This is getting a bit surreal: both Clusterstock and Dealbreaker are now phoning up Charlie Gasparino asking for his reaction to my tweets. It’s clearly time for me to go on holiday. So I’m off to Spain, back November 4. If you don’t expect any blogging between now and then, you won’t be disappointed.
The Fed’s pay proposals are out: a whole lot of nothing? — Federal Reserve
What happens when you pay traders too much: their performance drops off. — Reuters
The Center for Plain Language 2009 symposium is next week. Shame I can’t make it, I’d love to go. — CPL
NYC can buy Battery Park City for $1. Seems like a good idea to me. — NYT
The length of time the average unemployed person has been without a job has been hitting new record highs for a while; it’s now managed to pass the 6-month mark. That’s much higher than any previous peak in this data series. And I fear that the only way it’s likely to come down any time soon is as these people become so demoralized that they take themselves out of the labor force altogether.
The overwhelming majority of the working population will never be able to prepare themselves for a period of unemployment lasting more than six months. As financial-market types worry about possible inflation in a few years’ time, tens of millions of Americans are finding themselves in a very real personal financial crisis to which there is no visible solution. Given the Fed’s dual mandate, it makes sense to keep interest rates low for the foreseeable future. Inflation is possible; unemployment is catastrophically real.
The Pragmatic Capitalist gets his hands on Galleon’s monthly returns, and finds them very suspicious:
These guys just couldn’t lose. Whether the market was up or down they cranked out 25% returns like they were printing money. It makes you wonder just how long these guys were trading on insider information?
I have run the risk adjusted returns on hundreds if not thousands of portfolios throughout my career and I have never seen numbers like these. NEVER. There is virtually ZERO downside volatility in these figures… Gauging from the returns I would be willing to bet the insider trading was going on for most of Galleon’s existence and was likely much more rampant than currently reported.
I’m not completely convinced, for two reasons. Firstly, Galleon’s returns were pretty volatile: the fund was up 14.53% in May 1997, for instance, and then down 8.54% five months later, in October of the same year. That doesn’t seem abnormally consistent to me.
More generally, if you want returns which rarely turn negative, insider trading is not your strategy. Madoff-style outright fraud works, of course: you just report fictional returns instead of real ones. But Galleon isn’t being accused of making up its returns: it has the money it says it has. It just (allegedly) used illegal means to amass it.
A sophisticated insider trader isn’t trying very hard not to lose money. Quite the opposite, in fact: he’s putting a lot of money at risk, and knows there’s a significant downside. He just also knows that he’s got an informational edge which gives him an advantage over the rest of the market. Such advantages don’t always pay out, and as a result you’d expect an insider-trading strategy to show relatively frequent negative returns. Even if, over the long term, it was very successful.
Richard Painter, who drafted and approved the ethics agreement signed by Hank Paulson when he became treasury secretary, has come to the conclusion that such agreements can never really work as intended:
This essay concludes that government ethics law in its current state is not up to the task and that the United States is not prepared to implement bailouts in a manner that will instill public confidence. Although these problems could be alleviated through stricter ethics rules or a more systematized approach to bailouts, most solutions would be more costly than the problems they attempt to solve. Bailouts thus impose a substantial burden on government ethics that may be impossible to remove, in addition to the economic cost bailouts impose on taxpayers. Designing a bailout free economy may be the only acceptable alternative.
Painter’s essay is excellent, and highly recommended, precisely because he offers no solutions to what is an intractable problem. Here’s a little bit:
Requiring Treasury officials coming in from Goldman Sachs or other investment banks to dump their bank stock and stock options may not have been enough when they retain close ties to their former employers. There were also probably too many senior Treasury Department officials from Goldman; perhaps there were too many from the banking industry in general.
This is very true. The saga of the government’s response to the financial crisis is one where all the key decisions are made by bankers, be they of the commercial, investment, or central variety. In a parliamentary system like the UK’s, the finance minister is an elected representative of the people. Of course, as we’ve seen in the UK, that doesn’t necessarily make bank bailouts any more taxpayer-friendly. But at least it serves as some kind of check on the banking industry bailing itself out whenever it gets into trouble.
