Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What You Probably Don't Know About Goldman Sachs, John Paulson and the Financial Regulation Bill

Like most blog posts, I got to responding to something someone said on Facebook and kind of got carried away. So rather than boring everyone in that thread, I will reserve my boring for people specifically looking to be bored, by me, about something esoteric.

To recap, on April 16, Goldman Sachs was charged with fraud by the SEC (a civil charge, not a criminal one) for selling mortgage-backed securities that the SEC believes Goldman knew would lose value. The SEC charges that Goldman allowed a hedge fund run by John Paulson to choose the components of the CDO, or Collateralized Debt Obligation, called 'Abacus 2007-AC1' that was then sold to European banks and other investors. Paulson's firm bought insurance against those mortgages declining in value. When they did decline in value, his company made a billion (with a 'b') dollars from the insurance contracts they held against the decline in value of Abacus 2007 AC-1.

Just for a vocabulary review:

Mortgage-Backed Security: A stream of income and capital that comes from the repayment of mortgages issued by banks. Also called a MBS or a RMBS (residential MBS). Many mortgages are sold, and by 'buying' a mortgage the new mortgage owner gets the income and capital repayment coming from the original loan. If you bundle up enough of these, they act like a bond -- interest comes in, the capital is repaid over time, people get to pay monthly for their house and investors get their capital and interest repaid. Also, since banks are selling the mortgages they write and getting their capital replenished, they can offer more mortgages. Otherwise, the bank could only make as many loans as they have capital to support. A MBS is a bundle of hundreds or even thousands of mortgages, the bundles are traded.

Subprime Mortgage: A mortgage written to someone who is not considered an ideal credit risk, either because they have issues in the past with paying people back, or they are borrowing more money than their income would otherwise support. Not everyone who gets a subprime mortgage is a deadbeat, some self-employed people may have plenty of income to pay their mortgage but the bank or credit agency does not consider their income to be as reliable as someone with a 9 to 5 job. Unfortunately, a lot of people got subprime loans in the 2000s who should not have gotten any loans at all. Because the risk of default is higher, subprime mortgages generally have higher interest rates. From the investor standpoint, the risk is higher but the income is higher as well.

Credit-default swap: A kind of insurance against the risk of an investment going bad. This originally came from the municipal bond world, because if Peoria defaults on their sewer bonds, nobody really wants to try to claim their sewage plant back. The idea was that like any unlikely but damaging event, you could buy insurance against the risk of default. The CDS industry exploded in the 2000s as the utility of being able to insure against almost anything became popular. Unlike traditional insurance that you purchase to protect your assets, CDS can be purchased for almost anything that you can find someone else to have an agreement with. People with agreements are called 'counterparties'. CDS are not regulated and you don't even have to own the asset you are insuring against a loss. At one point, the dollar value in CDS was over $60 trillion dollars, more than the entire economic output of the world in a given year. Of course, a lot of those CDS were counteracting CDS -- I insure you against your value declining, and then I go and find someone else to insure me against your value declining so I don't have to pay the full amount. If this sounds like off-track betting with billions of dollars, it kind of is. The fact that respectable insurance companies like AIG were big players in this market is unsurprising, since the factor that decides who makes money is an assessment of the risks involved. Unfortunately, the amount of risk in the 2000s was inappropriately priced.

Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO):
A Structured Investment Vehicle (SIV, another acronym) composed of various MBS of varying quality. This is the next order of complexity beyond just bundling up mortgages. CDOs were designed to minimize risk by getting chunks of MBS from various regions of the country and various levels of risk, the idea being that it was silly to think the whole economy would tank at once. Well, silly before 2007-8. If one region or segment of the market tanked, the rest could carry the CDO and still make payments. CDOs were divided into 'tranches', slices of the income from the best, second-best, not-so-best and worst bundles of MBS. The ones in the worst bundle had the highest interest, because they were the riskiest. The ones in the top tranche had the lowest return, but the least risk. Synthetic CDOs, like the Abacus 2007-AC1 deal, were made of tranches bought from other CDOs. If this seems confusing, it's because this is the kind of thing (along with CDS) that Warren Buffet called 'the WMD of the financial markets'. Basically, a CDO tranche owner would not be cashing your checks each month. The money from residential mortgages went into a mixmaster that makes the most complex highway interchange look like a single thread by comparison. Money came in, swirled around, and ended up in CDO accounts each month.

