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from Rolfe Winkler:

Lunchtime Links 12-27

How overhauling derivatives died (Smith/Lynch, WSJ)

Debt ceiling raised $290 billion (Rogers, Politico) Another Xmas Eve vote. Dems had wanted to raise the ceiling at least $1.8 trillion to avoid having to raise it again before midterm elections, but they didn't have the votes. Congress has bought itself about 4-6 weeks of breathing room. Senate Repubs made a showing of not voting for the measure, but had they been in the majority, you can bet they'd have done the same to avert default.

At tiny rates, saving money costs investors (Strom, NYT) "Duh" is the obvious response to this piece. Savers have been getting hammered ever since the Fed started dropping rates two years ago. Yet it's well written and important to see in the paper of record. It makes the point that low rates are forcing many folks to chase risk. Low nominal rates would be fine IF the Fed were allowing the economy to delever/deflate as it clearly needs to. If the cost of goods/services is falling, then rates can be zero and savers still come out ahead. But the CPI has stayed positive, so savers lose. Of course punishing savers is precisely what economists like Paul "paradox-of-thrift" Krugman and Greg "confiscate-cash" Mankiw say is needed for the economy to recover. Krugman wants to steal savings via shock-and-awe deficit spending, i.e. future taxation. Mankiw would literally confiscate a portion of unspent savings.

Good news alert: Hunting trash for cash (Hudak, Orlando Sentinel) The recession is causing us to produce less trash. This is problematic for Covanta, which burns trash to create energy. But it's great for the environment.

Investors see farms as way to grow Detroit (Huffstutter, LA Times) Urban renewal...

from Rolfe Winkler:

Legislation coming to break up big banks?

In a note to clients yesterday, Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets wrote:

We are hearing that discussion of breaking up large financial institutions that pose systemic risk to the market is gaining traction on the Hill. At this point, discussions are in the early stages, but we understand that an amendment addressing breaking up institutions deemed "too big to fail" could be introduced in the House over the next few days. How does one define "too big to fail" and how would the divestiture process work - these are good questions that Congress will have to address as the discussion moves forward. To our understanding, any amendment that could be introduced in the coming week would likely be vague and would give the regulators discretion to determine which institutions qualify as "too big" and how to address the risk they pose to the system.

[UPDATE: It appears this legislation may be coming from PA's Paul Kanjorski]

Hmmm. A "vague" amendment directing regulators to look into breaking up TBTF banks might not lead to much, not when regulators have made clear they have no interest in breaking up big banks.

Nothing says recovery like par

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It’s not there yet, but the derivatives index that references leveraged loans – the debt of choice for big corporate buyouts during the boom – is just a few cents away from par.

The new, cleaner Markit LCDX index that launched earlier this month is already at 98 1/2 cents, while the older series 10 that included such bad boys as bankrupt General Growth Properties, is trading a little over 97 cents. Astonishing really, considering the series 10 tanked to below 80 cents last year.

Derivatives moolah

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The nation’s top commercial banks are poised to generate record revenue from trading derivatives this year. And that’s as good a reason as any why no one should expect the nation’s bank to go along peacefully with a plan to regulate the trading of these sophisticated instruments.

In the first half of the year, the 25 biggest commercial banks took in $15 billion from trading derivatives, with JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs being two of the biggest beneficiaries. And as things stand now, the nation’s banks will easily surpass the record $18.8 billion in derivatives trading revenue taken in during 2006.

Banking? Keep it simple stupid

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In 1873, Walter Bagehot wrote that “the business of banking ought to be simple; if it is hard it is wrong.” He would have struggled to recognize today’s banking system.

It is not just ever more ornate derivatives that bend the mind. Financial firms themselves have become fabulously complicated. Citigroup lists 2,061 subsidiaries and affiliates while the institutional chart of JPMorgan Chase is 267 pages long.

Squeeze is on for investment banks

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Peter Thal Larsen.jpgInvestment banks are facing a big squeeze. For an industry that was generating record revenues just months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, this may seem unlikely. But the revival looks set to be short-lived. Increased regulation and greater competition means the super-charged returns the industry generated for most of the past decade are likely to prove elusive.

Analysts at JPMorgan believe 2009 will prove to be the high point in the investment banks’ relentless upward march. They expect revenues in 2011 to be no higher than in 2006. More significantly, the industry’s return on equity will fall to 10.8 percent, far lower than what they have got used to.

Keeping Wall Street’s hands off the collateral

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The idea of prohibiting derivatives dealers from reusing and redeploying the trillions of dollars in collateral they’ve taken in from trading parnters is gathering steam.

Earlier this week, I advocated an outright ban on this Wall Street practice called rehypothecation. I noted that one of the flaws with the Obama administration’s plan for regulating derivatives is that it’s silent on the issue of whether derivatives dealers can continue to reuse the collateral they get as guarantees on trades anyway they see fit. 

The liquidity canard

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It’s often said on Wall Street that the more liquidity there is in a given market, the better things are for investors trading stocks, bonds or commodities. And while there’s a lot of truth to that, there are times when too much liquidity can be just the wrong tonic.

After all, Wall Street’s churning-out of one subprime-mortgage backed security after another pumped a lot of liquidity into the U.S. housing market, and that simply encouraged a lot of reckless — even fraudulent — lending.

Citadel’s big Lehman loss

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It’s long been suspected that Ken Griffin’s Citadel Investment Group took a big blow when Lehman Brothers went bust nearly a year ago. But Griffin and his management team have been reluctant to put a number on the damage to the Chicago-based fund.

That is, until now.

In a brief, one-page filing, Citadel claims it is owed some $470 million on a derivatives contract. The $12 billion hedge fund conglomerate offers no details about the derivatives deal in the proof of claim, submitted as part of the Lehman bankruptcy filing.

Wall Street’s $4 trillion kitty

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matthewgoldstein.jpgThe Obama administration’s plan for reining in derivatives leaves unchecked one of Wall Street’s dirty little secrets: the ability of a derivatives dealer to redeploy cash collateral that gets posted by one of its trading partners.

On Wall Street, this practice of taking collateral and reusing it is called rehypothecation. In essence, it’s a form of free money for derivatives dealers to use as they please — even to repost it as collateral to finance their parent company’s own borrowings.

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