Opinion

Felix Salmon

Talking with Glenn Yago about financial innovation

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2010 22:54 UTC

I’ve been having a debate with Glenn Yago on this blog about financial innovation, so it was good to be able to sit down with him and talk face-to-face:

Is it now too late to save Greece?

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2010 18:09 UTC

When Goldman Sachs noticed a pattern of regular losses in its mortgage book at the end of 2006, it decided to start going short, in a move which helped to position it as the most successful bank in the financial crisis. The markets have learned their lesson: now that Greece and Portugal have been downgraded, the rush to the exits is palpable: the flight to quality is on, and bond yields in the European periphery are going stratospheric.

Greece’s bonds can still be used as collateral at the ECB: Moody’s hasn’t (yet) downgraded them. But S&P’s sovereign-ceiling principles mean that all of Greece’s banks now have a junk rating, and it’s surely now only a matter of time until Moody’s and Fitch follow S&P’s lead and Greek debt becomes a speculative credit instrument rather a government bond which is safe in anybody’s eyes.

The trick about going short an imploding asset class, of course, is that it only works if you’re in the minority. If everybody is doing it, you just get overshooting asset markets and chaos — which is what we’re seeing now. As far as the financial markets are concerned, if any bailout comes now, it’ll be too late: no country can sustain Greece’s combination of funding costs and debt-to-GDP ratio, no matter how much German money it burns through. Plug 13% yields into my Greek debt calculator, and the results aren’t pretty, even if they don’t have any effect at all on all the other optimistic assumptions.

greecedebt.tiff

This is the problem with the way in which the EU insisted that Greece reach a point of desperation, exhausting all other funding opportunities, before it turned to Europe for help. At that point, it might be too late. And it’s going to be really hard to persuade Germany and the rest of Europe that lending new money at low rates to a country in this kind of fiscal situation makes any sense at all.

COMMENT

It’d be interesting — I mean, scary — to speculate on what ‘fail’ means here. If there’s anything to learn from the Great Depression, it’s that awful economic conditions can have absolutely toxic political consequences.

Posted by leoklein | Report as abusive

The Goldman hearings

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2010 17:02 UTC

The Goldman Sachs hearings today are making for fascinating theater. The official Goldman statements are strong, especially that of Fabrice Tourre:

I never told ACA, the portfolio selection agent, that Paulson & Company would be an equity investor in the AC-1 transaction or would take any long position in the deal. Although I don’t recall the exact words that I used, I recall informing ACA that Paulson’s fund was expected to buy credit protection on some of the senior tranches of the AC-1 transaction. This necessarily meant that Paulson was expected to take some short exposure in the deal…

If ACA was confused about Paulson’s role in the transaction, it had every opportunity to clarify the issue. Representatives of Paulson’s fund participated directly in all of my meetings with ACA regarding the transaction. I do not ever recall ACA asking me or Paulson’s representatives if Paulson’s fund would be an equity investor. Indeed, ACA and Paulson had several discussions about the transaction and at least one meeting without any Goldman Sachs representatives present. Quite frankly, I am surprised that ACA could have believed that the Paulson fund was an equity or long investor in the deal.

As for the testimony of the rest of the Goldman executives, they’re all clearly singing from the same songbook: that although they might have been long at certain times and short at others, the main directive they were given was not directional, but was rather just to reduce the amount of risk on their books.

But in the actual hearings, the members of the Goldman mortgage desk are looking decidedly weak. They don’t answer questions, they keep on asking to double-check documents to run down the clock, they give narrow and unhelpful answers, and they generally act in a slippery and unsympathetic manner. Interestingly, Fabrice Tourre is the most straightforward and cogent of the lot.

I can see why it’s working out this way: the Goldman team has been briefed by their lawyers to be very careful about what they say, while the Senators are interested in grandstanding and scoring points.

Disappointingly, no one seems to have got any clarity on the biggest point of contention here. Goldman Sachs claims that it made less than $500 million on mortgages in 2007, while Senator Levin claims that it made $3.7 billion. That’s a big difference, and I’m not at all clear on how either of those numbers are calculated or which one is more reliable. Certainly a trade which made $3.7 billion wouldn’t come from an overarching strategy of trying to get “closer to home” at all times, as the Goldman executives are suggesting they did.

But whatever the truth of the matter is, these hearings are clearly bad for Goldman. Look over Fabrice Tourre’s right shoulder whenever he’s on camera: the other face in the frame is that of Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally. And it’s not a happy one.

COMMENT

Danny,

First, over-reliance on mathematical models is part of the problem. Black Scoles works…. except when it does not(and please take no offense if you are related to Fischer Black). Several of the people in the Chicago school have admitted that EMH has its limits.

