Phorgy Phynance

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Another word for hedged… leveraged

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Market turmoil is still quite fascinating to me and I still believe the current environment will be one for the history books and I’m still trying to take as much as I can from this learning experience.

My professional work experience is in fixed income. For two years, I was very “plugged in” to the markets and was meeting regularly with some of the greatest thinkers out there, but now I’m more of a pure “quant” and most of my news comes from blogs, web news, etc. Unfortunately, I’m not yet spending as much time with the traders as I’d like (but that should change soon I hope). Most of the major news sources, e.g. Bloomberg, seem to concentrate more on equity markets than credit and fixed income. I pay more attention to the Dow now than ever before. That is why I am so perplexed by the stock market. I thought stocks were supposed to be easier than bonds, i.e all the smart guys are in fixed income, right?

So while the credit markets seem to be imploding, stocks are doing just dandy. Maybe people are taking cues from the market cheat sheet?

Anyway, I’ve blabbered quite a bit on this blog (and at my former employer) expressing my opinion of CDOs. I even managed to upset quite a few people while expressing my opinions as well. No regrets though. I’m happy to have this hugely public diary, both here and on NP, to later look back and see how I did in regards to thinking events through. Occasionally, I still like to poke my nose in over at NP and I see kr is still giving out the occasional nugget. Here is one of his latest:

A few thoughts:
– If you took all the writedowns at a single med-to-large bank rather than seeing them across the street, you could have reduced that entity’s equity to ZERO. For instance, MER has only something like USD54bn of mkt cap and USD39bn of book equity.
– If the view is that there will be another round of writedowns in the same amount as Q3 then you will have banks desperate to raise equity (i.e. it is not just the monolines). Who would buy that equity right now? Prince Alwaleed for example has floated his own holdings so I see him more as seller than buyer for example. I don’t see guys like JC Flowers or Cerberus well positioned for this job – in retrospect, even Barclays/RBS have not been with respect to ABN, as can be seen by the action in their share price and cost of jr capital.
– Another possibility would be the downgrade to BBB like the Japanese banks, with all the implications that brings with it. I.e. serious change in business model. That has contagion and macro effects. One example is that flow trading of financials has cost people a lot.
– I think investors will call foul on the FAS157 Level-3 assets, and it will hit guys like GS seriously as their L3 reporteds are a big multiple of their mkt cap.
– There was a funny comment in this month’s BBG mag about “nobody really knows how desks are hedging the CDO assets.” That is bull – the answer is that most people were NOT HEDGING AT ALL, BECAUSE THEY COULDN’T. Stuff was originated to sell, and the exit has vanished, or, it was originated to live forever on a trading book even though people tried to avoid saying that, and there is no decent MTM approach so instead banks are showing huge volatility, mostly to the downside.
– Implications of SIV / CDO / CP demise are pretty vast. There seem to be an increasing amount of trade receivables on the market, b/c there are no conduits to fund them… means corp cost of cap is going up in unexpected areas.

My hunch is that the fed cuts on the 11th b/c liquidity is dropping again, especially with year-end. It is out of control – specifically Ben’s control. It looks like political support for the various subprime fixes has stalled. What I think is that liquidity of all things financial (i.e. non-corporate) is going to get weaker and cause a full-on crisis for a market-traded institution. The talk about Citi cutting their div is one tremor, trading activity in Barclays is another, and the fact that even AFTER all the reported loss numbers, people still don’t feel comfortable, is yet another.

I think vols are still cheap, maybe looking to buy some.

All the while I was complaining about CDOs, I was coming at it from the angle of a “quant”, i.e. thinking about how to model CDOs and how those models are used in risk management, asset allocation, etc. Too bad I didn’t understand more about the legal/accounting aspects of CDOs. The term everyone has now heard of is SIV. I was blabbering about off balance sheet leverage and fair value accounting, but didn’t realize that the entire CDO market was (to a jaded eye) a big play on accounting in addition to the obvious play on ratings agencies. If I had known about SIVs, I might have been able to do more to help some who may have now lost a lot of money. Maybe not. That’s all in hindsight. But what am I missing now? Where is the next weakest link? How are corporations hiding off balance sheet debt? Has anyone looked at “Level 3” assets in corporate, i.e. non-financial, balance sheets? Are they as scary as the big banks?

I’ll say it again… this is not a subprime issue. Subprime contagion does not explain the current environment. Subprime was just the first to blow. We are experiencing the blowup of a global fixed income bubble. In fact, some would say we’re experiencing a general global asset bubble.

Who’s going to get hurt? Financial institutions for sure. Anyone who depends directly on the value of paper assets.

Who’s going to win? People whose wealth depends on physical assets.

I’ve already lost all hope in Bernanke. He is not going to let his monicker “Helicopter Ben” go by the wayside in a “time of need”. Bernanke is going to lower rates and weaken the USD until oil exporters are forced to break the peg to the USD and inflation skyrockets. I predict that all these gloom mongers about home prices dropping by 30% will turn out to be wrong in nominal terms even if they are correct in real terms. In other words, home owners are going to be saved by the dropping value of the USD. All those on Wall Street who were so gleeful every time rates dropped are suddenly going to feel the pain when the value of their paper securities go up in smoke.

