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By providing the financing the private markets cannot now provide, this will help start a market for the real estate-related assets that are at the center of this crisis.  Our objective is to use private capital and private asset managers to help provide a market mechanism for valuing the assets.

Tim Geithner
Statement to the Senate Banking Committee
February 10, 2009

Milo shuddered violently. "I can’t watch it," he cried, turning away in anguish. "I just can’t sit here and watch while those mess halls let my syndicate die." He gnashed his teeth and shook his head with bitter woe and resentment. "If they had any loyalty, they would buy my cotton till it hurts so that they can keep on buying my cotton till it hurts them some more. They would build big fires and burn up their underwear and summer uniforms just to create bigger demand. But they won’t do a thing. Yossarian, try eating the rest of this chocolate-covered cotton for me. Maybe it will taste delicious now."

Yossarian pushed his hand away. "Give up, Milo. People can’t eat cotton."

Milo’s face narrowed cunningly. "It isn’t really cotton," he coaxed. "I was joking. It’s really cotton candy, delicious cotton candy. Try it and see."

Joseph Heller
Catch-22
1961

To understand the dilemma facing Mr. Geithner and the Obama Administration, you could do a lot worse than read Catch-22  (something I have also found to be true of life in general.) Because unfortunately, Heller’s chocolate-covered cotton metaphor rather precisely describes the estimated $2 or $3 trillion in "legacy" assets – to use the administration’s preferred euphemism – clogging the arteries of the global financial system.

Except that while chocolate-covered cotton at least has some novelty value,  most -- if not all -- of Big Shitpile (to use Atrios’s favorite euphemism, and mine) has none.

This, in turn, means it would literally be easier to square a circle, or maybe invent a perpetual motion machine, than to devise a plan that a.) lifts Big Shitpile off the balance sheets of the banks, while at the same time leaving them b.) solvent and c.) in the hands of private investors, without d.) constituting a flat-out transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bank shareholders.

These are simply not realistic policy objectives – in fact, they are mutually exclusive, as even Alan Greenspan now seems prepared to admit.

So when Geithner talks about harnessing the power of private capital to "start" a market for Big Shitpile  – by coaxing hedge funds and other bottom feeders into offering bids that banks teetering on the edge of insolvency just might be willing to accept – he’s not fooling himself, although he may be trying to fool us. I think he knows how implausible it is, just as Milo actually understood the truth about his cotton.

"It’s indigestible, Yossarian emphasized. "It will make them sick, don’t you understand? Why don’t you try living on it yourself if you don’t believe me?"

"I did try," admitted Milo gloomily. "And it made me sick."

But to understand why Big Shitpile is just that – with hardly any ponies hidden at the bottom for eager prospectors to dig up – it worth taking a look at how the stinking heap was created in the first place. As it turns out, I’ve been spending much of my professional time lately studying what happened in the credit markets during the bubble years, so I think I have a slightly better grasp than I did at the time, when I only thought it would lead to a nasty financial crisis, as opposed to Great Depression II.

The broad story is well known, even to the cable TV pinheads: Housing Bubble + Subprime Mortgage Lending + Derivatives = Armageddon. (The numerical illiterates at Fox News would probably add ACORN to that equation.) But even now I’m not sure if many people fully understand just how insanely reckless the carnival was, to the point where future historians will speak of "structured finance" in much the same the way we talk about the bubonic plague.

The carriers (fleas and rats) of this particular epidemic were the bright young Wall Street things who invented the concept of securitized lending – essentially, the repackaging of mortgages, corporate loans, credit card receivables and any other obligations that could quasi-credibly be described as "assets" into allegedly liquid securities that could then be sold to suckers, um, investors the world over.

The deadly bacillus wasn’t securitization per se – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as many private lenders, managed to package and sell mortgage-backed securities for many years without destroying either the world or themselves.

The fatal innovation, in my opinion (and it’s just that) was the rise of so-called collateralized obligations, in which the payment streams from supposedly uniform pools of assets (say, for example, 30-year fixed prime mortgages issued in the first six months of 2006 to California borrowers) could be sliced and diced into different securities (known as tranches) each with different payment characteristics.

This began as a tool for managing (or speculating on) changes in interest rates, which are a particular problem for mortgage lenders, since homeowners usually have the right to repay (i.e. refinance) their loan when rates fall, forcing lenders to put the money back out on the street at the new, lower rates. This means mortgage-backed securities can go down in value when rates fall as well as when they rise. By shielding some tranches from prepayments (in other words, by directing them to other tranches) the favored tranches are made less volatile and thus can be sold at a higher price and a lower yield.

