The Unsustainable US Financial Sector

According to Bloomberg, the vast majority of the Big Five banks’ profits consisted of a taxpayer subsidy — the Too Big To Fail guarantee. If the Too Big To Fail banks had to lend at the rates offered to their non-Too Big to Fail competitors, their profits would be severely shrunk (in some cases, to a net loss):

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What does that mean?

That means that the American financial sector is a zombie, existing on the teat of the taxpayer.

It means the huge swathes of liquidity spent on saving the financial sector are ultimately good money chasing after bad.

As Bloomberg notes:

The U.S. financial industry — with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy — would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.

Neither bank executives nor shareholders have much incentive to change the situation. On the contrary, the financial industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle on campaign donations and lobbying, much of which is aimed at maintaining the subsidy. The result is a bloated financial sector and recurring credit gluts.

This is extremely prescient stuff. The Fed since 2008 has reinflated the old bubbles, while allowing the same loot-and-pillage disaster-corporatist financial model to continue.

It is insane to repeat the same methods and expect different results. This credit glut, this new boom that has seen stocks rise closer and closer to their pre-crisis high (which may soon be exceeded) will just lead to another big 2008-style slump, just as the Fed’s reinflation of the burst tech bubble led to 2008 itself. This time the spark won’t be housing, it will be something else like an energy shock, or a war. Something that the Federal Reserve cannot directly control or fix by throwing money at it.

America (and the Western world in general) post-2008 needed real organic domestic growth built on real economic activity, not a reinflated bubble that let the TBTF financial sector continue to gorge itself into oblivion. 

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Double or Nothing: How Wall Street is Destroying Itself

There’s nothing controversial about the claim— reported on by Slate, Bloomberg and Harvard Magazine — that in the last 20 years Wall Street has moved away from an investment-led model, to a gambling-led model.

This was exemplified by the failure of LTCM which blew up unsuccessfully making huge interest rate bets for tiny profits, or “picking up nickels in front of a streamroller”, and by Jon Corzine’s MF Global doing practically the same thing with European debt (while at the same time stealing from clients).

As Nassim Taleb described in The Black Swan this strategy — betting large amounts for small frequent profits — is extremely fragile because eventually (and probably sooner in the real world than in a model) losses will happen (and, of course, if you are betting big, losses will be big). If you are running your business on the basis of leverage, this is especially dangerous, because facing a margin call or a downgrade you may be left in a fire sale to raise collateral.

This fragile business model is in fact descended from the Martingale roulette betting system. Martingale is the perfect example of the failure of theory, because in theory, Martingale is a system of guaranteed profit, which I think is probably what makes these kinds of practices so attractive to the arbitrageurs of Wall Street (and of course Wall Street often selects for this by recruiting and promoting the most wild-eyed and risk-hungry). Martingale works by betting, and then doubling your bet until you win. This — in theory, and given enough capital — delivers a profit of your initial stake every time. Historically, the problem has been that bettors run out of capital eventually, simply because they don’t have an infinite stock (of course, thanks to Ben Bernanke, that is no longer a problem). The key feature of this system— and the attribute which many institutions have copied — is that it delivers frequent small-to-moderate profits, and occasional huge losses (when the bettor runs out of money).

The key difference between modern business models, and the traditional roulette betting system is that today the focus is on betting multiple times on a single outcome. By this method (and given enough capital) it is in theory possible to win whichever way an event goes. If things are going your way, it is possible to insure your position by betting against your initial bet, and so produce a position that profits no matter what the eventual outcome. If things are not going your way, it is possible to throw larger and larger chunks of capital into a position or counter-position again and again and again —mirroring the Martingale strategy — to try to compensate for earlier bets that have gone awry (this, of course, is so often the downfall of rogue traders like Nick Leeson and Kweku Adoboli).

This brings up a key issue: there is a second problem with the Martingale strategy in the real world beyond the obvious problem of running out of capital. You can have all the capital in the world (and thanks to the Fed, the TBTF banks now have a printing-press backstop) but if you do not have a counter-party to take your bets  (and as your bets and counter-bets get bigger and bigger it by definition becomes harder and harder to find suitable counter-parties) then you are Corzined, and you will be left sitting on top of a very large load of pain (sound familiar, Bruno Iksil?)

The obvious real world example takes us back to the casino table — if you are trying to execute a Martingale strategy starting at $100, and have lost 10 times in a row, your 11th bet would have to be for $204,800 to win back your initial stake of $100. That might well exceed the casino table limits — in other words you have lost your counter-party, and are left facing a loss far huger than any expected gains.

Similarly (as Jamie Dimon and Bruno Iksil have now learned to their discredit) if you have built up a whale-sized market-dominating gross position of bets and counter-bets on the CDX IG9 index (or any such market) which turns heavily negative, it is exceedingly difficult to find a counter-party to continue increasing your bets against, and your Martingale game will probably be over, and you will be forced to face up to the (now exceedingly huge) loss. (And this recklessness is what Dimon refers to as “hedging portfolio risk“?)

