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Mortgage finance in pictures

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This graphic is from TheDeal.com (via Paul Kedrosky). Note they give the notional to net ratio for CDS as $62 to $2 trillion, or 30 to 1. That ratio is a good proxy for the complexity of the network of contracts and how difficult it will be to disentangle.

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Written by infoproc

October 5, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Why no bailout?

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Representatives in Congress received thousands of phone calls and emails from constituents against the bailout, which some wags have characterized as “no banker left behind” 🙂

We can trace this popular reaction against CEOs and Wall St. to growing income and wealth inequality. Ordinary people no longer feel they have a stake in the system. Their reaction may be irrational (even the poorest American has a big stake in the continued functioning of the economy), but it was certainly predictable.

Next spring, unlike last year, less than half of the Harvard graduating class will take jobs in finance. I guess that signals a top in the market 8-/

Related posts:

financier pay

all about the benjamins

a reallocation of human capital

a new class war

non-residential net worth

working class millionaires

Written by infoproc

September 30, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Asset-backed oversold? Paulson ready to get back in!

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John Paulson made $15 billion for his fund ($3.7 billion for himself!) betting against subprime securities last year. Now Bloomberg reports that he’s ready to get back in on the upside!

I’m as dismayed as anyone else about taxpayer dollars going to bail out mortgage holders, commercial banks and the GSE’s (Fannie, Freddie). I complained about Fannie back in 2004 when Franklin Raines was still CEO and the story first got out about their smoothing of earnings and use of derivatives accounting.

But, on the other hand, maybe Uncle Sam can actually generate positive return by buying oversold securities! Rumor says that current prices of subprime mortgage backed securities suggest implied default rates which are unrealistically high (e.g., like 50% !). Barring a complete economic meltdown these assets are underpriced and will generate a handsome return for an intelligent investor willing to take some risk. Is Uncle Sam smart? Let’s hope that the other Paulson negotiates some upside for us taxpayers in any bailout organized by the Treasury.

Bloomberg: John Paulson, the money manager whose wagers against the U.S. housing market helped him earn an estimated $3.7 billion last year, is now seeking to profit from Wall Street’s search for capital to offset mortgage writedowns.

Paulson plans to open a hedge fund by December that will provide capital to the world’s biggest banks and brokers as they add to the $345 billion they’ve raised in the past year, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. His Paulson & Co., which oversees $33 billion, hasn’t set a size target for the fund, said the people, who declined to be identified because the plans aren’t final.

The New York-based firm’s credit funds rose as much as sixfold last year, helped by bets that rising defaults on subprime home loans would pummel the value of mortgage-backed securities. The meltdown has forced the world’s biggest banks and securities firms to take $467 billion in asset write-offs and credit losses and led to the collapse of Bear Stearns Cos.

“Investors who are able to make money in a declining market and then rapidly turn around and profit from a rising market is highly unusual,” said Thomas Whelan, president of Greenwich, Connecticut-based Greenwich Alternative Investments, which advises clients on investing in hedge funds.

Paulson declined to comment. His 2007 earnings made him the highest-paid hedge-fund manager, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine.

Written by infoproc

July 23, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Pop goes the housing bubble

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Figure via Calculated Risk. Larger version here

I believe the outlines of the bust are becoming as visible as the bubble itself was to any astute observer a few years ago. But no bottom yet! If I had to guess, I’d say we are going to give back most of the integral over the curve from 1997 to 2007 or so, net of overall inflation during that period (say 20-30%). In other words, extend the blue trend line beyond the early nineties, and integrate your favorite curve minus this trend line from 1997-2007 to get the overvaluation. (Note the graph is of year over year price changes in nominal dollars, not absolute price.)

Or, just look at the figure below to see that prices might have to drop 30-40% to return to consistency with the long term trend.

As we’ve discussed before, house price increases tend to be quite modest if measured in real dollars. (Except, of course, for bubbles and special cases 🙂

The Case-Shiller national index will probably be off close to 12% YoY (will be released in earlylate May). Currently (as of Q4) the national index is off 10.1% from the peak.

