Saturday, January 03, 2009

Lewis and Einhorn - repairing the financial world

Michael Lewis's essay remains best summary to date of the Collapse of '08.

Today he returns, joined by David Einhorn, with a prescription for change published in the NYT OpEd page. It's an extraordinarily long editorial, here I excerpt the key ideas. Emphases mine.
The End of the Financial World as We Know It -

Michael Lewis, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of “Liar’s Poker,” is writing a book about the collapse of Wall Street. David Einhorn is the president of Greenlight Capital, a hedge fund, and the author of “Fooling Some of the People All of the Time.”

... “Greed” doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character as we are lust and envy. The fixable problem isn’t the greed of the few but the misaligned interests of the many...

... OUR financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense. Obviously the greater the market pressure to excel in the short term, the greater the need for pressure from outside the market to consider the longer term. But that’s the problem: there is no longer any serious pressure from outside the market. The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest...

... Everyone now knows that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s botched their analyses of bonds backed by home mortgages. But their most costly mistake — one that deserves a lot more attention than it has received — lies in their area of putative expertise: measuring corporate risk.

Over the last 20 years American financial institutions have taken on more and more risk, with the blessing of regulators, with hardly a word from the rating agencies, which, incidentally, are paid by the issuers of the bonds they rate... [jg: Of course this is no secret, but it's still astounding. I have to laugh when I consider the conflict of interest rules applied to physicians -- and we do need them. At a more familiar level, consider the "home inspector" scam related to home sales.]

... The American International Group, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, General Electric and the municipal bond guarantors Ambac Financial and MBIA all had triple-A ratings. (G.E. still does!) Large investment banks like Lehman and Merrill Lynch all had solid investment grade ratings. It’s almost as if the higher the rating of a financial institution, the more likely it was to contribute to financial catastrophe. But of course all these big financial companies fueled the creation of the credit products that in turn fueled the revenues of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.

These oligopolies, which are actually sanctioned by the S.E.C., didn’t merely do their jobs badly. They didn’t simply miss a few calls here and there. In pursuit of their own short-term earnings, they did exactly the opposite of what they were meant to do: rather than expose financial risk they systematically disguised it...

... As far back as 2002, a hedge fund called Gotham Partners published a persuasive report, widely circulated, entitled: “Is MBIA Triple A?” (The answer was obviously no.)

At the same time, almost everyone believed that the rating agencies would never downgrade MBIA, because doing so was not in their short-term financial interest. A downgrade of MBIA would force the rating agencies to go through the costly and cumbersome process of re-rating tens of thousands of credits that bore triple-A ratings simply by virtue of MBIA’s guarantee. It would stick a wrench in the machine that enriched them...

The S.E.C. now promises modest new measures to contain the damage that the rating agencies can do — measures that fail to address the central problem: that the raters are paid by the issuers.

But this should come as no surprise, for the S.E.C. itself is plagued by similarly wacky incentives. Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors...

... IT’S not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does. If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

The commission’s most recent director of enforcement is the general counsel at JPMorgan Chase; the enforcement chief before him became general counsel at Deutsche Bank; and one of his predecessors became a managing director for Credit Suisse before moving on to Morgan Stanley. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of landing the job as the S.E.C.’s director of enforcement is to position oneself for the better paying one on Wall Street...

... Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. persuaded Congress that he needed $700 billion to buy distressed assets from banks — telling the senators and representatives that if they didn’t give him the money the stock market would collapse. Once handed the money, he abandoned his promised strategy, and instead of buying assets at market prices, began to overpay for preferred stocks in the banks themselves. Which is to say that he essentially began giving away billions of dollars to Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and a few others unnaturally selected for survival...
.. the banks took the taxpayer money and just sat on it...

... Weeks after receiving its first $25 billion taxpayer investment, Citigroup returned to the Treasury to confess that — lo! — the markets still didn’t trust Citigroup to survive. In response, on Nov. 24, the Treasury handed Citigroup another $20 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program, and then simply guaranteed $306 billion of Citigroup’s assets. The Treasury didn’t ask for its fair share of the action, or management changes, or for that matter anything much at all beyond a teaspoon of warrants and a sliver of preferred stock. The $306 billion guarantee was an undisguised gift...

... THERE are other things the Treasury might do when a major financial firm assumed to be “too big to fail” comes knocking, asking for free money. Here’s one: Let it fail.