The really sickening thing is that I know that these kinds of activities are going on far more than is widely recognised; every time a Wall Street bank announces a perfect trading quarter it sets off an alarm bell ringing in my head, because it means that the arbitrageurs are chasing losses and picking up nickels in front of streamrollers again, and emboldened by confidence will eventually will get crushed under the wheel, and our hyper-connected hyper-leveraged system will be thrown into shock once again by downgrades, margin calls and fire sales.

The obvious conclusion is that if the loss-chasing Martingale traders cannot resist blowing up even with the zero-interest rate policy and an unfettered fiat liquidity backstop, then perhaps this system is fundamentally weak. Alas, no. I think that the conclusion that the clueless schmucks at the Fed have reached is that poor Wall Street needs not only a lender-of-last-resort, but a counter-party-of-last-resort. If you broke your trading book doubling or quadrupling down on horseshit and are sitting on top of a colossal mark-to-market loss, why not have the Fed step in and take it off your hands at a price floor in exchange for newly “printed” digital currency? That’s what the 2008 bailouts did.

Only one problem: eventually, this approach will destroy the currency. Would you want your wealth stored in dollars that Bernanke can just duplicate and pony up to the latest TBTF Martingale catastrophe artist? I thought not: that’s one reason why Eurasian creditor nations are all quickly and purposefully going about ditching the dollar for bilateral trade.

The bottom line for Wall Street is that either the bailouts will stop and anyone practising this crazy behaviour will end up bust — ending the moral hazard of adrenaline junkie coke-and-hookers traders and 21-year-old PhD-wielding quants playing the Martingale game risk free thanks to the Fed — or the Fed will destroy the currency. I don’t know how long that will take, but the fact that the dollar is effectively no longer the global reserve currency says everything I need to know about where we are going.

The bigger point here is whatever happened to banking as banking, instead of banking as a game of roulette? You know, where investment banks make the majority of their profits and spend the majority of their efforts lending to people who need the money to create products and make ideas reality?

The Fed Confronts Itself

From Matt Taibbi:

Wall Street is buzzing about the annual report just put out by the Dallas Federal Reserve. In the paper, Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s research department, bluntly calls for the breakup of Too-Big-To-Fail banks like Bank of America, Chase, and Citigroup.

The government’s bottomless sponsorship of these TBTF institutions, Rosenblum writes, has created a “residue of distrust for government, the banking system, the Fed and capitalism itself.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

First, this managerialism is nothing new for the Fed. The (ahem) “libertarian” Alan Greenspan once said: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.”

Second, the Fed already had a number of fantastic opportunities to “break up” so-called TBTF institutions: right at the time when it was signing off on the $29 trillion of bailouts it has administered since 2008. If the political will existed at the Fed to forcibly end the phenomenon of TBTF, it could (and should) have done it when it had the banks over a barrel.

Third, capitalism (i.e. the market) seems to deal pretty well with the problem of TBTF: it destroys unmanageably large and badly run companies. Decisions have consequences; buying a truckload of derivatives from a soon-to-be-bust counter-party will destroy your balance sheet and render you illiquid. Who seems to blame? The Fed; for bailing out a load of shitty companies and a shitty system . Without the Fed’s misguided actions the problem of TBTF would be long gone. After a painful systemic breakdown, we could have created a new system without any of these residual overhanging problems. We wouldn’t be “taxing savers to pay for the recapitalization of banks whose dire problems led to the calamity.” There wouldn’t be “a two-tiered regulatory environment where the misdeeds of TBTF banks are routinely ignored and unpunished and a lower tier where small regional banks are increasingly forced to swim upstream against the law’s sheer length, breadth and complexity, leading to a “massive increase in compliance burdens.”

So the Fed is guilty of crystallising and perpetuating most of these problems with misguided interventionism. And what’s the Fed’s purported answer to these problems?

More interventionism: forcibly breaking up banks into chunks that are deemed not to be TBTF.

And what’s the problem with that?

Well for a start the entire concept of “too big to fail” is completely wrong. The bailout of AIG had nothing to do with AIG’s “size”. It was a result of systemic exposure to AIG’s failure. The problem is to do with interconnectivity. The truth is that AIG — and by extension, the entire system — was deemed too interconnected to fail. Many, many companies had AIG products on their balance sheets. If AIG had failed (and taken with it all of that paper, very generously known as “assets”) then all those companies would have had a hole blown in their balance sheets, and would have sustained losses which in turn may well have caused them to fail, bleeding out the entire system.

The value that seems to matter in determining systemic robustness is the amount of systemic interconnectivity, in other words the amount of assets on balance sheets that are subject to counter-party risk (i.e. which become worthless should their guarantor fail).