But from there is was off to the races, as the wizards of Wall Street bred a whole herd of financially engineered racehorses – securities that were entitled to only the interest income from the underlying pool of mortgages, or only the principal payments, or that saw yields rise when interest rates fell, and vice versa, or that didn’t receive any principal or interest until other designated tranches had been fully paid off, and so on.

As with most financial engineering gizmos, the problem with this mechanism is that it only shifts risk, it can't eliminate it. Tame, well-behaved tranches can only be created by also producing, and selling, much wilder ones. The more interest-rate risk packed into the latter securities, the more of the former can be profitably sold. So Wall Street became quite skilled at conjuring up tranches that could better be described as unexploded bombs: If the bond market sneezed (i.e. if interest rates rose or fell even a smidgeon or two) the investors who purchased them would basically be vaporized, like the contestants in Monty Python’s "How Not to Be Seen" contest. (If you remember how that sketch ended, you’ll appreciate how apt the analogy is.)

In theory, these high-risk securities were supposed to be marketed to hedge funds and other compulsive gamblers paid to take insane risks with other people’s money. In reality, they were carted off and sold in bulk to boiler room brokerage firms, who then dumped them on clients who didn’t understand that they were taking enormous risks with their own money. This eventually forced a number of them – including, most memorably, Orange County, California – into bankruptcy.

Possibly because of the resemblance to a different kind of dumping – often controlled by a different kind of OC – these high-risk, high-loss tranches were dubbed "toxic waste." So now you know where the toxic in "toxic assets" originally came from.

The incentives being what they were, it was only a matter of time before Wall Street started applying the same techniques to credit risk – putting the financial system firmly on its collision course with a black hole.

The new idea was that collateralized vehicles could be created that would mimic the capital structure of a real company. That is, on one side of the balance sheet would be the assets (mortgages, junk bonds, corporate loans) held by the vehicle, and on the other side would be the liabilities – securities sold to investors to finance the purchase of  the assets. These securities would also be tranched, except this time the tranches might carry differing degrees of exposure to both interest rate risk and default risk. The whole convoluted structure would then be balanced on a teeny tiny sliver of capital, which, if everything went according to plan, would pay fat "equity-like" returns (the Holy Grail of the fixed income world).

And so was born the collateralized debt obligation, or CDO, to be followed by its twin brother, the collateralized loan obligation, or CLO – the main difference between them being that CDOs tended to buy mortgage debt while CLOs specialized in corporate loans, especially those made by banks to finance leveraged buyouts deals.

Now the money tree could begin to bear its full fruit. By shielding some tranches from default risk (again, by concentrating that risk in other tranches) the bright young things persuaded the credit rating agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s) to give the shielded securities (known as "super" or "super-senior" tranches) top "investment grade" ratings – including, in many cases, the coveted AAA, once reserved for the corporate crème de crème: indestructible names like General Motors, General Electric and JP Morgan. (To contemplate that list is to realize just how silly the whole credit-rating exercise is when applied to a 20- or 30-year bond).

But this was just the beginning. Having created and sold CDOs – and persuaded (well, bribed) the credit agencies into blessing them – Wall Street promptly  began creating and selling CDOs that invested in other CDOs ("squared" CDOs) and CDOs that invested in CDOs that invested in other CDOs ("cubed" CDOs). Because even this didn’t deliver a big enough fix for the hard-core risk junkies (i.e. the hedge funds) the banks also created  and sold "synthetic" CDOs, which, instead of investing in actual loans, wrote (sold)  credit default swaps – insurance-like derivatives that promised to pay off if and when a company defaulted on its debts. This made it possible for synthetic CDOs to accept staggering amounts of credit exposure, and get paid for it, without putting down much, if any, cash – pushing their "notional" leverage ratios towards infinity.

What can you say? It was a hell of party – the bonfire to end all vanities. And yet, as mind-numbingly (if not mind-blowingly) complex as these credit structures were, and despite the even more esoteric mathematical models used to price them, the entire edifice rested on a set of relatively simple assumptions:

1.) Housing prices rarely go down, at least nationally.
2.) Default losses on large mortgage pools are not only low but relatively stable.
3.) People don’t walk away from their homes, even when they’re under water.
4.) Regional housing markets are largely uncorrelated.

