The Baseline Scenario

Update on ABACUS

Posted: 29 Apr 2010 06:20 AM PDT

Read the “synthetic, synthetic CDO” post first if you haven’t already.

The reasonable counterargument, for example here, is that because these are derivatives, there logically speaking must have been someone on the other side of the trade from the buyers, and the buyers should have known that — who that is doesn’t need to be disclosed. I think this is true to a degree, but not to the degree that Goldman needs it to be true.

Take an ordinary synthetic CDO. Back in 2005-2006, a bank might create one of these because it knows there is demand on the buy side for higher-yielding (than Treasuries) AAA assets. To do this, the CDO has to sell CDS protection on its reference portfolio to someone. That someone could in the first instance be the bank. But then the bank’s “short” position goes into its huge portfolio of CDS, which may overall be long or short the class of securities (say, subprime mortgage-backed securities) involved.The bank is constantly hedging that portfolio via individual transactions with other clients or other dealers, so there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the long side of the new CDO and any specific party or parties on the short side.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the bank, prior to the new CDO, was exactly neutral on this market. The new CDO makes it a little bit short. So the bank will go out and hedge its position by finding someone else to lay the short position onto. But first of all, there’s a good chance it will divide up the short position and hedge pieces of it with different people. Those people may be buying the short position not because they want the subprime market to collapse; they might be partially hedging their own long positions in that market. Second, there’s an even better chance that it won’t sell off exactly the short position it just picked up from the CDO; it will buy CDS protection on a bunch of RMBS that are similar to the ones it just sold CDS protection on (which ones will depend on what the market is interested in), so in aggregate it comes out more or less the same.

So ultimately the “short” side of the CDO gets dispersed between the bank’s existing CDS portfolio and the broader market. So yes, there must be a short interest out there that is exactly equivalent to the long interest. But there doesn’t have to be a party or even an identifiable set of parties who have exactly the short side of the new CDO and want it to collapse, let alone a party that helped structure the CDO because it wanted to be on the short side. There’s a big difference between the market as a whole and one hedge fund.

Now, are things different with a synthetic synthetic CDO, as I have called it? Maybe. The pro-Goldman argument would be that ABACUS was so highly structured — basically, each tranche was a single complex derivative with a long side and a short side — that the long investors must have realized that there was a single party, or a small number of parties, on the other side. But that doesn’t necessarily hold. Just like a synthetic CDO, Goldman could have whipped this thing together because it thought it could sell it, and Goldman could have planned to hedge it the usual way — partially with its inventory and partially through a lot of small transactions dispersed throughout the market.

As always, I draw on Steve Randy Waldman.

Frank Luntz Hasn’t Read 13 Bankers (And That’s A Good Thing)

Posted: 29 Apr 2010 04:59 AM PDT

By Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown

Frank Luntz is the midst of making one of the great mistakes of modern American politics.  He seems to have completely missed the change in plot line on financial reform over the past few months – ever since Ted Kaufman waded into the fray, started to bring other key figures with him, and really moved mainstream thinking (as manifest, for example, in the Goldman Sachs hearing this week).

This is about the “arc of the fraud”.  The financial system committed fraud during the boom (liar loans and misrepresentation to customers of all kinds); fraud during the bailout (“if you ruffle our feathers, we will collapse”); and now fraud during the serious attempts at reform (e.g., the astroturf/fake grassroots nonsense.)

Luntz thinks this is about higher costs being passed on to consumers and wants to fight in November on “the Democrats are just about special interests”.  That would be terrific – for the Democrats – and Mr. Luntz should be encouraged in this endeavor.

Mr. Luntz insists that it is not about what you say, but about what you hear.  I couldn’t agree more – this is readily apparent as I travel the country talking to many people about fixing the financial system and what we need to do going forward.

This is what people hear: “fraud”.  They understand that our biggest banks and other financial players have become too big and too powerful.  They know these people need to be reined in and they also realize this is going to be a heck of a fight – most likely over many years.  They understand that Wall Street took over Washington and has run it, in large part, for too long – this is the central point of 13 Bankers; if anything, readers now find this rather obvious.

Some of this fraud will go unpunished, because our legal system fell behind the curve – and because the people at the heart of these frauds are very smart.  But this just means we need to try harder and for longer to reform our system.

Of course we won’t get this all done in this legislative cycle – everyone gets this.  But that is not a message of despair and defeat – it is a call to defiance and determination.

If you think Mr. Luntz can credibly present himself as the defender of us all against narrow special interests, you should be worried.  If instead regard his position as untenable under pressure, do all you can to encourage this approach. 

Just don’t send him a copy of 13 Bankers – we really do not want him to figure out what is going on.

To Save The Eurozone: $1 trillion, European Central Bank Reform, And A New Head for the IMF

Posted: 29 Apr 2010 03:43 AM PDT

By Peter Boone and Simon Johnson

When Mr. Trichet (head of the European Central Bank, ECB) and Mr.  Strauss-Kahn (head of the International Monetary Fund, IMF) rushed to Berlin this week to meet Prime Minister Angela Merkel and the German parliament, the moment was eerily reminiscent of September 2008 – when Hank Paulson stormed up to the US Congress, demanding for $700bn in relief for the largest US banks.  Remember the aftermath of that debacle: despite the Treasury argument that this would be enough, much more money was eventually needed, and Mr. Paulson left office a few months later under a cloud.

