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The Real Reasons Why Hank Paulson Screwed Up

For Hank Paulson's detractors (and there are many), the U.S. Treasury Secretary's main mistakes in dealing with the 2009 financial crisis often boil down to: 1. Letting Lehman Brothers go bankrupt. 2. Relying on an ad hoc approach: one day the $700 billion bailout is about buying bad assets, the next it's about recapitalizing struggling banks (remember the quote from a Washington lawmaker accusing him of flying a $700 billion plane by the seat of his pants).

But is this really where the former Goldman Sachs chairman blundered?

First, Lehman Brothers: Did its collapse really play such a large role in ushering in the nuclear winter in credit markets? It's not that hard to imagine that, absent a Lehman going belly up, a different bankruptcy or dire event would have brought us to the same juncture. Remember too that Lehman was revealed to be in worse shape than anyone imagined: its bonds wound up fetching a paltry nine cents on the dollar. Its implosion spooked markets partl…

Anything Goes

Read this December 18 news flash from The American Banker:A New York private equity firm has agreed to invest $250 million in Flagstar Bancorp, gaining 70% ownership of the thrift company. But the deal’s completion hinges on Flagstar receiving an additional $250 million from the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.I do not know the specifics of the transaction. But note the gist of the story. A private firm and the U.S. Treasury are both to invest $250 million in a bank, with the private firm getting 70% of the company.

That is why I called this entry Anything Goes. If you are a U.S. citizen, you can also read it as Your Tax Dollars at Work.

Experts to the Rescue

Here is why I constantly emphasize the importance of theory:
A complete overhaul of banking regulation is needed in the wake of the global financial crisis, and one of the aims should be to insulate the real economy from the effects of future banking crises, according to some of the world’s top economists ... Robert Solow, who won the 1987 Nobel prize for economics, said: “I would like to see a regulatory system aimed at insulating the real economy from financial innovation in so far as that is possible”.There you have it. Some of the world’s top economists, including at least one Nobel prize winner, think that the “real economy” can be insulated from banking and finance, and they are proposing to do just that in order to contain the financial crisis – “so far as that is possible,” of course.

One has to go back to the Middle Ages and the views of the priests about the solar system to find so great a chasm between the reality and its false reflection in human mind. But those priests at…

More on Merton and the “Collapse of the Whole Intellectual Edifice”

A couple of readers wrote to ask how I could blame one man for a such a large-scale financial collapse. Had I not said many times that the subject of finance is capital in circulation and not people? How could that assertion be reconciled with the claim that Merton single-handedly – whether consciously or not – brought about the downfall of the so-called Anglo-American financial system?

Merton’s idea about riskless portfolio earning riskless rate pertained to a definite point in the historical development of finance capital in which, thanks to its continuous growth and eventual dominance of financial markets, it claimed “recognition” on par with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Merton was simply the vessel for that expression. He was, you could say, chosen by fate. Like Oedipus, his deed was inflicted upon him rather than committed by him.

(In saying that finance capital claimed recognition on par with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, I am not creating…

“The Collapse of the Whole Intellectual Edifice”

Things were moving at last, the Colonel said; as for himself he was putting every cent he could scrape up, beg or borrow, into options. He even suggested that Ward send him a little money to invest for him, now that he was in a position to risk a stake on the surety of a big turnover; risk wasn’t the word because the whole situation was sewed up in a bag; nothing to do but shake the tree and let the fruit fall into their mouths.John Dos Passos in 42nd Parallel
You have no doubt noticed the theoretical bent of this blog. I refer to Rumi and T.S. Eliot, share my philosophical musings and write about the descent of man and the philosophers of our time. In the midst of a financial crisis, such seeming detachment from the events in the world of finance from a blog dedicated to finance could seem odd, the kind of stuff that gives Ivory Tower intellectualism a bad name.

But the underlying theory here is both serious and necessary. It is serious because its aim is to drag the reader into the su…

I’m Still Around

My apologies for the longer-than-usual absence. Blame it on an event out of my control and a decision within my control. The event produced three fractured bones in my left arm. The decision pertained to a topic that proved difficult for a blog. I have discussed it in some length in the forthcoming Vol. 4 but had a hard time summarizing it for this space.

The pain in my arm is reduced to a tolerable level. The 3000-word entry is ready. After giving it a once over, I will post it tomorrow.

