Deconstructing ABACUS

Goldman’s controversial “ABACUS 2007-AC1″ synthetic CDO turns out to be a very complicated deal. This is not your grandfather’s vanilla mezzanine RMBS synthetic CDO. It is, in some sense, a supersynthetic CDO.

There’ve been some excellent posts dissecting the deal, including…

Also, the formal prospectus is now available, as well as a marketing “flipbook“.

In what way was ABACUS a “supersynthetic CDO”? Despite notionally having seven classes of investors, just two classes of notes were actually sold. When I read this at Alea, it blew my mind. The only notes that were sold were AAA debt, from senior (but not “super senior”) tranches. I didn’t understand how this could work. CDOs turn low-class debt into AAA gold by segregating losses. Senior notes are made safe by shifting losses to junior tranches, and remain safe until the junior tranches are wiped out. I had seen synthetic CDOs with unfunded senior classes, in which case the issuer retains some risk if the CDO fails catastrophically. But if there are no junior tranches, who takes the first loss? Who stands in the line of fire to protect AAA noteholders?

I spent some time squinting over the prospectus to understand. But there is no clearly stated explanation. On the contrary, there is a lot of language like this:

On (i) each Payment Date and (ii) any other Business Day on which Currency Adjusted Notional Principal Adjustment Amounts are paid by the Issuer to the Noteholders, the Class SS Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class A-1 Notes, the Class A-1 Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class A-2 Notes, the Class A-2 Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class B Notes, the Class B Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class C Notes, the Class C Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class D Notes and the Class D Notes will be senior in right of payment to the Class FL Notes.

That sounds like the standard CDO waterfall. But in reality there was nowhere for the water to fall, because no B, C, D, or FL notes were sold. If losses were allocated to any investor, they would be allocated to AAA tranches. So what was going on?

The ABACUS prospectus doesn’t say. But there is a hint. Rather than buying credit default swaps on the aggregate reference portfolio, then dividing the cash flows among the tranches based on seniority, the CDS payments are calculated separately for each “series” of notes (where the series are subdivided by class). In other words, each class of notes writes its own distinct insurance policy.

As best as I can tell, there are two distinct levels of abstraction in the ABACUS deal. First there is the reference portfolio, a hypothetical portfolio of debt. Then there is a notional CDO, a hypothetical entity that we imagine to have purchased (or synthesized) the reference portfolio. We pretend that this notional CDO is “fully funded”, with a $1100M SS tranche (“super senior”), a $200M Class A-1 tranche, a $280M Class A-2 tranche, a $60M Class B tranche, a $100M Class C tranche, a $60M Class D tranche, and a $200M FL tranche (“first loss”). In reality, no one has purchased any of the reference portfolio, and the notional CDO, which would have required $1.8B $2B of investor interest to build, was never constructed. Instead, the notional CDO forms the basis for a thought experiment: Given any performance scenario for debt in the reference portfolio, we can compute the loss that would have been experienced by holders of the various tranches. So, we could write a kind of swap (somewhat different from an ordinary credit default swap), whereunder a “protection buyer” pays a predetermined, fixed spread and a protection seller pays the losses that a hypothetical holder of a tranche in the notional CDO would have experienced.

Effectively, the seven tranches of the notional CDO serve to define seven new kinds of bets that one could take on the reference portfolio. Since these bets are designed to mimic the experience of investors in a real CDO, S&P and Moody’s were able to associate ratings with these bets. However the bets themselves — highly customized variants credit default swaps — are not securities.

For a regulated entity that wished to hold AAA debt, securities had to be constructed based on these bets. The actual “ABACUS 2007-AC1″ legal entity offered synthetic securities designed to mimic the experience of tranches in the notional CDO. It did so in the usual way, just as a commodity ETF or “vanilla” synthetic CDO would: The entity accepts money from investors, and uses those funds to purchase ordinary, low-risk debt. (In this case, the low risk debt was not so ordinary; it was itself a synthetic security. But we’ll set that aside.) The entity then takes a side bet. Investors’ earnings are interest on the low risk debt adjusted by the gains or losses they experience on the side bet. The net effect of all this is that buyers of “notes” from the entity experience outcomes that are almost exactly as if they had invested in a tranche of real CDO. However, notes synthesized this way do not need to be backed by a funded CDO structure (cash or synthetic). In fact, the scheme completely eliminates all constraint on the quantity of funding invested in a given tranche, and severs any relationship between the quantity of funding and the characteristics of the securities. Goldman could have sold $1 worth of Class A-1 notes or a $1T dollars of Class A-1 notes, as long as it was able to make itself comfortable with taking the other side of the Class A-1 side bet. It happened to sell $0 worth of Class C notes, but it could have sold any quantity, without altering the characteristics of the notes or the structure of the notional CDO.

Once you “get it”, the scheme is not very difficult to understand, and it is clever. But it is not clearly described in either the ABACUS pitchbook or prospectus. I don’t know why the three-level structure is not clearly diagrammed (reference portfolio -> notional CDO -> funded entity that replicates the experience of arbitrary tranches in the notional CDO). “Notional CDO”, by the way, is my term. It is nowhere in the prospectus or pitchbook. The distinction between the notional CDO and the actual funded entity are blurred in the documentation. Perhaps the structure of this sort of deal would be obvious to insiders, or perhaps there are clearer descriptions elsewhere, in documents that have yet to be made public. Both Alea and David Harper have pointed out that this structure is similar to a “bespoke” or “single-tranche” CDO. Effectively ABACUS describes a hypothetical cash CDO with seven tranches, then chops it up into seven “single-tranche” CDOs, only three of which were ever actually invested. But in none of the documents is it represented as a bespoke CDO.

A remaining issue that has not received much scrutiny is how the deal was priced. IKB earned LIBOR + 0.85% on its Class A-1 tranche, prior to any credit events. Both ACA and IKB earned LIBOR + 1.10% on Class A-2 notes. In a cash or more vanilla synthetic CDO, the above-LIBOR cash flow to CDO investors is determined by the credit spread on the underlying debt, potentially plus a “basis” if demand for insurance has pushed the market price of protection above the underlying’s credit spread. Effectively, cash flows into the structure are market determined. (The allocation of spread between the tranches is an internal matter among the CDO’s investors.) With ABACUS or a bespoke CDO, there is no market in the tranche-specific credit default swaps and no security with an observable credit spread that can serve as a basis for pricing. So the price of protection must be negotiated between the protection seller (the ABACUS SPV and its investors in this case) and the protection buyer (usually the deal’s sponsor) without a very clear benchmark. Disclosure of the fact that there was an adversarial counterparty on the other side of the deal would likely have affected the character and perhaps the outcome of those negotiations. Since investors may have believed the ABACUS deal was offered and underwritten at Goldman’s initiative, it’s unclear whether there were active negotiations at all, or whether ABACUS investors simply accepted spreads computed by Goldman on the theory that as customers of a reputable bank they would be given reasonable prices. (“Fair” prices would have to be modeled, and modeling a fair price of a bespoke CDO tranche might be within the competence of an investment bank but beyond the competence of even “sophisticated” institutional investors.) Sponsors of bespoke CDOs often hedge their exposure in public markets, so ABACUS investors need not have suspected that there would be an identifiable counterparty, who was also a customer of Goldman’s, negotiating against them on price. Alternatively, Goldman undoubtedly had more efficient means of hedging its exposure that it otherwise would have, since it could just lay off the risk on Paulson. So Goldman might have been able to offer unusually good pricing to ABACUS investors. We cannot say a priori whether ABACUS investors ended up receiving better or worse pricing than they would have had Goldman underwritten this deal on its own initiative and hedged its exposure. But investors did not have the opportunity to negotiate price in full awareness of an adversarial counterparty, so the fairness of the spreads investors received merits further examination.

To summarize, ABACUS defined seven “side bets” based on the performance of the reference portfolio. Under each bet, one party would insure the losses of a hypothetical tranche of a notional CDO in exchange for fixed payments from the other party. The ABACUS legal entity synthesized securities based on two of those side bets, and sold those synthetic securities to IKB ($150M) and ACA ($42M). But as Alea points out, the largest “investment” — by ACA via ABN-AMRO — was not actually a purchase of notes from the ABACUS SPV, but an unfunded side bet. ACA/ABN took a $909M “long” positions in one of the seven side bets, with Paulson (via Goldman Sachs) on the other side. This was an unfunded CDS-like arrangement that occurred some time after the ABACUS legal entity was formed and funded.