Models have some value, as one of many indicators. Since I took my first class in economics 40 years ago, I have been puzzled by economists who assume that all buyers and sellers are perfectly rational. I worked in the economics reading room at college, and had opportunity to look at a lot of student dissertations on econometrics, and I was troubled by their over reliance on the quants. I have grown more troubled by the increasing numbers of physicists who are trying to bring the mindset of the physical sciences into economics.

A number of years ago quants were trying to predict human psychological behavior using computer models, and they came to the conclusions that there were no constants, or certainly not enough constants to make their models work.

When pricing stocks, combine the models with a prediction of herd mentality.

Consider something simpler-energy costs. One gallon of gasoline produces 124,000 BTU. I would need 1.25 ccf of natural gas to produce the same energy. A gallon of gas in western Iowa costs about $2.80 right now, 1.25 ccf of natural gas costs $.87, delivered to my house. So if we all had vehicles that could burn both, everyone would use natural gas until the point that natural gas and gasoline prices moved to some equilibrium.

My point is that the price of a gallon of gas should be determined by its replacement cost, whether that is electricity, diesel, CNG, etc. But in the short term, that is not possible because we do not have the technology in place to move back and forth between energy sources. In the long run, for instance a decade, if that price difference continues, technology will give us the ability to use natural gas in our vehicles, and we can move to equilibrium.

Another way is to look at the price of a barrel of oil. Oil industry execs have said that oil should be around $60 per barrel, based on the cost of replacing the last barrel produced, but oil continues to hover around $80 to $85. Two years ago, it was at $140. Why so high? Herd mentality. Two years ago we were all led to believe that oil was going to hit $200, so to a petroleum buyer, $140 seemed like a good buy.

My point. Pricing is not a science, especially in the short and near term. Quantitative modeling can give me some insight, but the idea of a computer using a model to do all our trading is not a sensible thing to do.

So, pricing the stock of financials is especially hard, because there is so much blue sky value there.

Posted by randymiller | Report as abusive

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2010 07:20 UTC

Felix Salmon smackdown watch, organic farming edition — Foreign Policy

My (not so) excellent Chez Panisse adventure — Berkeleyside

Gaby Darbyshire stands up to the California police — Gizmodo

COMMENT

The poverty rate in India has NOT increased from 27 to 37 percent. Instead, India has recently changed the definition of poverty, making more people eligible for food security programs. The article simonak cites misreports this revised definition as if it were a real increase, but the article is just wrong.

In fact, no new data on poverty has been released, so we don’t know for sure if it’s fallen or risen since 2004. Since poverty has been falling so rapidly in India over the last several decades, it’s a pretty good guess that poverty has fallen some more over the last 5 years.

A somewhat better article:
http://www.indianexpress.com/news/37.2-p er-cent-of-population-bpl-10-crore-famil ies-to-get-food-security/607963/

Posted by Ragout | Report as abusive

Levin vs Blankfein

Felix Salmon
Apr 27, 2010 00:42 UTC

I am awed by Carl Levin’s ability to orchestrate press coverage of Goldman Sachs of late. When he released some pretty benign emails from Goldman, they got splashed all over the front page of the NYT; and today’s batch of emails is causing a whole new set of headlines, even after today’s WSJ story along similar lines.

Levin isn’t accusing Goldman of doing anything illegal, per se, but he’s on the warpath when it comes to the fact that Goldman went short the mortgage market. His list of email quotes is all about shorting the market, and so are his conclusions:

The Subcommittee’s nearly 18-month investigation found evidence that Goldman Sachs, contrary to the repeated public statements of the firm’s executives, made and held significant bets against the mortgage market – “short positions” in Wall Street terms…

As high risk mortgage delinquencies increased, and RMBS and CDO securities began to lose value, Goldman Sachs took a net short position on the mortgage market, remaining net short throughout 2007, and cashed in very large short positions, generating billions of dollars in gain…

Goldman Sachs used credit default swaps (CDS) on assets it did not own to bet against the mortgage market through single name and index CDS transactions, generating substantial revenues in the process.

Well, yes. If you have a substantial position in mortgages — and pretty much all banks had a substantial long position in mortgages come 2007 — then prudent risk management dictates that you try to hedge that position by selling what you can and putting on shorts in order to hedge what you can’t sell. What’s more, if you’re Goldman Sachs and you see the market going down, you’re going to be aggressive when it comes to putting on those short positions. That’s Wall Street.

As for Goldman helping to securitize subprime mortgages, yes, they did, but so did everybody else with a mortgage desk, and Goldman wasn’t even close to being the biggest.

