By James Kwak
Wall Street is engaged in a cover-up. Not a criminal cover-up, but an intellectual cover-up.
The key issue is whether the financial crisis was the product of conscious, intentional behavior — or whether it was an unforeseen and unforeseeable natural disaster. We’ve previously described the “banana peel” theory of the financial crisis — the idea it was the result of a complicated series of unfortunate mistakes, a giant accident. This past week, a parade of financial sector luminaries appeared before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Their mantra: “No one saw this coming.” The goal is to convince all of us that the crisis was a natural disaster — a “hundred-year flood,” to use Tim Geithner’s metaphor.
I find this incredibly frustrating. First of all, plenty of people saw the crisis coming. In late 2009, people like Nouriel Roubini and Peter Schiff were all over the airwaves for having predicted the crisis. Since then, there have been multiple books written about people who not only predicted the crisis but bet on it, making hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for themselves. Second, Simon and I just wrote a book arguing that the crisis was no accident: it was the result of the financial sector’s ability to use its political power to engineer a favorable regulatory environment for itself. Since, probabilistically speaking, most people will not read the book, it’s fortunate that Ira Glass has stepped in to help fill the gap.
This past weekend’s episode of This American Life includes a long story on a particular trade put on Magnetar (ProPublica story here), a hedge fund that I first read about in Yves Smith’s ECONned. The main point of the story is to show how one group of people not only anticipated the collapse, and not only bet on it, but in doing so prolonged the bubble and made the ultimate collapse even worse. But it also raises some key issues about Wall Street and its behavior over the past decade.
This will require a brief description of what exactly Magnetar was doing. (If you know already, you can skip the next two paragraphs.) It’s now a cliche that a CDO is a set of securities that “slices and dices” a different set of securities. But it’s slightly more complicated than that. First there is a pile of mortgage-backed securities (or other bond-like securities) that are collected by an investment bank. The CDO itself is a new legal entity (a company) that buys these MBS from the bank; that’s the asset side of its balance sheet. Its liability side, like that of any company, includes debt and equity. There’s a small amount of equity bought by one investor and a lot of debt, issued in tranches that get paid off in a specific order, bought by other investors. The investment bank not only sells MBS to the CDO, but it also places the CDO’s bonds with other investors. Whoever buys the equity is like the “shareholder” of this company. There is also a CDO manager, whose job is to run the CDO — deciding which MBS it buys in the first place, and then (theoretically) selling MBS that go bad and replacing them by buying new ones. The CDO itself is like an investment fund, and the CDO manager is like the fund manager.
According to the story, in 2006, when the subprime-backed CDO market was starting to slow down, Magnetar started buying the equity layer — the riskiest part — of new CDOs. Since they were buying the equity, they were the CDOs’ sponsor, and they pressured the CDO managers to put especially risky MBS into the CDOs — making them more likely to fail. Then Magnetar bought credit default swaps on the debt issued by the CDOs. If the CDOs collapsed, as many did, their equity would become worthless, but their credit default swaps on the debt would repay them many, many times over.
The key is that Magnetar was exploiting the flaws in Wall Street’s process for manufacturing CDOs. Because the banks made up-front fees for creating CDOs, the actual human beings making the decisions did not particularly care if the CDOs collapsed — they just wanted Magnetar’s money to make the CDOs possible. (No one to buy the highly risky equity, no CDO.) Because the ratings agencies’ models did not particularly discriminate between the contents that went into the CDOs (see pages 169-71 of The Big Short, for example), Magnetar and the banks could stuff them with the most toxic inputs possible to make them more likely to fail.
Now, one question you should be asking yourself is, how is this even arithmetically possible? How is it possible that a CDO can have so little equity that you can buy credit default swaps on the debt at a low enough price to make a killing when the thing collapses? You would think that: (a) in order to sell the bonds at all, there would have to be more equity to protect the debt; and (b) the credit default swaps would have been expensive enough to eat up the profits on the deal. Remember, this is 2006, when several hedge funds were shorting CDOs and many investment banks were looking for protection for their CDO portfolios.
The answer is that nothing was being priced efficiently. The CDO debt was being priced according to the rating agencies’ models, which weren’t even looking at sufficiently detailed data. And the credit default swaps were underpriced because they allowed banks to create new synthetic CDOs, which were another source of profits. So here’s the first lesson: the idea that markets result in efficient prices was, in this case, hogwash.
By taking advantage of these inefficiencies, Magnetar made the Wall Street banks look like chumps. This American Life talks about one deal where Magnetar put up $10 million in equity and then shorted $1 billion of AAA-rated bonds issued by the CDO. It turned out that in this deal, JPMorgan Chase, the investment bank, actually held onto those AAA-rated bonds and eventually took a loss of $880 million. This was in exchange for about $20 million in up-front fees it earned.
But who’s the chump? Sure, JPMorgan Chase the bank lost $880 million. But of that $20 million in fees, about $10 million was paid out in compensation (investment banks pay out about half of their net revenues as compensation), much of it to the bankers who did the deal. JPMorgan’s bankers did just fine, despite having placed a ticking time bomb on their own bank’s balance sheet. Here’s the second lesson: the idea that bankers’ pay is based on their performance is also hogwash. (The idea that their pay is based on their net contribution to society is even more absurd.)
So who’s to blame? The first instinct is to get mad at Magnetar. But this overlooks a Wall Street maxim cited by TAL: you can’t blame the predator for eating the prey. Magnetar was out to make money for its limited partners; if it had bet wrong and lost money, no one would have bailed it out. Although I probably wouldn’t have behaved the same way under the circumstances, I have no problem with Magnetar.
I do have a problem with the Wall Street bankers in this story, however. Because losing $880 million of your own company’s money to make a quick buck for yourself is either incompetent or just wrong. And allowing Magnetar to create CDOs that are as toxic as possible — and then actively selling their debt to investors (that’s where the banks differ from Magnetar, in my opinion) — is either incompetent or just wrong. But even so, I don’t think the frontline bankers are ultimately at fault. Maybe they were simply incompetent. Or maybe, they were knowingly exploiting the system to maximize their earnings — only in this case the system they were exploiting was their own banks’ screwed-up compensation policies, risk management “systems,” and ethical guidelines.
In which case the real blame belongs to those who created that system and made it possible. And that would be the bank executives who failed at managing compensation, risk, or ethics, endangering or killing their companies in the process. And that would be the regulators and politicians who allowed these no-money down no-doc negative-amortization loans to be made in the first place; who allowed investment banks to sell whatever they wanted to investors, with no requirements or duties whatsoever; who allowed banks to outsource their capital requirements to rating agencies, giving them an incentive to hold mis-rated securities; who declined to regulate the credit default swaps that Magnetar used to amass its short positions; who allowed banks like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to get into this game with federally insured money; and who failed at monitoring the safety and soundness of the banks playing the game.
The lessons of Magnetar are the basic lessons of the financial crisis. Unregulated financial markets do not necessarily provide efficient prices or the optimal allocation of capital. The winners are not necessarily those who provide the most benefit to their clients or to society, but those who figure out how to exploit the rules of the game to their advantage. The crisis happened because the banks wanted unregulated financial markets and went out and got them — only it turned out they were not as smart as they thought they were and blew themselves up. It was not an innocent accident.