Sunday, March 23, 2008

Did the Fed prevent a financial Chernobyl?

(Naked Capitalism) There are two useful but frustrating articles addressing different aspects of the extraordinary measures implemented by the Federal Reserve in the last ten days, in particular the bailout of Bear Stearns.

A New York Times article, "What Created This Monster," is very much worth reading despite its shortcomings. It attempts to say how we got to where we are today, but lacking a clear problem definition (are the markets in trouble due to excessive leverage? Overly complex instruments? Lack of transparency? Poorly thought and inadequate regulations? Those negative real interest rates under Greenspan?) it comes off being unfocused. However, it interviews a lot of Big Names and have some fascinating moments. My fave is this one:
Two months before he resigned as chief executive of Citigroup last year amid nearly $20 billion in write-downs, Charles O. Prince III sat down in Washington with Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Among the topics they discussed were investment vehicles that allowed Citigroup and other banks to keep billions of dollars in potential liabilities off of their balance sheets — and away from the scrutiny of investors and analysts.

“Why aren’t they on your balance sheet?” asked Mr. Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. The congressman recalled that Mr. Prince said doing so would have put Citigroup at a disadvantage with Wall Street investment banks that were more loosely regulated and were allowed to take far greater risks. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Prince confirmed the conversation.)

It was at that moment, Mr. Frank says, that he first realized just how much freedom Wall Street firms had, and how lightly regulated they were in comparison with commercial banks, which have to answer to an alphabet soup of government agencies like the Federal Reserve and the comptroller of the currency.

Eeek. Barney Frank is really smart and diligent as Congressmen go, and he didn't know this? Ooh, we are in for a rough ride.

We also have a sleep deprived, immediately-post-Bear-deal statement from Jamie Dimon:
We have a terribly global world and, over all, financial regulation has not kept up with that,

But the story is also annoying on some levels. It mentions derivatives frequently, yet fails to define terns or explain which sorts are troubling and why. No one is worried about exchange traded equity and index options, for instance; it's the OTC variety which is the focus of worry, particularly credit default swaps, which is arguably a big unregulated insurance market. There is also some good detail on how Greenspan discouraged the regulation of derivatives, and some long overdue reservations about innovation for innovation's sake.

The other sighting of the evening is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's "Fed's rescue halted a derivatives Chernobyl." The piece is a little more breathless than I like, but argues that the reason that the Fed intervened with Bear was to prevent a crisis in the CDS market. Unlike the New York Times piece, the Evans-Pritchard has a few useful factoid that I have not seen elsewhere.

The flaws in both pieces ultimately are not those of the authors, but reflect the inherent difficulty in researching complex, largely or completely unregulated over the counter markets. Data is scarce, so a reporter is heavily dependent on triangulating among source.

And the scary bit is that the regulators are not much better able to get information than the press.

From the Telegraph:
We may never know for sure whether the Federal Reserve's rescue of Bear Stearns averted a seizure of the $516 trillion derivatives system, the ultimate Chernobyl for global finance.

"If the Fed had not stepped in, we would have had pandemonium," said James Melcher, president of the New York hedge fund Balestra Capital.

"There was the risk of a total meltdown at the beginning of last week. I don't think most people have any idea how bad this chain could have been, and I am still not sure the Fed can maintain the solvency of the US banking system."

All through early March the frontline players had watched in horror as Bear Stearns came under assault and then shrivelled into nothing as its $17bn reserve cushion vanished.

Melcher was already prepared - true to form for a man who made a fabulous return last year betting on the collapse of US mortgage securities. He is now turning his sights on Eastern Europe, the next shoe to drop.

"We've been worried for a long time there would be nobody to pay on the other side of our contracts, so we took profits early and got out of everything. The Greenspan policies that led to this have been the most irresponsible episode the world has ever seen," he said.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has moved with breathtaking speed to contain the crisis. Last Sunday night, he resorted to the "nuclear option", invoking a Depression-era clause - Article 13 (3) of the Federal Reserve Act - to be used in "unusual and exigent circumstances".

The emergency vote by five governors allows the Fed to shoulder $30bn of direct credit risk from the Bear Stearns carcass. By taking this course, the Fed has crossed the Rubicon of central banking.