Others have pointed out that the timing of this news release was suspicious. I find the news release interesting for a few reasons.

1. It was a 3-2 decision whether or not to go ahead with the suit. The Republicans voted against, the Democrats voted for, and the sole independent voted to go ahead with the suit. Assuming the SEC are professionals, this is not the highest endorsement of the validity of the claim. Not that it shouldn't be pursued, but the PR damage is done. The SEC alleges, and must prove, these charges. Most likely, there will never be a courtroom resolution regarding this -- there will be a negotiated settlement so the SEC doesn't have to advance what 40% of its commissioners believes is an unwinnable case, and so that GS can take a smaller hit.

2. The release was during trading hours, rather than after, to insure the media would have plenty of time to dwell on the story. Note that the blog post on MoneyWatch is timed 1:59 pm on April 16, 2010. the release was during the trading day. Goldman Sachs lost 14% of its value and the whole Dow Jones Industrial Average shrank 1%. All you have to do is look at the Goldman Sachs price graph for 4/16/2010 to see that the press conference was around 11AM Eastern. I believe the SEC knew they would cause a stink, and did so despite any disruption in the market that might occur. If this was released on Friday at 4pm, after trading, the weekend might have been spent in reflection, with a more muted stock market response on Monday morning. As it is, the SEC made at least a minor panic in order to seem like they're doing something.

3. This just happens to involve John Paulson (no relation to Hank the Former Treasury Secretary), hedge fund manager and poster boy for profiting on credit-default swaps (basically, insurance) on something he didn't even own. Neither he nor his firm are charged, yet putting John Paulson in your press release will put the financial press in a tizzy. It's kind of like mentioning Brad Pitt in a salacious story for TMZ, but then not saying he did any salacious things.

Paulson made a billion dollars on this credit-default swap because his counterparty(ies) believed he was wrong about subprime mortgages. By comparison, his firm made $15 billion in profit in 2007. The Abacus deal was just 7% of the profits he made by betting that all the other smart guys in the room (including Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and the entire credit rating industry) were wrong. Interesting times when being a contrarian is considered not just suspicious, but enough to indict. At least indict a counterparty. So far. Two other contrarians you might have heard of who thought the subprime mortgage market at derivatives were crazy: Warren Buffet and George Soros. Suspicious persons, indeed.

4. In fact, the CDS that Paulson & Co. bought were from Goldman Sachs -- kind of like buying insurance on a house you don't own, then collecting when it burns down. The insurance company gets screwed, yes, but in this case Goldman Sachs is the insurance company. Most likely GS offset its own risk with CDS that paid it if the Abacus 2007-AC1 went south and it had to pay Paulson, but like everything else, it's a bet and the outcome is not known. Very few people were betting against subprime mortgages in 2007. The folks who bought Abacus, mainly European bankers, are not stupid people. This is not an example of stealing money from Mom & Pop. This is big-boy business with a whole lot of money on the line, and if Abacus had gone long and made money, would the SEC be investigating GS for selling what proved to be worthless CDS to Paulson & Co.? I think not. If Paulson & Co. had collapsed taking all of its investors' assets with it as many other hedge funds did there would be no investigation.

5. Retrospectively they can identify something fishy with Abacus 2007 AC-1, but they can't find Bernie Madoff prospectively after he steals between $12 and $20 billion? And after they were sent a 21-page detailed memo that there was something fishy going on? Top of their game, these guys.

