Unstructured Finance

How Babel became Symphony

The communications platform announced this week went through several different names before Symphony.

The idea for a communications platform went through several names before Symphony.

In late-2012, Goldman Sachs traders started to notice something unusual. News was sometimes breaking on social media faster than it was breaking on sophisticated information terminals that cost the bank millions of dollars each year.

The realization set in motion a series of events that would lead Goldman to team up with 13 other financial firms and invest in a new communications platform called Symphony. But before it was called Symphony, it had a lot of other names. What follows is the story of how Symphony got its name, as told to Unstructured Finance by people involved with the project.

A group of engineers at Goldman called “strats,” who work closely with the trading division on technology issues, set about finding a way to get relevant social media content in front of traders in real-time. They launched an internal platform called LiveCurrent in 2013 that combined elements of messaging, social media, research and other information in one central place. Because it was developed internally, the platform could be used by all employees across front, middle and back-office functions without significant additional cost. That made communicating about active trades much quicker and easier for all the staff involved.

As Goldman’s trading desk was grappling with this issue internally, its principal strategic investments team began picking up on the same theme of fragmented communication across Wall Street. That group, co-headed by Darren Cohen, makes investments with the bank’s own capital in the financial-services industry. It began looking for startups that had a solution to the problem. Cohen’s team code-named the project ”Babel” because they saw their task as simplifying a wide-ranging set of communications systems that were speaking in different tongues.

Jim Chanos, bad news bear, urges market prudence

Prominent short-seller Jim Chanos is probably one of the last true “bad news bears” you will find on Wall Street these days, save for Jim Grant and Nouriel Roubini. Almost everywhere you turn, money managers still are bullish on U.S. equities going into 2014 even after the Standard & Poor’s 500’s 27 percent returns year-to-date and the Nasdaq is back to levels not seen since the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999.

“We’re back to a glass half-full environment as opposed to a glass half-empty environment,” Chanos told Reuters during a wide ranging hour-long discussion two weeks ago. “If you’re the typical investor, it’s probably time to be a little bit more cautious.”

Chanos, president and founder of Kynikos Associates, admittedly knows it has been a humbling year for his cohort, with some short only funds even closing up shop.

Carl Icahn in his own words

Icahn’s Big Year in investing and activism

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

We held an hour-long discussion with Carl Icahn on Monday as part of our Reuters Global Investment Outlook Summit, going over everything from his spectacular year of performance to his thoughts on the excessive media coverage of activists like himself who push and prod corporate managers to return cash to investors. We also talked about the legacy he wants to leave.

There was much Icahn wouldn’t talk about on the advice of his lawyer, however. While he said he took a look at Microsoft, he won’t say why he decided not to join ValueAct’s Jeffrey Ubben’s activist campaign. He also stayed mum on any plans for his Las Vegas white elephant, the unfinished Fontainebleau Las Vegas resort, which he bought out of bankruptcy proceedings in 2010.

Never one to mince words, Icahn said he takes issue with Bill Ackman’s brand of activism which he believes borders on micromanaging by telling chief executive officers how to do their jobs. “I think Ackman is the opposite of what I believe in activism. You don’t go in and you don’t go tell the CEO how to run his company.”

Money manager titans who can’t wait until 2014

The year can’t end fast enough for some of the world’s biggest investors.

Bill Gross, who many like to consider the King of Bonds, lost one of his prized titles last week when his PIMCO Total Return Fund was stripped of its status as the world’s largest mutual fund because of lagging performance and a swamp of investor redemptions.

The PIMCO Total Return Fund — somewhat of a benchmark for many bond fund managers — had outflows of $4.4 billion in October, marking the fund’s sixth straight month of investor withdrawals, and lowered its assets to $248 billion, according to Morningstar.

Ackman’s Penney-sized revenge?

It’s hard to say that Bill Ackman came out of the J.C. Penney debacle looking good. But in one regard the hedge fund manager did score a minor victory: he and his Pershing Square Capital Management sold their shares before the bloodbath began in the ailing retailer’s stock.

In hindsight, the $12.90 a share price that Pershing Square sold its 18 percent stake in Penney to Citigroup doesn’t look so bad compared to the $8.73 a share price the stock closed at on Tuesday. There was much made in the press about the $473 million loss Ackman’s fund was saddled with after the hedge fund manager’s push to remake Penney into an upscale retailer failed. The criticism was justified as even Ackman conceded he isn’t great at retail.