Levin is convinced that if Goldman thought that mortgages were going down in value, and it still sold those mortgages to its clients, then that creates “a conflict between the firm’s proprietary interests and the interests of its clients”. But it doesn’t. If Goldman wants to go short mortgages and its clients want to go long mortgages, then it makes perfect sense for Goldman to sell mortgages to its clients.

I daresay that Levin is right when he complains that Goldman didn’t disclose its proprietary position to its clients, although I also suspect that if they asked the right people they probably would have explained their worries. But the fact is that Goldman wasn’t really making a big macro bet on the mortgage market failing, it was just making a large change to its own risk book in order to get away from what looked like a very dangerous position. If the mortgage market hadn’t tanked, Goldman would almost certainly still have made money. And while Levin talks portentiously about the “substantial profit” that Goldman made from its mortgage shorts, he never quantifies it or explains how he’s doing his sums. If he’s just looking at the short positions without looking at the offsetting long positions, that’s just silly.

Clearly Levin’s theatrics haven’t done much to impress Senate Republicans — or even Ben Nelson (D-Buffett): they blocked the financial regulation bill today, happy to be seen as obstructionist on financial reform even with Goldman dominating the headlines. Levin has, on the other hand, managed to muddy the waters surrounding Goldman a great deal, with the serious allegations about lack of adequate disclosure now being mixed up with all manner of vaguely-choate ideas about shorting and profiting off other people’s misery. It’s as though Goldman’s real sin here was not to lose as much money as everybody else when the housing market collapsed. If it had done, Levin would have much less to complain about.

Where does this leave Goldman? In a pretty tough spot, I’d say. The SEC case has severely damaged its reputation among its clients, while Levin and the press are doing their bit to undermine Goldman’s public image more generally. Right now, no accusation is too outlandish to throw against Goldman: if Ben Stein were to start accusing Jan Hatzius of deliberately talking down the US economy in order that Goldman could make money from bearish bets, as he’s been known to do in the past, the chorus of disapproval — against Stein, not against Goldman — would be much quieter than it was back then.

To Blankfein, I’m sure all of this seems horribly unfair. But the FT’s 2009 Man of the Year can’t whine about persecution. Instead, he should take the apology he’s already proferred, and make it more explicit: explain exactly which “things” Goldman participated in which were “were clearly wrong” and which Goldman has “reason to regret”. I’ve never got a very straight answer out of Goldman’s PR team on that front, although CDOs were certainly mentioned. Blankfein should be more forthright about that, and try as best he can to put a line under this whole episode.

COMMENT

If a teenager mows lawns and puts the money in the bank for college, he has always been able to trust that the money would be there when he graduated from high school. Banking has always been about trust. Only a fool does business with a banker he does not trust.

But if somebody puts money into a old age fund, and their fund manager deals with firms like Goldman, can he trust the money will be there at retirement. Just because Goldman calls themselves a bank does not mean you can trust them like the bank you grew up with?

I agree with the bloggers who urge Goldman to take a hit now, admit wrongdoing even when they might not be convicted in court. Sadly, their lawyers are like the tobacco company lawyers; several tobacco companies worked on a cigarette less likely to cause cancer, the so-called “safe cigarette”. But their lawyers told them not to do it, because marketing it as a safer cigarette would mean admitting their previous product was unsafe, and leave them open to lawsuits. Goldman’s lawyers are telling them there is no way to admit some fault and cut their losses, because doing so will lead to more investor lawsuits.

OK bloggers, putting all the comments aside about what will happen to Goldman, or should happen to Goldman, answer a simple question: would you feel safe investing your kid’s college fund with Goldman?

Posted by randymiller | Report as abusive

Did ABN Amro hedge its ACA exposure?

Felix Salmon
Apr 26, 2010 21:30 UTC

I just found this, buried in a Landon Thomas story on Abacus at the end of last week:

Some inside ABN Amro were leery of Abacus early on. Indeed, several traders there immediately bought credit default swaps — insurance-like instruments — from Goldman Sachs to hedge their exposure to ACA.

Now it’s worth noting that the headline on the story is “A Routine Deal Became an $840 Million Mistake”, and Thomas repeats many times in the story that the deal ended up costing Royal Bank of Scotland, which bought ABN Amro, $840.1 million.

But the bit about the CDS hedge is intriguing — especially the detail that the hedge was bought directly from Goldman Sachs, which was the company hedging its own exposure in the first place. If Goldman was happy to write credit protection on ACA, and presumably buy offsetting ACA protection elsewhere in the market, then why didn’t it just use ACA to insure the Abacus deal directly, and then turn around and hedge its ACA counterparty risk?

