Wall Street’s Math Wizards Forgot a Few Variables

September 14, 2009

by Steve Lohr
Monday, September 14, 2009
The New York Times

In the aftermath of the great meltdown of 2008, Wall Street’s quants have been cast as the financial engineers of profit-driven innovation run amok. They, after all, invented the exotic securities that proved so troublesome.

But the real failure, according to finance experts and economists, was in the quants’ mathematical models of risk that suggested the arcane stuff was safe.

The risk models proved myopic, they say, because they were too simple-minded. They focused mainly on figures like the expected returns and the default risk of financial instruments. What they didn’t sufficiently take into account was human behavior, specifically the potential for widespread panic. When lots of investors got too scared to buy or sell, markets seized up and the models failed.

That failure suggests new frontiers for financial engineering and risk management, including trying to model the mechanics of panic and the patterns of human behavior.

“What wasn’t recognized was the importance of a different species of risk — liquidity risk,” said Stephen Figlewski, a professor of finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. “When trust in counterparties is lost, and markets freeze up so there are no prices,” he said, it “really showed how different the real world was from our models.”

In the future, experts say, models need to be opened up to accommodate more variables and more dimensions of uncertainty.

The drive to measure, model and perhaps even predict waves of group behavior is an emerging field of research that can be applied in fields well beyond finance.

Much of the early work has been done tracking online behavior. The Web provides researchers with vast data sets for tracking the spread of all manner of things — news stories, ideas, videos, music, slang and popular fads — through social networks. That research has potential applications in politics, public health, online advertising and Internet commerce. And it is being done by academics and researchers at Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


Investors trading 3 stocks that may be doomed

August 27, 2009

Investors still trading Fannie, Freddie, AIG shares, even though prices are likely to hit zero

Daniel Wagner, AP Business Writer
Thursday August 27, 2009, 5:36 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Investors are still trading common shares of Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE) and American International Group Inc. (AIG) by the billions, even though analysts say their prices are almost certain to go to zero.

All three are majority-owned by the government and are losing huge sums of money. The Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators lack authority to end trading of stocks in such “zombie” companies that technically are alive — until the government takes them off life support.

Shares of the two mortgage giants and the insurer have been swept up in a summer rally in financial stocks. Investors have been trading their shares at abnormally high volumes, despite analysts’ warnings that they’re destined to lose their money.

“People have done well by trading them (in the short term), but when it gets to the end of the road, these stocks are going to be worth zero,” said Bose George, an analyst with the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Some of the activity involves day traders aiming to profit from short-term price swings, George said. But he said inexperienced investors might have the mis-impression that the companies may recover or be rescued.

“That would be kind of unfortunate,” he said. “There could be a lot of improvement in the economy, and these companies would still be worth zero.”

The government continues to support the companies with billions in taxpayer money, saying they still play a crucial role in the financial system.

Fannie and Freddie buy loans from banks and sell them to investors — a role critical to the mortgage market. They have tapped about $96 billion out of a potential $400 billion in aid from the Treasury Department.

Officials have said AIG’s failure would be disastrous for the financial markets. Treasury and the Federal Reserve have spent about $175 billion on AIG and AIG-related securities. The company also has access to $28 billion from the $700 billion financial industry bailout.

But analysts say the wind-down strategies for the companies are almost sure to wipe out any common equity, making their shares worthless.

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In sign of strength, S&P 500 breaks past 1,000 as Wall Street rally blows into August

August 3, 2009

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
Monday August 3, 2009, 6:02 pm EDT

NEW YORK (AP) — The Standard & Poor’s 500 index (SPX) is four digits again now that the stock market’s rally has blown into August.

The widely followed stock market measure broke above 1,000 on Monday for the first time in nine months as reports on manufacturing, construction and banking sent investors more signals that the economy is gathering strength. The S&P is used as a benchmark by professional investors, and it’s also the foundation for mutual funds in many individual 401(k) accounts.

Wall Street’s big indexes all rose more than 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average (INDU), which climbed 115 points.

The market extended its summer rally on the type of news that might have seemed unthinkable when stocks cratered to 12-year lows in early March. A trade group predicted U.S. manufacturing activity will grow next month, the government said construction spending rose in June and Ford Motor Co. (F) said its sales rose last month for the first time in nearly two years.

“The market is beginning to smell economic recovery,” said Howard Ward, portfolio manager of GAMCO Growth Fund. “It may be too early to declare victory, but we are well on our way.”

The day’s reports were the latest indications that the recession that began in December 2007 could be retreating. Better corporate earnings reports and economic data propelled the Dow Jones industrial average 725 points in July to its best month in nearly seven years and restarted spring rally that had stalled in June.

On Monday, a report from the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing executives, signaled U.S. manufacturing activity should increase next month for the first time since January 2008 as industrial companies restock shelves. Also, the Commerce Department said construction spending rose rather than fell in June as analysts had expected. The reports and rising commodity prices lifted energy and material stocks.

Ford said sales of light vehicles rose 1.6 percent in July. Other major automakers said they saw signs of stability in sales. Investors predicted that the government’s popular cash for clunkers program would boost overall auto sales to their highest level of the year.

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SEC makes emergency rule targeting ‘naked’ short-selling permanent

July 27, 2009

By Marcy Gordon, AP Business Writer
Monday July 27, 2009, 8:03 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators on Monday made permanent an emergency rule put in at the height of last fall’s market turmoil that aims to reduce abusive short-selling.

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it took the action on the rule targeting so-called “naked” short-selling, which was due to expire Friday.

