Friday, February 27, 2009

Time to expose those CDOs

By Gillian Tett (Financial Times):

Just how much should a debt vehicle backed by subprime mortgage bonds be worth these days? Two years ago, most banks and insurance companies assumed the answer was close to 100 per cent of face value – or more.

Since then, however, that “price” has clearly collapsed, triggering tens of billions of dollars worth of writedowns, particularly in relation to a product known as collateralised debt obligations of asset-backed securities (CDO of ABS.)

But as the zeroes relating to writedowns multiply, a peculiar – and bitter – irony continues to hang over these numbers. Notwithstanding the fact that bankers used to promote CDOs as a tool to create more “complete” capital markets, very few of those instruments ever traded in a real market sense before the crisis – and fewer still have changed hands since then.

Thus, the “prices falls” that have blasted such terrible holes in the balance sheets of the banks have not been based on any real market numbers, but on models extrapolated from other measures such as the ABX, an index of mortgage derivatives.

What has blown up the capital markets is thus a set of theoretical swings in prices that were always pretty abstract.

This takes the concept of virtual banking onto a whole new, terrible level.

But now, at long last, one shard of reality has just emerged to piece this gloom. In recent weeks, bankers at places such as JPMorgan Chase and Wachovia have been quietly sifting data trying to ascertain what has happened to those swathes of troubled CDO of ABS.

The conclusions are stunning. From late 2005 to the middle of 2007, around $450bn of CDO of ABS were issued, of which about one third were created from risky mortgage-backed bonds (known as mezzanine CDO of ABS) and much of the rest from safer tranches (high grade CDO of ABS.)

Out of that pile, around $305bn of the CDOs are now in a formal state of default, with the CDOs underwritten by Merrill Lynch accounting for the biggest pile of defaulted assets, followed by UBS and Citi.

The real shocker, though, is what has happened after those defaults. JPMorgan estimates that $102bn of CDOs has already been liquidated. The average recovery rate for super-senior tranches of debt – or the stuff that was supposed to be so ultra safe that it always carried a triple A tag – has been 32 per cent for the high grade CDOs. With mezzanine CDO’s, though, recovery rates on those AAA assets have been a mere 5 per cent.

I dare say this might be an extreme case. The subprime loans extended in 2006 and 2007 have suffered particularly high default rates and the CDOs that have already been liquidated are presumably the very worst of the pack.

Even so, I would hazard a guess that this is easily the worst outcome for any assets that have ever carried a “triple A” stamp. No wonder so many investors are now so utterly cynical about anything that bankers or rating agencies might say these days.

After all, when the ABX started taking a dramatically bearish tone 18 months ago, many banks claimed that it was ridiculous that they were writing their mortgage assets down to prices extrapolated from the ABX, since it was popularly claimed that the ABX overstated likely future loss. Even the Bank of England appeared to share that view.

But with the ABX now suggesting that triple A subprime mortgage assets are worth around 40 cents on the dollar (depending on the precise vintage), the message from that might almost be too optimistic in relation to some CDOs. So where does that leave the banks? In reality we will not know whether that horrific 95 per cent loss is unusual until the rest of the CDO of ABS are liquidated too. But for my part, I suspect that the saga strengthens the case for financiers now biting the bullet – and conducting some open auctions of this stuff, to get a bit of market price discovery.

Hitherto, most bankers – and policy makers – have vehemently resisted that idea since they feared that public sales would produce painfully low prices. That is a valid fear. After all, there are very few investors in the system right now with any appetite or capacity to take risk.

But in a world where investors already feel utterly terrified by the inability to determine values – and the recovery rate on triple A assets has tumbled to just 5 per cent – conducting an open fire sale might now be the least bad of some terrible options.

After all, if an open auction ends up pricing mortgage-linked CDOs near zero, at least the capital hit to the banks and insurance companies will be clear; and if it is higher than zero, it might even cheer investors up.

Either way, until investors get some sense of what something might – or might not – be worth, it will be painfully hard to rebuild trust in capital markets and banks alike.

Those American officials who are implementing flashy new “stress tests” of banks would do well to take note.

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