The answer, I think, might have something to do with collateral posting: Goldman only wanted CDS hedges where it could ask for collateral in the event of a downgrade or a fall in market prices, while ACA only wanted to insure the deal if it didn’t risk needing to post hundreds of millions of dollars with Goldman. So Goldman went through ABN Amro instead, which was happy to agree to Goldman’s collateral requirements.

I’m not clear how the $840.1 million was calculated — was that net of the hedges, or was that before Goldman paid out on them? And if ABN was hedging its ACA exposure with Goldman, why did it make any sense to do the deal in the first place? I’m sure that Goldman charged ABN Amro more than 17bp for ACA protection, so it’s hard to see how a hedged ABN could make any money on the deal at all.

Maybe if and when the UK government sues Goldman Sachs for RBS’s losses, we’ll learn more. But right now it’s all very vague where those super-senior losses really did ultimately end up.

COMMENT

Apologies, Sandrew, I was guilty of some careless reading and thought you were saying the protection ABN bought amounted to a CCDS. Agreed, the protection they wrote to Goldman was equivalent to a CCDS.

I am also guilty of some careless writing: I should make clear that a CVA hedge is a hedge of expectations, not risk. The fact that any given hedge “fails” is therefore not evidence in itself that it was wrong. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if it were right in this case because the incompleteness and illiquidity of the reference markets makes it pretty hard to come up with a unique and verifiable expectation in a pricing measure.

Posted by Greycap | Report as abusive

The depressing outlook for Greece

Felix Salmon
Apr 26, 2010 20:45 UTC

I just had a very interesting conversation poolside at the Beverly Hilton with a couple of high-profile delegates at the Milken Global Conference. The pool, one level down from where all the panels take place: is clearly the place to be: Arnold Schwarzenegger was just a couple of tables away. But I doubt he was talking in great depth about the Greek debt situation and what’s likely to happen there.

I walked away from the conversation decidedly bearish on Greece. Why?

  1. It’s not in the interest of Germany’s politicians to bail out Greece. Angela Merkel is taking a hard line on the subject, and you can see why she would — the German electorate has no particular desire to spend billions of euros bailing out the Greeks.
  2. It’s not even narrowly in the interest of Germany to bail out Greece. If Germany cares only about itself, rather than the full European Union, then in many ways the best-case scenario for Germany is to see Greece and Portugal default, leave the euro, and then re-enter a few years later at a more competitive exchange rate. That’s better than using German funds to try to sustain the national debt of those countries at their present elevated levels.
  3. Even if Germany cares about what might be called “narrow Europe” — Germany, France, Benelux — it still might well rather see Greece and Portugal exiled from the euro, thus making it a more credible currency in the eyes of many.
  4. If Germany can’t be sure that Greece will avoid default, it would be much better off simply letting Greece go its own way, and then bailing out its domestic banks if Greek did end up defaulting. The cost of the bank bailout would be lower than the cost of a Greece bailout, and the money would remain within Germany.
  5. If Greek did default, though, make no mistake that massive bank bailouts would be necessary — if not in Germany then certainly in places like Italy. Hedge funds and distressed investors aren’t going to start buying Greek debt pre-default: they’re going to wait for the default and the inevitable overshoot in prices, and then buy.
  6. Where would Greek debt trade in the event of a default? This is the scariest thing: my highly plugged-in companions both agreed that it wouldn’t just fall to 70 or even 60 cents on the dollar: they saw fair value closer to 40, and said that it would probably fall to 30 before people started buying.
  7. Needless to say, if Greek debt was trading at 30 cents on the dollar, it wouldn’t take long for the Portuguese domino to topple. After that, Spain — and then, it’s easy to imagine, Italy, Ireland, UK. And so the stakes are very high: it’s certainly cheaper to bail out Greece with virtually unlimited funds than it is to risk a fully-blown PIIGS default. But there does seem to be the hope or expectation that a line could get drawn in the Iberian sand, and that Italy and Ireland would not be allowed to default even if Portugal and/or Spain imploded.
  8. A couple of high-profile sovereign defaults in Europe would actually be welcomed by the fiscally-responsible wing of the Republican party — the people who want to raise taxes rather than lower them. The idea here is that there would be a come-to-Jesus moment and lawmakers would suddenly realize how dangerous large sustained deficits can be, and change their wicked ways.

I buy nearly all of this, with the exception of #6 and #8. My feeling is that a Greek default, while it could in theory be a disorderly and chaotic simple failure to pay, would more likely take the form of a public exchange offer, which would help to put a floor on the price of Greek debt.