Thanks for understanding.

The View Through the Bushian Looking Glass

GM got a stern dressing down when it showed up in Washington with Detroit's other suffering automakers, hat in hand, seeking a bailout. Would you rescue an outfit with these characteristics:

The company is on shaky financial footing, perhaps insolvent. It is guilty of overpaying workers (blue-collar employees got generous union contracts that provided unsustainable benefits). Its core business suffered from stunningly bad decisions (not developing enough good high-mileage or green vehicles, for example, leaving the company with unpopular products it has trouble selling).

The verdict: Let it perish! But what about the following supplicant:

The company is on shaky financial footing, perhaps insolvent. It is guilty of overpaying workers (white-collar executives got outrageous bonuses and salaries that didn't reflect the long-term viability of the operations they oversaw). Its core business suffered from stunningly bad decisions (taking on too much leverage and acquiring risky, compl…

The Consequences of Efficiency (in practice)

Back in September I wrote about the flip side of “efficiency” in capital markets, singling out sec lending as a culprit.

Last month, A.I.G. asked for additional $38 billion in financing on top of the $85 billion it has already received, raising questions, according to the New York Times, “about how a company claiming to be solvent in September could have developed such a big hole by October.”

Here is a crucial part of the answer:
While about $7 billion of its quarterly losses … were connected with the insurance coverage ... a bigger share of the losses, about $18 billion, were incurred because the assets in A.I.G.’s investment portfolio had fallen in value. Of that total amount, losses of a little less than $12 billion were on investments made under A.I.G.’s securities lending program.To understand what is taking place in the financial markets, on top of the theory, one must also know the nitty-gritty of the ways money is made. Only then theory could be deployed to connect the dots. Theo…

Give Me a Lever Long Enough and I'll Buy the World

When the definitive history of this financial crisis is written, the role of leverage should get a hard look. In the ailing credit markets, leverage turned what should have been chest pains into a full-blown heart attack. The “seize up" metaphor became especially apt.

Those following the storyline closely will know that leverage at Wall Street investment banks soared from levels of 12-1 to 30-1 in about four years. But what does that mean? To the average guy on Main Street, leverage is a rather abstract, foreign concept. However it's critical to grasp the destabilizing power of leverage to understand the mess we're in.

The standard definition of leverage compares money borrowed to equity. So if you take out a $3 million loan and your only equity is a $300,000 house, you’re leveraged at 10-1. But there's another way to look at this idea that illustrates the vulnerability created.

Let's say you buy a stock option (that financial engineers have dreamed up) that behaves …

Lehman On My Mind

Speaking of politics, those who track polls say that McCain’s fate was sealed on Friday, October 10. That is the day the Dow Jones opened 750 points down and McCain said that the U.S. economy was fundamentally sound. Almost immediately, his poll numbers which had been consistently close to Obama’s, sank and never recovered.

If so, blame the Lehman bankruptcy for at least contributing to McCain’s loss, with all the implications that follow. October 10, you recall, was the settlement date for the credit default swaps on Lehman. The dreadful opening of the markets in the U.S. was in anticipation of multi-billion dollar losses by Lehman CDS writers that was estimated to be in the order of $400 billion. It turned out that, thanks to netting, the ultimate payable amount was less than $6 billion. On that news, the Dow Jones recovered, but not McCain’s poll ratings.

The Lehman bankruptcy established a high water mark for the dislocated rates and prices and, in that regard, has become a de facto…

Wall Street’s Deafening Silence

Throughout the long dark days of this financial crisis, one thing that has struck me is the silence of Wall Street’s public relations machines. I keep waiting for one bank, any bank, to give us their best-spin version of what went wrong, or why they aren’t as bad as all those others – or to say something. Surely they must see how vilified they have become. Shareholder activist Nell Minow even quipped that the Street is one bonus away from having the villagers descend with torches.

But when “60 Minutes” did its exposé on the financial crisis early on, none of the major Wall Street banks would comment, apparently in any form. None of them even sent what I call the “coward’s note” – that carefully crafted defense/statement that is read on air at the end of the broadcast segment. Later, when the bank CEOs went to Washington to sign off on billion-dollar bailouts, they left the meeting with Treasury Secretary Paulson and fled to their limousines. They adroitly dodged the press corps waiting…

Election Night Musings on Why We Fail to “Get It”

Vols. 1 and 2 of Speculative Capital were published by the Financial Times in 1999. Vol. 1 came out in March and was FT’s “Book of the Month”. It got a respectable review and relatively strong sales which increased over time.