The impression I get from the current spate of crisis books is that the likes of Paulson and Geithner became entirely consumed with the problems in the financial sector, and viewed political considerations, and the will of the people more generally, as an obstacle to be overcome rather than as any kind of guiding light. That may or may not have been a good thing. But either way, it’s fundamentally undemocratic.
The reaction to the news that John Meriwether is setting up a third hedge fund has been entirely predictable, especially when Sam Jones’s story deadpans that “the fund is expected use the same strategy as both LTCM and JWM to make money”. (Meriwether’s first two funds, of course, were spectacular failures.)
But really this isn’t a third hedge fund at all, it’s just a reincarnation of the second one, minus the high-water mark. Kid Dynamite explains:
JWM Partners closed last year after losing 44% amidst the market turmoil of 2008. Hedge funds typically have “high water marks” which means that investors don’t pay performance fees to the fund manager in subsequent years unless the fund surpasses its highest point. Thus, the solution for fund managers whenever they have a bad year is to liquidate, wait a bit, and form a new fund?!?! Anyone who was invested in the old fund and the new fund thus pays fees twice: you paid when JWM Partners reached its high water mark, and now you’ll pay again if/when Meriweather Cubed (not the real name) manages to make money – the same money JWM Partners effectively lost after reaching its high water mark.
This is great for John Meriwether, of course. And perhaps, in an attempt to goose his AUM, he might even give investors in JWM a break on his fees. Mostly, however, it’s just an indication of the same delusion that we’re seeing in the leveraged-loan market: the idea that the status quo ante was “normal”, and that now we’ve rebounded back to something very similar. After all, if the financial crisis was a once-in-a-century event, we won’t see another for 99 years, right?
You’ve got to give this to Meriwether, though: the guy’s clearly a spectacularly good salesman. That’s a key attribute of hedge fund managers which they tend not to talk about: after all, they love to give the impression that people are giving them billions of dollars just because of their unsurpassed investment prowess. The truth is clearly very different.
For a while now, hedge funds have been creating share classes denominated in gold. By far the biggest fish in this pool is John Paulson, and as a result he’s been buying gold, literally, by the ton. (With gold at $1,050 an ounce, and 29,167 ounces per ton, Paulson’s $4.3 billion gold investment would buy him 140 tons of gold.)
I’m a little unclear on how these share classes work, but it seems similar to a portable-alpha strategy. The problem with gold is that while it fluctuates in value, it doesn’t generate any kind of returns unless and until you sell it. But with these share classes you get to have your cake and eat it: you’re essentially parking your money in gold, while at the same time investing it in obscure and wonderful trading and investment strategies across all manner of other asset classes.
Hillel Aron has a friend who was just at breakfast with John Paulson, being sold on investing in his funds:
His conclusion – not a shocker here – there will be a rush into Gold. Paulson personally has all his own assets in Gold and his funds own 5 different Gold Mining Stocks. By the way, Paulson notes, of the 200 Trillion dollars of investible assets in the world, only 800 Billion of that is Gold.
This means, I think, that Paulson’s own investments in his funds are all in the gold-denominated share classes. And I can see how a multi-billionaire would do something like that: when you have that much money, the only things which can wipe you out are hyperinflation or outright confiscation. Gold is a good way of protecting yourself from both eventualities.
For people with less dynastic amounts of money, however, I’m less keen on the gold-denominated share classes. For one thing, there are substantial hedge-management costs involved. But more to the point, if the price of gold falls, then you can end up in the very painful position where your investment loses money in dollar terms and you still have to pay a large 20% performance fee, since it could still have done well in gold terms. Ouch.
Bloomberg’s Michael Moore has lots of detail today on the treatment of mortgage servicing rights in banks’ earnings reports. No, wait, it’s actually interesting! Especially when you look at the numbers involved.
