Sunday, 22 January 2012

Hell, Handbaskets and Hellenic Default

Regardless of what the IIF and the Greek government may announce, Greece is heading inevitably for a destabilising default to some or all of its bond creditors. The most articulate and comprehensive account of the reasons why this must be so are documented in the ZeroHedge masterclass on Subordination 101: A walk thru sovereign bond markets in a post-Greek default world. Roubini concurs.

I've written before about what this implies for the financial system:

If any OECD state were to default there would be very serious implications:
- The Basel Accord zero risk weight of government debt would be proved fanciful;
- The assumption of government debt as a liquid asset suitable for bank Tier 1 reserves to meet unanticipated and sudden cash demands will become unsustainable;
- Banks would be forced to recapitalise at much higher levels, forcing even sharper deleveraging and contraction of lending;
- Governments would lose the captive, uncritical investor base they have relied on to finance excess public expenditure for the past 30 years;
- Central banks could be forced to suddenly monetise even more government debt if required to meet the cash demands of a run on their undercapitalised banks.

Worrying, but not unexpected. A few of us predicted back in 2008 that the implosion of RMBS and bank capital, leading to central bank and sovereign bailouts, would fuel a central bank balance sheet and sovereign debt bubble. The central bank balance sheets have since balooned to 20 percent of GDP for the Fed and Bank of England, and 30 percent of eurozone GDP for the ECB. Deficits have spiraled everywhere, despite promises of austerity. Now the sovereign bubble too may burst.

From Deflation Has Become Inevitable in December 2008:

In Lombard Street, Bagehot’s seminal tome on fractional reserve central banking, Bagehot advises any central bank facing a simultaneous credit crisis and currency crisis to raise interest rates. By raising rates they will ensure that foreign creditors remain incentivised to maintain the general level of credit available while the central bank resolves the local liquidity crisis through liquidation of failed banks and temporary liquidity support of stressed banks.

The very opposite policies have been pursued by central banks in the US, Europe and UK since the beginning of the sub-prime crisis in August 2007. They have cut policy rates drastically, and as the crisis escalated and spread, the yield on government debt has dropped to negative territory. Meanwhile they have shielded those responsible for the creation of record levels of bad debt from any regulatory accountability, relaxed transparency of accounts, and provided massive taxpayer-funded financial infusions to prevent failure and liquidation.

While in the short term these policies have expediency and the maintenance of market “confidence” on their side, in the longer term these policies must undermine any confidence a rational and objective saver or investor might have that savings or investment in the US, EU or UK will be fairly remunerated at an above-inflation rate, or that savings and investments will be protected by effective oversight and regulation from the sorts of executive debasement and outright misappropriation and fraud that are beginning to colour our perceptions of the past decade.

Anyone sitting on a pile of cash now is unlikely to want to either (a) place it in a bank, or (b) invest it in the stock market. As a result, the implosion of the financial and real economy must continue no matter how big the central bank’s aspirations for its balance sheet or the treasury’s aspirations for its deficit.

I'm sorry I was right. (sigh)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Survivor Bias and TBTF Tyranny

It's time to write again about insolvency, as the MF Global failure and the Greek debacle raise new troubling concerns.

As I wrote in Ring Fences and Rustlers before Lehman failed in 2008:

The key to having a happy insolvency, if such a thing exists, lies in ensuring that when a globalised bank goes bust, all the best assets are inside your borders and subject to seizure by [your banks or] your liquidators on behalf of your creditors.

If one were cynical, and one believed that Lehman was going to be allowed to fail pour encouragement les autres one might wonder if Lehman was quietly bidden – or even explicitly ordered – to sell off its foreign holdings and repatriate the proceeds to asset classes within the US ring fence. This would ensure that US creditors of Lehman received a satisfactory recovery at the expense of foreign creditors. It would also contribute to a nice pre-election illusion of a “flight to quality” as US dollar and assets strengthened on the direction of flow.

If one were really cynical, one might even think that a wily bank supervisor might arrange to ensure 100 percent recovery for its creditors with a bit of creative misappropriation thrown in the mix. Broker dealers normally hold securities and other assets in nominee name on behalf of their investor clients. Under modern market regulation, these nominee assets are supposed to be held separately from a firm’s own assets so that they can be protected in an insolvency and restored to the clients with minimal loss and inconvenience. Liberalisations and financial innovations have undermined the segregation principle by promoting much more intensive use of client assets for leverage (prime brokerage and margin lending) and alternative income streams (securities lending). As a result, it is often very difficult to discern in a failed broker who has the better claim to assets which were held to a client account but reused for finance and/or trading purposes. The main source of evidence is the books of the failed broker.

On the wholesale side, margin and collateralisation in connection with derivatives and securities finance arrangements mean that creditors under these arrangements should have good delivery and secure legal claims to assets provided under market standard agreements. As a result, preferred wholesale creditors could have been streamed the choicest assets under arrangements that will look above suspicion on review as being consistent with market best practice.

