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Monday, 27 September 2010

Banks and Basel III: blackmail or chainmail?

Will the various new so-called “Basel III” rules make the world safer from financial crises? There should not be a short answer to such a complex question – but my answer is yes, and no, not much either way, and, looking back, taking the metaphor of New Orleans sea defences and levees, higher equity in banks core capital reserves means the same as adding only inches to the height of ‘sea defences’. Protecting the financial system is a systemic challenge; individual breaches in flood defenses may be contained or lead to general failure.
Erecting barriers, by setting global prudential standards, to prevent calamity is the job of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS), to mitigate, prevent or postpone, another Credit Crunch, its job is to agree techniques, laws, rules and guidelines to resist a 1/25 tidal surge or the 1/100 that some say defined the Credit Crunch.
But, what do we think of bankers’ response to new safety rules? They sound like road drivers opposing lower speed limits.
The banks publicly resent being told to increase reserve ratios. It is the same reaction if government asked the private sector to build and pay for sea defenses. The banks’ lobbyists such as the BBA and IIF warn gloomily of a probable £1 trillion less lending in the UK alone over the next decade - maybe €7 trillion less lending across the EU.
Our inglorious banks have, it seems, regained a bold-faced confidence sufficiently to complain loudly about new prudential rules, as if these ingrates* have superior information to warn us not to kill the Golden Goose**, and as if everyone else will trust that judgement and believe the banks?
But, is it realistic to suppose that excessive fear of another financial crisis and mistrust of banks by regulators and taxpayers could lead to borrowers and the economy paying a big penalty for higher equity-capital reserve ratios?
Alongside the new capital rules, the Basel Committee also published two papers on economic impact that media commentators and banks’ lobbyists, appear not to have read? These assessments are more sanguine and define it as a (very) “conservative” view to assume all the impact of Basel III will be borne by higher customer borrowing costs and reduced lending.
The Committee agreed higher equity capital ratios (announced 12th September) to oblige banks to hold more to absorb the inevitable losses of a recession. The changes are intended to mitigate and or postpone the next “financial crisis”. More equity means shareholders will bear the losses, as they have done so already in the Credit Crunch?
Reserves are ratios to loans and investments net of collateral after risk adjustments. New rules require twice as much equity reserve as before, but with years to get there, by when the USA and UK will probably be in recession again? Higher “capital buffers” are also imposed, but only in the proportions that national supervisory regulators are already demanding.
Bankers’ bleat that capital hikes mean higher customer costs, less lending, and will only jeopardize recovery. But, by the time the ratios kick in we’ll be past recovery and into the next boom. Bankers, it seems, don’t want us to see the many ways they can generate more “own capital”, including via higher profit-retention and paying smaller bonuses!
The BIS paper on macro-impacts finds that for each 1% increase in the capital ratio loan costs could maximally rise by 13bp, and for every 1% higher liquidity reserves loan margins rise 25bp, assuming RWA is unchanged. This falls to 14bp or less if RWA falls by shifting the risk diversity to less risky assets without any fall in gross assets. If banks adjust their expected return on equity from 15% to 10%, then each 1% increase in capital ratio is recovered by a 7bp rise in loan margin, well within what can also be achieved by cost-cutting or other relatively painless measures.
BIS is very clear: “Banks have various options to adjust to changes in required capital and liquidity requirements other than increasing loan rates, including by reducing ROE, reducing operating expenses and increasing non-interest sources of income. Each of them could cut the costs of meeting the requirements. For example, on average across countries, a 4% reduction in operating expenses, or a 2 % fall in ROE, is sufficient to absorb a 1% increase in the capital/RWA ratio. In practice, banks are likely to follow a combination of strategies.”
Cost of borrowing by banks should reflect the riskiness of banks. If banks are safer because of new rules then the risk spread banks pay to borrow should fall. But, if bankers don’t rediscover prudence, alongside a humbler piece of the pie, as governments anxious to balance their budgets exit from bank-aid measures, then the banks will have to pay more to borrow funding gap finance and to attract and retain deposits.
Let’s not forget that the Credit Crunch was caused by funding gap finance cost (risk spreads) becoming uneconomic, too high to ensure positive corporate lending margins. Why, because banks lost credibility and it is not at all clear that they can presume to have that back now, not while ratings agencies keep so many banks on the bottom-most rungs of unsecured credit grades.
The rates borrowers are charged should be dictated more in future by competition and demand than by banks seeking again the super profits of the years before 2008, and in Europe especially if cross-border lending is to recover and grow? Banks may accommodate higher reserve ratios by requiring more collateral and by exercising other risk mitigations including diversifying better across all economic sectors and by changed business models. Banks in trade-deficit countries are biased to property lending and in export-surplus countries to industrial trade.
In the years up to 2007, banks grew faster than underlying economies, earning dispro-portionately high profits, 25% - 50% of all profits of publicly quoted companies, which should be unsustainable. Shouldn’t they adjust to more realistic or reasonable profit targets?
The new rules are a cornerstone of the G20 response, a global effort to ensure stable international banking. The rules redefine “core tier one capital”, a measure of a bank’s solvency, plus sufficient liquidity to survive a short-run crisis with less dependence on short-term borrowing. The new ratios would not have saved the banks that crashed in the credit crunch but are a step in that direction to take some pressure off future government budgets.
Dame Angela Knight, chief executive and spokesperson of the BBA, was almost entirely negative about the announcements. She warned that banks have no choice except higher loan margins that will “suck money out of the economy” – by which she means the non-financial economy - as if banks’ profits, bonuses, and speculation can’t do that already. German banks made similar objections, and others too.
Three major UK banks have threatened to domicile themselves elsewhere if the UK government and its Banking Commission decide to split retail from investment banking - Paris and Frankfurt are offering lower tax to induce UK banks to move! Is this further evidence of a return to confident arrogance, of which resisting new capital ratios are shots across the bows of the regulators?
The threats are poor thanks for Government and Bank of England’s heroic roles as lenders of last resort in baling underwater banks. All banks were helped by state aid packages. Banks that did not require direct aid, or not as much as others, yet benefited massively from the help given to others. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, for example, among a host of emergency measures there was $2.5 trillion alone in temporary liquidity by the Fed, BoE and ECB to resolve failed money market trades.
Dame Angela (for the BBA) wants the new rules carefully handled to avoid “prolonging the downturn”. The banks got eight years, a long time in banking. She says, “The consequence is that inevitably the cost of credit – the price the borrower pays for money – will rise. The cheap money era is over.” Surely, a fun remark when the central bank rates continue negative in real terms. A lobbyist for bankers, the IIF used similarly dramatic language to persuade the Basel committee to dilute its reforms. Do bankers think we, politicians and taxpayers, learned nothing about how banks operate, or about how blinkered, self-serving, solipsic and short-termist their thinking can be?
The job of bank risk regulators can seem like herding cats!