And I very much doubt that defaults in southern Europe would improve the fiscal status of the US. To the contrary, the flight-to-quality trade would just make it even cheaper for the US to borrow money, and the lesson we’ve all learned many times is that so long as a country has lots of access to cheap money, it’ll go on borrowing.

But I do think that there’s a pretty low limit to how much money Germany is going to spend bailing out Greece. It’s already bailed out one basket-case European country, when it absorbed East Germany. It’s got no appetite to bail out another.

COMMENT

@owe.jessen, you wrote “Well, as was being mentioned, it is very unlikely that Greece will be able to consolidate its budget to the amount necessary within 2 or 3 years. Therefore, an early default would save money, because the outstanding amount on which Greece will default is smaller. ”

I’m not sure that “very unlikely” is the best characterization of the situation (also, I’m not sure where it “was being mentioned”, point #4 explicitly mentions a bailout possibility). Perhaps Greece can stabilize its finances, perhaps it can’t, I’m not sure anyone knows for sure. You’re right that if Germany tries to bail out Greece, only to have Greece default in two years, Germany will have only made the problem bigger. How much bigger? About 25%.

Assuming contagion can be contained, then it’s a question of whether having a Probability=1 chance of cleaning up 100% of the mess now is better than having a Probability=?? chance of cleaning up 125% of the mess in two years. If you think the probability of Greece defaulting even with a bailout is higher than 0.8, then it would be “cheaper” to clean up the mess now.

Another consideration is that the world financial system is still quite fragile. Perhaps it would be better to bailout Greece for the time being to let the banks build up their reserves for two years before Greece’s inevitable default? Felix alludes to this in his latest post
http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/20 10/04/28/roubini-on-greece/

Posted by Kosta0101 | Report as abusive

Deutsche Bank and CDO disclosure

Felix Salmon
Apr 26, 2010 15:36 UTC

John Carney and Teri Buhl have a tantalizing story up at the Atlantic today:

Traders at Deutsche Bank sold similar collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) — built from credit protection on a portfolio of mortgage-backed securities selected in consultation with hedge fund manager John Paulson — to the German bank. And like Goldman, Deutsche Bank didn’t reveal Paulson’s role in the construction of the CDOs.

Two questions I think are key here. First, was there a Magnetar-style disclosure that the sponsor of the deal might have a net short position in the deal? And second, was there a nominally-independent CDO manager, like ACA, which claimed to have chosen the entire portfolio with an eye to making it high quality, but who in fact was severely constrained by the input of Paulson?

The key problem with the Abacus deal was not so much that Goldman didn’t disclose Paulson’s name. It’s that Goldman didn’t disclose the role of the sponsor to the nominally-independent CDO manager. And given that the manager was also an investor in the deal, that’s a significant omission when it comes to disclosure.

COMMENT

Felix – The Atlantic story says that Deutsche Bank traders admit that there was not an independent CDO manager on the Paulson deals they sold to IKB. Why do think IKB didn’t need a thrid party manager when it bought from DB but they did when they bought from GS?

Posted by oldtrader | Report as abusive

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Apr 26, 2010 08:01 UTC

Larry Summers Defends Megabanks, Says Too Many Small Banks Make U.S. ‘Less Stable’ — HuffPo

Do those derivatives end-users just want to avoid taxes? — Time

Waldman helpfully takes Abacus apart. I simply don’t believe that ACA Capital really knew what it was insuring — Interfluidity

Why Goldman’s ‘Big Boy’ defense won’t work — WSJ

One hundred trillion dollars — Guan

The Worst Physics Article Ever — Science Blogs

I’ve been saying for years that most people are better off buying a Mac than AAPL stock. Seems I was wrong — Kyle Conroy

iPad not bad for your eyes, but is it bad for your sleep? — LAT

The covered bond industry is miffed about Basel — Alphaville

NYT blogger complains about being quoted and linked to — NYT

Rajat Gupta, GS board member and insider trader? This is the last thing Goldman needs right now — WSJ

Dambisa Moyo appointed to Barclays Board — Barclays

COMMENT

Curmudgeon: Scott James’ lament was hardly a rant. Stossel’s failure to identify the source of his post is poor craftsmanship and laziness at the very least, and a conscious effort to mislead readers at worst. Fact is, he didn’t report any of the facts in the matter and should have done so. The invention of a new medium doesn’t erase well-established, valuable and necessary standards of conduct. Fox News makes up enough phony “facts” as it is. When it is actually using real facts that it did not find and verify on its own, it owes an *explicit* hat tip to those who actually did the work. If only as a matter of common courtesy. Not that one finds much of that on Fox, either….

Posted by Citoyen | Report as abusive
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