Vol. 2 followed in June and, as far the options discovery was concerned, was an instant dud. No one reacted to it.

The silence surprised me. There were large and active equity, fixed income, commodities and FX markets with tens of thousands of users and traders. Option valuation was, and remains, a mandatory subject in all business school programs. Surely the proof that options were not what everyone had thought they were had to be newsworthy.

After a few months, the comments began to trickle in and they were uniformly critical. The 100-plus page proof, that an option is not a right to buy or sell but a right to default, somehow had failed to make its mark; even a few who praised it had not understood it. There was, furthermore, this weird reciprocity, as I did not …

The Group That Time Forgot

I had planned to write about Nobel Prize in economics and its latest recipient, Paul Krugman, but got distracted and the news got stale. Just a brief comment so I could scratch this one off of my to-do list.

The most telling part of the choice was the formal statement of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explaining the choice. It said, in part:
Traditional trade theory assumes that countries are different and explains why some countries export agricultural products whereas others export industrial goods. The new theory clarifies why worldwide trade is in fact dominated by countries which not only have similar conditions, but also trade in similar products – for instance, a country such as Sweden that both exports and imports cars.So, the ladies and gentlemen of the Prize Committee who must have been locked up incommunicado in the basement of Ricardo household since the 18th century think that everyone thinks that Japanese are supposed to export rice; Americans, car; Germans, beer an…

Why Homeowner Mortgage Relief Ain't Going to be Easy

Like many others, I was rather shocked last month on hearing about the need for a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. The early storyline was that financial firms were saddled with too many securities backed by distressed U.S. home mortgages and, in a climate of fear and panic, they couldn't sell them at fair value. So that meant the government would have to step forward and act as a buyer.

Setting aside the fact that this narrative was disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst (the assets are most likely cheap because -- surprise -- they're simply not worth that much), I found the approach bass ackwards. It seemed more efficient to work from the ground up. Namely, if the securities were hard to value because of uncertainty over the mortgages they held, why not provide a structure for homeowners and lenders to rework troubled mortgages? In this “trickle up” approach, the securities would gradually become more stable and thus easier to trade. It seemed like a pretty good idea.

I …

What Creates Volatility?

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times is one of the better financial journalists, perhaps the best. She was the first to make heads and tails of the structured investment vehicles before many who should have known better had any idea what an SIV was.

But reporters only report what they see and hear. And that, when it comes to the analysis of financial events, is not sufficient. The outward appearance of events has a driving force that remains hidden from the naked eye.

So there she was in her today’s column, writing about the return of unprecedented volatility which “has left many investors and bankers utterly dazed and confused”. Throughout the article, her focus remained entirely on people: “[The situation] remains a delicate war of investor psychology and computer models.”

The subject of finance is not people. It is capital in circulation. So, how do we explain the volatility if the people are taken out of the explanation?

By way of answer, here are a few quotes from Vol. 1 of Speculativ…

The Blog’s Target Audience

A friend with marketing bent pointed out that despite infuriating gaps between postings, the readership of the blog was increasing. He asked who the target audience was.

The target audience is an advertising concept – like “teenager”, for example – devised to help sell products of one kind or another.

This blog has no target audience. Or, rather, everyone is its target audience. It is intended for everyone. If you must, think of it as an intellectual bell. Ask not for whom it tolls, for it tolls for thee.

Genuine Insights, Bold Recommendations, Expressed Resolutely

Speaking of T. S. Eliot, he disdains the intellectual vanity, of the kind his Mr. Appolinax exhibits: “There was something he said that I might have challenged.”

Now read this from a commentary by Larry Summers in today’s Financial Times:
In retrospect, the fact that 40 per cent of American corporate profits in 2006 went to the financial sector, and the closely related outcome – a doubling of the share of income going to the top 1 per cent of the population – should have been signs something was amiss.That doubling of the share of income going to the top 1 per cent of the population could conceivably be a problem – something “amiss”, he says – this ex president of Harvard and ex Treasury secretary has realized only in retrospect.