The WSJ’s David Weidner wrote: “Judging by their hokey scare tactics, you'd think the act of raising capital requirements during an eight-year span was the final blow to capitalism. But it's not. Basel III is a compromise tilted toward an international banking community that's woefully undercapitalized and vulnerable to breakdowns.
In truth, banks have far flexibility and head-room than their lobbyists want us to see. The public was not fond of banks before the crisis and now views them with mistrust, hatred, and derision. What other industry can prosper when so unpopular?
Banks do not have to make their customers pay; bankers can reduce their own bonus levels for a start, or perhaps regulators should do so – they now have that power! Banks’ pretence that certain people will only work for guaranteed bonuses, as for example for managers of ‘prime services’ to lend to hedge funds. Remarkably, it is so hard to lend them money this requires $5m guranteed bonuses?
Saving losses, what risk managers do, is never so generously incentivized, not remotely so? It is like paying football midfielders thirty times what the goalie gets, and strikers and team manager fifty times as much!
Privately, bankers, regulators, and most everyone else know that “incentivising” star players by handing them bonuses in excess of either group profit or loss damages credibility, solvency and shareholders. Fiduciary prudence is replaced by something else, poorly understood or defined except to call it ‘daylight bank robbery’ or ‘greed’. That is the dominant political and general voting public’s view. Are they wrong?
As someone who enjoys a spendthrift life on high-fees, I understand that heady culture that I am also part of, if better looking than Dick Fuld and freer than Bernie Madoff. Ah sure, wouldn’t we all be somewhat poorer for not having outrageously super-rich like us to gawk at, demonize and blame – but not if the consequence are distorted values that risk our whole economy! Martin Wolf in the FT wrote, “withdrawing incentives for reckless behaviour is not a cost to society; it is costly to the beneficiaries. The latter must not be confused with the former.”
Banks may reduce the capital they have committed to proprietary trading, to speculation, to profit from markets beyond lending to them. Banks may cash in realizable profits and sell non-core assets. Over the years banks can generate internal capital without upping borrowing costs of households and small firms. UK banks would do well to lend more to small firms who employ 40% of all jobs but only get 1.5% of non-financial loans – in the USA 10% and in Germany 19%. Banks can tap equity and bond markets for capital and retain more of net earnings before bonuses. When will they tell shareholders how much bonus is performance related or guaranteed?
The lobbying by IIF used the difficulties of Europe’s local savings banks such as in Germany and Spain, resulted in all banks getting a suspiciously long time to build new reserves, from 2013 to 2019. By then, all current top execs will have retired, rich, and we’ll be in the next recession when government again has to reflate the economy without help from banks!
Rather than scaremongering, bankers should grow up and recognise their priority is to rebuild moral authority and trust by customers, taxpayers and others, not least shareholders, show willingness to adapt their business models and pay themselves less. Scare-mongering fools no-one except the gullible of whom there are precious few left for banks to rely on for support today?
The banking lobbyists’ churlish failure to apologize or acknowledge that they must mend their ways and change how they do business and what is realistic and reasonable risk-based profit only does more damage to the recovery, not of the economy only, but that banks need to make to recover customer and taxpayer trust and loyalty, real self-belief and fiduciary responsibility, including in macro-prudential terms, i.e. real banking professionalism – or maybe I’m just old-fashioned, a grumpy old banker well past my sell-by-date?
*Note: Ingrate, n. One who receives a benefit from another, or is otherwise an object of charity -Devil’s Dictionary.
**Note: Reminding us of, from “The madness of Crowds”, about the inventor of modern bonds, John Law, “he understood the monetary question better than any man of his day; and if his system fell with a crash so tremendous, it was not so much his fault as that of the people amongst whom he had erected it. He did not calculate upon the avaricious frenzy of a whole nation; he did not see that confidence, like mistrust, could be increased almost ad infinitum, and that hope was as extravagant as fear. How was he to foretell that the French people, like the man in the fable who killed in frantic eagerness the fine goose he bought to lay golden eggs?” (Charles Mackay writing in 1841)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Moody’s has avoided prosecution by SEC and others on a technicality, announced some three years after the SEC investigation began!
Sam Jones, wrote in FT’s Alphaville over two years ago about bugs in Moody’s model for rating securitization issues that mistakenly gave top ratings for bonds.
When re-rated after June 2007 using a model in which the bugs had been fixed tens of $billions of CDOS, RMBS, ABS bonds dropped in value by up to 17 risk grades, sometimes from Aaa straight to 'Junk'! Moody's between 2005 and 2007 risk rated about 10,000 Residential Mortgage Backed Securities (RMBS).
This was based on a fuller account that appeared in a few blogs including my own. Moody’s awarded incorrect triple A ratings to tens of billions of dollars worth of a type of asset covered bonds. The FT wrote, “Internal Moody’s documents seen by the FT show that some senior staff within the credit agency knew early in 2007 that products rated the previous year had received top-notch triple A ratings and that, after a computer coding error was corrected, their ratings should have been up to four notches lower…” In 2007 moody's downgraded about one third of all RMBS. This was the mild form of the story.
It was not just about ratings in 2006; between 2000 and 2007, Moody's rated $4.7 trillion in RMBS! For some model descriptions: Moody’s used its Moody's Individual Loans Analysis (MILAN) model for collateral analysis with a cash flow model such as Moody’s Analyser of Residential Cash Flows (MARCO) or ABSROM. Moody’s analysis was intended to provide RMBS investors with a consistent and transparent system of gradation by which relative credit quality is expressed.
The lack of transparency issue has however been the leading criticism by regulators. The Moody’s objective was laudable - to assign the same ratings to all debt instruments exposed to equivalent credit risks over time, irrespective of the country of origin, the industry sector or the structure of the security. This aim is however subject to differences in law regarding the underlying rights of mortgage borrowers and how the property collateral may be recovered.
Moody's aim was that over the same period of time, portfolios of structured finance securities with the same ratings should sustain similar credit losses. But, the problem remained of not just the history of defaults in the models (or not if they failed to be updated and when the models appeared indifferent to default rates) but also the forecasting of defaults under various economic scenarios?What happened was that Moody’s modelers noted a speech by Ben Bernanke in January 2007 where he reported that default rates were below 2%, which seemed both counter-intuitive and contrary to other earlier reported figures of 4% and rising. Bernanke had taken his data from Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae, data that was actually post-adjustment after many mortgage deals had been restructured. The modelers decided to put progressively higher default data into their models only to find that every time they cranked the numbers the result was always triple-A or otherwise unchanged from before i.e. the bugs in the model meant they were indifferent to default rates – seriously flawed fundamental errors! And, then they discovered that the models in any case had not been updated for default rates for some years!