The composite 10 index (10 large cities) is off 13.6% YoY. (15.8% from peak)

The composite 20 index is off 12.7% YoY. (14.8% from peak)

Written by infoproc

April 29, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Soros tells it like it is

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The Financial Crisis: An Interview with George Soros with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg TV.

According to his estimates (see below), housing starts would have to go to zero (he gives a normal value of 600k per annum, but I think the correct number is about twice that) for several years to compensate for the inventory that will flood the market due to foreclosures. So, no recovery in the near future, and continued pressure on the dollar. He also has some nice things to say about academic economics 🙂

Judy Woodruff: You write in your new book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets,[1] that “we are in the midst of a financial crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.” Was this crisis avoidable?

George Soros: I think it was, but it would have required recognition that the system, as it currently operates, is built on false premises. Unfortunately, we have an idea of market fundamentalism, which is now the dominant ideology, holding that markets are self-correcting; and this is false because it’s generally the intervention of the authorities that saves the markets when they get into trouble. Since 1980, we have had about five or six crises: the international banking crisis in 1982, the bankruptcy of Continental Illinois in 1984, and the failure of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, to name only three.

Each time, it’s the authorities that bail out the market, or organize companies to do so. So the regulators have precedents they should be aware of. But somehow this idea that markets tend to equilibrium and that deviations are random has gained acceptance and all of these fancy instruments for investment have been built on them.

There are now, for example, complex forms of investment such as credit-default swaps that make it possible for investors to bet on the possibility that companies will default on repaying loans. Such bets on credit defaults now make up a $45 trillion market that is entirely unregulated. It amounts to more than five times the total of the US government bond market. The large potential risks of such investments are not being acknowledged.

Woodruff: How can so many smart people not realize this?

Soros: In my new book I put forward a general theory of reflexivity, emphasizing how important misconceptions are in shaping history. So it’s not really unusual; it’s just that we don’t recognize the misconceptions.

Woodruff: Who could have? You said it would have been avoidable if people had understood what’s wrong with the current system. Who should have recognized that?

Soros: The authorities, the regulators—the Federal Reserve and the Treasury—really failed to see what was happening. One Fed governor, Edward Gramlich, warned of a coming crisis in subprime mortgages in a speech published in 2004 and a book published in 2007, among other statements. So a number of people could see it coming. And somehow, the authorities didn’t want to see it coming. So it came as a surprise.

Woodruff: The chairman of the Fed, Mr. Bernanke? His predecessor, Mr. Greenspan?

Soros: All of the above. But I don’t hold them personally responsible because you have a whole establishment involved. The economics profession has developed theories of “random walks” and “rational expectations” that are supposed to account for market movements. That’s what you learn in college. Now, when you come into the market, you tend to forget it because you realize that that’s not how the markets work. But nevertheless, it’s in some way the basis of your thinking.

Woodruff: How much worse do you anticipate things will get?

Soros: Well, you see, as my theory argues, you can’t make any unconditional predictions because it very much depends on how the authorities are going to respond now to the situation. But the situation is definitely much worse than is currently recognized. You have had a general disruption of the financial markets, much more pervasive than any we have had so far. And on top of it, you have the housing crisis, which is likely to get a lot worse than currently anticipated because markets do overshoot. They overshot on the upside and now they are going to overshoot on the downside.

Woodruff: You say the housing crisis is going to get much worse. Do you anticipate something like the government setting up an agency or a trust corporation to buy these mortgages?

Soros: I’m sure that it will be necessary to arrest the decline because the decline, I think, will be much faster and much deeper than currently anticipated. In February, the rate of decline in housing prices was 25 percent per annum, so it’s accelerating. Now, foreclosures are going to add to the supply of housing a very large number of properties because the annual rate of new houses built is about 600,000. There are about six million subprime mortgages outstanding, 40 percent of which will likely go into default in the next two years. And then you have the adjustable-rate mortgages and other flexible loans.

Problems with such adjustable-rate mortgages are going to be of about the same magnitude as with subprime mortgages. So you’ll have maybe five million more defaults facing you over the next several years. Now, it takes time before a foreclosure actually is completed. So right now you have perhaps no more than 10,000 to 20,000 houses coming into the supply on the market. But that’s going to build up. So the idea that somehow in the second half of this year the economy is going to improve I find totally unbelievable.