I think in judging Goldman Sachs’ behavior, the fact that the ACA/ABN “investment” was a side bet arranged after the deal closed is important. The SEC’s main allegation, that Goldman was less than candid about Paulson’s role during the selection of the reference portfolio, would have affected all parties, IKB, ABN-AMRO, and ACA, both as noteholders and bond insurers (side bettors). But the question that I find most interesting is whether or not Goldman mistreated investors by virtue of a conflict between its roles as market maker and underwriter. That conflict directly affected only IKB and ACA as purchasers of newly underwritten notes. The ACA/ABN “wrap” of the super senior tranche occureed after the ABACUS LLC had been underwritten, so Goldman was only a counterparty to ABN/ACA at that point in time.

Update: Correction: IKB invested the A-1 tranche, not ACA as originally stated. Many thanks to commenter gennitydo for pointing out the error.

Update 3-May-2010: Yves Smith publishes a note from an anonymous correspondent claiming that ABACUS was just a failed underwriting of a vanilla CDO, not several “singe tranche CDOs” as described above. I think her correspondent is mistaken, and stand by the post as written.

If ABACUS had been constructed as a vanilla synthetic CDO, but the junior tranches had been left unfunded, Goldman would have been on the hook for that risk (as well as the risk of the super senior tranche and the unfunded portion of the Class A-1 and A-2 tranches). Goldman would have lost at least $708B on the deal if that had been the case, probably much more, depending on how worthless the super senior tranche turned out to be. Goldman could have synthesized the full reference portfolio and then dynamically hedged its exposure to the whole unfunded portion of the structure, but that would have been an elaborate and inefficient means of reaching an economically identical result. The prospectus notes that the structure would sell CDS by series of note, where series are within-tranche groupings, which it would not have done if it were synthesizing the full reference portfolio. ABACUS was built from single-tranche CDO’s, with Class A-2 notes covering a 21% – 35% slice of a notional CDO built from the reference portfolio and Class A-1 notes covering a 35% – 45% slice, while the unfunded but eventually insured super senior tranche was 45% – 100%. No one funded or ever bore the risk of the 0% – 21% bit.

Many thanks to the indispensable jck of Alea for great comments on an early draft of this post. All the dumb mistakes are mine; the smart stuff is jck’s benign influence.

Update History:

  • 26-April-2010, 6:45 a.m. EDT: Corrected misstatement of which parties invested which tranches, with thanks to commenter gennitydo.
  • 3-May-2010, 3:00 a.m. EDT: Added update re a purported debunking of this description published at Naked Capitalism.
  • 3-May-2010, 3:45 a.m. EDT: While reviewing the piece after its alleged debunking, I notice that I am arithmetically inept. It would have taken $2B, not $1.8B to fully fund the structure. Corrected in the text with the old value scratched.

Synthetic securities are not so strange

Synthetic securities are not so strange. Many retail investors own them.

If you hold a commodity ETF or a equity ETF that tracks its benchmark via futures, you hold a synthetic security. Like a synthetic CDO, commodity and equity ETFs are investment vehicles that hold very vanilla “collateral securities” (like Treasury bills), but simulate exposure to some other thing by taking positions in derivative markets. For example, if you were to purchase the PowerShares DB Agriculture ETF (DBA), you would hold an interest in an entity that holds T-bills and takes futures positions in commodities like corn, wheat, and sugar. Despite the fact that this entity is synthesized in part from “zero-sum” derivatives, your shares of DBA constitute “securities” in every common sense: They are standardized, transferrable, claims on a business entity. The fund holds assets (the T-bills) that serve to secure claims that may arise against it in the course of doing business. Shares are limited liability instruments; investors can not be held liable for amounts beyond what they have invested.

It is possible to borrow and sell short shares of DBA, but at the fund level, the statement “for every long there is a short” is no more true of DBA than it is of IBM. It is true that the long futures positions held by the ETF are necessarily matched by short positions by some other investor. Formally, the short counterparty is likely a single clearinghouse. But the clearinghouse is just an intermediary; in an economic sense, the positions opposite DBA are held by a wide variety of market participants whose motivations may include both speculation and hedging, who may or may not have information or strong beliefs about future price movements.

The fact that DBA is “synthetic” may or may not have economic significance. If you review the prospectus of a synthetic ETF, you will be informed of various risks relating to the structure of derivatives markets. But the ETFs are intended simply to offer exposure to a basket of commodities more efficiently than a fund that physically warehoused the goods would. Commodity ETFs track the experience of an entity holding real goods with varying degrees of accuracy, but most investors view their positions as simply being long the commodity.

There are lots of important differences between a commodity ETF and a synthetic CDO. Synthetic CDOs are usually leveraged. Some synthetic equity ETFs are also leveraged, although they manage leverage very differently. Unlike ETFs, claims on synthetic CDOs are divided into multiple tranches, which is intended to create different classes of shares that are more or less speculative. The derivative positions held by synthetic CDOs are usually over-the-counter credit default swaps, and are likely to be less liquid than the futures positions held by a typical ETF.

I don’t mean to overstate the analogy. A synthetic CDO built from credit derivatives on the hard-to-digest bits of mortgage-backed securities is very different from an ETF that provides exposure to commodities. To the degree that it is important to draw inferences about the nature and intentions of a fund’s counterparties, one would conclude that the CDO and ETF trade with very different populations. A synthetic CDO is constructed in a manner intended to provide stable and predictable cashflows to more senior investors. Commodity ETFs are volatile all around.

However, the statement “a XXX transaction necessarily included both a long and short side” is as true for commodity ETFs as for synthetic CDOs. That statement may or may not have some economic significance. But it does not in itself imply that there are one or a few counterparties taking concentrated speculative bets specifically against the holdings of the fund.

This piece is inspired by comments of James Kwak, despite his poor taste in pundits. It is also intended as a bit of an answer to Arnold Kling, who wonders whether claims on a synthetic CDO could be considered securities.

L’affaire Goldman in price/information terms

I have found it helpful to pull away from the details of the Goldman/Paulson/ABACUS deal and think through the issues abstractly. In the unlikely event that others will find it helpful, I present the tale below…

Let’s suppose there is a trader, whom we’ll call “Trader X”. Trader X wishes to take a very large position on a bunch of related and correlated financial instruments. But Trader X has a problem. The size of the trade he wants to make is large relative to ordinary turnover in the asset. The market would almost surely move against him before he executed more than a fraction of his trades. Market-makers are very sensitive to the balance of order flow. If Trader X starts calling dealers and executing trades, they would observe one-sided flow and quickly adjust the price until trades on the other side were attracted and the flow returned to balance. This “adverse price action” would significantly reduce the profitability and increase the risk of X’s trade. It would also reveal his information or belief about future price movement to the market, enhancing market efficiency perhaps, but reducing his edge.

Trader X’s problem is well-known: sporadic large trades are known as “block trades”, and naively executed block trades are inefficient and expensive. If Trader X was buying and selling stock, he could make use of various tools that have been developed to circumvent this problem, “dark pools” that try to match big buyers and sellers without revealing strategic information about either party, to one another or to the market at large. Unfortunately, block trading platforms haven’t yet evolved for what Trader X wants to buy. The instruments he wants are similar and correlated, but not quite as standard as stocks, and “block trades” like his are sufficiently rare that even if the infrastructure existed, he’d be unlikely to find a counterparty quickly. Trader X could try to trade strategically and build a position over time, but given the thinness of the market that would take too long, the opportunity will disappear. Trader X is in a bind.

So, he goes to Investment Bank Y and explains the situation. Bank Y has many connections in the investing community, and could “shop the deal”, looking for a large investor to take the other side of the trade. But other investors are like market makers: they view strong demand to as an indicator of a counterparty’s information, and fear getting ripped off. Bank Y can find investors to trade with Trader X, but they would demand a large price premium over current quoted prices in order to take a position opposite a trader who acts like he knows something (whether he does in fact or not). If Trader X could persuade counterparties that he had no information — if it were clear his motivation was to hedge a risk, rather than gamble on a price change — then other investors might be willing to take the trade, and maybe he could find competitive bidders and get a decent price. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. Trader X is widely known to be a speculator, and by revealing the trade he wishes to make and the money he is willing to throw at it, he would reveal both his beliefs and his strong commitment to those beliefs. Other investors without special information would be wary of trading against such a certain counterparty, and would not offer favorable terms.

