Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, riffing on a post by James Hamilton, ponders the question of why some CDO investors might have bought securities that were "losers at the start". Hamilton suggests that investors must not have understood what they were doing. As Yves puts it, "[H]ow could investors be so dumb? The buyers were institutional investors, after all. These guys are supposed to be pros." Yves suggests that underwriters, sometimes believing their own hype, sometimes with adroit porcine cosmetology, did a great job of selling iffy paper. Here's another explanation, on the buy-side.

Do you remember the "greater fool" theory of investing from the late-1990s? For many high-flying internet stocks, the disconnect between stock prices and "fundamental" valuation was so obvious that buyers knew they were purchasing securities which, if held for the long-term, offered negative expected return. But it was quite rational to buy them anyway, so long as it seemed likely that someone else, a "greater fool", would buy them at an even higher price than the one you paid. Most serious players understood there would be a reckoning someday, but that there was lots of money to be made today regardless. The risk-return tradeoff on playing the fool for just a little while was quite favorable. Those willing to take big chances for a short time, and smart enough not to try to play "double-or-nothing" indefinitely, did very, very well for themselves.

At first blush, today's markets look nothing like the heady stockmarkets of the 1990s. After all, many of the securities that seem overvalued now rarely trade: structured credits backed by mortgages, commercial debt, credit cards, etc. Generally an underwriter sells an offering to institutional investors, who may plan to hold the paper to maturity. If secondary markets are thin, if no one is buying or selling, who could be the greater fool?

But, in fact, it is not "institutions" that buy this paper, but managers who are paid for performance. And from a manager's perspective, all these securities do trade, about once a year, when bonuses and performance fees are taken. During bonus season, hypothetical valuations of illiquid securities become converted into liquid nonrefundable cash, just like during an ordinary sale. Institutions effectively purchase securities from themselves, at arbitrarily high prices, and pay their managers a commission for the privilege. Financial innovation truly has been a wonder these last years. Institutions have cut out the middlemen and become their own greater fools, to the benefit of managers and the detriment of other stakeholders.

Many managers would be quite content with short, lucrative careers followed by long, wealthy retirements. They are faced with opportunities to "earn" money on so grand a scale that a rational person, looking at historical norms, would sacrifice a lifetime's wages for a few good years. At extremes, shame and legal risk constrain manager behavior. But, to the degree individual managers can attribute self-interested behavior to evolving norms and standards in their profession, they are protected. A "safe" position, from a manager's perspective, is one in which losses to the portfolio they manage are likely to be accompanied by widespread losses elsewhere, so that blame attaches to vast, vague "systemic" problems, and not to the manager personally, who was, after all, only one person, doing her job like so many others. Surely no liability, and no great ostracism, should attach to that.

Like a polluter earning immediate visible profits but exacting diffuse, hard-to-measure costs, managers at hedge funds, endowments, and pension funds are producing cash and "diffusing" risk whose costs will eventually be borne by someone. Institutions may now be their own greater fools, but the rest of us, apparent bystanders, may turn out to be the greatest fools of all.

Steve Randy Waldman — Saturday June 30, 2007 at 9:29pm [ 2 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink

Gather 'round ye cassandras and dark oracles, nigh the time is come! The wounded bear roars and writhes, and surely, surely! his claws at last will prick the green tumescence of the credit pimple, and a pustulence of default and devaluation will gurgle across the land!

Or not. The crisis at two hedge funds managed by Bear Stearns has all the markings of a systemic-crisis-threatening event. (If you've not been following, tsk. Naked Capitalism has been doing a phenomenal job covering the story.) But I don't think anything bad is going to happen, because the bear and his friends in the forest (hedgehogs?) are, ultimately, protected by the Dragon.

First let's review the what happened. Bear managed a hedge fund that made leveraged bets in illiquid CDOs backed by subprime mortgages. That was a winning strategy for a long time, so, by popular demand, Bear opened a second fund taking on even more (um, "enhanced") leverage to reap those juicy mortgage yields. But, things have gone suddenly wrong in mortgageland, and the funds were forced to inform investors that they had lost a lot of money. Investors found themselves locked in, with lenders demanding that the funds put up more collateral or face forced liquidation of their assets.

Forced liquidation would have been, um, bad, from a green-pustulence-flowing-in-the-streets perspective. There are lots of hedge funds holding illiquid, hard-to-value synthetic debt based on iffy mortgages. With help from debt-rating agencies, fund managers are employing the strategy Wile E. Coyote would have followed, if he were smart enough to understand Gaussian copulas and stuff. It's called "Don't Look Down!" Since exotic securities don't trade very often, there is no clear market price, no clear value to which funds have to "mark" their portfolios. So hedge fund managers use models to make educated guesses of what their securities are worth. Since managers earn fees by seeming to perform well, they tend to use models that, lo and behold, spit out optimistic, all-is-well valuations of their portfolios. However, a "fire sale" at Bear would put Wall Street Panglossians under pressure, as all of a sudden market prices, not very nice market prices, would be attached to securities quite similar to the ones in their own portfolios.

Let's understand what we mean by "pressure" here. Imagine you're a hedge fund manager sitting on a pile of leveraged rocket science that you privately think has lost much of its value. You have two choices. You can use a model that captures your intuition, and mark down the assets, forfeiting any performance fees and your seven figure job too. Or you can hold tight, keep the faith. If you make it to the end of the year, you get a big performance fee, which you get to keep even your faith turns out to have been misplaced and your investors lose money. This is a no-brainer, right? Keep da faith!

But there is a wrinkle. If you take that hefty bonus, but you really did know that the fund didn't perform as advertised, well, there are technical terms for that. Theft. Fraud. The language of high finance can be arcane, but maybe you get my drift here. Currently hedge funds are relying on safety in numbers. If "industry best practice" is to value CDOs and XYZPDQs optimistically, then, hey, you can't be faulted for following "industry best practice", can you? But if anyone can make it stick that you knew, or should have known, your portfolio was trash... well, that's bad. Plausible deniability is the whole game here. If very low asset prices from some hedge-fund yard sale get published in the Wall Street Journal, some fund manager might get nervous, and mark down his assets too, bragging about "integrity" and other unprofitable hogwash. All of a sudden, "industry best practice" is what he's doing, and you've got to follow along or take a chance on Sing Sing. With each capitulation, each markdown, investors get more and more nervous, more and more inclined to remove funds, forcing more sales, liquidations, lower prices, a death spiral, the Great Depression.

There might have been some danger of this sort of thing happening on Friday, but the danger has passed. Bear put up 3.2B of its own money to save one of its funds. (Well-collateralized repo financing we are told, but if the collateral is trash... let's just call it a "mezzanine tranche".) That seems to have been enough to persuade creditors, some of whom had threatened to pull the plug abruptly and start selling, to give Bear some space to work out the debts of the other (more toxic) fund at, um, a measured pace. Does that matter? After all, if the assets are impaired, fire sale or no, they're not going to fetch a good price, right? It might go slo-mo, but the same scenario should unfold eventually, no?

I don't think so. Here's where the dragon comes in. Several years ago, Nouriel Roubini and Brad Setser warned very plausibly that the United States' current account deficits were unsustainable, that developing countries like China would not be able to fund America's huge and growing deficits for very long at all. They were (quite honorably) wrong. Among other things, they expected that China's central bank would be unwilling or unable to accept the future financial losses implied by massive purchases of US debt (which is likely to lose value in terms of the China's Yuan). China has instead accelerated its USD purchases, proving its willingness to accept very large losses (or else high future inflation) in order to meet its primary objectives: stability and growth.

Stability and growth remain China's objectives, and a financial crisis beginning in New York is every bit as threatening as a stock market crash in Shanghai. China could not have acted fast, as the US Fed did during the LTCM crisis. But, so long as only a few funds are in crisis and the unwindings are "orderly", I think China will find it in its interest to be a "bagholder of last resort", purchasing a few assets at prices high enough to prevent cascading markdowns or defaults against margin lenders. Fund investors will still lose money, but that rarely has systemic implications. As hedge fund proponents frequently point out, hedge fund investors are hedge fund investors because they can afford to lose money. (That's not really true, but we'll let it go here.) China won't buy anything directly. Look for secretive hedge funds claiming that US mortgage assets are undervalued, great opportunities, despite the continued freefall of housing. Just as fire sales threaten to puncture confidence and lead to mass markdowns, apparent arms-length purchases at high prices reassure that optimistic models are fine, permitting fund managers to do what they want to do — report good performance and take their fees without jeopardy.

