Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

Existential Valuation

Charles Ponzi

Many pundits blame the banking crisis on people taking out mortgages they could not afford. I place it at the feet of the investment banks that funded the sub-prime mortgage products.

Michael Lewis’s book Liars Poker details how Salomon Brothers business exploded during the late 1980’s as the mortgage market began to grow. Salomon Brothers since acquired by Citigroup was an early innovator in the creation and sales of mortgage backed securities (MBS). Without MBS the necessary funding that fueled the exponential growth of mortgage finance, construction, home finance lending and equity lines of credit could not exist.

This innovation drastically altered the nature of the banking industry. Bank’s at one time loaned out money from their own capital. But this changed with the advent of MBS type products. Structured products allowed local banks to access funding from many sources and changed banks into credit channels that marketed credit products financed by third parties. Since it wasn’t their capital at risk, risk management and due diligence suffered.

The great innovation of MBS was that it added leverage to the credit markets. As investment banks and buy-side investors grew rich on the cash flows provided by MBS the investment banks began to invent new financing products. CMOs, CLO’s, ABS securitized cash flows and other exotic derivatives like CDS came onto the scene to provided investor protection in the event of a counter-party default. These products levered up the debt positions of corporations, consumers, investors and governments. It created an economy overly dependent on an unsustainable credit marketing industry. As is the case with all Ponzi schemes, as the low man on the totem pole began to default on the usurious rates charged for sub-prime loans the entire house of cards collapsed.

As leverage in the credit markets grew to fantastigorical levels these non-market traded products became more sophisticated and esoteric. These products were structured to address investment requirements of institutional investors. Since they were non-exchange traded securities sold directly to investors the ability to value these securities was exceedingly difficult. As the market developed further the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) had to create rules and asset classifications of these securities so that they could be properly valued for reporting purposes. FASB solution was to classify these assets as Level Three.

See May 17 Risk Rap Post on FAS 157

Herein lies the rub for these Level Three assets. Maybe the dismal science can wave a magic wand and make these assets double in value, disappear or perhaps quarantine these securities in accounting purgatory waiting for better times and future Treasury Secretaries to offer absolution and full redemption for the past sins of our fallen Masters of the Universe.

But just because we say it ain’t so bad don’t make it so good. The Basel II global banking guidelines for capital adequacy insist on transparency on asset quality. The world central bankers have agreed on a formal regulatory methodology to determine asset valuation, solvency conditions, collateral management practices and acceptable ratios of economic and regulatory capital requirements necessary to protect against defaults in the credit markets. What a thought! The US banking industry should stop dragging its feet on its adoption and start implementing the recommended strict disciplines it advocates to protect the solvency of our banking system.

No more voodoo economics, asset valuation slight of hand or accounting convention tricks and balance sheet gymnastics. We need fiscal disciplines, transparency and accountability based on sound economic and generally accepted accounting principles. We need to develop an economic infrastructure that is based on the creation of value and equity not an economy based on creation of collateral and deepening debt.

Music: Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers Jumpin Jive

Risk: bank solvency, pariah nationhood, FASB, Basel II

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October 2, 2008 - Posted by | banking, credit crisis, FASB, jazz | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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