Bank Y asks Trader X what the ideal solution to his problem would be. Trader X thinks for a moment and says, “Ideally a counterparty would naturally appear who happens to want the opposite side of my trade. If they were buying while I was selling, order flow would be balanced, and we could transact at current market prices.”

Bank Y considers for a moment, and comes up with an idea. “Suppose we start a little investment company up, something like a mutual fund devoted to the kind of positions you want to trade. Since you want to take a ‘short’ position, we’ll find a manager enthusiastic about the prospects of the ‘long’ side and help him start this little fund. There are lots of reputable money managers in the world, with a wide variety of views, so we can find somebody excited and capable of running this fund. We have lots of connections among investors, and we are in the business of drumming up interest in new investment vehicles, so there’s a reasonable chance we’ll find people to fund the strategy at a scale large enough to match your trade. Once we do, there will be a natural buyer of what you want to sell, and you can enter the market without impacting prices. In fact, since both you and this fund will use us as market makers, we’ll just cross the trades internally at prevailing prices, and neither you nor the fund will have to worry about adverse price action.”

“Hooray!”, says Trader X, “You guys are fabulous.” And it all worked out just exactly as Bank Y described.

Let’s suppose that this has all just happened, and asset prices have not moved at all. There has been no collapse of some gobbledygooky RMBS/CDS/CDO market. Today, everybody is happy. No harm, no foul, right? Was this little strategy okay?

Trader X has profited compared to all of his feasible alternatives. He acquired a position he desired very efficiently. Bank Y has earned a fee. But let’s consider the situation of the investors in the new fund, whom we’ll refer to as “the Investors”.

The Investors, as of this writing, hold a position they are pleased to hold at prevailing market prices. However, the Investors would not have taken the position at all had it not been for the intervention of Bank Y.

Let’s call the difference between the prevailing market price and the price Trader X would have had to pay a direct counterparty to take the other side of his trade “the Premium”. If Bank Y had simply shopped X’s trade to the Investors, they would have demanded the Premium. (If they would not have, why go to the trouble of starting the investment fund?) So, the net effect of taking the indirect route was a transfer of the Premium relative to the other feasible opportunity. Under the “full disclosure” scenario, the premium would have gone to the Investors. Under the “little investment company scenario”, Trader X keeps the Premium. The Premium is the value of the information not revealed, conditional on the trade getting done. (It is a maximum bound on that value if the trade would not get done at all under full disclosure.)

Note that this redistribution of wealth does not depend at all on how the investments ultimately perform. It doesn’t matter whether, in the future, Trader X is vindicated and the Investors go broke, or the Investors make a killing and Trader X moves back in with his mom. The Investors suffered an opportunity cost (and Trader X enjoyed a benefit) at the time the trade occurred, based on how the transaction was architected. Trader X might be an idiot or a genius. The Investors might have been duped, or they may have invested only after extensive due diligence (which revealed everything except the confidential involvement of Trader X). Whatever. We want to consider the only the events leading up to the trade, before market fluctuations confuse the issue. Did Bank Y behave ethically when, by withholding information, it got a deal done and caused a transfer of wealth to X?

If Bank Y had plainly represented itself as an agent of Trader X, perhaps there would have been no problem. Bank Y acted very effectively in Trader X’s interest, but in a manner that can fairly be described as adversarial with respect to the Investors. But if Bank Y had disclosed the relationship, the Investors might have inferred Trader X’s intentions and demanded the Premium (unless Bank Y actively misled them, which I’ll presume is bad). So was it okay for Bank Y to be a secret agent of Trader X while engaging in its conventional business of marketing a new investment fund?

In the story as I’ve told it, the undisclosed information was clearly material — the Investors would have received the Premium or would have preferred not to do the deal had the circumstances of the trade been plainly presented. When an investment bank is acting as an agent, to what degree can it withhold material information from other parties in order to benefit its client? And what is the relationship of an investment bank to those to whom it is marketing a new investment product? Clearly it is something less than fiduciary. Potential investors seem something less than “clients” as well. Are they simply adversarial “counterparties”? Perhaps they are “customers”? In any case, what duties are owed them?

I think I’ll just let these questions dangle. What do you think?

This exercise came from thinking through the excellent comments to the previous post, especially those of JKH. Thanks always to interfluidity‘s exceptional readers.

Goldman-plated excuses

My first reaction, upon reading about the SEC’s complaint against Goldman Sachs was to shrug. Basically, the SEC claims that Goldman failed to disclose a conflict of interest in a deal the firm arranged, that perhaps Goldman even misdirected and misimplied and failed to correct impressions that were untrue but helpful in getting the deal done. If that’s the worst the SEC could dig up, I thought, there’s way too much that’s legal. Had you asked me, early Friday afternoon, what would happen, I would have pointed to the “global settlement” seven years ago. Then as now, investment banks were caught fibbing to keep the deal flow going (then via equity analysts who hyped stocks they privately did not admire). The settlement got a lot of press, the banks were slapped with fines that sounded big but didn’t matter, promises were made about “chinese walls” and stuff, nothing much changed.

But Goldman’s PR people have once again proved themselves to be masters of ineptitude. Haven’t those guys ever heard, “it’s not the crime, but the cover up”? The SEC threw Goldman a huge softball by focusing almost entirely on the fibs of a guy who calls himself “the fabulous Fab” and makes bizarre apocalyptic boasts. Given the apparent facts of this case, phrases like “bad apple” and “regret” and “large organization” and “improved controls” would have been apropos. It’s almost poignant: The smart thing for Goldman would be to hang this fab Fab out to dry, but whether out of loyalty or arrogance the firm is standing by its man.

But Goldman’s attempts to justify what occurred, rather than dispute the facts or apologize, could be the firm’s death warrant. The brilliant can be so blind.

The core issues are simple. Goldman arranged the construction of a security, a “synthetic CDO”, which it then marketed to investors. No problem there, that’s part of what Goldman does. Further, the deal wasn’t Goldman’s idea. The firm was working to serve a client, John Paulson, who had a bearish view of the housing market and was looking for a vehicle by which he could invest in that view. Again, no problem. I’d argue even argue that, had Goldman done its job well, it would have done a public service by finding ways to get bearish views into a market that was structurally difficult to short and prone to overpricing.

Goldman could, quite ethically, have acted as a broker. Had there been some existing security that Paulson wished to sell short, the firm might have borrowed that security on Paulson’s behalf and sold it to a willing buyer without making any representations whatsoever about the nature of the security or the identity of its seller. Apparently, however, the menu of available securities was insufficient to express Paulson’s view. Fine. Goldman could have tailored a security or derivative contract to Paulson’s specifications and found a counterparty willing to take the other side of the bet in full knowledge of the disagreement. Goldman needn’t (and shouldn’t) proffer an opinion on the substantive economic issue (was the subprime RMBS market going to implode or not?). Investors get to disagree. But it did need to ensure that all parties to an arrangement that it midwifed understood the nature of the disagreement, the substance of the bet each side was taking. And it did need to ensure that the parties knew there was a disagreement.