Woodruff: When you talk about currency you have more than a little expertise. You were described as the man who broke the Bank of England back in the 1990s. But what is your sense of where the dollar is going? We’ve seen it declining. Do you think the central banks are going to have to step in?

Soros: Well, we are close to a tipping point where, in my view, the willingness of banks and countries to hold dollars is definitely impaired. But there is no suitable alternative so central banks are diversifying into other currencies; but there is a general flight from these currencies. So the countries with big surpluses—Abu Dhabi, China, Norway, and Saudi Arabia, for example—have all set up sovereign wealth funds, state-owned investment funds held by central banks that aim to diversify their assets from monetary assets to real assets. That’s one of the major developments currently and those sovereign wealth funds are growing. They’re already equal in size to all of the hedge funds in the world combined. Of course, they don’t use their capital as intensively as hedge funds, but they are going to grow to about five times the size of hedge funds in the next twenty years.

Written by infoproc

April 28, 2008 at 3:14 am

Deep inside the subprime crisis

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Moody’s walks Roger Lowenstein (writing for the Times Sunday magazine) through the construction, rating and demise of a pool of subprime mortgage securities. Some readers may have thought the IMF was exaggerating when it forecast up to $1 trillion in future losses from the credit bubble. After reading the following you will see that it’s not an implausible number, and it will be clear why the system is paralyzed in dealing with (marking to market) the complicated securities (CDOs, etc.) that are contaminating the balance sheets of banks, investment banks, hedge funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, etc. around the world.

Here’s a quick physicist’s calculation: roughly 10 million houses sold per year, assume that 10% of these mortgages are bad and will cost the issuer $100k to foreclose and settle. That means $100B per year in losses. Over the whole bubble, perhaps $300-500B in losses, which is more or less what the IMF estimates as the residential component of credit bubble losses (the rest of the trillion comes from commercial and corporate lending and consumer credit).

The internet bubble, with irrational investors buying shares of pet food e-commerce companies, was crazy. Read the excerpts below and you’ll see that our recent housing boom was even crazier and at an unimaginably larger scale. (Note similar bubbles in the UK, Spain and in China.)

The best predictor, going forward, of mortgage default rates (not just subprime, but even prime mortgages) in a particular region will likely be the decline in home prices in that region. The incentive for a borrower to default on his or her mortgage is the amount by which they are “upside down” on the loan — the amount by which their indebtedness exceeds the value of the home. Since we can’t forecast price declines very well — indeed, it’s a nonlinear problem, with more defaults leading to more price declines, leading to more defaults — we can’t price the derivative securities built from those mortgages.

Efficient markets! 😉

The figure above compares Case-Shiller data on the current bust (magenta) to the bust of the 80s-90s (blue). (Click for larger version.) You can see we have some way to go before all the fun ends.

Wall Street (Oliver Stone):

Gekko: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies and cuts through and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.

Carl Fox: Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.

NYTimes: …The business of assigning a rating to a mortgage security is a complicated affair, and Moody’s recently was willing to walk me through an actual mortgage-backed security step by step. I was led down a carpeted hallway to a well-appointed conference room to meet with three specialists in mortgage-backed paper. Moody’s was fair-minded in choosing an example; the case they showed me, which they masked with the name “Subprime XYZ,” was a pool of 2,393 mortgages with a total face value of $430 million.

Subprime XYZ typified the exuberance of the age. All the mortgages in the pool were subprime — that is, they had been extended to borrowers with checkered credit histories. In an earlier era, such people would have been restricted from borrowing more than 75 percent or so of the value of their homes, but during the great bubble, no such limits applied.

Moody’s did not have access to the individual loan files, much less did it communicate with the borrowers or try to verify the information they provided in their loan applications. “We aren’t loan officers,” Claire Robinson, a 20-year veteran who is in charge of asset-backed finance for Moody’s, told me. “Our expertise is as statisticians on an aggregate basis. We want to know, of 1,000 individuals, based on historical performance, what percent will pay their loans?”