Not as chaotically as Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. If a failing firm is deemed “too big” for that honor, then it should be explicitly nationalized, both to limit its effect on other firms and to protect the guts of the system. Its shareholders should be wiped out, and its management replaced. Its valuable parts should be sold off as functioning businesses to the highest bidders — perhaps to some bank that was not swept up in the credit bubble. The rest should be liquidated, in calm markets...

... If we are going to spend trillions of dollars of taxpayer money, it makes more sense to focus less on the failed institutions at the top of the financial system and more on the individuals at the bottom. Instead of buying dodgy assets and guaranteeing deals that should never have been made in the first place, we should use our money to A) repair the social safety net, now badly rent in ways that cause perfectly rational people to be terrified; and B) transform the bailout of the banks into a rescue of homeowners.

We should begin by breaking the cycle of deteriorating housing values and resulting foreclosures ... Congress seems to have understood this problem, which is why last year it created a program under the Federal Housing Authority to issue homeowners new government loans based on the current appraised value of their homes.

And yet the program, called Hope Now, seems to have become one more excellent example of the unhappy political influence of Wall Street. As it now stands, banks must initiate any new loan; and they are loath to do so because it requires them to recognize an immediate loss. They prefer to “work with borrowers” through loan modifications and payment plans that present fewer accounting and earnings problems but fail to resolve and, thereby, prolong the underlying issues...

... There are also a handful of other perfectly obvious changes in the financial system to be made, to prevent some version of what has happened from happening all over again. A short list:

Stop making big regulatory decisions with long-term consequences based on their short-term effect on stock prices...

... End the official status of the rating agencies. Given their performance it’s hard to believe credit rating agencies are still around. There’s no question that the world is worse off for the existence of companies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. There should be a rule against issuers paying for ratings. Either investors should pay for them privately or, if public ratings are deemed essential, they should be publicly provided.

Regulate credit-default swaps. ...

... Credit-default swaps may not be Exhibit No. 1 in the case against financial complexity, but they are useful evidence..... The most critical role for regulation is to make sure that the sellers of risk have the capital to support their bets.

Impose new capital requirements on banks... require banks to hold less capital in bad times and more capital in good times.

Another good solution to the too-big-to-fail problem is to break up any institution that becomes too big to fail.

Close the revolving door between the S.E.C. and Wall Street. At every turn we keep coming back to an enormous barrier to reform: Wall Street’s political influence. Its influence over the S.E.C. is further compromised by its ability to enrich the people who work for it. Realistically, there is only so much that can be done to fix the problem, but one measure is obvious: forbid regulators, for some meaningful amount of time after they have left the S.E.C., from accepting high-paying jobs with Wall Street firms.

But keep the door open the other way. If the S.E.C. is to restore its credibility as an investor protection agency, it should have some experienced, respected investors (which is not the same thing as investment bankers) as commissioners. President-elect Barack Obama should nominate at least one with a notable career investing capital, and another with experience uncovering corporate misconduct. As it happens, the most critical job, chief of enforcement, now has a perfect candidate, a civic-minded former investor with firsthand experience of the S.E.C.’s ineptitude: Harry Markopolos.
It's a long essay, and I think it suffers a bit from having had two authors. Still, the recommendations are fairly simple:
  1. Get rid of the rating agencies.
  2. Break up institutions that are too big to fail
  3. Block SEC regulators from going to the firms they regulate. (This general problem is bigger than the SEC, a recent head of HHS took a very high paying pharma job when he left office.)
  4. Regulate credit-default swaps.
  5. Provide direct help to home owners.
  6. Stop giving money to Wall Street, nationalize then liquidate instead.
See also:
  1. Complexity collapse
  2. Disintermediating Wall Street
  3. The future of the publicly traded company
  4. The role of the deadbeats
  5. Marked!
Update 5/31/10: I happened across this old post, and, somewhat to my surprise, I note that the current Senate financial reform bill includes several of the reforms mentioned above. Of course it's not law yet ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

2 great books I bet Lewis comes up with another gem.... in researching more about hedge funds I came across a few books that were fascinating ..honest, and informative…..Hedge Fund Trading Secrets Revealed by Robert Dorfman... and Confessions of a Street Addict by Jim Cramer....both these books take you on a great ride about hedge funds and how they make money. I learned about this secret society than I ever would have imagined. Dorfman actually teaches traders his strategies.