Goldman argues that the nature of the security was such that “sophisticated investors” would know that they were taking one of two opposing positions in a disagreement. On this, Goldman is simply full of it:

Extensive Disclosure Was Provided. IKB, a large German Bank and sophisticated CDO market participant and ACA Capital Management, the two investors, were provided extensive information about the underlying mortgage securities. The risk associated with the securities was known to these investors, who were among the most sophisticated mortgage investors in the world. These investors also understood that a synthetic CDO transaction necessarily included both a long and short side. [bold original, italics mine]

The line I’ve italicized is the sole inspiration for this rambling jeremiad. That line is so absurd, brazen, and misleading that I snorted when I encountered it. Of course it is true, in a formal sense. Every financial contract — every security or derivative or insurance policy — includes both long and short positions. Financial contracts are promises to pay. There is always a payer and a payee, and the payee is “long” certain states of the world while the payer is short. When you buy a share of IBM, you are long IBM and the firm itself has a short position. Does that mean, when you purchase IBM, you are taking sides in a disagreement with IBM, with IBM betting that it will collapse and never pay a dividend while you bet it will succeed and be forced to pay? No, of course not. There are many, many occasions when the interests of long investors and the interests of short investors are fully aligned. When IBM issues new shares, all of its stakeholders — preexisting shareholders, managers, employees — hope that IBM will succeed, and may have no disagreement whatsoever on its prospects. Old stakeholders commit to pay dividends to new shareholders because managers believe the cash they receive up front will enable business activity worth more than the extra cost. New shareholders buy the shares because they agree with old stakeholders’ optimism. The existence of a long side and a short side need imply no disagreement whatsoever.

So why did Goldman put that line in their deeply misguided press release? One word: derivatives. The financially interested community, like any other group of humans, has its unexamined clichés. One of those is that derivatives are zero sum contests between ‘long’ investors and ‘short’ investors whose interests are diametrically opposed and who transact only because they disagree. By making CDOs, synthetic CDOs sound like derivatives, Goldman is trying to imply that investors must have known they were playing against an opponent, taking one side of a zero-sum gamble that they happened to lose.

Of course that’s bullshit. Synthetic CDOs are constructed, in part, from derivatives. (They are built by mixing ultrasafe “collateral securities” like Treasury bonds with credit default swap positions, and credit default swaps are derivatives.) But investments in synthetic CDOs are not derivatives, they are securities. While the constituent credit default swaps “necessarily” include both a long and a short position, the synthetic CDOs include both a long and a short position only in the same way that IBM shares include both a long and a short position. Speculative short interest in whole CDOs was rare, much less common than for shares of IBM. Investors might have understood, in theory, that a short-seller could buy protection on a diversified portfolio of credit default swaps that mimicked the CDO “reference portfolio”, or could even buy protection on tranches of the CDO itself to express a bearish view on the structure. But CDO investors would not expect that anyone was actually doing this. It would seem like a dumb idea, since CDO portfolios were supposed to be chosen and diversified to reduce the risk of loss relative to holding any particular one of its constituents, and senior tranches were protected by overcollateralization and priority. Most of a CDO’s structure was AAA debt, generally viewed as a means of earning low-risk yield, not as a vehicle for speculation. Synthetic CDOs were composed of CDS positions backed by many unrelated counterparties, not one speculative seller. Goldman’s claim that “market makers do not disclose the identities of a buyer to a seller” is laughable and disingenuous. A CDO, synthetic or otherwise, is a newly formed investment company. Typically there is no identifiable “seller”. The investment company takes positions with an intermediary, which then hedges its exposure in transactions with a variety of counterparties. The fact that there was a “seller” in this case, and his role in “sponsoring” the deal, are precisely what ought to have been disclosed. Investors would have been surprised by the information, and shocked to learn that this speculative short had helped determine the composition of the structure’s assets. That information would not only have been material, it would have been fatal to the deal, because the CDO’s investors did not view themselves as speculators.

I have little sympathy for CDO investors. Wait, scratch that. I have a great deal of sympathy for the beneficial investors in CDOs, for the workers whose pensions won’t be there or the students at colleges strapped for resources after their endowments were hit. But I have no sympathy for their agents and delegates, the well-paid “professionals” who placed funds entrusted them in a foolish, overhyped fad. But what investment managers believed about their hula-hoop is not what Goldman now hints that they believed. Investors in synthetic CDOs did not view themselves as taking one side of a speculative gamble against a “short” holding opposite views. They had a theory about their investments that involved no disagreement whatsoever, no conflict between longs and shorts. It went like this:

There is a great deal of demand for safe assets in the world right now, and insufficient supply at reasonable yields. So, investors are synthesizing safe assets by purchasing riskier debt (like residential mortgage-backed securities) and buying credit default swaps to protect themselves. All that hedging is driving up the price of CDS protection to attractive levels, given the relative safety of the bonds. We might be interested in capturing those cash flows, but we also want safe debt. So, we propose to diversify across a large portfolio of overpriced CDS and divide the cash flows from the diversified portfolio into tranches. If we do this, those with “first claims” on the money should be able to earn decent yields with very little risk.

I don’t want to say anything nice about that story. The idea that an investor should earn perfectly safe, above-risk-free yields via blind diversification, with little analysis of the real economic basis for their investment, is offensive to me and, events have shown, was false. But this was the story that justified the entire synthetic CDO business, and it involved no disagreement among investors. According to the story, the people buying the overpriced CDS protection, the “shorts” were not hoping or expressing a view that their bonds would fail. They were hedging, protecting themselves against the possibility of failure. There needn’t have been any disagreement about price. The RMBS investors may have believed that they were overpaying for protection, just as CDO buyers did, just as we all knowingly and happily overpay for insurance on our homes. Shedding great risk is worth accepting a small negative expected return. That derivatives are a zero-sum game may be a cliché, but it is false. Derivatives are zero-sum games in a financial sense, but they can be positive sum games in an economic sense, because hedgers are made better off when they shed risk, even when they overpay speculators in expected value terms to do so. (If there are “natural” hedgers on both sides of the market, no one need overpay and the potential economic benefits of derivatives are even stronger. But there are few natural protection sellers in the CDS market.)

Goldman claims to have lost money on the CDO it created for Paulson. Perhaps the bankers thought Paulson was a patsy, that his bearish bets were idiotic and they were doing investors no harm by hiding his futile meddling. Perhaps, as Felix Salmon suggests, the employees doing the deal had little reason to care about whether the part of the structure Goldman retained performed, as long as they could book a fee. It is likely that even if Paulson had had nothing to do with the deal, the CDO would still have failed, given how catastrophically idiotic RMBS-backed CDOs were soon revealed to be.

But all of that is irrelevant, assuming the SEC has the facts right. Investors in Goldman’s deal reasonably thought that they were buying a portfolio that had been carefully selected by a reputable manager whose sole interest lay in optimizing the performance of the CDO. They no more thought they were trading “against” short investors than investors in IBM or Treasury bonds do. In violation of these reasonable expectations, Goldman arranged that a party whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of investors would have significant influence over the selection of the portfolio. Goldman misrepresented that party’s role to the manager and failed to disclose the conflict of interest to investors. That’s inexcusable. Was it illegal? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Given the amount of CYA boilerplate in Goldman’s presentation of the deal, maybe they immunized themselves. But the firm’s behavior was certainly unethical. If Goldman cannot acknowledge that, I can’t see how investors going forward could place any sort of trust in the firm. Whatever does or does not happen in Washington D.C., Goldman Sachs needs to reform or die.

Revaluing China

It’s odd that I’ve ended up something of a China dove. My entrée into the fin/econ blogosphere was as a commenter at Brad Setser’s website, where some of my rantings verged on sinophobic. But somewhere along the line, I came to the conclusion that faulting China for America’s problems is a bit pathetic. While the jury is still out on the long-term wisdom of its dash to wealth, there’s a solid case that the China’s economic policies have served it well. The United States was and remains the world’s most powerful nation, not a fainting virgin. If China’s economic choices were indirectly harmful to the United States (they were and are), it was within the United States’ power to craft a response that would neutralize those effects. It is not China’s fault that the US did not look after its own interests. The United States’ self-destructive tolerance of unbalanced trade was relentlessly pushed by domestic groups — Wall Street and Wal-Mart — and was given plenty of cover by the economic establishment prior to the “Great Recession”.

Although I hold the United States responsible for its imbalances, I have no patience at all for the argument that “profligate Americans” were the root of the problem. American families responded quite reasonably to the price signals they encountered in goods, credit, and housing markets under an assumption that markets are stable and reasonably efficient. In making those assumptions, they were following the endlessly repeated advice of “experts”. Sure, you can toss out anecdotes about ugly Americans buying Hummers and taking cruises with cash-out refis. America has its share of credit-loving conspicuous consumers. But most families put their cash-out refis to more ordinary and defensible uses, as a supplement stagnant incomes. Absurd and unsustainable price signals (ungodly cheap imports, incredibly easy credit, monotonically rising home prices) were the failure for which the US must take reponsibility, and the blame for those falls squarely on the shoulders of lobbyists, politicians, and economists. It was a technocratic elite that fucked up, not Jane and Joe Six-Pack.

