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Sunday, September 21, 2008

The devil in the details

As we all know, the devil is always in the details. The proposed legislation will put $700B in the hands of Treasury to buy distressed assets in an attempt to unfreeze credit markets. This gives the current and future Treasury Secretary incredible financial and discretionary power. Let's put aside issues of corruption and abuse of power and assume a benevolent, public spirited, intelligent person in charge. I make this assumption not because it is realistic, but in order to proceed to the question: How, exactly, will this work?

First, let's differentiate between CDOs and CMOs (Collateralized Debt / Mortgage Obligations), which are securities that entitle the holder to future cash flows from bundles or tranches of mortgages, and CDS (Credit Default Swaps) which are derivative contracts which allow two parties to bet on defaults. CDS can be used for pure speculation, or to spread out the risk associated with CDOs. I will discuss CDOs and CDS separately below, although it should be obvious that both markets are interconnected and, at this time, highly problematic. (In fact there are even synthetic CDOs which are built out of CDS, which make things yet more complicated...)


CDOs:

There are two possible world states that we have to differentiate between. Keep in mind that CDOs are currently highly illiquid, due to seizing up of markets, so in many cases there may not be any market price.

1) CDOs are oversold. In this scenario markets, due to extremely high risk premia and, well, fear, are underpricing CDOs and, effectively, overestimating future default rates on mortgages. To decide whether they believe this, Treasury must use its own models with its own forward looking projections.

IF actual future default rates turn out to be lower than implied values backed out from current market prices, then Treasury (and the US taxpayer) stand to make a lot of money by assuming the role of a rational buyer of last resort. (Which is not to say there won't be losses; there must be as home prices will end lower than in the period when most of these mortgages were written. But how much of this is in previous writedowns?) In this scenario, many banks are challenged by (short term) cash flow issues and mark to market accounting, which forces them to carry their securities on the books at the current (undervalued, oversold) market valuation, but do ultimately have positive net asset value.

(Note: cash flow insolvency is not the same as balance sheet insolvency!)

2) CDO market prices are fair. In this case many institutions will fail without massive infusions to their balance sheet. But Treasury should not buy securities at higher than fair value (if at all possible); instead they should take equity stakes in insolvent companies on behalf of the taxpayer, so that there is some upside participation. In the worst case Treasury should assume control and supervise an orderly liquidation. Note again that an institution can face short term cash flow problems (be unable to service debt) even if the long term value of their net assets is positive.


Even if we start out in case (1) we will end up in case (2) as the situation normalizes and other actors bring capital into play. There is an estimated $500B in distressed assets funds that will participate if valuations are favorable. I just heard on CNBC that Treasury may use a reverse auction model (starting at very low bids), in which case the banks themselves will get to decide whether they are desperate enough to accept a bid. Probably a good strategy.

Deciding between case (1) and (2) (ultimately, on a CDO by CDO basis) is going to depend crucially on models and future forecasts of home prices, interest rates, prepayment rates and foreclosure rates. Geeks rule!

In any event, Treasury will be acting like a giant hedge / private equity fund for the next few years. Do they have the human capital? Hopefully their returns will be good :-)


CDS:

I'm more at a loss here. Will Treasury get involved with CDS? There are going to be some huge losers (AIG?).

When Treasury tries to evaluate the (balance sheet) solvency of a particular firm, won't they have to price out that firm's entire CDS book?

Will this market automatically function properly if the CDO market becomes liquid again and counterparty confidence is restored?


Miscellaneous questions:

Do we really trust Treasury to do the right thing? Are there any checks and balances? Would those get in the way of decisive action?

What about foreign banks like Deutsche Bank, Credit-Suisse, etc.?


Naked Capitalism has a negative take on the plan. They suggest that Paulson is not being straight with the public and intends to buy assets at a high price, with the only goal of recapitalizing (his friends at big) banks. I don't necessarily agree with the reasoning given below, but it is worth thinking about.

Nakedcapitalism: ...Yet as we discussed, the plan makes no sense unless the Orwellian "fair market prices" means "above market prices." The point is not to free up illiquid assets. Illiquid assets (private equity, even the now derided CDOs were never intended to be traded, but pose no problem if they do not need to be marked at a large loss and/or the institution is not at risk of a run). Confirmation of our view came from a reader by e-mail:

I worked at [Wall Street firm you've heard of], but now I handle financial services for [a Congressman], and I was on the conference call that Paulson, Bernanke and the House Democratic Leadership held for all the members yesterday afternoon. It's supposed to be members only, but there's no way to enforce that if it's a conference call, and you may have already heard from other staff who were listening in.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that, behind closed doors, Paulson describes the plan differently. He explicitly says that it will buy assets at above market prices (although he still claims that they are undervalued) because the holders won't sell at market prices. Anna Eshoo pressed him on how the government can compel the holders to sell, and he basically dodged the question. I think that's because he didn't want to admit that the government would just keep offering more and more.

[Paulson's statements are all internally consistent if he believes we are in state (1) described above: current market prices, due to fear and sky high risk premia, are too low and fair prices based on reasonable models of future behavior would be higher --steve]

I don't think that our leadership has been very good during this negotiation (or really, during any showdowns with this administration) at forcing the administration to own their position. If Paulson wants this plan, then he needs to sell it to the public, and if he sells a different plan to the public (the nonsense buying-at-market-price plan) then we should pass that. I'd rather see the government act as a market maker for the assets to get them transferred over to private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds and other willing holders. And if we need to recapitalize these companies, it seems like the cheapest way for the taxpayer is to go in and buy up the distressed debt and then convert that to equity.

On the other hand I've heard in other quarters that the proposed legislation allows Treasury to more or less compel firms to sell distressed assets. Which is it -- they'll have to overpay to pry the assets loose, or they've given themselves draconian powers to seize them?

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