6. Then there is the curious timing of this release followed immediately by a broadside of criticism against the GOP for opposing a bill strongly supported by a Senator who received significant personal support from a subprime lender (Countrywide), a bill that contains not only a built-in fund for bailouts with a large advertised number ($50 billion), insuring that the government will continue to serve as a backstop for more risky investments than the market would otherwise bear, but a bill that vests in the Executive the ability to respond with almost unlimited resources to any future bailout/systemic risk situation. It's not that President Obama will have this power that bothers me. It's that any President has the ability to raid the Fed for whatever seems to be needed in the financial sector. Moral hazard out the wazoo. If you don't want business to try to manipulate government, then don't manipulate business from the government. The last thing the "Masters of the Universe", Tom Wolfe's phrase from The Bonfire of the Vanities need is the idea that profits are private and losses are public, because they can get a low-interest bailout from Uncle Sugar. No way. Take away the net, and they probably won't string the tightrope so high.

7. The timing is on the face suspicious because the press conference (unusual for the SEC) on April 16, immediately preceded the White House announcement Monday that he would be speaking at Cooper Union in NYC on Thursday. Look for the Goldman Sachs charges to be featured prominently. Oh, and floor debate on the Financial Regulatory Reform Bill begins just 10 days after the SEC's announcement, on April 26.

Now, the President denies that there was any coordination with the SEC, but even the press figured out that maybe GS wasn't the only ones cooking the books. Here's a quote from that CBS News link:

"Well, I think now that there has been a lot of momentum behind the financial reform bill, and I think that that momentum is only going to increase," Freeland said. "The charges on Friday will give the Democrats who wanted a tougher bill a lot more energy."

Wow. Ain't it great when things just happen to go your way? And that article in itself is a veritable masterpiece of innuendo and possibly-designed ignorance. Note how the reporter elides everything I've spent the last couple of thousand words explaining and simply implies theft:

Goldman took in $15 million in fees for arranging the transaction, while its investors lost over a billion dollars that became profit at Paulson & Co.

Now, quiz time: did the money from Abacus 2007-AC1 really go to John Paulson? Or did John Paulson find someone willing to bet that the assets in the Abacus 2007-AC1 investment would not decrease in value? And who was John Paulson's counterparty, the folks who paid Paulson & Co. when Abacus 2007-AC1 tanked? (Answer: Goldman Sachs)

The press is so willing to carry water on this one they might as well show up in Washington with buckets in hand. I understand the frustration. But I also understand that things are often far more complex than they seem. I don't see this story as an attempt to make complex things simple for anything other than political reasons.

More background on John Paulson here, from the Wall Street Journal. Excellent article.

NOTE: I do not own any Goldman Sachs shares.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Obama Changes Nuclear Posture to 'Fetal Position'

Today's New York Times describes the results of President Obama's "Nuclear Posture Review", which has been the product of 150 meetings and is a particularly bad example of the sausage-making process in the Executive Branch.

The United States' Nuclear Posture is the statement of when we will or will not use nuclear weapons. Under President Bush, the posture was essentially that any WMD attack could see a nuclear response. This is a simple and practical policy, because in the field of weapons of mass destruction the United States has divested itself of two of the three main categories of WMDs: chemical and biological. Under the Biological Weapons Convention that has been in force since 1975, the US does not maintain production facilities for or stockpiles of biological weapons. The US is also a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997. The US has been steadily destroying its own stockpile of chemical weapons, at considerable expense, and has now destroyed 70% of its chemical weapons, with complete destruction of all chemical weapons scheduled for 2023. If this seems like it's taking a long time, that is because we still have chemical weapon stockpiles from World War I, and that's not the kind of stuff you can throw in a bin and be done with.

So by treaty, the US has already destroyed its biological weapons capabilities, is destroying its chemical weapons capability, and has already pledged to not use either of those weapon classes in warfare. What we're left with is nuclear weapons, and those are so nasty and destructive that they function as a deterrent to the use of biological and chemical weapons. You hit us, we hit you back once, and harder than you can possibly imagine. It's a good policy, and one I agree with. The last President didn't promise to use nuclear weapons, he said that our response may include nuclear weapons.