Derivatives are not the only such asset, but they make up by far the majority:


Global nominal exposure is growing again. And those derivatives sit on global balance sheets waiting for the next black swan to blow up a hyper-connected counter-party like AIG. And such a cascade of defaults will likely lead to another 2008-style systemic meltdown, probably ending in another goliath-sized bailout, and another few rounds of the QE slop-bucket.

The question the Fed must answer is this: what difference would it make in terms of systemic fragility if exposures are transferred from larger to companies to smaller ones?

Breaking up banks will make absolutely zero difference, because the problem is not the size but systemic interconnectivity. Losses sustained against a small counter-party can hurt just as much as losses sustained against a larger counter-party. In a hyper-connected system, it is possible for failed small players to quickly snowball into systemic catastrophe.

The Fed (as well as the ECB) would do well to remember that it is not size that matters, but how you use it.

Wikileaks Strikes Back: Unredacted Cablegate Archive Unleashed

Whatever we all have to say about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, any lingering question marks about their credibility should be blown out of the water by the fact that they just unleashed a supervolcano of data — the entire unredacted Cablegate archive. Certainly, it seemed like they had run out of steam — ostensibly holding back information as a bargaining chip on Assange’s embattled head. From the Independent:

Continue reading

The Death of the Euro in 2011?

Is the Euro shaping towards a long, slow death in 2011? From Megan Greene at the Guardian:

The euro is dying a slow death. Political leaders are unlikely to take the steps necessary to address the underlying factors creating the current euro crisis, and the eurozone will eventually break up as a result.

To highlight the severity of the euro crisis, one only needs to glance at credit default swap (CDS) spreads for the peripheral euro area countries. CDS is a form of insurance against default or restructuring. The higher the CDS spread, the more likely investors think a sovereign default is.

In the first week of June, five-year CDS spreads for Greece were a whopping 1495 basis points, for Portugal 708, for Ireland 650 and for Spain 255. This compares with only around 200 for Iceland, a country that underwent a private default only two and a half years ago. Continue reading

Warren Buffett & CreditAnstalt

Is Warren Buffett shooting himself in the head? There’s one issue (okay — a couple of issues) I have been silent on in the past few weeks. But on Bank of America, it’s time to break the silence — because the issue of bank failures and bailouts can have huge, violent ramifications. So let’s look at Bank of America’s credit default swap spreads:


The red dot is where we leaped to just before Warren Buffett — the so-called Oracle of Omaha —  piled $5 billion into less than 24 hours after an Archimedean bathtub epiphany. I hope he did his due diligence:

“The Investor acknowledges that it has had an opportunity to conduct such review and analysis of the business, assets, condition, operations and prospects of the Company and its subsidiaries, including an opportunity to ask such questions of management (for which it has received such answers) and to review such information maintained by the Company, in each case as the Investor considers sufficient for the purpose of making the Purchase. The Investor further acknowledges that it has had such an opportunity to consult with its own counsel, financial and tax advisers and other professional advisers as it believes is sufficient for purposes of the Purchase. For purposes of this Agreement, the term “Transaction Documents” refers collectively to this Agreement, the Warrant and the Registration Rights Agreement, in each case, as amended, modified or supplemented from time to time in accordance with their respective terms.”

Of course, if Warren Buffet wants to throw billions of dollars at an institution which may or may not be sitting on a powder-keg of bad debt, then that is his prerogative. The problems begin when said Oracle’s new investments tank, are declared “too big to fail”, and are propped-up by the taxpayer. And it just so happens that there is an historical precedent for this. From Seeking Alpha:

As a former NLO dividend watchlist stock, Bank of America (BAC) has fallen on hard times that in many respects were predestined. In a posting titled Financial Panic Chronicles dated May 9, 2009, we pointed out the similarities of the October 1929 forced merger between Austria’s number-two bank BodenKreditAnstalt with number-one ranked CreditAnastalt, and the forced mergers between Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, and J.P. Morgan/Bear Stearns in 2008.

Our point of making the comparison between distinctly different institutions in different eras was to show what the hazards might be when an ailing bank isn’t allowed to fail. It was only two years after the merger of BodenKreditAnstalt with CreditAnstalt that the remaining “super bank”, CreditAnstalt, collapsed which resulted in the worldwide banking crisis.

The failure of CreditAnstalt in 1931 did not arrive without a fight. F.M. Rothschild committed enormous amounts of money from 1930 to 1931 in an effort to use his name and financial largess to sway public opinion of the health of CreditAnstalt, not unlike Warren Buffett’s most recent investment in Bank of America. Buffett’s announcement that he’ll invest up to $5 billion may be a significant win for the Oracle of Omaha, and has temporarily boosted the share price of Bank of America by nearly 13%. However, even the biggest money interests cannot forestall the inevitable consequence of forced mergers if hobbled banking institutions.

The culmination for CreditAnstalt was nationalisation. Will it be the same for Bank of America?