All of a sudden, though, part of that elite wants to make amends by forcefully confronting China. I think that’s a mistake, see here and here, or read Ryan Avent. The United States needs a comprehensive, nondiscriminatory balanced trade policy, not a bilateral trade spat with China.

But suppose the China hawks are right, that China’s mercantilism is uniquely harmful and must be forcefully addressed. The usual demand is that China let its currency appreciate sharply against the dollar. A depressed exchange rate functions as both a tariff on foreign goods and an export subsidy. The (accurate) case against China is that its currency policy amounts to protectionism in disguise. However, it is the real, not nominal, exchange rate that matters in this story. Most China hawks are agitating for a change in the nominal exchange rate, so that instead of buying 6.8 Yuan, a dollar should only be able to purchase 6 or even 5.5 Yuan. That approach has advantages: it would be a clear, visible change that can be implemented quickly. Holding wages in the US and China constant, a nominal appreciation becomes a real appreciation. However, there is another way that China’s real exchange rate could adjust: Chinese wages could rise more quickly than American wages while the nominal exchange rate stays put.

The US should prefer real appreciation via wage growth in China to appreciation via a sharp change in nominal exchange rates. Economically, the two approaches are similar, but politically they are quite different. The danger that the US might try to “inflate away its debt” is a live issue in China. A big nominal appreciation of the CNY implies huge paper losses on China’s hoard of dollar assets. That might create resentments, as China’s relatively modest losses on other US investments have. If China were to engineer a real appreciation while keeping the nominal exchange rate stable, it could avoid an accounting loss on its enormous investment. Avoiding such a loss is in the interest of both China’s economic managers and the United States.

It’s uncomfortable to make a policy recommendation based on what a cynic might claim to be deceptive spin. The economic effects of a revaluation via rising Chinese wages or via a nominal appreciation are similar. One could argue my suggestion amounts to colluding with China’s leaders to hide the degree to which they and we have expropriated wealth from China’s underpaid workers. (China’s workers are underpaid in international terms, for work of comparable productivity.) A nominal revaluation would render transparent the cost of China’s past subsidies to Western consumers and its own export tycoons. A wage-based revaluation would hide it.

But there is also a sense in which the paper losses that a nominal reval would occasion are misleading. The wealth represented by China’s reserves might never have been earned without its policy of exchange rate management. China’s development, in a broad sense, is much more valuable than its stock of reserve assets. Despite suffering a direct expropriation of international purchasing power from the policy, most Chinese are arguably better off than they would have been in the absence of that “theft”. Outrage over paper losses on reserve assets would be like shareholders in a business getting mad over a phenomenally profitable promotion because it involved selling goods at a discount.

Further, the US has not — yet — “inflated away” the value of a dollar in terms of domestic purchasing power. China’s reserve assets can be traded for roughly the same American goods and services as they could have on the day that they were purchased. America has changed over the past decade much less than China has. China’s workers have grown dramatically, incredibly, more productive, thanks to structural changes in their economy. So perhaps the most accurate way of accounting for these changes is to let the wages of Chinese workers increase to match that productivity growth, rather than restraining wage-growth but cheapening internationally-traded goods.

I don’t think there’s a clear case that one story is “truer” than any other. But I do know that a future in which the US and China are warm friends looks far better than a new cold war based on avoidable grievance. My first-best prescription for the US is to avoid singling out China at all, while using nondiscriminatory capital controls (or else “import certificates“) to unilaterally enforce a balance of trade. But if we must single out China, we should prefer revaluation via higher wages to nominal appreciation. If we are not stupid about how we frame the issue — if we don’t throw around accusations of sweatshops and slave labor as an offensive sort of cudgel — we might find that China’s leadership is more open to wage appreciation than currency appreciation. Higher wages balance the cost of reduced international competitiveness with the benefit of increased domestic demand. Giving ordinary people more money always has a political upside. Rising wages don’t attract self-defeating flows of “hot money”, like gradual nominal appreciation does. And China’s leadership, with its laser-focus on stability, prefers gradual experiments to bold, dramatic adventures.

As Joseph Wang used to point out (see e.g. his comments here), ultimately, the stability of America’s middle class depends upon the emergence of a wealthier middle class in China and other emerging countries. That’s what we should all be working towards.

Capital can’t be measured

Simon Johnson and James Kwak are absolutely right. Sure, “hard” capital and solvency constraints for big banks are better than mealy-mouthed technocratic flexibility. But absent much deeper reforms, totemic leverage restrictions will not meaningfully constrain bank behavior. Bank capital cannot be measured. Think about that until you really get it. “Large complex financial institutions” report leverage ratios and “tier one” capital and all kinds of aromatic stuff. But those numbers are meaningless. For any large complex financial institution levered at the House-proposed limit of 15×, a reasonable confidence interval surrounding its estimate of bank capital would be greater than 100% of the reported value. In English, we cannot distinguish “well capitalized” from insolvent banks, even in good times, and regardless of their formal statements.

Lehman is a case-in-point. On September 10, 2008, Lehman reported 11% “tier one” capital and very conservative “net leverage“. On September 25 15, 2008, Lehman declared bankruptcy. Despite reported shareholder’s equity of $28.4B just prior to the bankruptcy, the net worth of the holding company in liquidation is estimated to be anywhere from negative $20B to $130B, implying a swing in value of between $50B and $160B. That is shocking. For an industrial firm, one expects liquidation value to be much less than “going concern” value, because fixed capital intended for a particular production process cannot easily be repurposed and has to be taken apart and sold for scrap. But the assets of a financial holding company are business units and financial positions, which can be sold if they are have value. Yes, liquidation hits intangible “franchise” value and reputation, but those assets are mostly excluded from bank balance sheets, and they are certainly excluded from “tier one” capital calculations. The orderly liquidation of a well-capitalized financial holding company ought to yield something close to tangible net worth, which for Lehman would have been about $24B.

So Lehman misreported its net worth, right? Not according to the law. From the Valukas Report, Section III.A.2: Valuation — Executive Summary:

The Examiner did not find sufficient evidence to support a colorable claim for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with any of Lehman’s valuations. In particular, in the third quarter of 2008 there is evidence that certain executives felt pressure to not take all of the write‐downs on real estate positions that they determined were appropriate; there is some evidence that the pressure actually resulted in unreasonable marks. But, as the evidence is in conflict, the Examiner determines that there is insufficient evidence to support a colorable claim that Lehman’s senior management imposed arbitrary limits on write‐downs of real estate positions during that quarter.

In other words, the definitive legal account of the Lehman bankruptcy has concluded that while executives may have shaded things a bit, from the perspective of what is actionable within the law, Lehman’s valuations were legally indistinguishable from accurate. Yet, the estimate of net worth computed from these valuations turned out to be off by 200% or more.

Advocates of the devil and Dick Fuld will demur here. Yes, Lehman’s “event of default” meant many derivatives contracts were terminated prematurely and collateral on those contracts was extracted from the firm. But closing a marked-to-market derivatives position does not affect a firm’s net worth, only its exposure. There may be short-term changes in reportable net worth as derivatives accounted as hedges and not marked-to-market are closed, but if the positions were in fact hedges, unreported gains on other not-marked-to-market assets should eventually offset those charges. Again, the long term change in firm net worth should be zero. There are transaction costs associated with managing a liquidation, but those would be minimal relative to the scale of these losses. Markets did very poorly after Lehman’s bankruptcy, but contrary to popular belief, Lehman was never forced into “fire sales” of its assets. It was and remains in orderly liquidation. Last July, more than 9 months after the bank fell, Lehman’s liquidator reported that only a “fraction” of the firm’s assets had been sold and the process would last at least two years. Perhaps the pessimistic estimates of Lehman’s value were made during last year’s nadir in asset prices, and Lehman’s claimed net worth looks more reasonable now that many assets have recovered. But if Lehman’s assets were so profoundly affected by last Spring’s turmoil that an accurate September capitalization of $28B shifted into the red by tens of billions of dollars, how is it plausible that Lehman’s competitors took much more modest hits during that period? Unless the sensitivity of Lehman’s assets to last year’s markets was much, much higher than all of its peers, Lehman’s assets were misvalued before the asset price collapse, or its competitors assets were misvalued during the collapse.