The problem this time is bigger.  It is not only about banks, it is about the essence of the eurozone, and the political survival of all the public figures responsible.  If Mr. Trichet and Mr. Strauss-Kahn were honest, they would admit to Ms. Merkel “we messed up – more than a decade ago, when we were governor of the Banque de France and French finance minister, respectively”.  These two founders of the European unity dream helped set rules for the eurozone which, by their nature, have caused small flaws to turn into great dangers. 

The underlying problem is the rule for printing money:  in the eurozone, any government can finance itself by issuing bonds directly (or indirectly) to commercial banks, and then having those banks “repo” them (i.e., borrow using these bonds as collateral) at the ECB in return for fresh euros.  The commercial banks make a profit because the ECB charges them very little for those loans, while the governments get the money – and can thus finance larger budget deficits.  The problem is that eventually that government has to pay back its debt or, more modestly, at least stabilize its public debt levels. 

This same structure directly distorts the incentives of commercial banks:  they have a backstop at the ECB, which is the “lender of last resort”; and the ECB and European Union (EU) put a great deal of pressure on each nation to bail out commercial banks in trouble.  When a country joins the eurozone, its banks win access to a large amount of cheap financing, along with the expectation they will be bailed out when they make mistakes.  This, in turn, enables the banks to greatly expand their balance sheets, ploughing into domestic real estate, overseas expansion, or crazy junk products issued by Goldman Sachs.  Just think of Ireland and Spain, where the banks took on massive loans that are now sinking the country. 

Given the eurozone provides easy access to cheap money, it is no wonder that many more nations want to join.  No wonder also that it blew up.  Nations with profligate governments or weak financial systems had a bonanza.  They essentially borrowed funds from the less profligate elsewhere in the eurozone, backed by the ECB.  The Germans were relatively austere; the periphery enjoyed the boom.   But now we have moved past the boom, and someone in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and perhaps Italy has to repay something – or at least stop borrowing without constraint.  So Mr. Trichet and Mr. Strauss-Kahn go, cap in hand, to ask Germany for further assistance.

There are three possible scenarios.  First, the ECB may be allowed to really let loose with “liquidity” – and somehow buy up all the bonds of troubled eurozone nations.  But this is exactly the process that always and everywhere brings about high inflation.  The Germans would fight hard against such a policy, although it would prevent default.

Second, officials still hope that bond yields for weaker governments widen but then stabilize.  This is bad news for troubled eurozone countries, but they manage to avoid default.  The rest of the world grows by enough to pull up even the European “Club Med + Ireland”.  Call this the trickle down scenario or just a miracle.

Most likely, the situation is about to turn much worse and a third scenario unfolds.  The nightmare for Europe is not at this point about Greece or Portugal – it is all about Italian and Spanish bond yields.  This week those yields are rising quickly from low levels, while German yields are falling – so this spread is widening sharply.  The yields for Spain – for example – are rising because hitherto inattentive investors, who always thought these bonds were nearly as safe as cash, suddenly realize there are reasonable scenarios where those bonds could fall sharply in value or even possibly default.  Given that Spain has 20% unemployment, an uncompetitive exchange rate, a great deal of public debt, and a reported government deficit of 11.2 percent (compared with headline numbers for Greece at 13.6 percent and Portugal at 9.4 percent), everyone now asks:  Does a 5% yield on Spain’s ten year bonds justify the risk?  The market is increasingly taking the view that the answer is no, at least for now.  So, we can anticipate Spanish (and Italian) yields will keep rising.  In turn, this causes other asset prices to fall in those nations, thus worsening their banking systems, and hence leading to credit contraction and capital flight.  It is a dismal prognosis.

Then it gets worse.  As rates rise, traditional investors in euro zone bonds, which are pension funds and commercial banks, will refuse to take more.  There will be no buyers in the market and governments will not be able to roll over debts.  We saw the first glimpse of this on Tuesday, when both Spanish and Irish short term debt auctions virtually failed.  Once this happens more broadly, the problem will be too big for even Mr. Trichet or Ms. Merkel to solve.  The euro zone will be at risk of massive collapse.

If this awful but unfortunately plausible scenario comes about, there is a clear solution – unfortunately, it is also anathema to Mr. Trichet and Ms. Merkel, and thus unlikely to be discussed seriously until it is too late.  This is the standard package that comes to all emerging markets in crisis: a very sharp fall in the euro, restructuring of euro zone fiscal/monetary rules to make them compatible with financial stability, and massive external liquidity support – not because Europe has an external payments problem, but because this is the only way to provide credible budget support that softens the blow of the needed austerity programs.