Of course, if confidence in valuations does break, no one could bail out the whole market, it is too big. Eventually there may be some kind of reckoning. But the logic of the moment, in New York, Washington, and Beijing, is that in the long-run we are all dead, so let's put stuff off as long as possible and hope for the best. Anything that can be bailed out will be bailed out. The money is there, eager, and ready.

Steve Randy Waldman — Tuesday June 26, 2007 at 7:08am [ 3 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink

It's obvious that nations are places, right? But somehow that fact is lost in much of the debate over trade and immigration. Instead, the argument usually goes something like this: Trade and immigration help some people and hurt others, though gains should exceed losses in the aggregate. How do we weigh benefits to winners against harms to losers?

But trade and immigration policy don't just affect people. They affect places. Why should that matter? Places experience neither pleasure nor pain. Places do not love. If you prick them, they do not bleed. Isn't it right that economists ignore places, and focus on how policy affects human beings?

No, it is not right. It is dangerously obtuse. You will often hear economists laud the indirect benefits of market economies. Where markets flourish, virtues such as tolerance, diligence, entrepreneurialism, and creativity thrive as well. Markets depend upon trust, and market-based societies tend to develop unusually strong habits of trust between unrelated strangers, as well as institutions for punishing violations of good faith impartially. Where there are markets, there is industry, human capacities are exercised, and profitable collaborations are encouraged. Markets promote wealth, and affluence leads to beautiful private spaces, and then beautiful neighborhoods and vibrant cities for all. Markets create incentives for human beings to improve themselves even more than their homes, filling the world with interesting, passionate, talented people.

These indirect effects of economic activity amount to what I'll call "emergent public goods". These are distinct from (but complementary to) traditional public goods, like roads and parks, that governments explicitly purchase. But here's the thing: In successful nations, access to emergent public goods is the single greatest asset most citizens have. Why would so many people from broken countries give up whatever wealth they've accumulated to live in the United States or Western Europe? Because access to the public goods on offer in those places is worth more than all that they own, and more than the awfulness of having to start over in a strange place, confused, mute, and alien. Even when direct public goods are withheld (for example, from illegal immigrants), emergent goods flow like air to everyone, simply by virtue of where they are. "Opportunity", the fudge by which economists turn the pain immigrants endure into net-present-value enhancing rationality, is nothing more than an emergent public good. And opportunity, like other emergent public goods, is attached to place.

I am (very reluctantly) trade-skeptical at the moment, and not because I think that the United States' present aggregate losses are larger than its gains from trade. On the contrary, I wish to see Americans' current debt-for-goods trade stop despite any aggregate gains, because I think that this trade pattern is undermining America's capacity to sustain and enlarge its portfolio of public goods. It is not that unbalanced trade is hurting people (although of course it is hurting some and helping others). Unbalanced trade is hurting the place, and the place, the privilege of living in this extraordinary country, is the most important asset Americans have, however long they've lived here.

Trade in services (i.e. outsourcing) and immigration have broadly similar distributional effects. There is little economic difference between a programmer in India writing code very cheaply and the same individual coming to the United States and doing the work for less than the local prevailing wage. Nevertheless, I'm inclined to favor the immigration, but not the trade, under present circumstances. Why? Because when a worker immigrates, the productive economic activity happens here, in this place, and that is oxygen to America's portfolio of public goods. When Americans trade debt for services performed overseas, the good side effects of human industry happen somewhere else, and the bad side effects of accumulating debt happen here. It's all the same to the people. But unbalanced trade hurts the place.

Nations are places. Quality of place is incredibly valuable, and potentially fragile. Any consideration of trade or immigration that tallies up gains and harms to people is incomplete if it fails to take into account how different economic arrangements affect the quality of places.

Update History:
  • 04-June-2007, 02:25 p.m. EDT: I've cleaned up several small grammatical errors and tightened the text a bit since first posting.
Steve Randy Waldman — Monday June 4, 2007 at 1:46pm [ 5 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink