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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FAS 157: Allegory of the Cave

In Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic, he devotes a chapter to Socrates’ discourse with his young student Glaucon. Socrates uses an allegory to explain the difference between truth and appearances. The Allegory of the Cave has remained a powerful philosophical metaphor and cornerstone of metaphysics. It outlines how the human perception of reality can be at odds with and diverge widely from what actually is true and good.

The cave is a controlled environment where humans are held captive. The only light they are allowed to see is from a dimly lit fire that casts shadows of images on a far wall. Enclosed in darkness save the faint projections, their inability to see the source or understand how those images appear to their senses gives them the perception that the shadows of things that they see are in fact the real things themselves. It’s not until the cave’s captives are brought out into the light of day that they are able to see that the shadows are only a poor reflection of a manipulated truth.

Socrates’ lesson to young Glaucon, whose name is very close to glaucoma, serves as a proper metaphor to understand the debate concerning FAS 157 and the concept of Fair Value.  For the uninitiated, the issue of Fair Value under FAS 157 addresses how to determine the “value” of securities held in investment portfolios. FAS 157 provide guidelines for three categories of valuation methodologies. Large banks and brokerage firms are increasing the reclassification of their assets using Level 3 methods. The valuation and projected cash flows from assets such as CMOs, CDOs, CLO, and Credit Default Swaps are being derived by sophisticated computer models developed by each firms in-house risk management group. Many of these risk models failed to perceive and detect the melt down in the credit markets that so far has led to $100 billion in balance sheet write downs for the large investment and money center banks. Socrates allegory is similar to the models developed by bank risk managers. These “black box proprietary applications” shines light on the Level 3 assets to determine an approximation of market value. It’s a self created reality of a risk manager’s perception of an assets value.

So what.

Esoteric stuff to be sure but the debate concerning this issue is most relevant to understanding how the current credit crisis evolved, how banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds value and trade securities, how risk mangers make informed decisions concerning risk tolerance and how industry and governmental regulators determine weather a bank is sufficiently capitalized to remain solvent.

The political fallout from the Bear Stearns shotgun wedding is yet to be played out. Main Street wants some relief for mortgage defaults and Wall Street feels that the Fed reacted too quickly and is resisting additional regulation and market intervention into the workings of the capital markets.

Pervasive credit and macroeconomic risks are still present in the global capital and debt markets. Mortgages, municipal finance and commercial paper markets were the first wave of credit market dislocations. Credit card receivables, student loans and other securitized asset classes may pose some acute challenges for our central bankers, accountants, regulators and risk managers in the not to distant future.

Once we emerge from our caves Socrates’ quote to young Glaucon become most prescient. Said Socrates, “And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

Thank you Socrates. I waited 30 years to use this knowledge that Dr. Choi excitedly taught me in Introduction to Western Philosophy as a freshman at William Paterson College in 1974. Now that we have experienced the light may we never have to slip into darkness again?

Music Video: War, Slippin Into Darkness

Risk: credit, regulatory, accounting, banking, market, risk management

May 18, 2008 Posted by | banking, credit crisis, FASB, hedge funds, jazz, movie, philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment