financial processes are, believing that the Great Depression, the German Hyperinflation, or something as severe, could never happen again.

(An aside to readers; this was supposed to be a “little piece” when I started, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it would have to be more comprehensive.)

Let me start with a brief story.  I used to work as an officer of the Pension Division of Provident Mutual, which was the only place I ever worked where analysis of risks came first, and was core to everything else that we did.  The mathematical modeling that I did in there was some of the best in the industry for that era, and my models helped keep us out of trouble that many other firms fell into.  It shaped my view of how to manage a financial business to minimize risks first, and then make money.

But what made us proudest of our efforts was a 40-page document written in plain English that ran through the risks that we faced as a division of our company, and how we dealt with them.  The initial target audience was regulators analyzing the solvency of Provident Mutual, but we used it to demonstrate the quality of what we were doing to clients, wholesalers, internal auditors, rating agencies, credit analysts, and related parties inside Provident Mutual.  You can’t believe how many people came to us saying, “I get it.”  Regulators came to us, saying: “We’ve read hundreds of these; this is the first one that was easy to understand.”

The 40-pager was the brainchild of my boss, who was the most intuitive actuary that I have ever known.  Me? I was maybe the third lead investment risk modeler he had employed, and I learned more than I probably improved matters.

What we did was required by law, but the way we did it, and how we used it was not.  It combined the best of both rules and principles, going well beyond the minimum of what was required.  Rather than considering risk control to be something we did at the end to finagle credit analysts, regulators, etc., we took the economic core of the idea and made it the way we did business.

What I am saying in this piece is that the same ideas should be more actively and fully applied to:

  • Investment prospectuses and reports, and all investment and insurance marketing literature
  • Solvency documents provided to regulators, credit raters, and the general public by banks, insurers, derivative counterparties, etc.
  • Risk disclosures by financial companies, and perhaps non-financials as well, to the degree that financial markets affect their real results.
  • The reports that sell-side analysts write
  • The analyses that those that provide asset allocation advice put out
  • Consumer lending documents, in order to warn people what can happen to them if they aren’t careful
  • Private pension and employee benefit plans, and their evil twins that governments create.

Looks like this will be a mini-series at Aleph Blog, so stay tuned for part two, where I will begin going through what needs to be corrected, and then how it needs to be applied.

Photo Credit: S@Z

Photo Credit: S@Z

I’ve been busier than ever of late — not much time to blog. Thus, a few notes:

1) Often the rate of change in a price can tell you something, particularly if the good in question is widely traded/held by a wide number of parties with different interests.  In this case, I am talking about crude oil prices, and the related set of prices that are cousins.

Overall demand for crude hasn’t shifted, and neither has supply.  Yes, there has been some buildup of inventories, and some key global players refuse to cut production in response to lower prices.  But the sharpness of the price move feels more like some large player(s) who were relying on a higher oil price finally hit their “stop loss” point, and their risk control desk is closing out the trade.

I could be wrong here, but paper barrels of oil trade more rapidly than physical shifts in net demand, and risk control and margin desks will force moves that are non-economic.  Wait.  Surviving is economic, even at the cost of forgoing potential profits.

We’ll see how this shakes out over the next few months.  There’s a lot of pain for pure play producers, and those that aid them.  I particularly wonder at governments that rely on crude exports to support their budgets… they may not cut, but what will they do, if they don’t have reserves?  Cuts will have to come from economic players initially.  It make take a revolt to affect non-economic governmental entities.

All that said, sharp price moves tend to mean-revert, slow moves tend to persist, so be wary of too much bearishness here.

2) An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal was entitled Bond Funds Load Up on Cash.  This qualifies for the “Dog Bites Man” award, as it puts forth the conventional wisdom that interest rates must rise soon.

That drum has been banged so frequently that it is wearing out.  We’re not seeing the pickup in lending necessary to convince us that the economy needs higher real interest rates so that more savings would be available to be lent out.

Also, some managers may be running a barbell, holding more cash and long debt, and not so many intermediate securities.  This would be logical, because a barbelled portfolio does better in volatile markets — it’s ready for inflation and deflation, while giving up yield should times remain stable.

All for now.  Maybe when my busy time is done, I’ll write about it.


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