When Moody's announced on June 5, 2007 that it was introducing changes to its model, it did not reveal how fundamental this was. It said "Moody's Expands Loan Characteristics in Subprime RMBS Ratings Analysis - New York, June 05, 2007 -- Moody's Investors Service announced today that its analysis of securities backed
by pools of sub-prime residential mortgages closing after July 1, 2007 will be expanded to include a systematic assessment of certain variables described in the Special Report, "Moody's Revised US Mortgage Loan-by-Loan Data Fields," published April 3, 2007. In addition, Moody's will be modifying the way it incorporates some other factors into its analysis. The refinement of its rating methodology is part of Moody's continuing effort to incorporate the expanding range of loan and borrower characteristics now being captured by many mortgage originators as well as the
performance data that has been accumulated during the past few years in the rapidly growing and evolving sub-prime mortgage market. Moody's expects to continue to refine its methodology in the future as it continues to analyze the increasing amount of performance information that becomes available.
This made the changes seem merely benign, when in fact they heralded the bottom falling out of the interbank credit market. To those who need to know a little of the technicalities, it may be of interest to note that given limited historical data, Moody’s used three parameters to determine the "lognormal loss distribution": − expected loss (base case losses) of the portfolio − adjusted MILAN Credit Enhancement, and − average life of the portfolio.
Moody’s assessed the expected loss using historical default and recovery data "provided by the Originator" or "based on comparable portfolios and benchmarking". All very well, but range of possible loss data is surely the main feature that the ratings agency model should be bringing to the analysis, not merely using the issuer's own data?Moody’s used MILAN to determine the MILAN Credit Enhancement (CE), and, in order to derive the ratings of the Notes, Moody’s used a cash flow model, MARCO, which included "key structural elements". MILAN was a risk scoring model, which is not ideal; each loan compared and scored against a country-specific benchmark loan, then, based on certain assumptions (mainly loan to value ratios that are especially relevant in the US, but much less so elsewhere). The credit enhancement necessary to agree with the benchmark loan can be determined, then tagged to a specific rating level (somewhat circular). No mention is made in the Moody's literature I have seen of credit cycle or economic cycle or macro-economics at all!
Overriding accuracy issues for the ratings agencies was also competitive ones of how to win ratings of big issues when the issuers could shop around for who would produce milder or harsher ratings! The question remains unanswered as to whether the ratings models of Fitch and S&P were a lot better than Moody’s or not?
Several internal emails have come to light that show this. For example, a July, 2004 S&P email: "We are meeting with your group this week to discuss adjusting criteria for rating CDOs of real estate assets this week because of the ongoing threat of losing deals. . . ." [emphasis in original] A March, 2005 S&P email chain shows that agency was slow to roll out ratings model changes because the updated model produced harsher results. Parts of the chain: "When we first reviewed [model] 6.0 results **a year ago** we saw the sub-prime and Alt-A numbers going up and that was a major point of contention which led to all the model tweaking we've done since. Version 6.0 could've been released months ago and resources assigned elsewhere if we didn't have to massage the sub-prime and Alt-A numbers to preserve market share."
Emails at Moody's include in May, 2007: "Thanks again for your help (and Mark's) in getting Morgan Stanley up-to-speed with your new methodology. As we discussed last Friday, please find below a list of transactions with which Morgan Stanley is significantly engaged already. . . . We appreciate your willingness to grandfather these transactions [with regards to] Moody's old methodology." And also in August, 2007 Moody's email: "[E]ach of our current deals is in crisis mode. This is compounded by the fact that we have introduced new criteria for ABS [asset-backed securities] CDOs. Our changes are a response to the fact that we are already putting deals closed in the spring on watch for downgrade. This is unacceptable and we cannot rate the new deals in the same away [sic] we have done before. . . . bankers are under enormous pressure to turn their warehouses into CDO notes."
Such emails show considerable overlap between quality of models and competition for the business to the extent that could be deemed evidence of compromising fiduciary duty to investors etc.
See DailyFinance:
Moody's had several points in its modeling where results could be massaged. There was comparison of the specific loan, property and borrower characteristics underlying each loan with those of the benchmark loan. This, if fully true, must have involved massive computing, which I sense may not have been fully deployed.
This then leads to adjustments to necessary credit enhancements of each loan, which are then compared to the minimum credit enhancement determined for a country. Again, we may wonder at the resilience of the benchmark concept?
Once each loan was scored, the portfolio was compared with the country benchmark RMBS in terms of regional, borrower and loan concentrations. This led to additional adjustments on the credit enhancement and ultimately produced the MILAN Credit Enhancement for the portfolio, relating to a specific rating level.
All steps are analysed and discussed by a rating committee. After, and if, further quantitative and qualitative adjustments to the MILAN CE by the rating committee (resulting in the adjusted MILAN CE), then, given a lognormal loss distribution, MARCO is used as a cash flow model for how different features in the transaction impact the final ratings of the Notes (each of the tranches of the securitised bond issued by the SIV).
The model calculates the loss and the average life of the Notes resulting from each portfolio loss scenario of the lognormal curve. The model will then weight each loss and average life on the Notes with the corresponding probability of the loss scenario.
The result is the expected loss and the weighted average life for each tranche in the capital structure. With these two inputs, the ratings can be derived from Moody’s Idealised Expected Loss Table.
That sounds simple actually, simply a way of getting the securities to comply with a standard ratings table. That is, until it is discovered in January 2007 that the models did not actually respond to different default or expected loss rates and that loss rates, presumably for the benchmark loans, had not been updated for several years before 2007!
Former Moody’s Executive Brian Clarkson described the approach as “you start with a rating and build a deal around a rating”.
While it certainly does exist, rating shopping appears to be a more significant issue in single-issuer debt ratings than in structured ratings. Given that single issuers exist prior to their rating and it is more difficult to change their existing businesses, balance sheets, income statements or structures in anticipation of review, rating shopping is a justified concern.
In structured securities, the SIV corporation (trust) does not exist prior to the rating, the structure to be achieved in order to garner a desired rating is defined by the rating agencies. As a result rating shopping is less a concern than is the pre-rating back and forth negotiations and substitution of underlying collateral which allows issuers to work with the rating agency until they create the structure that achieves the desired rating.
Working backwards and using feedback adjustments to get to a desired ratings is one thing, but operating models that are indifferent to default rates is another. Moody's modelers in January 2007 fixed these latter calamitously major bugs in the models and then found that the bonds or notes when reprocessed dropped by up to 17 risk grades! This they reported upstairs to a shocked board, who must have seen instantly that their company was now at major risk, and perhaps they might have also seen that the whole banking market was also at major risk.
The modelers were told to unfix the fixes and sit on this until it was decided how to handle this; how to tell the world? That thought-leadership process took 6 months, during which time other mind-focusing events occurred such as Bear Stearns securitisation collateral seized and sold at fire-sale prices by Citicorp's back office, triggering Bear's eventual collapse and US Treasury assisted fire-sale to JP Morgan Chase, and then UBS and Citicorp's own structured products exposures were subject to large writedown losses!
Yet, Moody's did not publicly mea culpa or publicly revamp its model until mid-year.
It made an announcement of a new model in June 2007. The news was not considered of fundamental importance to any but perhaps a few.
