Tag Archive for 'CDO'


Hate too-big-to-fail banks? Then you should love CDOs …

A random thought, presented without much serious consideration behind it:

The more we do away with too-big-to-fail banks, the more we need CDOs and the like to provide risk and liquidity transformation.

Suppose we replace one giant, global bank with many hundreds of small banks. Each small bank will end up specialising in specific industries or geographic regions for reasons of localised economies of scale. There exists idiosyncratic risk — individual industries or geographic regions may boom or go belly up. A giant, global bank automatically diversifies away all that idiosyncratic risk and is left with only aggregate (i.e. common-to-all) risk. Individually and in the absence of CDOs and the like, idiosyncratic risk will kill off individual banks. With CDOs and their ilk, individual banks can share their idiosyncratic risk without having to merge into a single behemoth.

In the event of a true aggregate shock, the government will end up needing to bail out the financial industry no matter what the average bank size because of the too many to fail problem.

There are problems with allowing banks to become TBTF.  They end up being able to raise funding at a subsidised rate and their monopoly position allows them to charge borrowers higher rates, both contributing to rent extraction which is both economically inefficient (the financial industry will attract the best and the brightest out of proportion to the economic value they contribute) and fundamentally unfair. Worse, the situation creates incentives for them to take excessive risks in their lending, leading to a greater probability of an aggregate shock actually occurring.

But we are now trying to kill off TBTF in a world in which credit derivatives have either vanished altogether or are greatly impaired. On the one hand, that reduces aggregate risk because we take away the perverse incentives offered to TBTF banks, but on the other hand, it also reduces our ability to tolerate idiosyncratic risk because we take away the last remaining means of diversification.


How to value toxic assets (part 6)

Via Tyler Cowen, I am reminded (again) that I should really be reading Steve Waldman more often.  Like, all the time.  After reading John Hempton’s piece that I highlighted last time, Waldman writes, as an afterthought:

There’s another way to generate price transparency and liquidity for all the alphabet soup assets buried on bank balance sheets that would require no government lending or taxpayer risk-taking at all. Take all the ABS and CDOs and whatchamahaveyous, divvy all tranches into $100 par value claims, put all extant information about the securities on a website, give ’em a ticker symbol, and put ’em on an exchange. I know it’s out of fashion in a world ruined by hedge funds and 401-Ks and the unbearable orthodoxy of index investing. But I have a great deal of respect for that much maligned and nearly extinct species, the individual investor actively managing her own account. Individual investors screw up, but they are never too big to fail. When things go wrong, they take their lumps and move along. And despite everything the professionals tell you, a lot of smart and interested amateurs could build portfolios that match or beat the managers upon whose conflicted hands they have been persuaded to rely. Nothing generates a market price like a sea of independent minds making thousands of small trades, back and forth and back and forth.

I don’t really expect anybody to believe me, but I’ve been thinking something similar.

CDOs, CDOs-squared and all the rest are derrivatives that are traded over the counter; that is, they are traded entirely privately.  If bank B sells some to hedge fund Y, nobody else finds out any details of the trade or even that the trade took place.  The closest we come is that when bank B announces their quarterly accounts, we might realise that they off-loaded some assets.

On the more popularly known stock and bond markets, buyers publicly post their “bid” prices and sellers post their “ask” prices. When the prices meet, a trade occurs.[*1] Most details of the trade are then made public – the price(s), the volume, the particular details of the asset (ordinary shares in XXX, 2-year senior notes from XXX with an expiry of xx/xx/xxxx, etc) – everything except the identity of the buyer and seller. Those details then provide some information to everybody watching on how the buyer and seller value the asset. Other market players can then combine that with their own private valuations and update their own bid or ask prices accordingly. In short, the market aggregates information. [*2]

When assets are traded over the counter (OTC), each participant can only operate on their private valuation. There is no way for the market to aggregate information in that situation. Individual banks might still partially aggregate information by making a lot of trades with a lot of other institutions, since each time they trade they discover a bound on the valuation of the other party (an upper bound when you’re buying and the other party is selling, a lower bound when you’re selling and they’re buying).

To me, this is a huge failure of regulation. A market where information is not publicly and freely available is an inefficient market, and worse, one that expressly creates an incentive for market participants to confuse, conflate, bamboozle and then exploit the ignorant. Information is a true public good.

On that basis, here is my idea:

Introduce new regulation that every financial institution that wants to get support from the government must anonymously publish all details of every trade that they’re party to. The asset type, the quantity, the price, any time options on the deal, everything except the identity of the parties involved. Furthermore, the regulation would be retroactive for X months (say, two years, so that we get data that predates the crisis).  On top of that, the regulation would require that every future trade from everyone (whether they were receiving government assistance or not) would be subject to the same requirementes.  Then everything acts pretty much like the stock and bond markets.

The latest edition of The Economist has an article effectively questioning whether this is such a good idea.

[T]ransparency and liquidity are close relatives. One enemy of liquidity is “asymmetric information”. To illustrate this, look at a variation of the “Market for Lemons” identified by George Akerlof, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, in 1970. Suppose that a wine connoisseur and Joe Sixpack are haggling over the price of the 1998 Château Pétrus, which Joe recently inherited from his rich uncle. If Joe and the connoisseur only know that it is a red wine, they may strike a deal. They are equally uninformed. If vintage, region and grape are disclosed, Joe, fearing he will be taken for a ride, may refuse to sell. In financial markets, similarly, there are sophisticated and unsophisticated investors, and unless they have symmetrical information, liquidity can dry up. Unfortunately transparency may reduce liquidity. Symmetry, not the amount of information, matters.

I’m completely okay with this. Symmetric access to information and symmetric understanding of that information is the ideal. From the first paragraph and then the last paragraph :

… Not long ago the cheerleaders of opacity were the loudest. Without privacy, they argued, financial entrepreneurs would be unable to capture the full value of their trading strategies and other ingenious intellectual property. Forcing them to disclose information would impair their incentive to uncover and correct market inefficiencies, to the detriment of all …

Still, for all its difficulties, transparency is usually better than the alternative. The opaque innovations of the recent past, rather than eliminating market inefficiencies, unintentionally created systemic risks. The important point is that financial markets are not created equal: they may require different levels of disclosure. Liquidity in the stockmarket, for example, thrives on differences of opinion about the value of a firm; information fuels the debate. The money markets rely more on trust than transparency because transactions are so quick that there is little time to assess information. The problem with hedge funds is that a lack of information hinders outsiders’ ability to measure their contribution to systemic risk. A possible solution would be to impose delayed disclosure, which would allow the funds to profit from their strategies, provide data for experts to sift through, and allay fears about the legality of their activities. Transparency, like sunlight, needs to be looked at carefully.

This strikes me as being around the wrong way.  Money markets don’t rely on trust because their transactions are so fast; their transactions are so fast because they’re built on trust.  The scale of the crisis can be blamed, in no small measure, because of the breakdown in that trust.

I also do not buy the idea of opacity begetting market efficiency.  It makes no sense.  The only way that information disclosure can remove the incentive to “uncover and correct” inefficiencies in the market is if by making the information public you reduce the inefficiency.  I’m not suggesting that we force market participants to reveal what they discover before they get the chance to act on it.  I’m only suggesting that the details of their action should be public.

[*1] Okay, it’s not exactly like that, but it’s close enough.

[*2] Note that information aggregation does not necessarily imply that the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), but the EMH requires information aggregation to work.

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


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.


How to value toxic assets (part 4)

Okay.  First, a correction:  There is (of course) a market for CDOs and other such derivatives at the moment.  You can sell them if you want.  It’s just that the prices that buyers are willing to pay is below what the holders of CDOs are willing to accept.

So, here are a few thoughts on estimating the underlying, or “fair,” value of a CDO:

Method 1. Standard asset pricing considers an asset’s value to be the sum of the present discounted value of all future income that it generates.  We discount future income because:

  • Inflation will mean that the money will be worth less in the future, so in terms of purchasing power, we should discount it when thinking of it in today’s terms.
  • Even if there were no inflation, if we got the money today we could invest it elsewhere, so we need to discount future income to allow for the (lost) opportunity cost if current investment options generate a higher return than what the asset is giving us.
  • Even if there were no inflation and no opportunity cost, there is a risk that we won’t receive the future money.  This is the big one when it comes to valuing CDOs and the like.
  • Even if there’s no inflation, no opportunity cost and no risk of not being paid, a positive pure rate of time preference means that we’d still prefer to get our money today.

The discounting due to the risk of non-payment is difficult to quantify because of the opacity of CDOs.  The holders of CDOs don’t know exactly which mortgages are at the base of their particular derivative structure and even if they did, they don’t know the household income of each of those borrowers.  Originally, they simply trusted the ratings agencies, believing that something labeled “AAA” would miss payment with probability p%, something “AA” with probability q% and so on.  Now that the ratings handed out have been shown to be so wildly inappropriate, investors in CDOs are being forced to come up with new numbers.  This is where Knightian Uncertainty is coming into effect:  Since even the risk is uncertain, we are in the Rumsfeldian realm of unknown unknowns.

Of course we do know some things about the risk of non-payment.  It obviously rises as the amount of equity a homeowner has falls and rises especially quickly when they are underwater (a.k.a. have negative equity (a.k.a. they owe more than the property is worth)).  It also obviously rises if there have been a lot of people laid off from their jobs recently (remember that the owner of a CDO can’t see exactly who lies at the base of the structure, so they need to think about the probability that whoever it is just lost their job).

