Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The value of trust

In no-arb efficient market fairy tale land, investors are assumed to be able to value a company by simply looking at its balance sheet, researching its market and business model and projecting into the future. Sound difficult? Why, yes, it's almost impossible to do, and even after a lengthy research project executed by a team of brilliant analysts there is a huge remaining uncertainty.

So what happens in the real world? Well, we apes with limited cognitive power and limited information rely on simple heuristics -- rules of thumb -- to guess what will happen in the future. That is, we say "Robert Rubin seems like a smart, careful guy, and top management at Citi must know what they are doing, and surely the market knows what it's doing, so, yeah, $40 a share seems ok with me..."

Of course, after a while we might notice some data suggesting that the leadership at Citi has been dishonest ("we are adequately capitalized" -- CEO Vikram Pandit) and ignorant of their own business operations ("what's a SIV?" -- Chairman Robert Rubin, November, 2007), and suddenly decide that NO, they DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

Yikes!: as reported on this blog, Rubin comments from November 2007.

[SIV = Structured Investment Vehicle = (roughly, see link) CDO]

"I think the problem with this SIV issue is that it's been substantially misunderstood in the press," said Rubin, who has a considerable personal stake in the fate of Citigroup. The banking firm paid him $17.3 million last year.

"The banks appear to be in fine shape," he said. "That's not a problem."

The SIV issue isn't critical for the economy, he insisted.

"It's massively less important that it's been presented," Rubin said. "It's been presented as a sort of centerpiece of what's going on. I just don't think that's right."

The cost of the evaporation of trust? $200 billion dollars in lost market capitalization in the last year. The real reason Citi melted down is that people no longer trust their senior management to meet future obligations. This senior management was left in place in Treasury's latest sweetheart deal.

Tell me an efficient market story that explains Citi's recent history and I'll sell you a slightly devalued "Nobel Prize" in financial economics along with the Brooklyn bridge. (Click below for larger image.)

Thanks to Mark Thoma for links to the articles quoted below.

Bronte Capital:

...due to the losses and the lack of risk control people stopped believing in Citigroup – and hence Citigroup dies without a bailout. It was however pretty easy to stop believing in Citigroup because nobody (at least nobody normal) can understand their accounts. I can not understand them and I am a pretty sophisticated bank analyst. I know people I think are better than me – and they can’t understand Citigroup either. So Citigroup was always a “trust us” thing and now we do not trust.

The cause of the crisis

This is a wholesale funding crisis and the cause of the crisis is plain. It is lies told by financial institutions. Financial institutions sold AAA rated paper which they almost certainly – deep in their bowels – knew was crap. They sold it to people who provide wholesale funding.

Now they need to roll their own debt. The people who would normally wholesale fund them are the same people who have had a large dose of defaulting AAAs. They no longer believe. It is “fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you”. As I have put it the lies that destroyed Bear Stearns were not told by short sellers. They were told by Bear Stearns.

Now the problem is that no matter how many times Pandit says that Citigroup is well capitalised nobody will believe him. In answer to the Brad DeLong question – the company told lies about its mortgage book – which compounded the lies about the dodgy CDO product they sold. The lies about the mortgage book totalled $20 billion on say $43 billion of optimistically valued assets – and those lies reduced the value of Citigroup by $200 billion because they removed the trust in Citigroup.

It is one of those ironic things that when financial institutions lied in 2006 the market seemed to believe them. When they tell the truth now, nobody will listen.

Robert Rubin racks his brain about how he would have done things differently. Well one thing he would have done differently is get Citigroup to remove the culture of obfuscation – the culture that allowed it to be perceived as if it were lying even when it was telling the truth. The problem is that even Robert Rubin doesn’t have enough uncashed integrity to save Citigroup. Even Robert Rubin.

The US government is now selling systemic risk insurance.

Finally, System-Risk Insurance, by Laurence Kotlikoff and Perry Mehrling, FT

As we advocated two months back (Bagehot plus RFC: The Right Financial Fix), Uncle Sam is finally starting to sell systematic risk insurance on high-grade securities in exchange for preferred stock. This is a critical function for the U.S. government; Uncle Sam is the only player capable of hedging systemic risk because he’s the only player capable of taking actions that keep the overall economic system on the right course.

The real question now is whether the U.S. government will begin selling system-risk insurance on a routine basis and, thereby, help refloat trillions of dollars in high-grade mortgage-related securities owned by banks and other financial institutions - institutions that are in desperate need of more capital to support new lending.

Writing one-off insurance deals with a few large players, like Citigroup, is not the same as standing ready to write system-risk insurance to all players that issue conforming high-grade paper - something that’s needed to support ongoing securitization of such obligations. We stress the word “conforming,” because it’s vital for the government to begin stipulating which securities are “safe” under normal conditions and which are “toxic” and, thus, no longer to be held by financial intermediaries.

Like any insurance underwriter, Uncle Sam needs not only to know and approve what he’s insuring; he also needs to make sure there are appropriate deductibles and co-insurance provisions to limit moral hazard on the part of the insured. The moral hazard in this case is that financial institutions try to pass off low-grade loans as high-grade.

The weekend deal with Citigroup is instructive in clarifying the nature of the insurance the government should sell on an ongoing basis. The deal to support $306bn of Citigroup’s mortgage-related securities puts a floor under the value of the best such securities at about 90 cents on the dollar. This deal represents the first use of the insurance capability authorized by Section 102 of the TARP.

[90 cents on the dollar? WTF!?! Incompetent management is left in place while the taxpayer foots the bill. Why not bail out Detroit while we're at it? Note: this is clarified by a commenter -- it's 90% of current market value, not face value.]

The structure of the deal is convoluted, so it takes some probing to see precisely what insurance is being sold and for what price. We are told that Citigroup itself is on the hook for the first loss of $29bn (plus whatever loss reserves are already on its books) on the cash flows due on the $306bn in mortgages. This amounts to roughly a 10 percent deductible.

Any losses beyond $29bn will be shared by the government (90 per cent) and Citigroup (10 per cent). This is the co-insurance (co-pay) element. This insurance runs for the next 10 years, and Citigroup is paying a one-time $7bn premium for it, using preferred stock.


Ego said...


Thanks for your blog which shows
how physicists can get economics
right, once they start thinking
hard about the specificities of the subject.

There is a growing trend of work on asset pricing with asymmetric information between company managers and investors. This is a direct extension of the principal agent framework to general equilibrium. There is also a lot
of work on ambiguity aversion as opposed to standard risk aversion. Learning about past lies certainly raises ambiguity. The traditional
efficient market framework is being replaced by a much more realistic and subtle framework.


jck said...

[90 cents on the dollar? WTF!?! Incompetent management is left in place while the taxpayer foots the bill. Why not bail out Detroit while we're at it?]
the "plan" is not putting a floor at 90% of face value as Kotlikoff and Mehrling wrote (last paragraph of their post), but 90% of current valuation (see the terms sheet), none of the securities are high grade since citi could fund that at much better than OIS+300bp via TAF, discount window etc.. and the best proof of that is that the guarantee provides for a 20% risk weighting, again if the securities were high grade the risk weight would already be 20%.

Artur Adib said...

Doesn't semi-strong efficiency explain Citi's price movement?

It seems to me that the prices moved according to how much public information became available about leadership (or lack thereof) at Citi.

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