Then, from June 2007, using a newly fixed model. Moody's regraded securitization issues, mainly RMBS (of which Moody’s had graded more than half of all issues, or $4.7 trillions), that when cranked through the valuation model (a process like Chinese water torture on the interbank credit markets) with day after day, week after week, bank-issued (via SIVs) asset backed bonds and SIV notes (tranches) being severely downgraded that forced banks and eventually other investors to announce major writedown losses! For example on just one perhaps typical day, Moody's Credit Research Announcement 10 JUL 2007 "Moody's downgrades 399 subprime RMBS issued in 2006; 32 additional securities placed on review for possible downgrade". $ billions of RMBS were being downgraded every day.
Confidence in banks’ securities progressively collapsed and the Credit Crunch wreaked havoc on banks’ share values as well as on their ability to finance their funding gaps.
An SEC investigation followed the FT’s exclusive, EU authorities too, not least DG McCreevy when head of Ecofin, were extremely angry at the damage caused and considered suing the ratings agencies in court. Reforming credit ratings agencies became an important part of the G20 agenda. In various parts of the world including Europe various measures were considered and are being introduced to reduce reliance of the US credit ratings agencies. But, this is very difficult to do! It was obvious that when the ratings were re-run by Moody’s through new models in the second half of 2007, every week more downgrades, that coincided with full onset of the Credit Crunch.
It is reasonable to ask therefore if the securitization issues been properly, accurately, assessed, could the worst of the Credit crunch have been avoided? That is a big question, a big issue!
Similar criticisms of the ratings agencies followed in the wake of the Enron scandal but SEC legal action was not followed through with and was dropped. Enron's rating remained at investment grade until four days before the company collapsed. Similar failures were repeated in the cases of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and other firms. The ratings agencies failed in the case of Enron to notice that financial trusts linked to Enron made financial commitments largely based on Enron’s share price!
There were regulatory reforms in the US credit rating industry, the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act of 2006, and that put them in the context of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The SEC committed to improve the quality and integrity of the credit rating industry, but instead of focusing on detail resorted to broad reforms such as increasing competition between credit rating agencies including through new market entrants. That the SEC has in the case of Moody’s dropped further investigation on a technicality may have something to do with its own culpability. The SEC has been equipped with enforcement measures, which include the suspension and revocation of NRSRO status, and that may be used, for example, when a credit rating agency does not comply with procedures regarding the prevention of the misuse of material non-public information, conflicts of interest, and other abusive practices. Credit rating agencies are subject to (onsite) examination by SEC and extensive documentation retention and management programmes. It will be a long time before new competition can have a desired effect of improving the quality and integrity of the global US credit rating firms (the big three).
Arguably, the credit rating agencies are more powerful than the regulators in determining the creditworthiness of banks and their bonds. They also have a major responsibility and impact influence on sovereign ratings of governments. Given the influence of credit rating agencies in the capital markets and their regulatory responsibility as private-sector watchdogs, increased oversight of the credit rating industry is most laudable, but also most intimidating for regulators however backed by governments to undertake. Credit rating agencies currently remain prominently in the spotlight of national, federal, and international securities regulators, but appear let off the hook by the SEC, but only on a technicality. They remain subject to possible other agencies including private class actions slowly moving through the courts such as by CALPERS
Three years on, on Tuesday, 31 August 2010, the SEC released this: “The Securities and Exchange Commission today issued a report cautioning credit rating agencies about deceptive ratings conduct and the importance of sufficient internal controls over the policies, procedures, and methodologies the firms use to determine credit ratings.”
The FT commented that the SEC’s Report of Investigation stems from an Enforcement Division inquiry into whether Moody’s Investors Service, Inc. (MIS) — the credit rating business segment of Moody’s Corporation — violated the registration provisions or the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws. The Report says that “because of uncertainty regarding a jurisdictional nexus between the United States and the relevant ratings conduct, the Commission declined to pursue a fraud enforcement action in this matter…”
So, Moody’s has escaped prosecution for “fraud” because the relevant American legislation was defective – a shortcoming, the SEC notes has been expressly addressed in the newly-minted Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
You can read the report at
On May 20, 2008, the Financial Times published on its Web site an article that disclosed the coding error, citing internal Moody’s documents that showed the error had been discovered by MIS over a year earlier, and alleged that MIS had incorrectly awarded Aaa credit ratings to CPDO notes because of the error.
When Moody’s was contacted by reporters gathering information for the story, the company began an internal investigation into the coding error and the CPDO rating committee conduct. On July 1, 2008, a year and a half after the coding error had been discovered, and over a year after the European rating committee had declined to downgrade the credit ratings, Moody’s issued a press release discussing the investigation results and stating that “some committee members considered factors inappropriate to the rating process when reviewing CPDO ratings following the discovery of the model error.” Thereafter, MIS took personnel action with respect to management of the CPDO group and members of the committee, including termination of the Group Managing Director and two Team Managing Directors…
…Further, we conclude that, in early 2007, members of the European rating committee believed they could violate MIS’s procedures without detection, and in fact the conduct did not come to light until the Financial Times contacted MIS about the error in the CPDO model and an investigation ensued…
Note that today Moody's re-ratings actions based on improving or continued deterioration of subprime securitisations, or in conjunction with distressed or improving house price and rising or falling unemployment, will run each individual pool of mortgage loans through a number of stress scenarios to assess the rating implications of updated loss expectations. The scenarios include 96 different combinations within six loss levels, four timing curves and four prepayment curves.
For much more on all of this, I wrote about it in October 2008
Also see:

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

CEO Letter to my Rain-makers

Dear Rain-makers, friends & colleagues,
You have been asking how exactly our 2009 bonuses will be structured and paid? As some of you will know 2008 bonuses were the same as in 2004, and all paid in cash!
2004 (28 April) was also when the USA's SEC relaxed leverage ratios on investment banks; following which we all in the UK followed suit, mainly by upping our % bonus pool to profit ratio by a fifth.
FSA's Financial Stability Report in 2009 found that if Britain's troubled banks had retained 20% of remuneration bonuses & shareholder dividends (£75bn or $120bn) instead of paying these out based on short termism (so-called) that actually exceeded what was needed subsequently (in 2008 and 2009) in government and central bank supplied capital support (in preference share equity) to the same excessive bonus-paying banks. This I will show is a false correlation, what some culture experts might call a "post-modern relativism", usefully summed up by the following cartoon that I urge all non-bankers to take to heart as we bankers do.The years from 2004 on were also those when bonus pools exceeded profits, which only appears absurd at first sight, but not when we look at the matter more profoundly. This is for the excellent reason that our human capital is our most valuable asset, and what else is to be done when everyone else (other banks, especially US ones) do this, pay over the odds. All banks are in firm agreement about the deservedly high return necessarily payable to human capital compared to the return to passive shareholders or that old saw of "internally generated capital build-up", which we know would have just gone up in flames with nominal losses - far better to be retained by our staff and productively invested, I should think?The equation of bonus pool to government funding support is false, because we would have simply used the retained profit to narrow our funding gap by 8% or less (and depending on whether our share cap would have fallen further on lower dividends) and that £75bn (in the case of UK banks) is dwarfed by the £500bn in asset swaps to shrink our funding gaps by getting all that off balance sheet via SIVs in return for Bank of England treasuries and deposit balances. What choice did the SEC have (Paul Atkins, Cynthia Glassman, William H. Donaldson, Harvey J. Goldschmid and Roel C. Campos, SEC commissioners, pictured above, along with Christopher Cox, SEC Chairman, and Annette L. Nazareth, SEC dir. market regs.) when faced by a joint motion for relaxation of reserve ratio (leverage) requirements by Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill-Lynch, Bear Stearns and Morgan-Stanley. SEC did not have models capable of predicting any outcomes of that decision; they therefore should not be blamed for the severe embarrassments that all of the above banks faced as a result of their over-leveraged trading books and unsustainable bonus pool growth.