The three issues involved in deterrence are possessing the means of reprisal, convincing potential foes that you have the will to use the means at your disposal, and keeping any potential adversaries uncertain as to the shape of your response. Deterrence is not the same as a challenge, under the former Nuclear Posture Review we were not daring other countries or groups to challenge us, we were simply announcing the consequences should there be an attack. Deterrence does not seek conflict any more than a concealed carry licensee seeks a gunfight. The consequences of any conflict involving WMD are going to be horrific, and reasonable people can look at the probable butcher's bill and consider other courses of action short of WMD release. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the reasonable people are already deterred, it's the unreasonable ones that are of the greatest concern and here's where the President's characteristic unconstrained worldview begins to fall down.

The President's policy described in the NYT article is not one of unilateral disarmament. We will still have Trident submarines in the water, Minuteman IIIs in the silos and nuclear-capable B-52s able to respond to a strike. The President further refined his policy by stating that the exemption to nuclear response does not extend to countries that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (he's looking at you, North Korea and Iran) and that if a biological attack is "serious enough" or biological weapons capabilities become significant enough, a nuclear response may be in order. It appears to me that he is attempting to use the Nuclear Posture Review as yet another lever in what has become a comic opera of trying to get Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as to disincentivize other countries from becoming nuclear powers (he's looking at you, Hugo Chavez). Unfortunately, he and his advisers are overlooking a huge problem.

From an economics standpoint, the barriers to entry to the nuclear weapons club are substantial. A country has to obtain uranium, perform isotope separation to enrich the uranium, create a nuclear reactor, operate the nuclear reactor to produce plutonium, and then separate the plutonium (the optimal nuclear bomb fuel) from the spent and highly-radioactive fuel rods. Then, once sufficient plutonium has been obtained, an implosion system has to be created and tested, and finally the first bomb has to be detonated to prove your technology prior to deployment of a weapon. All of this technology is now 65 years old, but none of it is particularly cheap and most of it has an extra tax in the form of having to be performed clandestinely, with added costs to keep things off the books. If you want to join the thermonuclear club, you need to obtain tritium (a byproduct of nuclear reactors), deuterium (from the sea) and/or lithium-6 deuteride for the second stage of a fission-fusion bomb, along with additional years of testing. So far, none of the "new" nuclear powers (Pakistan, North Korea) have gone to the trouble of making a two or three-stage nuclear weapon. If you're willing to impoverish your country and become a pariah state, at least in the eyes of the United States, all of this is doable but it is neither cheap nor fast.

On the other hand, biological weapons are relatively easily obtainable. The DNA sequence of the H1N1 influenza and 10 strains of the variola virus (smallpox) are available in the scientific literature, with a DNA sequencing machine that is available commercially these can be recreated in a competent laboratory. The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency tested the ability to detect a covert bioweapons facility beginning in 1999, an operation called Project Bachus. For under a million dollars the DTRA was able to create a laboratory that made Bacillus thurigensis, a benign bacterium used to kill mosquitoes in standing water. This doesn't sound like much, but a close cousin of Bacillus thurigensis is Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax. If you can make the one, you can make the other. If you have a competent virologist and a supply of chicken embryos (eggs), you have the makings of a nasty virological program even without having to obtain cell culture material. Besides influenza, smallpox and anthrax, there are a host of diseases including tularemia, plague, glanders and a variety of viruses that can and have been weaponized.

Going beyond naturally-occuring pathogens, genetic engineering can create chimeric (mixed) strains of bacteria that can produce diseases the like of which we have never seen. In his 1999 book Biohazard, former Russian bioweapon scientist Ken Alibek describes an experiment performed in the former Soviet Union. A weapons developer inserted the gene for myelin, the protein that sheaths nerve cells, into a strain of Legionella pneumophila, a common and mildly-infectious bacterium that is most often remembered as the cause of "Legionnaire's disease". Legionella is lives in water, and is often found in the condensate within air conditioners. It most commonly causes a mild respiratory illness, and in the rabbits exposed to the engineered strain this occurred as expected. The genetically-engineerd barb in this bacteriological hook began to show several weeks later: by including the myelin protein in the bacterium, the host's immune system was taught that myelin was an invader and should be destroyed. Antibodies to myelin began to destroy myelin throughout the rabbits' bodies, resulting in paralysis and loss of function. In essence, they got a mild respiratory disease that also caused the equivalent of multiple sclerosis. Can you imagine the impact of an extra hundred thousand patients with florid multiple sclerosis? How about a million?