(The LBO market and the asset-backed commercial paper market and all the other credit markets inflated to the size of the Hindenberg by the bubble had their own simplifying assumptions – all of which were destroyed by the absurd lending practices made possible by the bubble itself.)

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly. But the confidence investors (and their supposed watchdogs, the credit rating agencies) placed in the honesty, reliability and solvency of the average American homeowner truly was touching. To the point where you had CDOs that invested entirely in the mezzanine tranches (a very junior, very unsecured form of debt) of other CDOs, which in turn invested entirely in securities backed by pools of second subprime mortgages with loan-to-value ratios greater than 110% – in other words, in loans that were underwater even at the top of the bubble.

And yet many of these CDOs – the ones at the top of the food chain – had tranches rated AAA, on the grounds that diversification (buying many little pieces of shit) and overcollateralization (giving some investors less shit than others) would protect the senior tranches from harm. My mouth still hangs open in awe over this.

The point I’m finally getting around to making is that these collateralized securities – not the underlying mortgages and loans – are what has made Big Shitpile such a great big pile of shit. The 20% decline in national housing prices we’ve already seen hasn’t produced a linear 20% decline in the value of the shitpile.  Thanks to the embedded leverage these "legacy" assets contain, a 20% price decline has resulted in 80% or 90% or even 100% losses on many of them. Ditto for the serial implosion of poorly structured, ridiculously optimistic LBOs. Ditto for the tidal wave of commercial real estate loans that can’t be refinanced. Ditto for the recession-induced surge in credit card defaults.

Bottom line: great big chunks of Big Shitpile aren’t "impaired," or "illiquid," or "distressed," they’re worthless, now and forever – unless the peak real estate values of the bubble can miraculously be restored and a whole bunch of deceased LBOs can be raised from the tomb.

But, of course, it gets worse. Instead of passing all that bad paper on to investors (which I thought was the whole point of the securitization con) the banks kept vast reams of the stuff on their own balance sheets – either because they didn’t really understand how shitty it was (i.e. they drank their own Kool-Aid) or because they felt they had to be seen to keep some of their own skin in the game to attract the marks.

The stuff the banks kept for themselves tended to be the "senior" and "super-senior" tranches – the securities sporting those shiny AAA ratings. They were encouraged to do this by the banking regs, which required them to put much less capital behind investment-grade assets (again, I use the term loosely) than junky ones. Less capital = higher leverage = fatter profits.

Once the shitpile hit the fan, however, the process went into reverse: The rating agencies started downgrading CDOs and CLOs and other structured vehicles (a process that is still going on) forcing the banks to put up more capital – in some cases a lot more, at a time when what capital they have is being sucked away by losses on other assets.

So here we are: The banks are sitting on paper originally valued at 100 cents on the dollar (or even more) which is now worth 20 or 10 or 0 cents. If they sell the stuff at those prices, most of the capital they’ve put behind those assets will be erased,  leaving them insolvent, technically and perhaps literally – as in, unable to cover their current liabilities. On the other hand, if they don’t sell their pieces of Big Shitpile, all their capital (including what Uncle Sam has already thrown into the till) will remain frozen in place, blocking them from doing any new lending. Without new lending, they can’t earn the profits they need to make good the losses they are sitting on. Zombies. Night of the Living Dead Banks.

The banks know this, investors know this, Geithner and Co. know this. And everybody knows that the others know. So the only way to get private investors (many of whom have already lost a few pounds of their own flesh to the bear) to bid on Big Shitpile is to make them offers they can’t refuse – and I’m not talking about leaving a horse’s head in their beds, although I suppose it could come to that.

Either the shit has to be priced so low that even a complete moron (or a banker . . . but I repeat myself) can be reasonably sure of making a profit, if they’re willing to wait long enough, or the deal has to be financed on such easy terms the buyer won't worry too much about whether the deal makes money or not, because it’s mostly someone else’s money he or she is playing with. But if the banks can’t even afford to sell at current market prices, they certainly can’t offer discounts, not without nuking their own balance sheets. If they could they would have by now.

That leaves cheap financing, but the banks also couldn't offer that even if they wanted to (which they don’t) because they don’t have the capital to back any new loans.

Yossarian let out a respectful whistle. "That’s some catch that Catch-22," he observed.

"It’s the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed."