We get lost in details and petty arguments. The bottom line is simple. The capital positions reported by “large complex financial institutions” are so difficult to compute that the confidence interval surrounding those estimates is greater than 100% even for a bank “conservatively” levered at 11× tier one capital.

Errors in reported capital are almost guaranteed to be overstatements. Complex, highly leveraged financial firms are different from other kinds of firm in that optimistically shading asset values enhances long-term firm value. Yes, managers of all sorts of firms manage earnings and valuations to flatter themselves and maximize performance-based compensation. And short-term shareholders of any firm enjoy optimistic misstatements coincident with their planned sales. But long-term shareholders of nonfinancial firms prefer conservative accounts, because in the event of a liquidity crunch, firms must rely upon external funders who will independently examine the books. The cost to shareholders of failing to raise liquidity when bills come due is very high. There is, in the lingo, an “asymmetric loss function”. Long-term shareholders are better off with accounts that understate strength, because conservative accounting reduces the likelihood that shareholder wealth will be expropriated by usurious liquidity providers or a bankruptcy, and conservative accounts do not impair the real earnings stream that will be generated by nonfinancial operations.

This logic inverts for complex financials. Financial firms raise and generate liquidity routinely. Many of their assets are suitable as collateral in repo markets. Large commercial banks borrow freely in the Federal Funds market and satisfy liquidity demands in part simply by issuing deposits that are not immediately withdrawn. For large financial firms, access to liquidity is rarely contingent upon a detailed audit by a potential liquidity provider. Instead, access to liquidity, and the ability to continue as an operating firm, is contingent upon the “confidence” of peer firms and of regulators. Further, the earnings of a financial firm derive from the spread between its funding cost and asset yields. Funding costs are a function of market confidence, so the value of a financial firm’s real future earnings increases with optimistic valuation. For a long-term shareholder of a large financial, optimistically shading the firm’s position increases both the earnings of the firm and the “option value” of the firm in difficult times. It would be a massive failure of corporate governance if Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein did not fib a little to make their firms’ books seem a bit better than perhaps they are, within legal and regulatory tolerances.

So, for large complex financials, capital cannot be measured precisely enough to distinguish conservatively solvent from insolvent banks, and capital positions are always optimistically padded. Given these facts, and I think they are facts, even “hard” capital and leverage restraints are unlikely to prevent misbehavior. Can anything be done about this? Are we doomed to some post-modern quantum mechanical nightmare wherein “Schrödinger’s Banks” are simultaneously alive and dead until some politically-shaped measurement by a regulator forces a collapse of the superposition of states into hunky-doriness?

Yes, we are doomed, unless and until we simplify the structure of the banks. When I say stuff like “confidence intervals surrounding measures of bank capital are greater than 100%”, what does that even mean? Capital does not exist in the world. It is not accessible to the senses. When we claim a bank or any other firm has so much “capital” we are modeling its assets and liabilities and contingent positions and coming up with a number. Unfortunately, there is not one uniquely “true” model of bank capital. Even hewing to GAAP and all regulatory requirements, thousands of estimates and arbitrary choices must be made to compute the capital position of a modern bank. There is a broad, multidimensional “space” of defensible models by which capital might be computed. When we “measure” capital, we select a model and then compute. If we were to randomly select among potential models (even weighted by regulatory acceptability, so that a compliant model is much more likely than an iffy one), we would generate a probability distribution of capital values. That distribution would be very broad, so that for large, complex banks negative values would be moderately probable, as would the highly positive values that actually get reported. If we want to make capital measurable in any practical sense, we have to dramatically narrow the range of models, so that all compliant models produce values tightly clumped around the number we’ll call capital. But every customized derivative, nontraded asset, or unusual liability in a bank’s capital structure requires modeling. The interaction between a bank holding company and its subsidiaries requires multiple modeling choices, especially when those subsidiaries have crossholdings. A wide variety of contingent liabilities — of holding companies directly, of subsidiaries, of affiliated or spun-off entities like SIVs and securitizations — all require modeling choices. Given the heterogeneity of real-world arrangements, no “one-size-fits-all” model can be legislated or regulated to ensure a consistent capital measure. We cannot have both free-form, “innovative” banks and meaningful measures of regulatory capital. If we want to base a regulatory scheme on formal capital measures, we’ll need to circumscribe the structure and composition of banks so that they can only carry positions and relationships for which we have standard regulatory models. “Banks’ internal risk models” or “internal valuations of Level 3 assets” don’t cut it. They are gateways to regulatory postmodernism.

Regulation by formal capital has a proud and reasonably successful history, but has been rendered obsolete by the complexity of modern financial institutions. The assets and liabilities of a traditional commercial bank had straightforward, widely acceptable book values. For the corner bank, discretionary modeling mattered only in setting credit loss reserves, and the range of estimates that bank officers, external auditors, and regulators would produce for those reserves was usually pretty narrow (except when all three colluded to fake and forbear in a general crisis). But model complexity overwhelms and destroys regulatory capital as a useful measure for large complex financial institutions. We need either to resimplify banks to make them amenable to the traditional approach, or come up with other approaches more capable of reigning in the brave new world of banking.

Some sources: Yves Smith has been phenomenal on the Lehman bankruptcy. Regarding estimates of the hole that appeared in Lehman’s balance sheet, see “$75 Billion Needlessly Lost in Hasty Lehman Bankruptcy Filing?” and “So Where, Exactly, Did Lehman’s $130 Billion Go?“. Neither Yves nor I remotely buy the “hasty bankruptcy” explanation, see my comments above, the previously cited article, and the always acerbic Independent Accountant. Comments on the pacing of the Lehman liquidation are from the CNBC video embedded in Yves’ piece. The $24B estimated tangible for Lehman is computed by taking its September 10, 2008 shareholder equity and subtracting intangible assets reported on Lehman’s last available balance sheet.

My discussion of financial firms’ incentive to lie was informed by the investor/blogger/super-cop John Hempton, see “Don’t believe what they say” and “Bank solvency and the ‘Geithner Plan’“.

This essay also owes something to Frank Partnoy’s excellent “Make Markets Be Markets” presentation.

Update: Somehow I managed to get the date of Lehman’s bankruptcy wrong. Takes talent, I know. Thanks to commenter mindbender for setting me straight!

A different perspective on interest rates

In the endless debates over stimulus and deficits, more “dovish” commentators frequently point out that debt markets appear sanguine about US borrowing. Despite some recent upward jitters, the Federal Government currently pays less than 4% to borrow for 10 years, and under 5% to borrow for 30 years. Those are bargain rates in historical terms, the argument goes, so investors must not be terribly concerned about inflation or default or any other bogeyman of “deficit terrorists”.

To make the point, Paul Krugman recently published a graph very similar to this one:

Since the financial crisis began, the US government’s cost of long-term borrowing has dramatically fallen, not risen. If we graph a longer series of 10-year Treasury yields, the case looks even more compelling. The United States government can borrow very, very cheaply relative to its historical experience.

However, there is another way to think about those rates. The US government’s cost of long-term borrowing can be decomposed into a short-term rate plus a term premium which investors demand to cover the interest-rate and inflation risks of holding long-term bonds. The short-term rate is substantially a function of monetary policy: the Federal Reserve sets an overnight rate that very short-term Treasury rates must generally follow. Since the Federal Reserve has reduced its policy rate to historic lows, the short-term anchor of Treasury borrowing costs has mechanically fallen. But this drop is a function of monetary policy only. It tells us nothing about the market’s concern or lack thereof with the risks of holding Treasuries.

But the term premium (or “steepness of the yield curve”) is a market outcome (except while the Fed is engaged in “quantitative easing”). How do things look when we graph the term premium since the crisis began?

The graph below shows the conventional barometer of the term premium, the 2-year / 10-year spread (blue), and a longer measure, the spread between the yield on 3-month T-bills and 30-year Treasury bonds (red), since the beginning of the financial crisis:

Since the financial crisis began, the market determined part of the Treasury’s cost of borrowing has steadily risen, except for a brief, sharp flight to safety around the fall of 2008. Investors have been demanding greater compensation for bearing interest rate and inflation risk, but that has been masked by the monetary-policy induced drop in short-term rates.

