Tag Archive for 'CDO'

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How to value toxic assets (part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post on this topic, Paul Krugman has been voicing similar concerns (and far more eloquently).  Although his focus has been on the idea of a bad bank (to which all the regular banks would sell their CDOs and other now-questionable assets), the problems are the same.  On the 17th of January he wrote:

It comes back to the original questions about the TARP. Financial institutions that want to “get bad assets off their balance sheets” can do that any time they like, by writing those assets down to zero — or by selling them at whatever price they can. If we create a new institution to take over those assets, the $700 billion question is, at what price? And I still haven’t seen anything that explains how the price will be determined.

I suspect, though I’m not certain, that policymakers are once more coming around to the view that mortgage-backed securities are being systematically underpriced. But do we really know this? And how are we going to ensure that this doesn’t end up being a huge giveaway to financial firms?

On the 18th of January, he followed this up with:

What people are thinking about, it’s pretty clear, is the Resolution Trust Corporation, which cleaned up the savings and loan mess. That’s a good role model, as far as it goes. But the creation of the RTC did not rescue the S&Ls. The S&Ls were rescued by (1) having FSLIC seize them, cleaning out the stockholders (2) having FSLIC pay down enough debt to make them viable (3) reselling them to new investors. The RTC’s takeover of the bad assets was just a way for taxpayers to reclaim some of the cost of recapitalizing the banks.

What’s being contemplated now, if Sheila Bair’s interview is any indication, is the creation of an RTC-like entity without the rest of the process. The “bad bank” will pay “fair value”, whatever that is, for the assets. But how does that help the situation?

It looks as if we’re back to the idea that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it — and that if only we get the price “right”, the banks will turn out to be solvent after all. In other words, we’re still in Super-SIV territory, the belief that fancy financial engineering can create value out of nothing.

Tyler Cowen points us to this article in the Washington Post that describes the issues pretty well.  Again, the crux of the matter is:

The difficulty is that banks think their assets are worth more than investors are willing to pay. If the government sides with investors, the banks will be forced to swallow the difference as a loss. If the government pays what the banks regard as a fair price, however, the markets may ignore the transactions as a bailout by another name.

Tyler Cowen’s own comment:

If the assets are undervalued by the market, buying them up is an OK deal. Presumably the price would be determined by a reverse auction, with hard-to-track asset heterogeneity introducing some arbitrariness into the resulting prices. If these assets are not undervalued by the market, and indeed they really are worth so little, our government wishes to find a not-fully-transparent way to give financial firms greater value, also known as “huge giveaway.”

Right now it seems to boil down to the original TARP idea or nationalization, take your pick. You are more likely to favor nationalization if you think that governments can run things well, if you feel there is justice in government having “upside” on the deal, and if you are keen to spend the TARP money on other programs instead.

How to value toxic assets

There should really be a question mark at the end of that title.  As far as I can tell, no-one really knows.

I mentioned yesterday that the US government has just given a guarantee to Bank of America against losses in a collection of CDOs and other derrivatives that BofA and the US government agreed were currently worth US$81 billion (the headline guarantee is for $118 billion, but $37 billion of that is cash assets that are unlikely to lose value).

Last November the US government did the same thing for Citigroup, but the numbers there were much larger:  US$306 billion.

The deal with Bank of America is a better one because the $81 billion of toxic assets had to be bundled with $37 billion of cash that will almost certainly create a (small) profit to partially offset any losses.

Nevertheless there is a general question of how they arrived at those numbers given that the market for those assets has dried up:  nobody is buying or selling them, so there aren’t any market prices to use.

The problem is hardly unique to America.  From today’s FT:

[M]inisters and regulators are examining loans already on banks’ balance sheets, which are becoming more impaired as the economy deteriorates. Concern about the eventual size of losses on them is one reason British banks have recently reined in lending.

Final decisions are not expected imminently from the Treasury. But Mr Brown has spoken recently of the problem of “toxic assets” on balance sheets, raising speculation that a “bad bank” solution will be adopted.

The prime minister has also said Britain is looking at different models. These include schemes whereby the government buys up bad assets in return for cash or government bonds; and schemes where banks keep the assets on their balance sheets but the government insures them against loss. The latter method was adopted by the US government this week to shore up Bank of America.

The Bank of England is moving towards the idea of a so-called bad bank, since private sales of bank assets are proving difficult or impossible. But it raises difficult questions: how should assets be valued; should gilts be issued for the purchases; or should money be created.

Mr Darling also notes that a US toxic asset relief scheme proved difficult to launch because of banks’ refusal to sell assets at a price ­acceptable to the government. Offering insurance against future losses on bad assets could prove more attractive.

“The other problem is that the banks haven’t asked us to do this yet,” said one government official. “We would be asking the banks to give us a load of crap and they’d say to us: ‘What are you going to pay us then?’”

The credit crisis will not end until we know which banks are solvent and which are not, and we won’t know that until we know the value of those CDOs.  Despite the fact that they can’t sell them, banks are loath to write them off completely.  Also from the FT today:

With speculation growing that the government will be forced to stage another bank rescue, the prime minister told the Financial Times he had been urging the banks for almost a year to write down their bad assets. “One of the necessary elements for the next stage is for people to have a clear understanding that bad assets have been written off,” he said.

Speaking amid mounting market concerns that banks face further heavy losses, Mr Brown said: “We have got to be clear that where we have got clearly bad assets, I expect them to be dealt with.”

Is it just me, or do you get impression that we’re watching a very expensive game of chicken here?

Explaining CDOs

Via Paul Krugman, make sure you check this out.  It’s a fantastic graphical representation of how Collateralised Debt Obligations work and what happens when people start defaulting on their mortgages.