Short-sellers bet against a stock. They generally borrow a company’s shares, sell them, and then buy them when the stock falls and return them to the lender — pocketing the difference in price.

“Naked” short-selling occurs when sellers don’t even borrow the shares before selling them, and then look to cover positions sometime after the sale.

The SEC rule includes a requirement that brokers must promptly buy or borrow securities to deliver on a short sale.

Brokers acting for short sellers must find a party believed to be able to deliver the shares within three days after the short-sale trade. If the shares aren’t delivered within that time, there is deemed to be a “failure to deliver.” Brokers can be subject to penalties if the failure to deliver isn’t resolved by the start of trading on the following day.

At the same time, the SEC has been considering several new approaches to reining in rushes of regular short-selling that also can cause dramatic plunges in stock prices.

Investors and lawmakers have been clamoring for the SEC to put new brakes on trading moves they say worsened the market’s downturn starting last fall. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has said she is making the issue a priority.

Some securities industry officials, however, have maintained that the SEC’s emergency order on “naked” short-selling brought unintended negative consequences, such as wilder price swings and turbulence in the market.

The five SEC commissioners voted in April to put forward for public comment five alternative short-selling plans. One option is restoring a Depression-era rule that prohibits short sellers from making their trades until a stock ticks at least one penny above its previous trading price. The goal of the so-called uptick rule is to prevent selling sprees that feed upon themselves — actions that battered the stocks of banks and other companies over the last year.

Another approach would ban short-selling for the rest of the trading session in a stock that declines by 10 percent or more.

Schapiro said last week the SEC could decide on a final course of action in “the next several weeks or several months.”

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Private rescue of CIT marks shift in crisis

July 21, 2009

Denied federal bailout, CIT taps $3B private rescue; may be strategy for other troubled banks

By Daniel Wagner and Stevenson Jacobs, AP Business Writers
Tuesday July 21, 2009, 12:44 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — With bondholders coming to the rescue of troubled commercial lender CIT Group Inc. (CIT), and not the government, a new reality is setting in for investors.

With federal bailouts drying up and the economy still in distress, many more financial firms could face bankruptcy. When they do, it will be major private lenders that will have to decide whether to rescue the companies or allow them to fail.

It signals a return to the traditional path for financially troubled firms after nearly a year of government aid.

“It wasn’t clear that Treasury wanted this to be a turning point, but that’s the way it’s worked out,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist with the International Monetary Fund, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Johnson said the markets took so kindly to CIT’s quest for private-sector cash that the government “would feel pretty comfortable about” threatening bankruptcy for firms with less than $100 billion in assets.

Bondholders’ $3 billion rescue of CIT marks the first time since the banking crisis erupted that private investors have stepped in to save a big financial firm without federal help or oversight.

The lifeline for CIT, whose clients include Dunkin’ Donuts franchises and clothing maker Eddie Bauer, aims to sustain the company long enough for it to rework its heavy debt load, which includes $7.4 billion due in the first quarter of next year. It does not guarantee CIT will avoid bankruptcy.

CIT said late Monday that the rescue includes a $3 billion secured term loan with a 2.5-year maturity, which will ensure that its small and midsized business customers continue to have access to credit. Term loan proceeds of $2 billion are committed and available immediately, with an additional $1 billion expected to be committed and available within 10 days.

The short-term financing comes at a high price — an interest rate of about 10.5 percent, said a person close to the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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U.S. clears 10 big banks to repay bailout funds

June 9, 2009

Tue Jun 9, 2009 6:09pm EDT
By Glenn Somerville

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – JPMorgan (JPM), Goldman Sachs (GS) and eight other top U.S. banks won clearance on Tuesday to repay $68 billion in taxpayer money given to them during the credit crisis, a step that may help them escape government curbs on executive pay.

Many banks had chafed at restrictions on pay that accompanied the capital injections. The U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement that some will be permitted to repay funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, begins to separate the stronger banks from weaker ones as the financial sector heals.

Treasury didn’t name the banks, but all quickly stepped forward to say they were cleared to return money the government had pumped into them to try to ensure the banking system was well capitalized

Stock prices gained initially after the Treasury announcement but later shed most of the gains on concern the money could be better used for lending to boost the economy rather than paying it back to Treasury.

“If they were more concerned about the public, they would keep the cash and start loaning out money,” said Carl Birkelbach, chairman and chief executive of Birkelbach Investment Securities in Chicago.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told reporters the repayments were an encouraging sign of financial repair but said the United States and other key Group of Eight economies had to stay focused on instituting measures to boost recovery.

MUST KEEP LENDING

Earlier this year U.S. regulators put the 19 largest U.S. banks through “stress tests” to determine how much capital they might need to withstand a worsening recession. Ten of those banks were told to raise more capital, and regulators waited for their plans to do so before approving any bailout repayments.

As a condition of being allowed to repay, banks had to show they could raise money on their own from the private sector both by selling stock and by issuing debt without the help of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp guarantees. The Federal Reserve also had to agree that their capital levels were adequate to support continued lending.

American Express Co (AXP), Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BK), BB&T Corp (BBT), Capital One Financial Corp (COF), Goldman Sachs Group Inc, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Morgan Stanley (MS), Northern Trust Corp (NTRS), State Street Corp (STT) and U.S. Bancorp (USB) all said they had won approval to repay the bailout funds.

In contrast, neither Bank of America Corp (BAC) or Citigroup Inc (C), which each took $45 billion from the government, received a green light to pay back bailout money.

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