It's official. The LLC that the Fed and J.P. Morgan recently formed to manage $30B Bear Stearns assets has taken over a portfolio of derivative positions along with those assets. Those positions involve both rights to receive and obligations to pay whose value may depend upon both circumstance and counterparty quality. Of course, if liabilities associated with those positions ever exceed the value of the LLCs assets, the limited liablity company could declare bankruptcy, so in theory, the Fed's maximum exposure is $29B. But, if, out of reputational concern or to promote systemic stability, the Fed would inject capital rather than let the LLC default, then the Fed has indeed become a counterparty of last resort. However, the derivative positions are all claimed to be hedges related to the LLC's "cash assets". So, I guess the word of the day is basis risk.
Timothy Geithner's speech yesterday amounts to the clearest narrative and strongest defense we've seen from an insider regarding the Fed's management of the Bear Stearns crisis. (Hat tip Felix Salmon, Calculated Risk.) We learn that the assets effectively acquired by the Fed from Bear Stearns are
investment grade securities (i.e. securities rated BBB- or higher by at least one of the three principal credit rating agencies and no lower than that by the others) and residential or commercial mortgage loans classified as 'performing'. All of the assets are current as to principal and interest (as of March 14, 2008).
However, these "cash assets" are bundled with "related hedges". What are these hedges? It's not stated explicitly, but the "Summary of Terms and Conditions" regarding the formation of the LLC, published with the speech, includes the following language:
[Bear Stearns] will sell to [the new LLC]... the assets identified by JPMC, the NY Fed and the Asset Manager as described on Schedule A hereto (the "Scheduled Collateral Pool"), together with the hedges identified by JPMC, the NY Fed and the Asset Manager [BlackRock] as described on Schedule B hereto (the "Related Hedges") and including the Pre-Closing Date Proceeds Amount. For the avoidance of doubt, the Related Hedges include the amount that the Borrower [the new LLC] would have to pay to, or the amount that the Borrower would receive from, the applicable counterparty if the Borrower had entered into an identical transaction on March 14, 2008 based on the Bear Stearns marks as of such date (the "Transfer Value"), as well as all accumulated mark to market gains or losses thereafter and any cash proceeds as a result of Related Hedges' being unwound.
[The new LLC] will assume as an economic matter the obligations under the Related Hedges and receive the benefits thereof by entering into a total return swap with the [Bear Stearns], such total return swap having an initial fair value as of the Closing Date equal to the fair value of the Related Hedges as of the Closing Date. The Controlling Party (as defined below) [the NY Fed] shall have the right to make all determinations related to the underlying hedges (e.g., whether and when to terminate) that are subject to the total return swap. At the request of the NY Fed, the Seller will use its commercially reasonable efforts to replace the total return swap with direct hedges with underlying counterparties through novation.
In English, Bear Stearns is selling various securities to an LLC controlled and largely financed by the Fed, but it is also transferring ("as an economic matter") a portfolio of derivatives that are characterized as hedges of those assets. (In practice, these derivatives may be bilateral contracts not easily transferable to the Fed's LLC, so the LLC and Bear are establishing a new contract, a total return swap, under which the LLC reimburses Bear for whatever is owed, and Bear forwards to the LLC whatever is earned, on positions that can't be replaced with direct contracts.)
Specific information about the securities and the portfolio of derivatives has not been revealed. The schedules on which they are listed are not public. They could be credit default swaps on which the Bear Stearns had acted solely as protection buyer, which would be pretty benign. (These are like insurance contracts — the very worst that could happen is the LLC pays a regular premium, but when some of its bonds catch fire and disappear the insurer fails to pay up.) But lots of instruments could arguably qualify as a "related hedge", some of which would be much riskier.
I would like to know general types and notional values of the LLC's contracts, as well as the current exposures, gross and net. I know. I'd like a pony, too. Still I can't see why the Fed should withhold this information other than potentially "bad optics". Is this really a set of well tailored hedges to the cash assets described? How much counterparty risk has the Fed taken on?
There are some other interesting tidbits in Geithner's speech. Geithner claims that, when the Bear crisis broke on Thursday, March 13, the Fed agreed to "extend an overnight non-recourse loan through the discount window to JPMorgan Chase, so that JPMorgan Chase could then 'on-lend' that money to Bear Stearns." That differs from contemporaneous statements, which announced "a secured loan facility for an initial period of up to 28 days allowing Bear Stearns to access liquidity as needed." The difference is important, as one of the big puzzles of the Bear collapse was why the firm, which had survived its public brush with bankruptcy by end-of-day March 14, suddenly had to be sold by Sunday evening. Most of us thought the crisis had been stabilized and the firm had 28 days to resolve it. (Bear insiders too: "We thought they gave us 28 days. Then they gave us 24 hours.")
Another curiosity is this:The assets [to be taken over by the Fed's LLC] were reviewed by the Federal Reserve and its advisor, BlackRock Financial Management. The assets were not individually selected by JPMorgan Chase or Bear Stearns.
Does this give you any comfort? I guess it depends what you think the Fed wanted to do here, and what you think it ought to have done. Did the Fed cherry-pick relatively good assets and hedges, to protect taxpayers? Or did it knowingly take the riskiest assets that it could within its broad-outline criteria, intentionally making itself a risk absorber of last resort to forestall future crises? It may be a while before we know, if ever.
- 4-Apr-2008, 12:50 a.m. EDT: Removed a superfluous "that", changed a "could" to a "would".
|Steve Randy Waldman — Thursday April 3, 2008 at 7:37pm||permalink|