Thus Mr. Geithner’s talk about public-private partnerships – which, in this case, means having the Treasury and/or the Federal Reserve pony up huge amounts of subsidized loans and/or credit guarantees (the chocolate on the chocolate-covered cotton) in order to tempt hedge funds and private equity funds and the institutional investors who back them to take the plunge.

But, no matter how yummy and chocolatey the deal is made to look on the outside, there’s still no guarantee the cotton can be sold, as someone who understands the economics a whole lot better than I do explains:

We don’t really know what the gap right now is between buyers’ willingness-to-pay and sellers’ reservation prices. A government sweetener will increase buyers’ willingness-to-pay, but there is a limit: if buyers think that an asset is worth 30 cents, and the chances of it ever being worth more than 50 cents are infinitesimal, then they will never pay more than 50 cents – and we don’t know if that’s enough to get the banks to sell. So it’s possible that we could set up the most efficient possible mechanism for distributing government financing to the most well-incented fund managers, and the market could still fail.

Even if those fund managers can be coaxed, bribed and/or bullied into bidding, and the banks can be similarly induced to sell, I’m not sure what will have been accomplished if the prices paid for Big Shitpile are ridiculously out of line with what Big Shitpile is really worth – as they almost will have to be in order to successfully refloat the banks. We (or rather, Mr. Geithner) will end up with a bunch of nominally private investors holding a lot of extremely risky assets at prices no sane investor would freely pay – with Uncle Sam ultimately on the hook for the losses that will have to be realized by someone somewhere down the road. What kind of a "market" is that?

The kind a banker can love, I suppose. Or even better, a Republican banker -- for whom the "N" word (nationalization) is just a euphemism for the "S" word:

That's going above and beyond being a maverick," said Glenn McCall, York County GOP chairman and a Bank of America executive. "That's saying that socialism in our country would work better than letting folks use their God-given talent to create and foster economic growth."

Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte called nationalization "absolutely a no-no."

"I can't even believe that Lindsey would say that," she said. "I mean the government running the banks? Talk about a disaster."

Talk about a disaster. Words fail me.

It’s not that nationalization (or "pre-privatization", as marketing savvy supporters are already calling it) would be a day at the beach. Once the feds starts seizing some banks, even insolvent ones, it’s quite possible private capital will start to flee from all of them, ultimately forcing the Obama Administration to socialize the "commanding heights" of the entire US – and thus the global – financial system. While that thought certainly gives a tingle to my inner communist revolutionary, the running dog lackey part of me wonders whether completely freaking out the global bourgeoisie is such a good idea – at a time when global capitalism already seems to be teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

But it’s also entirely possible that an expectations trap will drive the Obama boys there whether they want to go or not. The more the markets discount the risk of nationalization, the weaker the banks get, and the weaker the banks get, the more likely nationalization becomes. We may be more than halfway there already.

Maybe that would be for the best: My inexpert guess is that full nationalization still would be less expensive and messy than creating the kind of Potemkin markets the Geither plan seems to envision – even if the unintended consequences may be more difficult to control.

At the very least, it would be a more honest solution. One of the things that creeps me out about the political system’s response to the crisis so far – the insolvency of the banking system in particular – are the increasingly desperate attempts to maintain a phony façade of free markets and private enterprise, in an economy now utterly dependent on the federal safety net. I totally expected that from Hank Paulson and the Cheney Administration, but is Obama’s financial team really pressed from exactly the same Wall Street mold?

It may be best not to think too much about that question. It reminds me too much of the USSR’s fetish for preserving the trappings of socialist "democracy" – a Supreme Soviet, a ministerial government, courts, etc. – even though the actual decisions were all made, behind the scenes, by the party and the Politburo. It’s not a good sign when societies routinely lie to themselves about such big, fundamental truths, which in turn suggests that toxic assets may not be the poison we most need to worry about: The rottenness and decadence of the entire system may do us in first (not exactly a new theme for me.)

Still, as bad as things are they could always be worse. In Catch-22, Milo Minderbinder makes good on his cotton losses by hiring out the entire bomb wing to the Germans – to bomb and strafe his own men.

Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up – until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. He could reimburse the government for all the people and property he had destroyed and still have enough money left over to continue buying Egyptian cotton. Everybody, of course, owned a share. And the sweetest part of the whole deal was that there really was no need to reimburse the government after all.

"In a democracy, the government is the people," Milo explained. "We’re the people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middle man."

But of course, things like that can't happen in real life, can they?

Originally posted to billmon on Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 10:09 PM PST.

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