But Ackman’s quick late August exit from the stock after first blistering the company’s board for taking too long to find a permanent CEO doesn’t look as bad in retrospect. Forbes’ Nathan Vardi even went so far a few days ago to write that Ackman’s decision to bolt on Penney looks like a “brilliant” decision.

SEC vs. SAC give rise to many legal theories

It seems everyone has their own pet theory about why the SEC chose now to move against hedge fund titan Steven A. Cohen after years of being part of the hunt along with the FBI and federal prosecutors.

Here are few of them that I got from talking to a number of legal eagles: including former prosecutors and regulators.

The most obvious one is that securities regulators, unlike federal prosecutors, are bumping up against  a pretty hard and fast five-year deadline for filing charges against Cohen and it was pretty much now or never. In pursuing a failure to supervise  charge against Cohen in an administrative proceeding, the Securities and Exchange Commission is gunning to put Cohen out of business without actually charging he has done any insider trading himself.

Home sweet home, Blackstone

Kay Chapman and her boyfriend were saving up money to buy a home in the Las Vegas metro area while renting a home in a nearby town. But after months of plotting a strategy to buy a home at a foreclosure auction, they’ve given up for now and will soon move into another rental home–this one owned by private equity giant Blackstone Group.

Chapman and her boyfriend had to alter their strategy because the owner of the home they are currently renting from decided to sell after seeing how quickly home prices have surged in Sin City in the wake of all the institutional buying firms like Blackstone. Chapman’s current landlord wants far more for the house than she and her boyfriend are willing to pay.

So soon they’ll be moving into a Blackstone owned home, one of some 26,000 single-family homes the private equity giant has bought in US markets hard hit by the housing bust.

The housing proposal that won’t die

One of the biggest economic stories this year has been the recovery in U.S. home prices. But for the more than 11 million homeowners stuck with a mortgage that’s worth more than the value of their home, it has felt more like being Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

The housing crisis may be over for Blackstone, Colony, American Homes 4 Rent and other deep-pocketed investment firms snapping up foreclosed homes with cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve, but for many Americans they are still living with it some five years later.

So maybe that’s why  a controversial idea of using the government’s power of condemnation to seize and restructure distressed mortgages in order to provide debt relief to struggling homeowners  just won’t go away, even though many think it’s unconstitutional and bond investors have rallied to savage the proposal.

Wall Street goes to war with hackers in Quantum Dawn 2 simulation

Wall Street will have a simulated cyber war called Quantum Dawn 2 this month.

 

Quantum Dawn 2 is coming to Wall Street.

No, it’s not a video game or a bad zombie movie; it’s a simulated cyber attack to prepare banks, brokerages and exchanges for what has become an ever-bigger risk to their earnings and operations.

Organized by the trade group SIFMA, Quantum Dawn 2  will take place on July 18 – a summer Thursday that, with any luck, will be a relatively quiet day in the real markets.The drill involves not just big Wall Street firms like Citigroup and Bank of America, but the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to SIFMA officials.

“We go through a pretty rigorous scenario where we look at multiple threats being thrown out at the U.S. equity markets,” said Karl Schimmeck, vice president of financial services operations at SIFMA.

NJ Governor Chris Christie spotted outside Goldman Sachs

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shakes hands with Lloyd Blankfein lookalike outside Goldman Sachs on Wednesday

Editor’s note: Updated with reason for Christie’s visit.

These days it seems New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is everywhere, from TV talk shows and radio appearances to accompanying Prince Harry on a well-publicized tour of the devastated Jersey Shore. So maybe it’s not too surprising he was spotted outside of Goldman Sachs’s Lower Manhattan office Wednesday morning. An Unstructured Finance reporter happened to see the sharp-tongued Republican governor walking into 200 West Street just before 11:30. Spokespeople for Goldman and the governor’s office said he was there for the bank’s Global Macro conference, which invites politicians, regulators, diplomats, CEOs and other power players to talk about big-picture trends.

Christie, who filed papers last year to run for re-election in 2014, recently announced that he had gastric bypass surgery to deal with his weight problem and he was looking in good spirits on Wednesday. He had a thick security detail and shook hands with a guy who, from behind, looked like Lloyd Blankfein but turned out not to be. He buttoned his jacket and waved to onlookers on his way into 200 West Street.

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