How to value toxic assets (part 5)

John Hempton has an excellent post on valuing the assets on banks’ balance sheets and whether banks are solvent.  He starts with a simple summary of where we are:

We have a lot of pools of bank assets (pools of loans) which have the following properties:
  • The assets sit on the bank’s balance sheet with a value of 90 – meaning they have either being marked down to 90 (say mark to mythical market or model) or they have 10 in provisions for losses against them.
  • The same assets when they run off might actually make 75 – meaning if you run them to maturity or default the bank will – discounted at a low rate – recover 75 cents in the dollar on value.

The banks are thus under-reserved on an “held to maturity” basis. Heavily under-reserved.

He then gives another explanation (on top of the putting-Humpty-Dumpty-back-together-again idea I mentioned previously) of why the market price is so far below the value that comes out of standard asset pricing:

Before you go any further you might wonder why it is possible that loans that will recover 75 trade at 50? Well its sort of obvious – in that I said that they recover 75 if the recoveries are discounted at a low rate. If I am going to buy such a loan I probably want 15% per annum return on equity.

The loan initially yielded say 5%. If I buy it at 50 I get a running yield of 10% – but say 15% of the loans are not actually paying that yield – so my running yield is 8.5%. I will get 75-80c on them in the end – and so there is another 25cents to be made – but that will be booked with an average duration of 5 years – so another 5% per year. At 50 cents in the dollar the yield to maturity on those bad assets is about 15% even though the assets are “bought cheap”. That is not enough for a hedge fund to be really interested – though if they could borrow to buy those assets they might be fun. The only problem is that the funding to buy the assets is either unavailable or if available with nasty covenants and a high price. Essentially the 75/50 difference is an artefact of the crisis and the unavailability of funding.

The difference between the yield to maturity value of a loan and its market value is extremely wide. The difference arises because you can’t eaily borrow to fund the loans – and my yield to maturity value is measured using traditional (low) costs of funds and market values loans based on their actual cost of funds (very high because of the crisis).

The rest of Hempton’s piece speaks about various definitions of solvency, whether (US) banks meet each of those definitions and points out the vagaries of the plan recently put forward by Geithner.  It’s all well worth reading.

One of the other important bits:

Few banks would meet capital adequacy standards. Given the penalty for even appearing as if there was a chance that you would not meet capital adequacy standards is death (see WaMu and Wachovia) and this is a self-assessed exam, banks can be expected not to tell the truth.

(It was Warren Buffett who first – at least to my hearing – described financial accounts as a self-assessed exam for which the penalty for failure is death. I think he was talking about insurance companies – but the idea is the same. Truth is not expected.)

Other posts in this series:  1, 2, 3, 4, [5], 6.

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