The first of those is the point behind this idea from Chris Carroll out of NYU:  perhaps the US Fed should simply offer insurance against falls in US house prices.

The second of those will be partially addressed in the future by this policy change announced recently by the Federal Housing Finance Agency:

[E]ffective with mortgage applications taken on or after Jan. 1, 2010, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are required to obtain loan-level identifiers for the loan originator, loan origination company, field appraiser and supervisory appraiser … With enactment of the S.A.F.E. Mortgage Licensing Act, identifiers will now be available for each individual loan originator.

“This represents a major industry change. Requiring identifiers allows the Enterprises to identify loan originators and appraisers at the loan-level, and to monitor performance and trends of their loans,” said Lockhart [, director of the FHFA].

It’s only for things bought by Fannie and Freddie and it’s only for future loans, but hopefully this will help eventually.

Method 2. The value of different assets will often necessarily covary.  As a absurdly simple example, the values of the AAA-rated and A-rated tranches of a CDO offering must provide upper and lower bounds on the value of the corresponding AA-rated tranche.  Statistical estimation techniques might therefore be used to infer an asset’s value.  This is the work of quantitative analysts, or “quants.”

Of course, this sort of analysis will suffer as the quality of the inputs falls, so if some CDOs have been valued by looking at other CDOs and none of them are currently trading (or the prices of those trades are different to the true values), then the value of this analysis correspondingly falls.

Method 3. Borrowing from Michael Pomerleano’s comment in rely to Christopher Carroll’s piece, one extreme method of valuing CDOs is to ask at what price a distressed debt (a.k.a. vulture) fund would be willing to buy them at with the intention of merging all the CDOs and other MBSs for a given mortgage pool so that they could then renegotiate the debt with the underlying borrowers (the people who took out the mortgages in the first place).  This is, in essense, a job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.  Gathering all the CDOs and other MBSs for a given pool of mortgage assets will take time.  Identifying precisely those mortgage assets will also take time.  There will be sizable legal costs.  Some holders of the lower-rated CDOs may also refuse to sell if they realise what’s happening, hoping to draw out some rent extraction from the fund.  The price that the vulture fund would offer on even the “highly” rated CDOs would therefore be very low in order to ensure that they made a profit.

It would appear that banks and other holders of CDOs and the like are using some combination of methods one and two to value their assets, while the bid-prices being offered by buyers are being set by the logic of something like method three.  Presumably then, if we knew the banks’ private valuations, we might regard the difference between them and the market prices as the value of the uncertainty.

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


How to value toxic assets (part 3)

Continuing on from my previous thoughts (1, 2, 3, 4) …

In the world of accounting, the relevant phrase here is “fair value.”  In the United States (which presently uses a different set of accounting requirements to the rest of the world, although that is changing), assets are classified as being in one of three levels (I’m largely reproducing the Wikipedia article here):

Level one assets are those traded in liquid markets with quoted prices.  Fair value (in a mark-to-market sense) is taken to be the current price.

Level two and level three assets are not traded in liquid markets with quoted prices, so their fair values need to be estimated via a statistical model.

Level two assets are those whose fair value is able to be estimated by looking at publicly-available market information.  As a contrived example, maybe there is currently no market for a particular AA-rated tranche of CDOs, but there are recent prices for the corresponding AAA-rated and A-rated tranches, so the AA-rated stuff should be valued somewhere in between those two.

Level three assets are those whose fair value can only be estimated by appealing to information that is not publicly observable.

These are listed in the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Statement 157.  In October of last year, the FASB issued some clarification/guidance on valuing derivatives like CDOs when the market for them had dried up.

Brad DeLong, in early December last year, was given a list of reasons from Steve Ross why we might not want to always mark-to-market (i.e. assume that the fair value is the currently available market price):

  • If you believe in organizational capital–in goodwill–in the value of the enterprise’s skills, knowledge, and relationships as a source of future cash flows–than marking it to market as if that organizational capital had no value is the wrong thing to do.
    • Especially as times in which asset values are disturbed and impaired are likely to be times when the value of that organizational capital is highest.
  • If you believe in mean reversion in risk-adjusted asset values, mark-to-market accounting is the wrong thing to do.
  • If you believe that transaction prices differ from risk-adjusted asset values–perhaps because transaction prices are of particular assets that are or are feared to be adversely selected and hence are not representative of the asset class–than mark-to-market accounting is the wrong thing to do.
  • If you believe that changes in risk-adjusted asset values are unpredictable, but also believe:
    • in time-varying required expected returns do to changing risk premia;
    • that an entity’s own cost of capital does not necessarily move one-for-one with the market’s time-varying risk premia;
    • then mark-to-market accounting is the wrong thing to do.

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