The liquidity support involved would be large:  if we assume that roughly three years of sovereign debt repayments should be fully backed – and it takes that kind of commitment to break such negative sentiment – then approximately $1 trillion would be needed to backstop Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.  It may be that more funds are eventually needed – but in any case, the amounts would be less than the total reserves of China.  These amounts would also be reduced as the euro falls; it could be heading back to well under $1 per euro, which is where it stood one decade ago.

External financial support would only make sense if combined with key structural reforms, including an end to the repo window at the ECB.  As former UBS banker Al Breach recently argued, the ECB could instead issue bonds to all nations which would then be used subsequently for monetary operations – every central needs a way to add or subtract liquidity from the financial system.  These bonds would need to be backed by a small “euro zone” tax, thus making the ECB more like other central banks around the world.  It would no longer accept bonds of “regional governments” in the union as collateral, and instead would buy and sell “eurozone” bonds.  These new eurozone bonds would also offer a way for governments to roll over some of their existing debts.     

If the eurozone does need this package, it cannot be managed under a “business as usual” model.  The funds would need to come from the G20, and extremely tough decisions over fiscal and monetary policy need to be handled in a fair and reasonable manner.  Someone needs to be in charge on behalf of Europe (would this be the European Commission, or Ms. Merkel and the German government?) and someone needs to represent the G20. 

By far the most natural G20 partner to manage this process is – despite all its baggage – the IMF, but there’s a serious problem.  Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the current head of the IMF today, very much wants to become the next President of France.  There is no way for the G20 to provide funding that he would guide – he has an obvious and unavoidable conflict of interest, and no incentive to make the tough decisions today that are required to sort out the euro zone. 

Mr. Strauss-Kahn should resign and a respected financial leader of a relatively independent country should take charge at the IMF.  One potential choice would be Mark Carney, the current Governor of the Bank of Canada.   Or, if the G20 agrees – finally – that it is time to phase out the leading role of the G7 (which has not done well of late), Montek Ahluwalia of India would be an outstanding candidate.

An edited version of this post appeared this morning on the NYT’s Economix; it is used here with permission.  If you would like to reproduce the entire post, please contact the New York Times.

What happened to the global economy and what we can do about it

The Role of Government

with 42 comments

By James Kwak

Last week Simon gave a talk sponsored by Larry Lessig’s center at Harvard. Afterward there was a dinner and then another question-and-answer session. Jedediah Purdy (another person to write a book while at Yale  Law School; he is now a professor at Duke’s law school) asked a question that I have rephrased as follows (the words are mine, not Purdy’s; I may have also distorted his original question so much that it is also mine):

“You’ve criticized the government for withdrawing from the economic and particularly financial sphere and allowing private sector actors to do whatever they wanted. Do you think the government should simply act so as to correct the imperfections in free markets? Or do you see a positive role for government in determining what kind of an economy we should have?”

I think it’s noteworthy that the people you would probably consider the most outspoken critics of Washington and its capture by free market ideology in recent decades — Joseph Stiglitz, Simon and I, Yves Smith, etc. — take pains to insist that we are all, in fact, in favor of free markets. (It’s a caveat I’ve made in several interviews.) The usual argument is that markets have failings — due to information asymmetries, externalities, the works — and that government policy should correct for those failings, instead of pretending that they don’t exist, à la Alan Greenspan. The conceptual model is that the government policies should exactly correct for those market problems — for example, imposing carbon taxes that exactly account for the externalities of carbon emissions — and then get out of the way.

Dean Baker makes an observation in his book, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy, in a different context, that I think reflects the same issue. Discussing the political debate over the early 2009 stimulus package, he writes (p. 109):

“President Obama never gave the people of the United States the basic economics lesson they badly needed to understand the rationale for the stimulus. In a country that had been conditioned by both parties and the media to think that deficits are always bad, the idea that the government would deliberately run very large budget deficits didn’t make sense to most people.”

What lessons are we learning from this crisis and recession? So far, the lessons we are learning, if any, are modest, and are ones that many people (just not those in power) already knew, having to do with incentive structures under limited information, the distorting impact of implicit government guarantees, the limits of a disclosure-based regulatory regime, the problem of regulatory capture, etc. The thinking is that we’ll modify the system to take these factors into account, and then the magic economic machine will go on ticking. There don’t seem to be any big lessons.

What would such bigger lessons be? Purdy floated the idea that the government should promote equality of opportunity. “Doesn’t it do that already?” you might ask. It makes a small effort via the public education system, but I believe even the most outspoken advocates of public schools would acknowledge that they currently do little to correct for the massive inequalities in starting points across our society. For the most part, our government does little to level the playing field, we have low levels of social mobility as as result,* and our elected politicians are fine with that.

I spoke to Purdy after the event and he thought the strongest argument against a positive role of government is “the competence issue.” After all, Simon and I just wrote a book about how regulators and politicians became intellectually captured by a single industry; if that’s your basic view of the government, do you really want the government deciding what the economic goals of society should be? So on a practical level, most reformers who favor a more active governmental role usually limit the government to correcting known problems with the free market. That’s the conservative position, in the sense of Edmund Burke, probably my favorite conservative of all time. But it’s not terribly satisfying.

* For example: “By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.”