The loans in Subprime XYZ were issued in early spring 2006 — what would turn out to be the peak of the boom. They were originated by a West Coast company that Moody’s identified as a “nonbank lender.” Traditionally, people have gotten their mortgages from banks, but in recent years, new types of lenders peddling sexier products grabbed an increasing share of the market. This particular lender took the loans it made to a New York investment bank; the bank designed an investment vehicle and brought the package to Moody’s.

Moody’s assigned an analyst to evaluate the package, subject to review by a committee. The investment bank provided an enormous spreadsheet chock with data on the borrowers’ credit histories and much else that might, at very least, have given Moody’s pause. Three-quarters of the borrowers had adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs — “teaser” loans on which the interest rate could be raised in short order. Since subprime borrowers cannot afford higher rates, they would need to refinance soon. This is a classic sign of a bubble — lending on the belief, or the hope, that new money will bail out the old.

Moody’s learned that almost half of these borrowers — 43 percent — did not provide written verification of their incomes. The data also showed that 12 percent of the mortgages were for properties in Southern California, including a half-percent in a single ZIP code, in Riverside. That suggested a risky degree of concentration.

On the plus side, Moody’s noted, 94 percent of those borrowers with adjustable-rate loans said their mortgages were for primary residences. “That was a comfort feeling,” Robinson said. Historically, people have been slow to abandon their primary homes. When you get into a crunch, she added, “You’ll give up your ski chalet first.”

Another factor giving Moody’s comfort was that all of the ARM loans in the pool were first mortgages (as distinct from, say, home-equity loans). Nearly half of the borrowers, however, took out a simultaneous second loan. Most often, their two loans added up to all of their property’s presumed resale value, which meant the borrowers had not a cent of equity.

In the frenetic, deal-happy climate of 2006, the Moody’s analyst had only a single day to process the credit data from the bank. The analyst wasn’t evaluating the mortgages but, rather, the bonds issued by the investment vehicle created to house them. A so-called special-purpose vehicle — a ghost corporation with no people or furniture and no assets either until the deal was struck — would purchase the mortgages. Thereafter, monthly payments from the homeowners would go to the S.P.V. The S.P.V. would finance itself by selling bonds. The question for Moody’s was whether the inflow of mortgage checks would cover the outgoing payments to bondholders. From the investment bank’s point of view, the key to the deal was obtaining a triple-A rating — without which the deal wouldn’t be profitable. That a vehicle backed by subprime mortgages could borrow at triple-A rates seems like a trick of finance. “People say, ‘How can you create triple-A out of B-rated paper?’ ” notes Arturo Cifuentes, a former Moody’s credit analyst who now designs credit instruments. It may seem like a scam, but it’s not.

The secret sauce is that the S.P.V. would float 12 classes of bonds, from triple-A to a lowly Ba1. The highest-rated bonds would have first priority on the cash received from mortgage holders until they were fully paid, then the next tier of bonds, then the next and so on. The bonds at the bottom of the pile got the highest interest rate, but if homeowners defaulted, they would absorb the first losses.

It was this segregation of payments that protected the bonds at the top of the structure and enabled Moody’s to classify them as triple-A. Imagine a seaside condo beset by flooding: just as the penthouse will not get wet until the lower floors are thoroughly soaked, so the triple-A bonds would not lose a dime unless the lower credits were wiped out.

Structured finance, of which this deal is typical, is both clever and useful; in the housing industry it has greatly expanded the pool of credit. But in extreme conditions, it can fail. The old-fashioned corner banker used his instincts, as well as his pencil, to apportion credit; modern finance is formulaic. However elegant its models, forecasting the behavior of 2,393 mortgage holders is an uncertain business. “Everyone assumed the credit agencies knew what they were doing,” says Joseph Mason, a credit expert at Drexel University. “A structural engineer can predict what load a steel support will bear; in financial engineering we can’t predict as well.”