The flaw in the President's plan is that by telling potential enemies that we will respond with nuclear weapons only to a nuclear attack (and even then, only from a non-proliferating state), we are in essence telling them where to spend their efforts. Why build a trillion-dollar infrastructure to make nuclear weapons when a billion will buy you a first-rate biological weapons lab? The proviso that the policy will be reviewed should biological weapons prove to be more "dangerous" than previously thought overlooks the fact that they are already dangerous, and much more so than is currently considered by the President's advisers. This is a pointless policy change that, thinking like an adversary, dictates a cheaper and no less destructive avenue of attack.

A potential enemy doesn't even have to target humans -- the Ug99 strain of wheat rust could affect up to 90% of our wheat production if it makes it to the United States. A couple of bottles of wheat rust spores would take up no more space than a Gatorade, but like most biological weapons with the ability to self-replicate the wheat harvest of the US and Canada could be almost completely destroyed in a few seasons. How many millions would that kill due to famine and starvation?

Rationality works fine with other rational people, but the President has had a singular lack of success in convincing other countries to come along despite his great faith in his own gifts of persuasion. He cannot even convince Brazil to come along on economic sanctions on Iran, much less convince Iran to do much of anything. He has negotiated a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia, which is unsurprising if you are aware of the decrepit state of Russia's nuclear forces. Their current nuclear missile submarines are the 1970s-era Delta-class, and they are reaching the end of their service lives. Their proposed replacement, the Borei-class, are having terrible troubles with their missiles and it's going to cost a fortune to fix those problems and launch new boats. In agreeing to mutual limits on nuclear weapons, the President has solved some very expensive problems for the Russians, with little gain on our side.

The article also mentions that the President's policy "renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary." The program in question is most likely the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a lower-yield but more-reliable and simpler nuclear warhead to replace our current stockpile. The net effect of bypassing the RRW is that our nuclear forces will continue a decline or require even more expensive refits to remain reliable. When our stockpile was designed "reliability" meant that a warhead would detonate as programmed and for a specified yield after a 6,000 mile flight at Mach 15 or so. Now that we've had them for a while and now that even underground testing is prohibited, reliability has come to mean the knowledge that these exceptionally complex devices will perform as designed after 20 or 30 or even 50 years of riding around in their delivery vehicles. Maintaining that level of reliability for high-speed low-drag mechanisms like the W76 warhead in Trident missiles and the W80 in Tomahawk cruise missiles can be a problem, namely that the things used to originally make those warheads can be difficult to recreate, and therefore even more expensive.

The RRW program was defunded by the Democratic Congress in 2008, and this administration's continued policy consigns our nuclear deterrent to obsolescence. The justification will be for cost reasons, the public will be told that it is just too expensive to maintain our nuclear deterrent, given all the other challenges we face as a nation, and it will sound reasonable. On the other hand, if we lived in a world full of reasonable people we wouldn't really need a nuclear deterrent. This policy is yet another example of ego trumping common sense, the President may be a reasonable man but his election did not make those who wish to strike at our populace any more reasonable. For a leader who claims the mantle of pragmatism, this is a policy that actually makes us more likely to be attacked by signaling that our deterrence is more conditional than it should be, and therefore less assured. By not wanting to appear threatening, the President is actually inviting more attacks, and history is pretty clear that at an unthreatening posture is not a reliable method of defense. We do have a very powerful conventional military, but that is best used for conventional foes. Foes willing to be unconventional should be heartened by our new 'posture'.