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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Magnetar trade, part 2

Janet Tavakoli pointed me to this WSJ article which covered the Magnetar strategy already in 2008. Tavakoli, and another correspondent (anonymous) who works in MBS, both believe Magnetar's claim that their strategy was market neutral (in a sense; see below). It was actually a common correlation trade at the time: assuming a certain correlation between the fate of the risky equity tranche and the AAA senior tranches, one could guarantee a positive return by investing in the former and shorting the latter using a CDS contract. The strategy would make money regardless of the default rate (assuming the correlation), but it seems the upside was larger from the CDS contracts. So there may yet have been motivation for Magnetar to pressure the underwriters to include particularly toxic mortgages in the CDOs they sponsored (as alleged).

Tavakoli and my other correspondent both believe that ProPublica and This American Life have the story wrong. It may be appealing to think that a single hedge fund was capable of exacerbating the credit crisis through its participation in the creation of $30-$40 billion in CDOs, but the real story is probably more complex.

WSJ: ... CDOs are sliced based on risk, with the riskiest pieces having the highest yield but the greatest chance of losing value. Less-risky pieces have lower yields and some pieces were once considered so safe that they paid only a bit more than a U.S. Treasury bond.

Magnetar helped to spawn CDOs by buying the riskiest slices of the instruments, which paid returns of around 20% during good times, according to people familiar with its strategy. Back in 2006, when Magnetar began investing, these were the slices Wall Street found hardest to sell because they would be the first to lose money if subprime defaults rose.

For the Wall Street firms underwriting the deals, selling the riskiest pieces was "critical to getting the deals done because they were designed to act as a cushion for other investors," says Eileen Murphy, principal at Excelsior CDO Advisors LLC, a structured-finance consultancy.

Magnetar then hedged its holdings by betting against the less-risky slices of some of these same securities as well as other CDOs, according to people familiar with its strategy. While it lost money on many of the risky slices it bought, it made far more when its hedges paid off as the market collapsed in the second half of last year.

Here is Tavakoli's comment on the ProPublica story -- she was actually asked for advice by Magnetar on how to put on the trade.

Tavakoli on the missed opportunity to grill Prince and Rubin under oath on Citi's CDO activities. Was senior management negligent (understood the risks, and approved them) or incompetent (didn't understand their own CDO business)?


The Magnetar trade part one, two, three.

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