Watch out for the “happy stage of inflation”, i.e. wage increases. It will be interesting to see what the world will look like when oil is priced in EUR and the USD is no longer the world currency. Fortunately, I still have faith that we’ll come out of the current mess stronger as a country, but there will certainly be pain felt at the higher end of the wealth spectrum.

I’m actually ironically optimistic about the outlook for suburban and rural economic development. A weaker dollar will make outsourcing less attractive. That will bring manufacturing jobs back home. I can imagine a boon in suburban and rural development. Just imagine if communities developed decent broadband via fiber-to-the-home/business. Suddenly, there will be attractive jobs and living standards in affordable places.

Maybe a weak dollar is what this country needs, i.e. a good kick in the pants. Pain is the best teacher, right?

[Edit: PS, the title of the post was inspired by a great article on Financial Armageddon, but I never got around to explaining why, but have a look and it might be obvious.]

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Bye bye dollar

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Needless to say, after my comment on August 28

PS: I’ve been ignorantly harsh on both Greenspan and Bernanke, but I have to say that I am quite impressed with Bernanke’s recent performance maneuvering through the current credit crisis. I expect him to hold the target rate at 5.25% on September 18. If he does, I’ll gladly apologize for anything less-than-flattering I’ve ever said about him. If he lowers rates, I’ll lose respect and throw him back in the Greenspan “save my Wall Street buddies” bucket.

I wasn’t particularly excited about the surprise 50 bps cut in both target and discount rates for the general long-term prospects of the US economy, although on a selfish level it was certainly good for my career stability. As far as I’m concerned, it is open season for Bernanke bashing. Greenspan bashing has been accelerating as well. Besides, if things really get bad with the USD, we’ll just move to Hong Kong or something 🙂

One of the things that I learned from Al Wojnilower was that the US economy could certainly keep chugging along for as long as the USD was the world currency. As he liked to repeat often, having the USD as the dominant world currency is like having an “American Express card with no limit”. One of the things that keeps the USD as the world’s currency is its position in sovereign reserves as well as the fact that oil is priced in USD. As far as I can see, both of these factors are beginning a worrisome decline.

With sovereign reserves continuing to diversify away from USD and Saudi Arabia refusing to cut rates in lock step with the US marks a real turn in the outlook for the USD dollar, and consequently the ability of the US economy to continue chugging along.

Written by Eric

September 22, 2007 at 7:28 am

Petrodollars and the reversal of the savings glut

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An interesting article from the WSJ:

How a Gulf Petro-State Invests Its Oil Riches

Now, I am an admitted amateur when it comes to macroeconomics and asset management. I did have a pretty fantastic immersion in the subjects for two years, but realistically, what can you learn in two years when you are starting from basically zero? Not much. But I’m continuing to learn and be fascinated by them.

I’ve learned enough at this point though that I can start to be irritating by voicing my amateurish opinions. One of my amateurish opinions was that a “fight to quality” may not include the typical safe haven, i.e. US treasuries. Of course I got scoffed at and had raw vegetables thrown at me for being so hysterical. I’ve written about it here so far

I’ve also talked about a possible reversal of the oil savings glut here:

I’ve also pointed to an interesting Times article, US financial watchdog says economy at risk from ‘non-ally’ bondholders here:

Anyway, there is a bit of all of this rolled up into one in the WSJ article above. Here are a few snippets:

The investments he has since pursued put his fund at the forefront of far-reaching change in how the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf is deployed. Instead of mostly U.S. Treasury securities, Kuwait now invests in things like higher-yielding bonds, Chinese office buildings and Asian private-equity funds. And, in a move with implications for the strength of the U.S.’s currency and economy, the Kuwait fund is de-emphasizing holdings priced in dollars.

[snip]

Mr. Al-Sa’ad learned that Yale was 28% in stocks, 17% in private-equity funds and 20% in real estate at the time. Kuwait was 2.5% in real estate and 1.5% in private-equity funds. The bulk of its money was in U.S. Treasurys. Despite that hoard, the fund had enough losses elsewhere that its returns were negative in 2001 and 2002, Mr. Al-Sa’ad says.

[snip]

“We must deploy the money in a way to keep Kuwait going when the oil is gone,” Mr. Al-Sa’ad says. “We don’t have the cheap labor of China or the services of Switzerland or the efficiency of Singapore.”

[Note: What?!]

That shift might lower the appetite for low-yielding investments such as the bonds the U.S. government must sell in large numbers to finance its budget and trade deficits. All else being equal, reduced buying of Treasurys and other U.S. securities would tend to weaken the dollar and make U.S. exports more competitive globally, but also burden businesses and consumers in the U.S. by pushing up interest rates.

As Mr. Al-Sa’ad moves away from assets priced in dollars, the euro and the pound sterling, he is moving toward the South Korean won, Malaysian ringgit and Indian rupee. The yen is his least-favorite currency, though, because it’s so volatile. When he was a young trader, he says, he used to get up at 3 a.m. and trade the Japanese currency. “I don’t remember a day I made money trading yen,” he says. “This currency made my hair white.”

Meanwhile, Kuwait’s central bank also has less need to buy U.S. dollars. In June, Kuwait stopped pegging its dinar to the dollar. So Kuwait no longer needs to buy dollars to keep its currency from rising when cash pours in to pay for oil exports. The dinar has appreciated about 2.5% against the dollar since the link was cut.

All very interesting, at least from the perspective of an admitted amateur armchair analyst 🙂

Written by Eric

August 25, 2007 at 10:37 pm