Tag Archive for 'Geithner'


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary (part 2)

In my last post, I highlighted the apparent contradictions between the USA having both a “strong dollar” policy and a desire to correct their trade deficit (“re-balancing”).  Tim Geithner, speaking recently in Tokyo, declared that there was no contradiction:

Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

I then said:

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate. But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Which, together with Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor], provides for a delicious (but probably untrue) sort-of-conspiracy theory:

Suppose that Tim Geithner firmly believes in the need for re-balancing.  He’d ideally like US exports to rise while imports stayed flat (since that would imply strong global growth and new jobs for his boss’s constituents), but he’d settle for US imports falling.  Either way, he needs the US real exchange rate to fall, but he doesn’t care how.  Well, not quite.  His friend Ben Bernanke tells him that he doesn’t want deflation in America, but he doesn’t really care between the nominal exchange rate falling and foreign prices rising (foreign inflation).

The recession-induced interest rates of (effectively) zero in America are now his friend, because he’s going to get what he wants no matter what, thanks to the carry trade.  Private investors are borrowing money at 0% interest in America and then going to foreign countries to invest it at interest rates that are significantly higher than zero.  If the foreign central banks did nothing, that would push the US dollar lower and their own currencies higher and Tim gets what he wants.

But the foreign central banks want a strong dollar because (a) they’re holding gazzilions of dollars worth of US treasuries and they don’t want their value to fall; and (b) they’re not fully independent of their political masters who want to want to keep exporting.   So Tim regularly stands up in public and says that he supports a strong dollar.  That makes him look innocent and excuses the foreign central banks for doing what they were all doing anyway:  printing local money to give to the US-funded investors so as to keep their currencies down (and the US dollar up).

But that means that the money supply in foreign countries is climbing, fast, and while prices may be sticky in the short term, they will start rising soon enough.  Foreign inflation will lower the US real exchange rate and Tim still gets what he wants.

The only hope for the foreign central banks is that the demand for their currencies is a short-lived temporary blip.  In that case, defending their currencies won’t require the creation of too much local currency and they could probably reverse the situation fast enough afterward that they don’t get bad inflation. [This is one of the arguments in favour of central bank involvement in the exchange-rate market.  Since price movements are sluggish, they can sterilise a temporary spike and gradually back out the action before local prices react too much.]

But as foreign central banks have been discovering [1], free money is free money and the carry trade won’t go away until the interest rate gap is sufficiently closed:

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.

South Korea Deputy Finance Minister Shin Je Yoon said yesterday the country will leave the level of its currency to market forces after adding about $63 billion to its foreign exchange reserves this year to slow the appreciation of the won.
[…]
Brazil’s real is up 1.1 percent against the dollar this month, even after imposing a tax in October on foreign stock and bond investments and increasing foreign reserves by $9.5 billion in October in an effort to curb the currency’s appreciation. The real has risen 33 percent this year.
[…]
“I hear a lot of noise reflecting the government’s discomfort with the exchange rate, but it is hard to fight this,” said Rodrigo Azevedo, the monetary policy director of Brazil’s central bank from 2004 to 2007. “There is very little Brazil can do.”

The central banks are stuck.  They can’t lower their own interest rates to zero (which would stop the carry trade) as that would stick a rocket under domestic production and cause inflation anyway.  The only thing they can do is what Brazil did a little bit of:  impose legal limits on capital inflows, either explicitly or by taxing foreign-owned investments.  But doing that isn’t really an option, either, because they want to be able to keep attracting foreign investment after all this is over and there’s not much scarier to an investor than political uncertainty.

So they have to wait until America raises it’s own rates.  But that won’t happen until America sees a turn-around in jobs and the fastest way for that to happen is for US exports to rise.

[1] Personally, I think the central bankers saw the writing on the wall the minute the Fed lowered US interest rates to (effectively) zero but their political masters were always going to take some time to cotton on.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary

Tim Geithner, speaking at the start of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh:

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he sees a “strong consensus” among Group of 20 nations to reduce reliance on exports for growth and defended the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

“A strong dollar is very important in the United States,” Geithner said in response to a question at a press conference yesterday in Pittsburgh, where G-20 leaders began two days of talks.

Tim Geithner, speaking in Tokyo while joining the US President on a tour of Asian capitals:

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said a strong dollar is in the nation’s interest and the government recognizes the importance it plays in the global financial system.

“I believe deeply that it’s very important to the United States, to the economic health of the United States, that we maintain a strong dollar,” Geithner told reporters in Tokyo today.
[…]
Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

Which is hilarious.

There is no objective standard for currency strength [1].  A “strong (US) dollar” is a dollar strong relative to other currencies, so it’s equivalent to saying “weak non-US-dollar currencies”.  But when the US dollar is up and other currencies are down, that means that the US will import more (and export less), while the other countries will export more (and import less), which is the exact opposite of the re-balancing efforts.

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate.  But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Assuming my previous paragraph is true, 10 points to the person who can see the potential conspiracy theory [2] implication of Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor].

Hint:  If you go for the conspiracy theory, this story would make you think it was working.

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.
[…]
Governments are amassing record foreign-exchange reserves as they direct central banks to buy dollars in an attempt to stem the greenback’s slide and keep their currencies from appreciating too fast and making their exports too expensive.
[…]
“It looked for a while like the Bank of Korea was trying to defend 1,200, but it looks like they’ve given up and are just trying to slow the advance,” said Collin Crownover, head of currency management in London at State Street Global Advisors

The answer to follow …

Update: The answer is in my next post.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs in the audience.  Don’t make me come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs on this list.  Don’t make me
come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-
completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.