Wells Fargo is the poster child here: it wrote down its mortgage servicing rights by a whopping $2.1 billion last quarter, but it actually made a profit of $1.5 billion on them, since the value of its hedges on those rights soared by $3.6 billion. At the end of the quarter, it valued its rights at $14.5 billion.
Moore tries to explain what’s going on here, but something smells fishy:
The value of the rights depends largely on the expected life of the mortgage, which ends when a borrower pays off the loan, refinances or defaults. When rates drop and more borrowers refinance, MSR values decline. Banks typically hedge the movements using interest-rate swaps and other derivatives…
Because there’s no active trading in the contracts, there are no reliable prices to gauge whether banks are valuing the rights accurately, analysts said.
Here’s the first thing which puzzles me: in the third quarter, mortgage rates fell by 0.26 percentage points. How could such a relatively modest decline in rates result in a plunge of $2.1 billion — more than 12.5% — in the value of a $16.6 billion portfolio? And what kind of hedges result in a $3.6 billion profit when rates decline by 26bp?
Over at JP Morgan, the numbers are a little more modest, although Jamie Dimon’s shop, too, contrived to make a profit on its hedges: the portfolio declined in value by $1.1 billion, or 7.5%, while the bank’s hedges went up in value by $1.5 billion.
I’m especially puzzled by the big writedowns because anecdotally there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of mortgage refinancing going on, and I don’t think that expected default rates rose in the third quarter either. (If anything, judging by the prices of mortgage bonds, they fell.)
There also seems to be a strong correlation between the size of the writedown that a bank took, on the one hand, and the degree to which its hedges made money, on the other. Is there any good reason why this should be the case? Or are banks just taking writedowns as and when they manage to pay for them out of hedging profits?
Stop looking at charts! — Abnormal Returns
Why you should never buy a commodity fund — Reuters
How to feed the world’s hungry: food bonds; forwards; call options; tax credits. Yes, that’s the Milken Institute — MI
Should states subsidize university tuition for out-of-state students? Makes some sense, if they’re bright and will stay in the state after they graduate. — Economist
Does Altucher think that insider trading should be legalized? — HuffPo
Does this mean that the newspaper is The Wall Street Journal Amateur Edition? — WSJ
Venture funding for art! — True Ventures
I discuss Sorkin’s tome — TBM
Good for Tapper. We need more feist in our press corps. — Atlantic Wire
Too Big To Fail, the art show — Sanford
How many people, when looking at a wine list, would spend $80 on a timorasso, or $90 for sagrantino? (No, I’ve never heard of them either.) According to Stephen Mancini, the 28-year-old wine director for Union Square Cafe, as channeled by Ryan Flinn, it’s a sizeable number: “drinkers are apt to try something they’ve never heard of if it’s less than $100″.
It’s good news that wine drinkers and restaurant goers are adventurous, of course. But is $100 really a “worth a try to see what it’s like” price point these days?
Steven Rattner’s first-hand account of the automaker bailout is self-serving (of course), but still very much worth reading. He’s very much the office-bound technocrat: “we recognized the importance of a trip to Detroit,” he writes at one point, “so in March, several of us made the journey”. Well, yes, that would probably make sense.
At the same time, this financier understands clearly and intuitively that in bankruptcy proceedings, seniority of creditors doesn’t matter:
The lenders were particularly aggrieved that the UAW’s health-care trust, which ranked below the secured creditors, was slated to exchange an $8 billion existing claim for $4.6 billion in notes and 55% of the equity in the reorganized company. While arguably close to a 50% haircut, it was a higher-percentage recovery than we were offering the banks.
The lenders felt that this represented an ideological decision by the Obama administration to tilt in favor of labor and against capital. That was simply not the case. At no time during our months of work did the White House ever ask us to favor or punish any stakeholder.
Many other unsecured creditors — notably, suppliers and consumers holding warranties — actually received 100¢ on the dollar. The fact was, Chrysler had to have workers, suppliers, and customers to succeed and therefore needed to give them more than called for by their rank in the capital structure…
The outcome of the Chrysler restructuring had virtually nothing to do with the heavy hand of government and everything to do with the fact that Treasury was the reluctant investor of last resort.