Mortgage-backed securities like those in Subprime XYZ were not the terminus of the great mortgage machine. They were, in fact, building blocks for even more esoteric vehicles known as collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s. C.D.O.’s were financed with similar ladders of bonds, from triple-A on down, and the credit-rating agencies’ role was just as central. The difference is that XYZ was a first-order derivative — its assets included real mortgages owned by actual homeowners. C.D.O.’s were a step removed — instead of buying mortgages, they bought bonds that were backed by mortgages, like the bonds issued by Subprime XYZ. (It is painful to consider, but there were also third-order instruments, known as C.D.O.’s squared, which bought bonds issued by other C.D.O.’s.)

Miscalculations that were damaging at the level of Subprime XYZ were devastating at the C.D.O. level. Just as bad weather will cause more serious delays to travelers with multiple flights, so, if the underlying mortgage bonds were misrated, the trouble was compounded in the case of the C.D.O.’s that purchased them.

Moody’s used statistical models to assess C.D.O.’s; it relied on historical patterns of default. This assumed that the past would remain relevant in an era in which the mortgage industry was morphing into a wildly speculative business. The complexity of C.D.O.’s undermined the process as well. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, which recently scooped up the mortally wounded Bear Stearns, says, “There was a large failure of common sense” by rating agencies and also by banks like his. “Very complex securities shouldn’t have been rated as if they were easy-to-value bonds.”

…The challenge to investment banks is to design securities that just meet the rating agencies’ tests. Risky mortgages serve their purpose; since the interest rate on them is higher, more money comes into the pool and is available for paying bond interest. But if the mortgages are too risky, Moody’s will object. Banks are adroit at working the system, and pools like Subprime XYZ are intentionally designed to include a layer of Baa bonds, or those just over the border. “Every agency has a model available to bankers that allows them to run the numbers until they get something they like and send it in for a rating,” a former Moody’s expert in securitization says. In other words, banks were gaming the system; according to Chris Flanagan, the subprime analyst at JPMorgan, “Gaming is the whole thing.”

When a bank proposes a rating structure on a pool of debt, the rating agency will insist on a cushion of extra capital, known as an “enhancement.” The bank inevitably lobbies for a thin cushion (the thinner the capitalization, the fatter the bank’s profits). It’s up to the agency to make sure that the cushion is big enough to safeguard the bonds. The process involves extended consultations between the agency and its client. In short, obtaining a rating is a collaborative process.

The evidence on whether rating agencies bend to the bankers’ will is mixed. The agencies do not deny that a conflict exists, but they assert that they are keen to the dangers and minimize them. For instance, they do not reward analysts on the basis of whether they approve deals. No smoking gun, no conspiratorial e-mail message, has surfaced to suggest that they are lying. But in structured finance, the agencies face pressures that did not exist when John Moody was rating railroads. On the traditional side of the business, Moody’s has thousands of clients (virtually every corporation and municipality that sells bonds). No one of them has much clout. But in structured finance, a handful of banks return again and again, paying much bigger fees. A deal the size of XYZ can bring Moody’s $200,000 and more for complicated deals. And the banks pay only if Moody’s delivers the desired rating. Tom McGuire, the Jesuit theologian who ran Moody’s through the mid-’90s, says this arrangement is unhealthy. If Moody’s and a client bank don’t see eye to eye, the bank can either tweak the numbers or try its luck with a competitor like S.&P., a process known as “ratings shopping.”

…From 2002 to 2006, Moody’s profits nearly tripled, mostly thanks to the high margins the agencies charged in structured finance. In 2006, Moody’s reported net income of $750 million. Raymond W. McDaniel Jr., its chief executive, gloated in the annual report for that year, “I firmly believe that Moody’s business stands on the ‘right side of history’ in terms of the alignment of our role and function with advancements in global capital markets.”

…Moody’s was aware that mortgage standards had been deteriorating, and it had been demanding more of a cushion in such pools. Nonetheless, its credit-rating model continued to envision rising home values. Largely for that reason, the analyst forecast losses for XYZ at only 4.9 percent of the underlying mortgage pool. Since even the lowest-rated bonds in XYZ would be covered up to a loss level of 7.25 percent, the bonds seemed safe.

XYZ now became the responsibility of a Moody’s team that monitors securities and changes the ratings if need be (the analyst moved on to rate a new deal). Almost immediately, the team noticed a problem. Usually, people who finance a home stay current on their payments for at least a while. But a sliver of folks in XYZ fell behind within 90 days of signing their papers. After six months, an alarming 6 percent of the mortgages were seriously delinquent. (Historically, it is rare for more than 1 percent of mortgages at that stage to be delinquent.)