Taking a longer view, we can see that the current term premium is at, but has not exceeded, a historical extreme:

Note: There’s a gap in the 30-year rate series, probably because it became impossible to compute a “constant maturity” 30-year Treasury yield during the period when the Treasury stopped issuing 30-year bonds.

The present term premium is quite similar to those that vexed President Clinton during the heyday of the “bond vigilantes”. A glass half full story says that, despite all the stresses of the financial crisis and the sharp spike in Treasury issuance, the term premium has not become unmoored from its historical range. A glass half empty story says that the term premium is toying with the boundary of that range, and could break loose in an instant. I have no idea which tale is truer.

My politics on the deficit are centrist to dovish. I think that deficit spending is always an option, and that the Federal Government should absolutely spend on forward-looking, high-return investment projects. I also favor generous “safety net” benefits and would like to see a guaranteed income program in the United States. However, the only form of “stimulus” I support is very broad based transfers (e.g. I would support a payroll tax subsidy). I agree with many left-ish commentators that the deficits we’ve experienced are more an effect than a cause of our economic problems, and will take care of themselves if we create a strong economy and a broadly legitimate political system (neither of which I think we have right now). A nation as large and wealthy in natural resources and human capital as the United States need never be constrained by the vicissitudes of financial markets, if its government is capable of mobilizing its citizens’ risk-bearing capacity on behalf of the polity. [*]

But whatever my politics, I think there is a fair probability that the US will experience the thrilling uncertainty that attends a loss of confidence in its currency and debt. The argument that “markets don’t seem troubled by our deficits” is less persuasive than it first appears.

Full disclosure: Although my views are sincerely held, sincerity is cheap. Perhaps I am just talking my book! I am one of those people long gold and short Treasuries (although I am not a proponent of the gold standard).

[*] Remember, economic capital has nothing to do with money. Supplying capital is nothing more or less than assuming the burden of economic risks. Where do you think China’s ever-expanding capital base comes from, when it has been the world’s largest exporter of financial capital? China’s citizens assume great risk, in the form of below-world-market wages and social safety benefits, in exchange for the promise of a wealthier and more powerful nation. To some degree that capital is extracted involuntarily, but China’s government has had remarkable success at maintaining legitimacy and the consent of the governed despite the extraordinary costs citizens have borne in the service of an uncertain future. So far, citizens have seen consistent returns on their investment: the big question is how China fares in a persistent “bear market”, when it comes to seem as though much of their sacrifice has been wasted or stolen.

In defense of incivility

Hooh, boy.

There’s a nice spat a-brewing between two people I hardly know, but nevertheless consider friends. The Epicurean Dealmaker offered some thoughts on financial reform, and in particular “resolution authority”. Yves Smith took exception. TED took exception to her exception taking. I suspect the sparks have just begun.

Me, I’m a lovah not a fightah, so I’ll split the difference. TED is right that constructive ambiguity and discretionary power are prerequisite to an effective, non-public-raping resolution regime. But Yves is right to take him to task for leaving things there, because whatever gets writ in the ex post memoirs, there are predictable and repeatedly observed incentive problems that prevent regulators from using discretionary authority until it’s too late (and then they whine to stenographers about how powerless they were). Read Michael Pomerleano and Andrew Sheng, or watch Richard Carnell, or check out l’il ol me. To be fair to TED, I know he is cognizant of these incentives; elsewhere he has offered ideas on how to change them. (See e.g. his reformist manifesto. I believe TED has also proposed adopting the Singapore model, conjuring an extraordinarily well-paid, independent regulatory caste that would be structurally resistant to capture and could recruit talent competitive with Wall Street’s finest. But I can’t find that link.)

TED is right on here:

Ms. Smith appears to advocate “root and branch reform” of the system, which makes her, by definition, more radical than me. As befits my nature as an investment banker, I am a pragmatist and an incrementalist. I think the prospect of true root and branch reform of the domestic financial system—not to mention the global one with which it is inseparably interconnected—is such a vast and daunting task to undertake in our current sociopolitical environment as to be unlikely at best. Notwithstanding the theoretical attractions of radical reform—which I personally would favor, by the way—I would much rather cobble together a partially effective, imperfect resolution authority today than wait the ten or twenty years serious reform might take… Sympathetic or not, however, I would also like to caution Ms. Smith. Like many radical reformers, I suspect she would be surprised how little common ground she has with other would-be radical reformers. It is always a revelation to discover, as revolutionaries always have, just how little agreement you have with your peers when it comes to deciding just exactly which roots and branches of the ancien régime need to be trimmed.

As, um, a proponent of root-and-branch reform, these are the questions that keep me up at night. For the record, I think we will end up with root-and-branch reform, but I fear we’ll get it hard and painful following a much more serious crisis that we have already failed to avert. I think the Great Financial “Panic” of 2008 has shrunk into another LTCM or Enron, a moment we will someday look back upon and wonder why we failed to deal with problems that were so fucking obvious, but for now all we hear is “It worked!” I’m a middle-aged Jewish guy who thinks and writes about finance, makes much of his living as a speculator, and avoids honest work. The tail risk I worry about is that I’ll get to see the sort of financial reform I advocate from a wonderful vantage high atop a lamppost.

But that is precisely why I want to take issue with TED here:

Like many other econobloggers opining on the state of affairs in the world of finance, Ms. Smith has gotten into the nasty habit of using the term “banksters” to refer to members of the financial services industry. (It is in the title of yet another post of hers today.) The overarching metaphor behind this coinage—which, I emphasize again, is neither original nor limited to Ms. Smith—is that commercial bankers, investment bankers, insurance company employees, and presumably everyone else in the financial industry are uniformly engaged in a vast, intentional, and irredeemably criminal enterprise. Ms. Smith reinforces this metaphor often, including in the post dissected herein (with the crack of “financiers [looting] taxpayers”), and implicitly in the title of her new book, ECONNED.

Now, I am all for the charms of expedient exaggeration. (Although mine tend to be limited to sarcastic and humorous uses, rather than bitter and humorless character assassination.) It can be funny, and it can emphasize important points. But uniformly and universally excoriating millions of people who work in finance as gangsters, thieves, looters, and con men is just fucking dumb. It’s like saying all management consultants are morons, or everyone from Iowa is a hick. While there certainly must be examples of moronic management consultants and hayseed Iowans among the myriad constituents of each of those groups, no honest or intelligent person would believe all of them are that way. Why, then, do so many bloggers writing today tar the entire finance industry with the same tired, thoughtless old brush?

These casual, unthinking insults would not bother me if I did not think they lower and coarsen the important conversation we are having in society and the blogosphere about financial reform. Sure, investment banking has its fair share of crooks, but we are no different than the rest of society. Some of us, closer to the top and more successful, perhaps, probably do have a more highly developed sense of entitlement and aggressiveness than your average bear. But we are not criminals. We work the system, hard, to advance our own and our families’ personal and professional interests, but 99.9% of us are not out to rape and pillage the commonfolk of their daily bread. To think otherwise is just plain stupid.

I myself don’t use the term “banksters”. And I sympathize with TED. I like financial industry professionals, personally. I enjoy meeting bankers. They are usually smart, interested in the arcane crap I’m interested in, and assholes of the sort that I enjoy sparring with. Bankers are great fun, and they are not bad people.

But we are who we are collectively as well as individually. Large organizations can and do evolve to do evil things while isolating people individually from illegal or morally uncomfortable acts. That capacity can confer tremendous advantages over smaller, more personal and accountable, collectives. It’s harsh, but we don’t get a pass just because the particular lever we are paid to pull only shifts a cog in a vast machine whose overall function we don’t control. As moral agents, it is not enough to follow the law and let pecuniary incentives guide us. We have to take responsibility for the behavior of the collectives to which we belong.

We are all dirty. Seven years ago I supported a war that has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and that has not achieved any of the positive ends I thought it would achieve. That was a moral error I’m not sure I deserve to have survived, and I’m a terrible hypocrite, because I don’t live like Mother Theresa to atone, but carry on as a comfortable American. I won’t point a finger at anyone and claim moral superiority.