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.


The (latest) bailout of Bank of America

Bank of America is being handed a butt-load of cash:

Bank of America will on Friday receive $20bn in fresh capital from the US government and a guarantee on most of a further $118bn of potential losses on toxic assets.

The emergency bail-out will help to cushion the blow from a deteriorating balance sheet at Merrill Lynch, the brokerage BoA acquired earlier this month.
[…]
The package is on top of the $25bn BoA received from Tarp funds last October, and underscores the depth of the financial difficulties affecting the world’s leading banks.

At this point, BofA has received US$45 billion in hard cash and – more importantly, to my mind – a guarantee against US$118 billion of CDOs and related assets that they hold, many of them from their takeover of Merrill Lynch.

I don’t really want to get into whether bailouts in general are worthwhile, or if this one in particular is worthwhile. What I want to rant about is the nature of this bailout and in particular, that guarantee.  It’s been done in a manner highly similar to the one given to Citigroup last year, so my criticism applies to that one as well.

Here is the joint Press Release from the US Federal Reserve, the US Treasury Department and the FDIC.

Here [pdf] is the term sheet for the deal with Bank of America.

The guarantee is against a pool of assets broken down as:

  • US$37 billion worth of cash assets
  • US$81 billion worth of derivatives (i.e. CDOs and other “troubled” assets)

Profits and losses for the pool will be treated as a whole. The fact that one third of the pool is cash (and cash equivalents) will have been insisted upon by the US government because they will almost surely generate at least a minor profit that will offset losses in the derivatives.

In the event of losses on the pool as a whole, BofA will take the first US$10 billion of losses; the US Government will take the next US$10 billion of losses; and any losses beyond that will be split 90/10: the US government will take 90% of them. That gives a theoretical maximum that the US government might be liable for as 10 + 90%*(118-20) = US$98.2 billion.  In all likelihood, though, the cash assets will hold or increase their value, so the maximum that the US government can realistically be imagined to be liable for is 10 + 90%*(81-20) = US$64.9 billion.

But kicker is this: There was no easy way for them to arrive at that number of $81 billion. The market for cash is massively liquid (prices are available because trades are occurring), so it is easy to value the cash assets. The market for CDOs, on the other hand, is (at least for the moment and for many of them, forever) gone. Unless I’m mistaken, there are no prices available to use in valuing them. Even if there were still a market, CDOs were always traded over-the- counter, meaning that details of prices and volumes were secret.

Instead, the figure of US$81 billion is “based on valuations agreed between [BoA] and the US [Government]” (that’s from the term sheet).

I want to see details of how they valued them.

When TARP was first envisaged and it was suggested that a reverse auction might take place, the rationale was for “price discovery” to take place. The idea – which is still a good one, even if reverse auctions are a bad way to achieve it – is that since nobody knows what the CDOs are really worth, confusion and fear reign and the market drys up. Since nobody can properly value banks’ assets, nobody can tell whether those banks are solvent or not.

The generalised inability to value CDOs remains, and will continue to remain, a core issue in the financial crisis.

Suppose that the true value of BoA’s CDOs is US$51 billion. At some point, we will collectively realise that fact. The market will become (at least semi-)liquid again and the prices will, at least approximately, reflect that value. But since the BoA and US government had agreed that they were worth US$81 billion, it will technically look like a $30 billion loss and so will trigger the US government handing $19 billion (= 10 + 90%*(30-20)) to BoA and unlike the $45 billion in direct capital injection, the government will get nothing in return for that money.

Therefore, BofA had an enormous incentive to game the US government. No matter what they privately believed that their CDOs were worth, they would want to convince the Treasury that they were actually worth much more.

The US government isn’t entirely stupid, mind you. That’s why the first $10 billion in losses accrue to BoA. That means that for the money-for-nothing situation to occur, the agreed-upon valuation would need to be out by over $10 billion. On other hand, that means that instead of telling a little white lie, BoA has an incentive to tell a huge whopper of a bald-faced lie in convincing the Treasury.

That is why I want to see details on how they valued them.

Felix Salmon thinks that both Citigroup and Bank of America should be nationalised:

[N]either institution is capable of surviving in its present form much longer. [Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner] should embrace the inevitable and just nationalize the two banks.

[T]his isn’t a bank run: Citi and BofA aren’t suffering from liquidity problems. They have all the liquidity they need, thanks to the Fed. The problem is one of solvency: the equity markets simply don’t believe that the banks’ assets are worth more than their liabilities.

The problem being, as I explained above, that nobody knows what the assets are really worth and the market is simply assuming the worst as a precautionary measure.

I’m not yet convinced that they should be fully nationalised. I just don’t think that the government should put itself in a situation where it promises to give them money for nothing in the event that their private valuation turns out to be too high (i.e. the market is correct in believing that they’re worth bugger-all).

Barry Ritholtz wants to know why the heads of Citi and BoA are still there:

Like Citi, the B of A monies are a terrible deal for the taxpayer — not a lot of bang for the buck, and leaving the same people who created the mess in charge.

Organ transplant medicine understands certain truths: You do not give a healthy liver to a raging alcoholic, as they will only destroy the organ via their disease/bad judgment/lifestyle.

In this, I agree with him entirely.