Moody’s monitors began to make inquiries with the lender and were shocked by what they heard. Some properties lacked sod or landscaping, and keys remained in the mailbox; the buyers had never moved in. The implication was that people had bought homes on spec: as the housing market turned, the buyers walked.

By the spring of 2007, 13 percent of Subprime XYZ was delinquent — and it was worsening by the month. XYZ was hardly atypical; the entire class of 2006 was performing terribly. (The class of 2007 would turn out to be even worse.)

In April 2007, Moody’s announced it was revising the model it used to evaluate subprime mortgages. It noted that the model “was first introduced in 2002. Since then, the mortgage market has evolved considerably.” This was a rather stunning admission; its model had been based on a world that no longer existed.

Poring over the data, Moody’s discovered that the size of people’s first mortgages was no longer a good predictor of whether they would default; rather, it was the size of their first and second loans — that is, their total debt — combined. This was rather intuitive; Moody’s simply hadn’t reckoned on it. Similarly, credit scores, long a mainstay of its analyses, had not proved to be a “strong predictor” of defaults this time. Translation: even people with good credit scores were defaulting. Amy Tobey, leader of the team that monitored XYZ, told me, “It seems there was a shift in mentality; people are treating homes as investment assets.” Indeed. And homeowners without equity were making what economists call a rational choice; they were abandoning properties rather than make payments on them. Homeowners’ equity had never been as high as believed because appraisals had been inflated.

Over the summer and fall of 2007, Moody’s and the other agencies repeatedly tightened their methodology for rating mortgage securities, but it was too late. They had to downgrade tens of billions of dollars of securities. By early this year, when I met with Moody’s, an astonishing 27 percent of the mortgage holders in Subprime XYZ were delinquent. Losses on the pool were now estimated at 14 percent to 16 percent — three times the original estimate. Seemingly high-quality bonds rated A3 by Moody’s had been downgraded five notches to Ba2, as had the other bonds in the pool aside from its triple-A’s.

The pain didn’t stop there. Many of the lower-rated bonds issued by XYZ, and by mortgage pools like it, were purchased by C.D.O.’s, the second-order mortgage vehicles, which were eager to buy lower-rated mortgage paper because it paid a higher yield. As the agencies endowed C.D.O. securities with triple-A ratings, demand for them was red hot. Much of it was from global investors who knew nothing about the U.S. mortgage market. In 2006 and 2007, the banks created more than $200 billion of C.D.O.’s backed by lower-rated mortgage paper. Moody’s assigned a different team to rate C.D.O.’s. This team knew far less about the underlying mortgages than did the committee that evaluated Subprime XYZ. In fact, Moody’s rated C.D.O.’s without knowing which bonds the pool would buy.

A C.D.O. operates like a mutual fund; it can buy or sell mortgage bonds and frequently does so. Thus, the agencies rate pools with assets that are perpetually shifting. They base their ratings on an extensive set of guidelines or covenants that limit the C.D.O. manager’s discretion.

Late in 2006, Moody’s rated a C.D.O. with $750 million worth of securities. The covenants, which act as a template, restricted the C.D.O. to, at most, an 80 percent exposure to subprime assets, and many other such conditions. “We’re structure experts,” Yuri Yoshizawa, the head of Moody’s’ derivative group, explained. “We’re not underlying-asset experts.” They were checking the math, not the mortgages. But no C.D.O. can be better than its collateral.

Moody’s rated three-quarters of this C.D.O.’s bonds triple-A. The ratings were derived using a mathematical construct known as a Monte Carlo simulation — as if each of the underlying bonds would perform like cards drawn at random from a deck of mortgage bonds in the past. There were two problems with this approach. First, the bonds weren’t like those in the past; the mortgage market had changed. As Mark Adelson, a former managing director in Moody’s structured-finance division, remarks, it was “like observing 100 years of weather in Antarctica to forecast the weather in Hawaii.” And second, the bonds weren’t random. Moody’s had underestimated the extent to which underwriting standards had weakened everywhere. When one mortgage bond failed, the odds were that others would, too.