But I am responsible, and it’s important that I know I am responsible. We all have an obligation, not to self-flagellate like monks, but to be aware of the systems in which we are situated, and to work a bit, at the margin, to correct them. Obviously, so long as there are badly skewed incentives, a bit at the margin won’t be enough. I won’t hold a grudge against some mid-level banker who put together crap CDOs because everyone was doing it, and who knew housing would collapse?, and it was very lucrative. But neither will I abstain from using words like “fraud” and “looting” to describe organized practices which, innocuous act by innocuous act, do in fact serve to extract wealth from many and distribute it to a well-organized, well-placed few. And if you work in the industry and that makes you uncomfortable, it should make you uncomfortable, even if your accuser is a hypocrite and morally reprehensible himself. We can and should make better rules and fix perverse incentives in the financial system. But we won’t be able to design a game so perfect that self-interested amoral agents plus an invisible hand ensure decent outcomes. We need industry participants to take responsibility for the organizations and practices in which they participate, and to take an active, serious role in policing those practices. That will require a cultural shift, an understanding that actions that are legal and profitable can be illegitimate and disreputable, and should be avoided even if competitors will profit from your scruples. If context makes that impossible, if behaving well implies that you’ll be fired or your firm will go bust, you (like Chuck Prince!) must try to alter that context.

Calling out misdeeds by hard names helps. Words like “looting”, “theft”, “fraud”, and “scam” are fair descriptions of a lot of common practices, even if some of the perpetrators worked 18 hour days putting together pages 120 through 237 of mind-numbing prospecti and meant only to earn a living.

Yves and TED and I all derive sustenance, one way or another, from the financial industry. Many, perhaps most, people with significant savings in the US, nearly all workers whose pension will support a financially comfortable retirement, are beneficiaries of practices that involved shifting wealth from others to us by means of questionable legitimacy. Many of us profited from asset bubbles; we extracted rewards from price signals that harmed the real economy rather than guiding smart decisions. This is not just about “them”. It is about us. We, the savers, the affluent, educated, hard-working “core” of American society have become thieves, or at best unwitting beneficiaries of theft. We ought to be uncivil to ourselves for that, and we ought to be trying to ensure it never happens again. Both Yves and TED are doing a good job, doing more than their parts to make sense of what’s happened and agitate for something better. But as for the people watering down derivatives reform, defending bank gigantism, shoving the CFPA into a cubicle six sub-basements beneath Ben Bernanke’s ass, well, I’m glad as hell to have people like Yves calling them out as “banksters”.

Rooseveltian reflections

Wednesday morning, I attended a Roosevelt Institute conference, on the theme “Make Markets Be Markets“. It was an enjoyable affair, with a bunch of smart, well-known speakers saying things I broadly agree with, mostly on financial reform. A wrinkle I had not really expected was how frequently, and rather charmingly, the name of the gentleman after whom the Institute is named would be invoked. FDR, and the 1930s generally, were very much with us that morning.

I have much to spout on the subject of financial reform; I am several posts in arrears on that. But by the end of the conference, I was fascinating myself with a little thought experiment.

Suppose the good guys win. Better yet, suppose they had never lost. Suppose banks had never ventured beyond conservatively prudent lending; that there had been no housing, internet, or credit bubble. Forlorn cul-de-sacs surrounded by mouldering homes were never cut from the Arizona desert. Webvan and were rejected straight off by investors rather than soaring against all reason then dying in an unreasonably sudden collapse.

In a world without bubbles and, let’s not mince words, in a world without fraud in substance if not in law, would we, or how could we, have enjoyed two decades of near “full employment” and apparent growth? Without all the internet companies that were forseeably destined to fail, without all the housing construction, without all the spending by employees whom we know now and should have known then were not actually participating in economic production, without all the spending by people feeling rich on stock or housing gains that would eventually collapse in their or someone else’s arms, what kind of economy would we have built?

These are not questions that answer themselves. They are unknowable counterfactuals.

But we do know something about the 1930s. In 1930, Keynes famously proclaimed “we have magneto trouble”, with the implication that the then incipient depression was due to a kind of remediable, technical failure. Less famously, Keynes was wrong. The post-war economy that finally put paid to the Great Depression was an economy different in kind from that of the go-go 1920s. One piece of that was financial sector reform: there were the securities acts and the FDIC and an astonishing forty years without major banking crises. But there was also a new age of mass production and mass unionization in the US (the so-called “Fordist era“), and the vast existential project of reconstruction in Europe. The Bretton Woods system fixed exchange rates and was intended explicitly to prevent the sort of unbalanced international capital flows that preceded the Great Depression. The postwar United States had an agricultural sector that was largely centrally planned, Fannie Mae and Social Security, and especially the Wagner Act which put the coercive power of the state behind exclusionary labor cartels, but which more than any other single thing made possible mass affluence based on income rather than credit. These were radical, inconceivable changes, combining “socialist” central-planning and redistribution with “fascist” collusion between the state and large corporations in support of national aims. Keynes was right, of course, that the “resources of nature and men’s devices [were] just as fertile and productive” in 1945 as they had been in 1929. But the “delicate machine” we had “blundered in control of” was replaced, not repaired. The new model mixed the technologies of the original gizmo with very novel and foreign elements in a design influenced both by the history of the Depression and an emerging great-power conflict. (See this excellent piece by the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal.)

It is entirely unclear that, absent these changes, the US economy would have “recovered”, even with financial sector reform and the deleveraging of household balance sheets. Sure, depressions never last forever, but it is plausible that the US would have fallen into a spiral of booms and busts and class warfare absent the political choices that defined the postwar economy. And note that they were political choices — a “free market” never would have delivered and sustained for decades a pervasively unionized workforce. They were, for better and for worse, the work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I don’t mean to underplay the importance of financial sector reform. A continually malfunctioning financial sector has brought the American economy to underappreciated ruin and left us with an overhang of unfulfillable promises that may engender conflict for decades. Further, the financial sector has generated the rump of a crony capitalist class which threatens to set us on the Argentine path. We have to fix the financial sector.

But we cannot fix the financial sector without addressing the problems and contradictions which we depend upon financiers to paper over. This never was just a financial crisis. It was, and is, an economic and political crisis, and we are only a very short way down the path towards resolving it.

p.s. While I do favor restrictions on international capital flows, I don’t favor (I’m actually quite hostile to) unionization as a means of delivering widespread affluence. I am not arguing that we should rehearse the political bargains of the mid-20th century. I am arguing that we had better come up with new bargains, that excising the tumors of parasitic finance is necessary but nowhere near sufficient to getting us out of the trouble we’re in.

Can we handle the truth?

Both globally and within most nations, the patterns of consumption required to sustain existing social arrangements are inconsistent with the distribution of the fruits of production. Social and economic stability, therefore, depend upon redistribution for which there is no overt legal framework or political consensus. To square this circle, the financial and government sectors have evolved means of hiding redistribution in complex, continually improvised arrangements. Unsurprisingly, massive wealth distributions arranged in this way leave much to be desired, in terms of straight corruption (the financial and government sectors redistribute a lot of wealth to themselves), justice (e.g. wealth is redistributed to those who happen to speculate early in bubbles), and sustainability (the illusion of value behind the claims of those from whom wealth is taken may prove fragile, but “loss realizations” are socially disruptive if they are not carefully paced and allocated).

Neither financial nor political reform can succeed unless we overcome the social and economic contradictions we have relied upon the financial sector to literally paper over. Off-balance-sheet liabilities that hide the impairment of savers’ claims, whether in subprime mortgage-backed securities or sovereign entitlement programs are not aberrations. They are essential tools in the arsenal of social stability, the economic equivalent of military “black-ops”, things that must be done but must always be denied in order to protect the American (and European, and Chinese) way of life. Unless we define overt arrangements that overcome the contradictions between the organization of production and socially desirable patterns of consumption, each scandal and reform will necessarily be followed by some new technique or trick that delivers, however unjustly or corruptly, the wealth transfers upon which our societies depend. Our choices are to overtly align the fruits of production with patterns of consumption, to continue to employ accounting fictions and magic to pretend away the contradictions, or to undergo some form of collapse.