The plain fact is that high bonuses are market-dictated with the weight of an immemorial tradition, socialised via top-dollar real estate prices. We are not "banksters"; we pay our taxes eventually. Furthermore, it is quite clear that leverage variance is simply what we need to do to maintain stable return on equity ratios and why bonuses are genuinely just that, bonuses! Who should begrudge anyone for legitimately striking it rich? There should be no limit to opportunity. What right has government to restrict incomes in any selected profession; that would be an attack on basic human rights or free market rights?Some bankers have sabre-rattled that severe cuts to bonuses will entice us to move our headquarters to Paris or Frankfurt or Hong Kong, who are offering us low tax inducements to move there. But, we don't go along with that shallow selfishness; where else will we find a central bank with the creative flexibility of the Bank of England, with the deep treasury pockets in money market operations to see us through stressful turbulent times?
US media comment has reported London bankers saying they would crash their own country’s economy by departing for foreign parts unknown if that's what it takes to defend bonuses. We have no part in that and know of no reputable British banks who think that is a realistic option.
Some calculations of government support to "bail out" us banks have supposed this to be a cost to all citizens. That is a false premiss. Governments have merely stepped in to fill a gap that opened up when the private sector failed to maintain inter-bank liquidity (funding gap financing). The bail-outs are not net costs but have valuable assets that will profitably reward taxpayers and the economies eventually. In my view therefore all of the supposed loss in wealth per citizen as shown in the graphic below will be restored and added to by at least half as much again over the medium term. Hence our bonuses need not be attacked, surely?It is altogether fair, however, that because of recent experience, shareholders and others ask why we pay bonuses in cash (out of profit or loss) and not as shares (or share options)? Apart from conflicts of fiduciary responsibility to alternative investment customers, and the net interest differentials between stock-shorting and interest bearing assets like cash (note that we never countenance any insider dealing type arbitrage or shareholder dilutions or trading to peddle our own share value upwards against a falling market), nein, n'immer, keineswegs, kommt nie im Frage, non, pas de tout, au contraire!
We paid bonuses as cash and not in shares or prefs for good prudential reasons, to safeguard against the temptation to create false markets in our stock, when annual bonuses can be 10-20% of capital or even 10-20% of capitalisation! When US investment banks' leverage restraints were loosened, US commercial banks and UK banks immediately ratcheted up their leverage ratios. These were years when risk management was considered anti-enterprise, anti-profit, anti-growth. We banks all used higher leverage to increase our own-portfolio trading rather than use the leverage to increase customer lending, which was facilitated by selling off parts of loan-books via securitised bonds. Kneejerk regulatory responses, so-called Basel III and CRD III, following the credit crunch experience, by making us increase our regulatory capital reserves and economic capital buffers to include liquidity risk and counter-party risk reserves - these are forcing us to shrink our own portfolio trading somewhat faster than we were doing anyway (to shrink our funding gaps and to focus better on only the most profitable net interest income sources).
Less capital for own trading when markets are volatile and there are rich pickings for clever arbitrageurs has hit our bonus pool. But I take comfort in the poor performance of hedge funds including macro-funds. Our fee income is up in part from stricter credit conditions, but mainly from restructuring customers' debts. This revenue stream is declining, but it looks like M&A and MBO activity is surging again. All in all, with net interest income stabilised, there is modest optimism about our return on human capital, our bonus pool growth, which we calculate based on a weighted peer-group algorithm that includes Goldman-Sachs and JP Morgan-Chase. What is now to change is how we are paid our bonuses and over what period of time. We are moving towards less cash and a medium term roll-over, what some of our sovereign debt traders are dubbing Euro-billions roll-over, an ugly expression I do not want to hear again!
Bankers are the elite of the business world. Our remuneration levels track the art market and have recently overtaken it. As someone with a collection of superior quality to that of Mr & Mrs Dick Fuld, I take this as a benchmark of our uniquely valuable creativity. Our bonuses are justified rewards for superior creative human capital and should not be relativised to the bottom line of mere profits or any other mundane comparator. I agree with Rene Magritte's comment on relativism.Talking of which, new European Union rules require that only part of bankers bonuses are paid in cash, provisional retention of another part, and some other part that may even need to be cancelled should risk performance outcomes warrant that?
We senior bankers know that our bonuses are a deserved return to 'human capital'. That return was depressed for decades. It directly correlates to the relative superiority of our education skill levels that only in recent years rebounded strongly to regain at last the same relative remuneration and skill in our human capital of the 1920s.Human capital is an asset, as we remind everyone, "the creativity of our staff is our most important, most valuable of all our asses!" Its market value is well attested by how the financial return on human capital investment (total remuneration divided by base salary) that has demonstrably held up well as all other asset classes fell (in mark-to-market terms).
Notwithstanding evidence we presented to demonstrate persistent skill-supply shortage, and using peer-group comparators to disprove the notion that experienced bankers are worth any less today than a few years ago, regulators insist on a more risk-diverse bonus calculation or less-cash only, structure, that offers some sensible tax efficiencies for all - effectively a system for lending by and borrowing from our remuneration bonus pools over time that will deliver yet higher return, what I call pleasure not lost, merely postponed. I wish to make it clear that while we took bonuses proportionate to profits as per our US competitors, it is not sensible to make sudden changes when profits become temporary losses; this is a longer term game.Following discussion with regulators, however, some adjustments are now required. Therefore, according to new guidance, the present value of the average bonus of $1 million per rain-maker in our bank (better than others and 20 times average wage) may be under $800,000, with 40-60% postponed payment payable over 3-5 years. Half of the bonus paid will not be in cash.
This means that you can only get at most 30% of due reward in immediate cash.