Every stakeholder did better under our plan than they would have in the alternative: a liquidation, in which the lenders would have gotten far less than the $2 billion they wound up with.
Rattner’s job was to create a viable company, not to maximize recovery for bondholders. If those creditors wanted to put their own new money into Chrysler, and run it themselves, they were more than welcome to. But even the government came very close to simply letting Chrysler fail, until it worked out the magnitude of the knock-on effects on jobs at dealers and suppliers. No one else would put a penny in, and the fact that TARP money was found for the automakers meant that hundreds of thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars, were saved. The creditors really were lucky to get what they got.
Oh wow. This is much more aggressive than anybody had dared hope it would be:
The seven companies that received the most assistance will have to cut the cash payouts to their 25 best-paid executives by an average of about 90 percent from last year…
And for all executives the total compensation, which includes bonuses, will drop, on average, by about 50 percent…
At the financial products division of A.I.G., the locus of problems that plagued the large insurer and forced its rescue with more than $180 billion in taxpayer assistance, no top executive will receive more than $200,000 in total compensation, a stunning decline from previous years in which the unit produced many wealthy executives and traders.
In contrast to previous years, an official said, executives in the financial products division will receive no other compensation, like stocks or stock options.
Are you feeling outraged? Well, remember that $200,000 a year makes you rich. (Yes, really.) But these guys are effectively civil servants now, and they deserve to be paid as such. And if they have any fiscal responsibility at all, they will have saved up a huge amount of their past compensation to tide them through this fallow period.
What this means is that the people who used to be the 25 best-paid employees are now going to be far down the list, with underlings making much more than they do. That’s OK too. There’s no particular reason why senior executives should always be the best-paid employees in any organization. Quite the opposite, in fact.
There’s a curious coincidence of newspaper stories today: just as the NYT’s Louis Uchitelle writes a long piece about Paul Volcker being marginalized, the WSJ runs a story about how he could end up being responsible for what would arguably be the single most important piece of economic policy implemented by the Obama administration.
Here’s how Uchitelle ends his piece:
He travels infrequently to Washington, he says, and when he does, the visits are too short to bother with the office. The advisory board has been asked to study, amid other issues, the tax law on corporate profits earned overseas, hardly a headline concern.
So Mr. Volcker scoffs at the reports that he is losing clout. “I did not have influence to start with,” he said.
Well yes, the tax law on overseas corporate profits is one of the issues that Volcker is looking at. But he’s also, says the WSJ, looking at something much bigger and much more far-reaching:
White House advisers are examining whether to curb the corporate tax code’s bias toward raising money from tax-deductible debt issues rather than from stock sales…
Tax experts for decades have bemoaned the tax code’s bias toward debt over equity: Interest on most corporate debt is tax deductible, while dividend payments are not.
“The disparity between debt and equity financing encourages corporations to finance themselves more heavily through borrowing. This leverage in turn increases the financial fragility of the economy, an effect we are seeing quite dramatically today,” Jason Furman, now deputy director of Mr. Obama’s National Economic Council, told a congressional panel last year.
This is something I’ve been pushing for a while, and it’s a really good idea. As the WSJ article shows, the US, with its 39.1% corporate tax rate, manages to raise just 3.2% of GDP through corporate taxes. Meanwhile, Australia, with a 30% corporate tax rate, raises 6.6% of GDP from corporate taxes. If Volcker starts taxing debt as well as equity, that would do wonders for the US fisc, and would reduce the systemic danger that debt poses to the economy. What’s not to love?
Law firm Heller Ehrman spent millions of dollars putting together a corporate art collection during the biggest bull market the art world has ever seen, before going bankrupt at the end of last year. Now that art collection is being auctioned off:
The largely contemporary collection is expected to fetch between $610,000 and $1 million in a slow art market, according to bankruptcy papers and the auctioneer hired to conduct the sale…
Martin Gammon, director of business development for Bonhams, acknowledged the art will be going on the block at a time when “the art market is somewhat down from its highs of 2007.” But he said he expected the Heller auctions to be successful.