Moody’s estimated that this C.D.O. could potentially incur losses of 2 percent. It has since revised its estimate to 27 percent. The bonds it rated have been decimated, their market value having plunged by half or more. A triple-A layer of bonds has been downgraded 16 notches, all the way to B. Hundreds of C.D.O.’s have suffered similar fates (most of Wall Street’s losses have been on C.D.O.’s). For Moody’s and the other rating agencies, it has been an extraordinary rout.

…The agencies have blamed the large incidence of fraud, but then they could have demanded verification of the mortgage data or refused to rate securities where the data were not provided. That was, after all, their mandate. This is what they pledge for the future. Moody’s, S.&P. and Fitch say that they are tightening procedures — they will demand more data and more verification and will subject their analysts to more outside checks. None of this, however, will remove the conflict of interest in the issuer-pays model. Though some have proposed requiring that agencies with official recognition charge investors, rather than issuers, a more practical reform may be for the government to stop certifying agencies altogether. …

Written by infoproc

April 22, 2008 at 11:09 am

$1 trillion in losses?

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We’ve had $200B in write-downs so far. The Fed has taken about $300B of shaky debt onto its balance sheet. The IMF is talking about a global bailout of the US economy.

It took Japan well over a decade to clean up its banking system after their property bubble burst. I doubt the US is going to take all of its bitter medicine at once. Whither the dollar?

The figure below first appeared on this blog in 2005:

Financial Times: IMF fears credit crisis losses could soar towards $1 trillion

Losses from the credit crisis by financial institutions worldwide are expected to balloon to almost $1 trillion (£507 billion), threatening to trigger severe economic fallout, the International Monetary Fund said yesterday.

In a grim assessment of the deepening crisis delivered days before ministers from the Group of Seven leading economies meet in Washington, the IMF warns governments, central banks and regulators that they face a crucial test to stem the turmoil.

“The critical challenge now facing policymakers is to take immediate steps to mitigate the risks of an even more wrenching adjustment,” it says in its twice-yearly Global Financial Stability Report.

The IMF sounds an alert over the danger that banks’ escalating losses, along with credit market uncertainties, could prompt a vicious downward spiral as they weaken economies and asset prices, leading to higher unemployment, more loan defaults and still deeper losses. “This dynamic has the potential to be more severe than in previous credit cycles, given the degree of securitisation and leverage in the system,” the Fund argues.

It says that it is clear that global financial upheavals are now more than just a shortage of ready funds, or liquidity, but are rooted in “deep-seated fragilities” among banks with too little capital. This “means that its effects are likely to be broader, deeper and more protracted”, the report concludes.

“A broadening deterioration of credit is likely to put added pressure on systemically important financial institutions,” it adds, saying that the risks have increased of a full-blown credit crunch that could undercut economic growth.

The warning came as Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the IMF and currently Professor of Economics at Harvard University, said that there was a “likely possibility” that the Fund will have to coordinate a global policy package to prop up the US economy. “They [the US] would not go for a conventional bail-out from the IMF. The IMF could not afford it – they have around $200 billion, which the US would burn through in a matter of months. It would be a package where various countries would try and prop up global demand to cushion the US economy.” He added: “The US is going to be looking for help to prevent this banking and housing problem from getting worse.”

The report also highlights the threat posed by the rapid spread of the credit crisis from its roots in the US sub-prime home loans to more mainstream lending markets worldwide.

While banks have so far declared losses and writedowns over the crisis totalling $193 billion, the IMF expects the ultimate toll to reach $945 billion.

Global banks are expected to shoulder about half of the total losses – between $440 and $510 billion – with the rest being borne by insurance companies, pension funds, hedge funds and money market funds, and other institutional investors, predominantly in the US and Europe.

Most of the losses are expected to stem from defaults in the US, with $565 billion written off in sub-prime and prime mortgages and a further $240 billion to be lost on commercial property lending. Losses on corporate loans are projected to mount to an eventual $120 billion and those on consumer lending to $20 billion.

Written by infoproc

April 9, 2008 at 6:57 pm