For those of us with bonuses of several $millions, deferred consideration is over 60%. A maximum of 20% ($200,000 from $ 1 million bonus) will be cash-credited to you immediately. You want to know how much you will get later, soon. Your deferred bonus of $600,000, half of which can be paid in cash, half in securities. This may be discounted for risk of poor performance and prudentially postponed. But, starting from a low point in credit cycle performance, actual payment has a tremendous upside potential. The superiority of human capital skills & education value among bankers in banks is fully proved by banks profitability and the speed of our recovery from the credit crunch recession, by how we skillfully helped government to help the wider economy by saving the banks painlessly through asset swaps and deposit guarantees for which help we are more than happy to buy government bond issues. We are over-subscribing to new issues and doing our best to squeeze out pension and insurance funds at the long end.
On the matter of deficits and national debts, far be it for me to point out to those who resent government deficits that they should note the obvious correlation of balancing budgets with imminent triggering the next recession, and double-dip will not help anyone, not even if the Euro Area appears to be gagging for one?Saving and rewarding the undoubted values of banks, including remuneration of bankers, is not for everyone, involves a steep learning curve and an inflexion point only after about ten years of hard graft at the front end of financial services i.e. our bankers take years before they earn their bonuses, often also after years of paying high college and MBA school fees, which they have to repay and earn a good financial return on, let's not forget that basic fact of financial life!Regardless of your initial background in say natural sciences, mathematics or some secular philosophy like MBA study, whether you have any formal qualifications in banking, you must have at least 5-10 years valid experience well-earned (keeping your job and getting promoted) before bonus hikes kick in, and that is both only prudential and fair. The Gordon Gekko banker image is Hollywood fiction.Compare this fiction with the very real Jamie Dimon, a great survivor, great leader, a pugilist and realist bar none among top bankers like myself.YOUR 2009 BONUS:
Assuming 5% risk of withdrawal of bonus each year and discount rate of 4% over the present value of money over five years, your bonus cash element falls in NPV from $300,000 to $213,000. That part ($200,000) paid in securities e.g. convertible bonds and in shares ($300,000) the risk of loss is outplayed by upside potential of say 0.75 of book value to 1.25 of book, which could and should be worth a conservatively forecast gain of $250,000, subject to say a % discount risk factor (net $140,000 upside or 28% return on your bonus investment over say 2-3 years, plus perhaps half of that again in annual bonus increases and a rolling additional 14% annual investment gain, say).
The risk factors of say two times 5% plus a hair-cut of 7% and the risk of claw-back given double-dip recession risk hitting our net interest income will modify and postpone tax payable, giving you more capital to play with in the interim than otherwise. Your $million bonuses could and should double every 5 years. That is great news! Other calculations and forecasts are possible, but it will be roughly on the above basis that our rain-makers can obtain personal loans at our lowest internal rate at up to 85% against bonus pool funds.
I for one have no fear of a possible return for a prolonged period such as in those post-WW2 decades when bankers and stockbrokers were considered boring bureaucratic desk-johnny, servile customer service-minded, paper-pushers. We will remain the kings of the global financial jungle - have no fear about that!It is only sensible given our enterprising capital and securities markets skills that we "my word is my bond" bankers are firmly to be counted among the net wealthy, prepared to put our money where our mouth is.
Some analysts quip that in recession and recovery periods our output (wages & profits) and unemployment estimates tend to be over-optimistic. This hypothesis I promise to disprove in the case of banks and bankers, our income, our jobs.In the past great artists and musicians, like today's football stars, were rewarded as a premium quality human capital. "Back in the day" as our American cousins like to say, the great days, uniquely talented individuals would coalesce into groups and teams, and from that tight economic unit create service product of high value for wide distribution. That is the quality and nature of today's creative bankers, a high-value, highly prized industry, however commoditised, reproducible, repackageable, rebrandable, along with the recycling capital that pump-primes it. Where other industries automate and replace human capital with synthetics, we computerise but never forget the human capital and its necessary rewards at the heart of banking.
Those Cassandras who call for a return to boring traditional fraction transaction banking do not appreciate the importance of human capital, or our humanitarian understanding of what is truly important, human capital, why we defend $20-30 billions in quarterly bonuses. Just look at the skills required to be a modern banker:"Our bank canvassed human resources professionals to bring you the following list of CV qualities when seeking or holding down a job at my bank. Qualities include:
1. Dealing experience (ability to grab capital allocations to leverage your bets) in both cash & derivatives markets. Some great skills were required in recent years of markets' undoubted liquidity shortage (double-default in insurance & near zero liquidity in the secondary markets for structured products) problems. Also, we needed skills to navigate how stock markets became shredded by alternative channels, but could hedge those problems as derivatives grew exponentially even if ultimately into a spaghetti mess and reinsurance "snake-eyes". Our rain-makers are syndicators, structured financiers, M&A, mezzanine and MBO specialists, an undoubted skill-set in recent years of MBO dearth and private equity competitive problems, but any booked deals will do for us that show double digit margins. It's experience that counts, especially if you look like understanding the basic intracies of structured products.
2. Be prepared, well groomed, for the interview process for our wealth and private equity divisions where the bar is loaded and set high. We test candidates on anything from financial modelling to verbal proficiency (dealing room and institutional sales jive talk), NPV reasoning and mental math, our smoke 'n mirrors hothouse personality that never forgets the bottom line of how to slice 'n dice the deal and the market. You must demonstrate business judgement of a shark (distressed debt hunting) and the vulture (finding hidden unrealised asset value), and able to think like a day-trade CFD investor.3. Speak one or more foreign (European or Asian) languages. In some cases recruiters say speaking Chinese, French, Japanese, German or Spanish is a prerequisite in primary credit markets, less so in asset management. Our candidates are frequently asked what their third, let alone second language is; first language: MBA English.
4. Show operational and IT experience. Be a team player capable of scoring individual goals. Restructuring or distressed debt experience is popular as we grapple with senior tranche triggers and other portfolio problems. The challenge is to marry deal-making with industry or operational process so that you know your cog and mechanism for how to take biggest bites our of the food chain and our internal 'deal carousel'. It is easy to find dealers, but few who combine that with operational experience to book most nominal profit.
We have moral values to define our bank by. :Our strapline "Money: if you'll take it, we'll make it!"
5. Have the right sector expertise - property and other collateral management, and fixed income (but forget small firms, retail distribution or trade manufacturing unless we post you to Germany or China). Strong sectors where we want hands-in-the-till experience are chemicals, pharma, oil, gas, institutional funds, and healthcare.
We reject Main Street's opprobrium of individual banker's success as unfair in the UK as anywhere:Other quality advice:
1. Don't embellish; cut to the chase, to the bone. A common pitfall is candidates listing deals in their CV they didn't control or had only cursory involvement in. We note when you umm and aah if asked to discuss deal-makers versus deal-breakers, or risk-accounted ins and outs of the deal, or when we ask you for an investor's perspective. If you're too into long term fundamentals you're not worth human capital investment by us.
2. If a trained accountant or actuary or economist, downplay that; classic capital & securities skills have ago changed. We used to look for corporate and treasury finance backgrounds - not any more; today we use deal-closers, salesmen who can talk upside and downside simultaneously polished on whatever side gets us the best upfront margins.