The official report of the court appointed examiner confirmed my worst suspicions. We now know that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the SEC co-located staff inside Lehman from March 2008 to oversee the global repatriation of assets and cash in the run up to the insolvency in September. The Fed kept Lehman on life support during this period with more than $20 billion of liquidity which it paid back to itself from Lehman cash on the day Lehman filed for liquidation. In the meanwhile, from March 2008, Lehman looted its affiliates and client accounts worldwide by using prime broker and securities lending mandates to lend assets to the US affiliate which were sold (hence the sharp fall in Eastern Europe and Asian markets and growing volatility eleswhere from March 2008) and the proceeds streamed to US creditors as margin payments on derivatives and other obligations. The official receiver elected not to challenge the cash transfer to the Federal Reserve or any of the transfers of cash or securities made to major Lehman counterparties and creditors.

Those following the MF Global failure have noted a strikingly similar pattern of conduct by JP Morgan in advance of failure as occurred with Lehman, although without obvious official mandate. Yves at Naked Capital has been covering the parallels admirably. Carrick Mollenkamp, Lauren Tara LaCapra and Matthew Goldstein at Reuters have provided a very substantive story of how JP Morgan used its superior knowledge of MF Global's trading and credit position to enrich itself at the expense of MF Global and its clients before precipitating the MF Global failure.

I am concerned that MF Global demonstrates that the too-big-to-bail banks have found a new and almost riskless way to make outsize profits. Because derivatives, repo and liquidity are so very highly concentrated now, and leverage is at pre-crisis levels again, these few players can rig the markets and liquidity to choose when and how their clients fail. Their top down view of clients' trading and custody portfolios and cash positions and flows puts them in a position to exercise tyranny. They can game their clients, taking advantage of superior information, credit and liquidity to ramp or crash targeted markets as needed to precipitate a crisis. They can demand the choicest assets as collateral, setting very high over-collateralisation thresholds, and then exercise during post-failure turmoil to retain everything they hold at rock-bottom prices.

In today's low volume markets, a crash or squeeze is even cheaper and less risky than ever before. Instead of working for their clients' success, an unscrupulous clearing bank - or several operating in collusion - can profit on engineering market instability or turmoil.

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might suspect that such games were being played now in global markets. Perhaps gold is being used as collateral for margin and cash liquidity, sold by counterparties to bring the price lower, leading to margin calls for even more. A crisis arising from a major default (Greece, Portugal, a huge bank) would force the price lower still, when the collateral would be exercised on default. Following on, the price might rocket again to enable the conspirators to seize outsize profits. Just a scenario, mind you! (Although, I note that Lehman's counterparties reported record profits through much of 2009.)

What is left of the global markets becomes a game of engineered survivor bias. Only those operating outside the law and with unlimited regulatory forbearance can win while the rest of us lose. As I noted in 2008, after Lehman failed, in Financial Eugenics, "It's not your survival they're engineering."

I don't say absolutely that what I describe is actually happening. But it may be. Certainly market conditions are ripe for it, and MF Global reinforces the pattern.

Now over to Greece. I find the PSI (private sector involvement) negotiations for Greece's restructuring of its debts troubling because it shows the same determination to engineer survivor bias. One of the core principles of insolvency law is that all creditors of like standing should be treated equally in the resolution. The PSI approach is starkly contrary to this principle, despite the evidence that Greece is well and truly insolvent. First, the official bond holders (central banks, supranationals, governments and the ECB) are excluded from mark-downs of their debts, preferring to impose the burden of capital losses entirely on the private sector bond holders. Second, the private sector bond holders are divided between those with an interest in preventing a declaration of default (either unhedged or have written credit default swaps) and those who will profit from a default through claims on credit default swaps. Rather than being represented equally in the negotiations through a creditors' committee, the negotiations are being driven by the Institute of International Finance, a trade lobby of just the biggest banks. Why the IIF should have credence as representing hedge funds, pension funds and insurance companies holding Greek debt is beyond me.

Once again we see centuries of jurisprudence and decades of statutory law and market practice cast aside for the convenience of a handful of big banks. They argue that abandoning our principles is desirable to prevent destabilisation of the financial system - again. I am wondering if a system that requires constant sacrifice of all the principles of market price discovery, rule of law and equitable treatment of like behaviours is worth stabilising.

If the Greece negotiations fall apart, and Greece defaults, is it likely that the banks will embrace the rule of law and let their contracts stand? Or will they try to "reinterpret" their obligations or once again seek taxpayer reimbursement for their losses?

Tyranny takes many forms, but the essence is arbitrary exercise of power or despotic use of authority. Given their willingness to throw principles out the window whenever profits are threatened, it seems we are confronting a tyranny by a handful of bankers. Perhaps we should embrace some sacrifice of stability to forestall a more stable and much more dangerous tyranny.

UPDATE: Excellent, thorough analysis of the Greek debt situation is up on ZeroHedge: Subordination 101: A Walk Thru For Sovereign Bond Markets in a Post-Greek Default World. Well worth your time to read the whole thing as a primer on the potential pitfalls of all outcomes of the Greek debacle for global sovereign bond markets. Conclusion about the high stakes of the current standoff reads:
Finally, while we have no prediction of whether or not any of the above happens, one thing we are sure of: if the runaway central planners of the world believe they can legislate their way into an upper hand over the bond market, in ever more desperate attempts to avoid the day of reckoning, they will fail without any shadow of a doubt. Because demand for risk comes first and foremost from a sense of stability, of fair and efficient markets, and equitability: something which has long been missing in the stock market, and which may very soon be taken away, by force, from the bond market as well.