He then offers his recommendations.
Therefore we need to reform tax incentives that encourage financial risk taking, regulate leverage and prevent government policies that give rise to a toxic combination of privatised gains and socialised losses. This offers the…

The Danger of Clinging to Myths of Security

In my fairly voracious reading on the current financial mess, I've yet to see anyone tackle in thematic fashion the idea of “myths of security.” I think this is a highly relevant subject (a tad philosophical, but not too much heavy lifting I promise), as it helps explain why an asset bubble can become grossly inflated. Security is, after all, the comforting touchstone to reality we seek when we’re faced with counterintuitive evidence, such as home prices surging 20 percent a year.

So what myths of security allowed the housing market to soar so high? By myths of security, I refer to a false sense of safety or comfort. These myths create what might be called a “security premium” in prices of assets, such as homes. In other words, investors are willing to shell out more money for assets perceived as safe and reliable.

A quick detour: Why is this last sentence true in general? 1. The pool of investors, and thus the overall demand, grows larger for safe investments. Example: pension fund…

A Market “Walking, Loitering, Hurried”

What kind of a card game is being played if the lower card trumps the higher card?

Low poker, of course. That is an easy one.

What kind of a credit game is being played if subordinated debt trumps senior debt?The auction that settled figures for the senior and subordinated bonds of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the US government mortgage agencies, has led to widespread confusion and some participants losing out. In both cases the recovery rate for the senior debt – which in real-world defaults get first claim on all assets – came in lower than for the subordinated debt. Now you are totally confounded and dumbfounded by this because you know that:
With the US government guarantee, there is not supposed to be a “recovery rate” – how much a bond pays on a dollar. That should be par, or 100 cents on a dollar.
The recovery rate for senior debt cannot be lower than the subordinated debt because by definition, senior debt gets paid ahead of subordinated debt.
Yet, there it is, the Financial Times

Shakespeare and the Credit Rating Agencies

The current crisis in the financial markets is being portrayed as, above all, a failure of trust. Banks are seeking unreasonably high rates to lend to each other because they don't know who is hiding skeletons in the closet and may be teetering on the brink of insolvency. But if you really want to understand the concept of trust squandered, you would do well to look at the plight of the credit rating agencies.

These companies slapped attractive ratings on dubious mortgage-backed securities. Investors then snapped up the securities, reassured by the seals of approval bestowed by Moody's and S&P. Of course the ratings agencies had a conflict of interest so huge it was surprising that Washington regulators never had a Homer Simpson “d’oh” moment: Whichever bank created a security also paid for it to be rated. It's like a poor student who can buy good grades, except with more disastrous consequences, as we are now seeing.

How bad did it get? In an informal instant message ex…

Hank Paulson: He Isn't One of Us

The John McCain line about Barack Obama could easily apply to the U.S. Treasury Secretary. Paulson, as you may recall, submitted an awful $700 billion bailout plan that was fortunately improved through the legislative process. But Paulson had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing (agreeing to take ownership stakes in firms that take bailout money, so as not to leave taxpayers too much on the hook). He apparently preferred to just blow $700 billion on a mountain of bad assets and cross his fingers that they'll be worth something in five years.

Hank Paulson is now paid by the U.S. taxpayer, but he still hears most clearly the siren call of Wall Street, where he once headed Goldman Sachs and argued against regulations that could have helped avoid this current mess. Considering his conflicted heart, we would do well to monitor the Treasury closely during bank rescue operations. Paulson still wants to play Santa Claus; he has already said that the government wil…

Fannie and Freddie: Not the Boogeymen

Check out this article from the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers about why Fannie and Freddie shouldn't be the fall guys for the global financial crisis. The structure and logical flow are a bit choppy in places, but the central contention is dead on. It was good to see the authors argue the point forcefully, which newspaper reporters are often too timid or self-conscious to do. Anyway, the excerpt below shows how Fannie and Freddie were laggards in subprime lending, not leaders.

Between 2004 and 2006, when subprime lending was exploding, Fannie and Freddie went from holding a high of 48 percent of the subprime loans that were sold into the secondary market to holding about 24 percent, according to data from Inside Mortgage Finance, a specialty publication. One reason is that Fannie and Freddie were subject to tougher standards than many of the unregulated players in the private sector who weakened lending standards, most of whom have gone bankrupt or are now in deep troub…

And Now a Word from our Sponsor

Now for some good news about the market for credit default swaps (those insurance-like products that guarantee the value of corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities). These details are by way of a clearinghouse for trades that goes by the name Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC).