3. Referencing Goldman Sachs won't help - smells of failure in staff turnover stakes; no one leaves GS unless they're crackpots. We need candidates who were highly rated, notn simply having worked someplace unless with a financial regulator or central bank.
4. Don't assume working with large clients qualifies you. Private equity needs people with a broad portfolio of company board-level executive experiences at both large and small entrepreneurial outfits generating double digit returns i.e. an above average bonus history.5. Don't come across as young or naïve, or over 50 (early retirees). Candidates must demonstrate street-fighting skills in algorithmic analysis and monte-carlo research and more and more MBA maths mature. You may not be leading a presentation by a management team, but you will be a basket points or goal scorer.
You must talk the talk while instructing others how to walk the walk.The credit crunch and ensuing crisis exposed flaws in banks' business models to survive a whole credit cycle, but these were merely the flaws in our great society.
So, let's not hear more about the foolish risks of the financial sector or the devastation to the economy, or fiscal deficits. Too little has been appreciated about the wider societal moral deficit that is hardest to correct. We operate on a morality of profits, not deficits. We judge ourselves by peer review, to do better than our competitors have done in the last decade and the next and or last quarter and next quarter.One of the lessons of this crisis is a need for collective action, which is only the role for government. When markets blindly shape our economy and society, doing their level best, we rely on government to pick up dropped balls, run and pass back to us to cross the line. We take care to shape events to what we want going forward; questions of blinkered targets and purblindness we leave to others, to good and sensible government.
best regards to all my staff,
Your CEO
see note attached

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


If, in our western capitalistic economies, we think of profit-hunting (a concept beloved of some fund managers) as akin to lions hunting, then non-financial industry is like the female lions who do the chasing while banks are like male lions who lie and wait but get first servings and second helpings if they want.
Bank lending is as essential to businesses growth as male lions are to the reproductive role of females, but the latter do nearly all the work while the former get to take what they want whenever by virtue of seniority, droit de signor.
This is the kind of analogy we are used to if discussing governments taxing of the 'real economy', but it is today undoubted by most people that banks, generally speaking, enjoy similar powerful privileges but, unlike government, without political democratic checks and balances, or a marketplace to be relied on to assert limits - a problem perceived when banks' profits appear too large a share of all corporate profits.
The question is whether, as banks seek to reproduce again the high net returns they enjoyed in the immediate pre-credit crunch years, the problem of banks was not taking excessive risks but imposing excessive risks on their customers by taking too much of the whole of an economy's profits? It has become as if established fact that banks led us into the credit crunch because they took excessive risks? What would that mean in our analogy - the male lions ate too much of the kill leaving too little for others, or decided they could do the hunting themselves and decided to care less about the rest of the pride, or perhaps they sat forever by the water-holes charging too high an attrition rate for access to the liquidity?
There can be little question but that lions (banks) were kings of the economic jungle pre-crunch. Now post-crunch the elephants (government regulators) have stepped in to reassert authority and dictate to the male lions new rules of behaviour, and maybe listen to the complaints of herbivores unable to risk drinking at the watering holes.One of the biggest stories of the Credit Crunch has been the two-way exchange of ideas between UK and USA elephants, the respective central banks and other financial authorities. The US Federal Reserve following the Frank-Dodd Bill has special responsibility for supervisory regulation of the biggest banks and non-bank financial institutions - those that have been branded "too big to fail" or "too big to bail" and "to big to feel".
The Fed's FDIC board approved creation of two new divisions under the regulatory overhaul: The Office of Complex Financial Institutions to oversee bank-holding companies with more than $100bn in assets and non-bank firms deemed systemically important by the new Financial Stability Oversight Council. The OCFI will be responsible for liquidating failed bank- holding companies and non-bank firms. The FDIC is also establishing a Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection to enforce rules of the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The rest of the FDIC will be responsible for policing several thousand small banks with less than $10bn in assets.
The Bank of England will have similar responsibility in the UK, but also a lot more, covering all banks and systemic risk, but not yet planned to cover all major (systemically important) financial institutions.
The basis for the Fed's supervision should be the Basel II Capital Accord, and to take its template from the FSA's Prudential Sourcebook, which inevitably in spirit it appears to, but actually not in all fundamentals.
The Fed's supervision manuals are a groaning bookcase worth written by legislators for other attorneys into a jungle of verbiage impenetrable except by the most intrepid legalistic risk experts, geeks, nerds like myself and my colleagues.
US regulation currently is oriented to Sarbanes-Oxley, and its legal system to questions of insider trading, saying one thing in public and the opposite in private, for example. There is also the question of insider lending, and for every $ of incestuous lending how many $ are to 'outsiders' with over-close connections that negate standard pricing and risk assessment, a commonplace issue in property development lending, as all in the property industry know well - the type of matters that brought down Anglo-Irish Bank and fatally threatened many others?
Governance is important including all codes of practise and moral issues, but these are only a part of the much bigger technical risk landscape. Sarbox is not wholly fit for purpose.
Where the FSA's main, and very comprehensive, guidance to risk management, calculation and reporting, for financial firms is a thousand pages, the Fed's is two thousand pages, mostly of ethical imperatives, and each page far more densely worded, and, astonishingly, almost totally without graphics, charts or equations, except a few daft ones like this one that suddenly pops up but only after 230 pages into the supervision manual:After the Credit Crunch it became axiomatic to blame regulations as well as regulators for being dilatory. But, much of this criticism originated first in the USA, and some in UK because of N.Rock, because risk regulation there was more governance oriented post-Enron with Sarbanes-Oxley (Sarbox) that is not nearly as comprehensive or systematic in risk accounting and risk analysis as well as in governance and risk culture as the Basel II Accord. For example, this checklist graphic for supervisors, which comes up after over 500 pages of Sarbox style requirements: It took 80 pages of explanatory material before summarising what US Fed supervisors must first do before anything else when risk auditing a financial services firm: "Consider whether the financial-contract activities are closely related to the basic business of banking; that is, taking deposits, making and funding loans, providing services to customers, and operating at a profit for shareholders without taking undue risks."
If this defines a bank then a lot of trading companies who insist on advance payments (deposits) and who then offer 'trade credit' also qualify. If such a starting point question is needed, which I doubt, it should be, "is this business properly and fully registered in all its parts as a regulated bank; if not why not?" e.g. should AIG and GE Capital be classified in large part if not wholly as banks? GE capital with over $500bn assets has 100m financial customers and owns banks, but is not 'a bank'. AIG is more than an insurer and behaves like a bank but is not one, yet has over $800bn financial assets and in the last 3 years booked $62bn gross in realised losses and $39bn unrealised losses (that summed to almost the same in net losses).
Further on this: AIG is regulated by the Fed, but GE Capital is not. GE capital is shrinking its assets from $650bn to $400bn after credit crunch losses of about $10bn only for which it had to rely on funding support from its parent GE and on US government guarantees to stay technically solvent. GE Capital Loss ProvisionsGE Capital wrote many $billions of mortgages including tens of billions in UK, but is now a tiny fraction of that volume, cutting back far more than regular banks. But, despite losing its AAA rating, GE Capital is supremely sound because of its massive industrial parent, as part of a grouping that is expected to benefit from $100bn in engineering contracts alone from the Obama fiscal stimulus package to boost US recovery.