To understand why it has torn up the rule book, take a look at the latest Security and Exchange Commission filing by Bear Stearns. It contains a short table listing the broker's holding of derivatives contracts as of November 30 2007.

Bear Stearns had total positions of $13.4 trillion. This is greater than the US national income, or equal to a quarter of world GDP - at least in "notional" terms. The contracts were described as "swaps", "swaptions", "caps", "collars" and "floors". This heady edifice of new-fangled instruments was built on an asset base of $80bn at best.

On the other side of these contracts are banks, brokers, and hedge funds, linked in destiny by a nexus of interlocking claims. This is counterparty spaghetti. To make matters worse, Lehman Brothers, UBS, and Citigroup were all wobbling on the back foot as the hurricane hit.

"Twenty years ago the Fed would have let Bear Stearns go bust," said Willem Sels, a credit specialist at Dresdner Kleinwort. "Now it is too interlinked to fail."

The International Swaps and Derivatives Association says the vast headline figures in the contracts are meaningless. Positions are off-setting. The actual risk is magnitudes lower.

The Bank for International Settlements uses a concept of "gross market value" to weight the real exposure. This is roughly 2 per cent of the notional level. For Bear Stearns this would be $270bn, or so.

"There is no real way to gauge the market risk," said an official

"We don't know how much is backed by collateral. We don't know what would happen in a crisis, and if we don't know, nobody does," he said.

Under the rescue deal, JP Morgan Chase will take over Bear Stearns' $13.4 trillion contracts - lock, stock, and barrel.

But JP Morgan is already up to its neck in this soup, with $77 trillion of contracts. It will now have $90 trillion on its books, a sixth of the global market.

Risk is being concentrated further. There are echoes of the old reinsurance chains at Lloyd's, but on a vaster scale.

The most neuralgic niche is the $45 trillion market for credit default swaps (CDS). These CDS swaps are a way of betting on the credit quality of companies without having to buy the underlying bonds, which are less liquid. They have long been the bĂȘte noire of New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner, alarmed that 10 banks make up 89 per cent of the contracts.

"The same names show up in multiple types of positions. These create the potential for squeezes in cash markets, magnifying the risk of adverse dynamics," he said.

"They could increase systemic risk, by amplifying rather than dampening the movement in asset prices," he said.

This is what happened as the banking crisis gathered pace. The CDS spreads measuring default risk on Bear Stearns debt rocketed from 246 to 792 in a single day on March 13 amid - untrue - rumours that the broker was preparing to invoke bankruptcy protection.

Was it the spike in spreads that set off the panic run on Bear Stearns by New York insiders? Or are the CDS spreads merely serving as a barometer?

In the old days it was hard for speculators to take "short" bets on bonds. Credit derivatives open up a whole new game.

"It is now much easier to short credit, " said James Batterman, a derivatives expert at Fitch Ratings in New York. "CDS swaps can be used for speculation, and that can cause skittish markets to overshoot," he said.

For now the meltdown panic has subsided. Yet the hottest document flying around the City last week was a paper by Barclays Capital probing what might happen in a counterparty default.

It is not for bedtime reading. Direct losses from a CDS breakdown alone could be $80bn, but the potential risks are much greater.

In theory, the contracts are matching. One sides loses, the other gains, operating through a neutral counterparty (ie Bear Stearns). But if the system seizes up, the mechanism is not neutral at all. It becomes viciously one-sided.

"Upon the default of the counterparty, [traded] derivatives would be immediately repriced, with spreads widening dramatically," said the Barclays report.

This is "gap risk", the stuff of trading nightmares. Fortunes can vanish in a moment.

One side would suddenly be trapped with staggering losses on their books. Yet the winners would be unable to collect their prize from the insolvent bank in the middle. It would take years to unravel all the claims in court. By then the financial landscape would be a scene of carnage.

Warren Buffett famously described derivatives as "weapons of mass financial destruction". The analogy is suspect, of course. Allied troops never found the alleged weapons in Iraq.

This time, Washington's pre-emptive shock and awe may have been well-advised.

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