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Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Why Toxic Assets Are So Hard to Clean Up"

John Taylor and Kenneth Scott argue that "sheer complexity" is at the heart of the financial crisis:

Why Toxic Assets Are So Hard to Clean Up, by Kenneth Scott and John Taylor, Commentary, WSJ: Despite trillions of dollars of new government programs, one of the original causes of the financial crisis -- the toxic assets on bank balance sheets -- still persists and remains a serious impediment to economic recovery. Why are these toxic assets so difficult to deal with? We believe their sheer complexity is the core problem and that only increased transparency will unleash the market mechanisms needed to clean them up.
The bulk of toxic assets are based on residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS), in which thousands of mortgages were gathered into mortgage pools. The returns on these pools were then sliced into a hierarchy of "tranches" that were sold to investors as separate classes of securities. ...
But the process didn't stop there. Some of the tranches from one mortgage pool were combined with tranches from other mortgage pools, resulting in Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMO). Other tranches were combined with tranches from completely different types of pools, based on commercial mortgages, auto loans, student loans, credit card receivables, small business loans, and even corporate loans that had been combined into Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLO). The result was a highly heterogeneous mixture of debt securities called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO). The tranches of the CDOs could then be combined with other CDOs, resulting in CDO2.
Each time these tranches were mixed together with other tranches in a new pool, the securities became more complex. Assume a hypothetical CDO2 held 100 CLOs, each holding 250 corporate loans -- then we would need information on 25,000 underlying loans to determine the value of the security. But assume the CDO2 held 100 CDOs each holding 100 RMBS comprising a mere 2,000 mortgages -- the number now rises to 20 million!
Complexity is not the only problem. Many of the underlying mortgages were highly risky, involving little or no down payments and initial rates so low they could never amortize the loan. ...
With so much complexity, and uncertainty about future performance, it is not surprising that the securities are difficult to price and that trading dried up. Without market prices, valuation on the books of banks is suspect and counterparties are reluctant to deal with each other. ...
The latest disposal scheme is the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP). ... But the pricing difficulty remains and this program too may amount to little. The fundamental problem has remained untouched: insufficient information to permit estimated prices that both buyers and sellers find credible. Why is the information so hard to obtain? ... CDOs were sold in private placements with confidentiality agreements. ...
This account makes it clear why transparency is so important. To deal with the problem, issuers of asset-backed securities should provide extensive detail in a uniform format about the composition of the original pools and their subsequent structure and performance, whether they were sold as SEC-registered offerings or private placements. By creating a centralized database with this information, the pricing process for the toxic assets becomes possible. Making such a database a reality will restart private securitization markets and will do more for the recovery of the economy than yet another redesign of administrative agency structures. ...

I am becoming convinced, after reading articles like this and from other research on this issue, that forcing these transactions through organized exchanges that monitor and mitigate counterparty risk is a good idea. Here's a discussion of the issues:

On the derivatives side, the administration had already indicated that it would push for all standardized derivatives to be traded through an organized exchange or cleared through a clearing house. ... Exchanges bring a real benefit from transparency about the pricing and volume of trades, as well as making it easier for regulators to track trading positions of major parties. In contrast, much of the trading volume in derivatives now takes place “over the counter,” between two counterparties who are not generally required to report details of the trade and who take each other’s credit risk in regard to the transaction. This credit risk is often mitigated by requiring collateral, but it is clear in retrospect that this process was not well-managed in many cases, leaving a large number of institutions very exposed to the credit risk of AIG, for example.

The major exchanges dealing in derivatives use central clearing houses that act as the counterparty to both sides. ...

It should be noted that using a clearing house does not eliminate counterparty risk altogether. The clearing house could become insolvent itself if enough of its counterparties fail to meet their obligations. This should still represent a diminution of the total credit risk in the system, since clearing houses are well-capitalized and operate in a clearly defined business..., but there could be extreme circumstances where a government rescue would be required.

The big controversy with derivatives is what to do about customized derivatives. The use of derivatives to manage risk by sophisticated corporations is pervasive. Sometimes those derivatives are significantly cheaper or more effective if they cover the exact risk rather than using one or more standard derivatives to approximate the desired protection. It would be a great shame to lose those efficiencies altogether by banishing customized derivatives, but there is also a fear that financial firms will deliberately sell slightly non-standard derivatives in order to avoid the tougher rules on standardized ones.

This is another area where the devil is in the details. The trick will be to provide incentives or requirements to use standard derivatives where possible, while leaving the ability to use customized ones where they serve a genuine need. The administration’s proposal attempts to strike this balance. It will be interesting to see what comes out the other end of the legislative process...

One solution is to subject transactions for customized derivatives (which have their uses) that cannot go through organized exchanges or clearinghouses to discouragingly strict margin and capital requirements.

    Posted by on Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 08:01 PM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (16)

          


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