Looked at in context, GE is better risk-diversified than banks with too little exposure to industry, manufacturing and trade. If GE Capital was a bank it would be be among the top 10 of the USA's biggest.The Fed is now acting tougher than before, not least over stress-tests of the banks, following the rather weakly and narrowly defined European example this year that followed after the similarly vapid tests of US banks last year. It was perhaps fair enough to let the banks etc. get away with mickey-mouse quality scenarios and stress-tests given the urgency required and inexperience of all involved. last year the urgent question was halfway through the budget year what might the banks need before the end of the budget year. The results were:The get-tougher stance is similar to the more intrusive approach adopted by the UK’s Financial Services Authority from last year following The Turner Review and earlier knuckle-wrapping over Northern Rock and by implication other cases.
There is an abiding problem for regulators, which is budget and skilled manpower retention, especially when any with risk-audit experience inside regulators are prime recruits for banks who pay more for the privilege - a doubtful one in my opinion since 'regulators' and 'bankers' are still on the same steep learning curves.
There is, especially in the wake of Credit Crunch, a large dollop of mutual mistrust and fear between regulator and regulated. One result can be that a bank offers up a best effort account of itself and its risk accounting only to be told the result is not enough or not acceptable, when of course ultimately banks' reports are never entirely perfect.
But the banker might ask why a report is unnacceptable, only to be told to read the manuals again or that the regulator does not have to explain himself? Regulators, perhaps out of depth themselves, sometimes resort desperately to asking more questions instead of providing answers or solutions to a bank's apparent difficulty. If risk reporting and analysis is top-down more than bottom-up the regulator can insist it should be more the other way, and if vice versa then vice versa to that too!
There are internal (micro-prudential) benefits to becoming sophisticated and ever more realistic in stress testing, and external (macro-prudential) benefits to the whole banking sector, as last year's and this year's stress tests have shown in lowering of credit default spreads. One of the FSA's strongest cards is or was its ARROW reviews where regulators would interrogate senior management individually to determine if they understood the basics of risk management and risk accounting - if not, then it was questionable if the interviewees should sit on any of the bank's boards or risk committees including ALCO and ALM committees. Nowadays similar rigour is applied to the numbers and the less than wholly adequate systems for calculating them. But, it remains that the biggest question is not just where banks are now but where they will be if there is another major downturn shock anytime soon?
The EU stress tests of 91 banks didn't show problems as uncovered a year ago by the US tests on 19 of the top banks. The worse-scene scenario for 2009 & 2010 (economy to shrink 3.3% in '09, unemployment at 8.9% and home-prices fall 22%). Based on this, 10 of the banks were required to raise their capital to maintain solvency.Fed regulators have since then increased scrutiny of USA’s largest banks, digging deeper (audit-trailing from lower to higher 'granularity') into 'riskier' activities and pushing firms to conduct more rigorous “stress tests” of their 'risk appetites' and checking the veracity of governance statements.
Tighter oversight is justified by the genuine fear of another financial crisis as devastating as the current one - to close regulatory gaps that permit unsustainable risk-taking exemplified by Lehman Brothers, AIG and Bear Stearns, to which may be added WaMu, Wachovia, and Merril Lynch, and factors necessitating government funding loans to JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America.
Some experts suggest the stress tests are no more realistic than 30mph head-on car crash tests, adding that sadly the most appropriate and realistic aspect of the exercises are 'dummy variables': So, as we experts have always said, eventually regulation of banks would focus centrally on stress-test scenarios, the very aspect that banks dragged their feet on and ignored, preferring to complete everything and anything else first.
The tougher policing focuses on stress tests and this time also on details of banks’ realised and unrealised profits. What that means is that simple discount factors cannot be crudely applied to headline figures.
Federal examiners are asking banks for more details on the P/L of each line of business and per asset class, especially securities and capital markets and investment banking, rather than focusing only on group balance sheet totals as before. Lifting the carpet to check what's underneath, begs some questions, mostly about how risk-taking could be hidden among layers of risk aggregations and how these risks are more exposed when disaggregating?
It seems to me that the real risk measures are those that understand the external financial markets and macroeconomic context factors, because riskiness is rarely obvious in a balance sheet however detailed only by looking at it in the context of itself.
Apparently, 'deeper analysis' we learn has informed the authorities that before the credit crunch rising bank profits were coupled with a hidden increase in risks!
Well, gee, knock me over with a feather!
Before the turmoil, the finance sector worth perhaps at most 15% of US GDP was generating 45% of all corporate profits in a massively fast-rising segment of GDP i.e. roughly fluctuating at or near to banks' total share of 9%/GDP:and doing so with decelerating equity prices (falling p/e)and to anyone looking at stock market values could see that, with corporate profits rising higher, securities were over-optimistic about timing of the economic cycle: and something was surely hugely amiss in profit-accounting by the financial sector reliant on booking unrealised profits that were unsustainable. The data shows finance sector at up to35% of all US corporate profits pre-crunch, and these profits are after the high staff bonuses of up to half as much again! From a government's point of view unrealised profits and bonuses are taxable so there is a possible niggling disincentive to question the banks' sagging bottom line even if it looked very like a casual hang loose attitude to risk?
Data on finance sector as a whole is imprecise because the sector includes a lot of business services, investment funds, asset management, insurance, accountancy, corporate law, real estate and not just 'financial intermediation' the term for banking. Looking at the broader sector data that has grown very dramatically in the last 1 and 2 decades as a share of GDP and that would explain a lot of the sector's share of corporate profits, but which still seems excessive. Perhaps, financial authorities thought corporate profits are merely a counterpart to the yield on Treasuries and naturally banks take the pride-leader's lion's share of that kill? Regulators before the credit crunch paid little attention to the increase in the amount of mortgage-backed securities on banks’ books. It is also not the job of auditors to audit banks' risk statements in reported published accounts. Auditors sign off the solvency of a bank for the next twelve months, but that is not based on risk or economic analysis, but only on the current solvency of the balance sheet.
Now, bankers complain that regulators are putting pressure on them to be much more pessimistic in stress tests about their ability to respond to economic shocks. That is hard in the absence of precise details, models, templates and without knowing who and how or exactly when that will be externally audited.
What they are complaining about is that regulators are edemanding more detailed realism, but unable to explain what precisely they mean by that? This is new, relatively unknown territory, poorly understood, where blue-sky thinking is required to be populated by all dark clouds imaginable.
None of the stress tests and results show a capacity to reproduce the events of the recent past, of 2006-2009 for example, and that should be the first test of the realism of stress-test forecasting models.
If any bank can show me that it has macro-models that can roughly emulate the events of the the shocks of the past four years I will buy its shares and its bonds.