“In this particular instance, the pieces are post-war and contemporary, which has seen some deflation, but most of that speculation took place at the very high-end of the marketplace, pieces that were selling for hundreds of millions of dollars,” Gammon said. “This is all, I would say, very well selected and well curated material.”
Peter Benvenutti, the chair of Heller Ehrman’s dissolution committee who is now at Jones Day in San Francisco, said he expected the auction to generate “a small fraction of the original cost” of the art, which he said was substantially more than $1 million.
Anybody who claims that art can ever be a good investment should bear this in mind. If anything could have turned a profit, it would be contemporary art which was bought a decade ago and which is being sold now. But no: this collection is worth much less, at auction, than the amount that was paid for it.
If you buy art — especially works on paper — from an art gallery at full retail price, then your chances of being able to ever sell that art at auction for more than you paid are slim indeed. When people talk about art as an asset class, they’re not talking about the kind of art which you see hanging on law-firm walls, or even in suburban homes. They’re talking about a tiny subset of the art world, which you’re not invited to except as a sucker. Caveat emptor.
The secret Paulson-Goldman meeting wasn’t the only time that Hank Paulson treated his buddies at Goldman Sachs especially well while at Treasury. In fact, it wasn’t the only time he did so before he got the now-famous waiver.
A bit further on in the Sorkin book, while Paulson is trying to work out what should be done with an imploding Lehman Brothers, we find this:
If all that weren’t enough to deal with, [Lehman president Bart] McDade had just had a baffling conversation with [CEO Dick] Fuld, who informed him that Paulson had called him directly to suggest that the firm open up its books to Goldman Sachs. The way Fuld described it, Goldman was effectively advising Treasury. Paulson was also demanding a thorough review of Lehman’s confidential numbers, courtesy of Goldman Sachs.
McDade, though never much of a Goldman conspiracy theorist, found Fuld’s report discomfiting, but moments later was on the phone with Harvey Schwartz, Goldman’s head of capital markets. “I’m following up at Hank’s request,” he began.
After another perplexing conversation, McDade walked down the hall and told Alex Kirk to immediately call Schwartz at Goldman, instructing him to set up a meeting and getting them to sign a confidentiality agreement.
“This is coming directly from Paulson,” he explained.
In many ways, this is worse than Paulson’s meeting with Goldman’s board: in this case, Paulson is forcing Lehman to open its books fully to a direct competitor, for no obvious reason. And in this case it’s not at all obvious that Paulson got a sign off from Treasury’s general counsel before doing so.
I suspect this is what happens when you do all your business by phone rather than by email: you’re so comfortable with the fact that you’re not leaving any kind of paper trail, it becomes much easier to cross the line and abuse your position as the most powerful Treasury secretary in living memory to the benefit of your former firm. If the Moscow meeting wasn’t enough to precipitate some kind of Congressional investigation of Paulson, this should be.
Update: There’s more, a few pages later:
As they were making yet another pass through the earnings call script, Kirk’s cell phone rang. It was Harvey Schwartz from Goldman Sachs, phoning about the confidentiality agreement that Kirk was preparing. Before Schwartz began to discuss that matter, however, he said that he had something important to tell Kirk: “For the avoidance of doubt, Goldman Sachs does not have a client. We are doing this as principal.”
For a moment Kirk paused, gradually processing what Schwartz had just said.
“Really?” he asked, trying to keep the shock out of his voice. Goldman is the buyer?
“Okay. I have to call you back,” Kirk said, nervously ending the conversation, and then almost shouted to Fuld and McDade, “Guys, they don’t have a client!”…
McDade, reasonably, was concerned about sharing information with a direct competitor: How mcuh did they really want to divulge? At the same time, he felt they couldn’t take a stand against a plan that he believed had originated with Paulson…
McDade, turning back to his preparations for the fast-approaching call, made his position clear: “We were told by Hank Paulson to let them in the door. We’re going to let them in the door.”