* Pleasant surprise #1: DTCC, which claims to handle the "vast majority" of trades on credit default swaps, says it has registered $34.8 trillion of such contracts. That would make the credit default swap market about half of earlier estimates of $60 trillion, thus reducing its "neutron bomb" capacity for widespread destruction.

* Pleasant surprise #2: Less than 1% of its credit default swaps are for mortgage-backed securities. So, presumably, even if these securities (whose value rests on the fortunes of the cratering U.S. home market) take a tumble, that won't trigger huge CDS claims.

* Pleasant surprise #3: The net payout in the Lehman bankruptcy, from the sellers of…

Halloween Costume Idea: Go as a Credit Default Swap

We are now entering a new roller coaster phase of the financial crisis. The G7 meeting this weekend produced little more than the illusion of a hint of group resolve. The communiqué that was issued contains fine-sounding principles but no plan of action. Markets will likely respond no more than if they had been slapped with a wet noodle.

The real news this week will be quietly going on behind the scenes: a scramble for cash to meet credit default swap obligations after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. That's a mouthful, and since I created this blog for curious people who aren't from the world of finance, I'll go slow here.

First, when you go bankrupt, your owners are wiped out. In Lehman's case, this means the stockholders. The bondholders, being creditors, are in a better position. They get to divvy what's left of the carcass, if you will. For every dollar they lent to Lehman, they may get 70 cents, 50 cents or even 10. Turns out, unfortunately, it's pretty clos…

Pin the Blame on the Donkey?

The search for a scapegoat in the U.S. financial crisis will reach new heights if markets around the world continue to gasp and flounder. Banks are still terrified to lend to each other. Who can you really trust in a high-stakes shell game where mounds of bad assets are hidden somewhere, but where exactly?

One narrative of the financial crisis would lay the blame at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two mortgage giants, conservatives contend with increasing vigor, were pushed hard by Congress (especially by Democrats) to lend more to low-income families who had poor credit. What brought this mess upon us, so goes this interpretation of events, were meddling politicians, not failures of regulation or the free market.

It’s a nice story, especially for those who tend to see bleeding-heart liberals behind every tree (or hugging every tree). But it’s like trying to put a size 6 foot inside a size 12 shoe – not a good fit. Sure, Fannie and Freddy screwed up. They did buy home loans …

Who Could Have Seen This Coming?

In a front page article this past Friday, The New York Times suggested that an obscure decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission in ’04 to loosen the debt limits of the broker/dealers had set the stage for the meltdown in financial markets.

The story had lots of tidbits in the tradition of the best tabloids: a bright spring afternoon, a basement meeting, a pensive commissioner and a Cassandra in the form of a software developer – a clueless geek with extra time on his hands, really – who wrote to warn the commissioners that they were about to make a grave mistake.

Whether the piece was a hatchet job on Christopher Cox, the SEC chairman – it probably was – is not important. (The article opened by quoting Cox talking about the broker/dealers – “we have a good deal of comfort about the capital cushions at these firms at the moment” – and went on to ask, How could Mr. Cox have been so wrong? The answer is that Cox was wrong, but when it came to ignorance about what was about to hap…

On the Lighter Side

Image
From the “how NOT to do Wall Street PR” department
The photo above accompanied CNN’s Friday story about the House passing the financial rescue bill. I know the intent was to show Wall Street's jubilation. But what we got was this well-fed trader who appears to be laughing at, not with, the U.S. taxpayer (especially since the market took a dive Friday).

How to make your own financial crisis. Step one: get a snow blower. Step two: fill it with money. Step three: turn it on.

“I wouldn't have loaned me the money. And nobody I know would have loaned me the money.”
-- Clarence Nathan, as quoted in the New York Times. Nathan had no job and no assets, but received a $450,000 mortgage.

My favorite 15-word analysis of the Paulson plan, which Congress passed, to buy hundreds of billions of dollars of toxic financial assets:

Throw a trillion dollars down a rathole with no debate and no alternatives considered.
Brilliant.
-- poster Jeffrey Knoll, in the comments section of Econbrowser.