U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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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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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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Countrywide’s Mozilo charged with fraud

June 4, 2009

Thu Jun 4, 2009 7:41pm EDT

By Gina Keating and Rachelle Younglai

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angelo Mozilo, who built the largest U.S. mortgage lender, was charged with securities fraud and insider trading on Thursday, making him the most prominent defendant so far in investigations into the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and housing bust.

Mozilo, 70, co-founder of Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC), was accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with making more than $139 million in profits in 2006 and 2007 from exercising 5.1 million stock options and selling the underlying shares.

The sales were under four prearranged stock trading plans Mozilo prepared during the time period, the SEC said.

The accusations were made in a civil lawsuit filed by the SEC in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The SEC said that in one instance, the day before he set up a stock trading plan on September 25, 2006, Mozilo sent an email to two Countrywide executives that said: “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Those executives, then Countrywide President David Sambol, 49, and Chief Financial Officer Eric Sieracki, 52, were charged by the SEC with knowingly writing “riskier and riskier” subprime loans that they had a limited ability to sell on the secondary mortgage market.

The SEC said that all three executives failed to tell investors how dependent Countrywide had become on its ability to sell subprime mortgages on the secondary market. All three were accused of hiding from investors the risks they took to win market share.

At one stage, Countrywide was writing almost 1 in 6 of American mortgages. The lawsuit said that by September 2006, Countrywide estimated that it had a 15.7 percent share of the market, up from 11.4 percent at the end of 2003.

“While Countrywide boasted to investors that its market share was increasing, company executives did not disclose that its market share increase came at the expense of prudent underwriting guidelines,” the lawsuit said

Bank of America Corp (BAC) bought Countrywide last July 1 for $2.5 billion, less than a tenth of what it had been worth in early 2007.

“TWO COMPANIES”, EARLY WARNING SIGNS

“This is a tale of two companies,” the SEC’s director of enforcement, Robert Khuzami, told reporters. “One that investors from the outside saw. It was allegedly characterized by prudent business practices and tightly controlled risk.”

“But the real Countrywide, which could only be seen from the inside, was one buckling under the weight of deteriorating mortgages, lax underwriting, and an increasingly suspect business model,” Khuzami said.

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Stress test results lift cloud of uncertainty

May 8, 2009

Results show 10 big banks need $75 billion in new capital; hope rises for economy’s recovery

Daniel Wagner and Jeannine Aversa, AP Business Writers
Friday May 8, 2009, 1:09 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government exams of the biggest U.S. banks have helped lift a cloud of uncertainty that has hung over the economy.

The so-called stress tests — a key Obama administration effort to boost confidence in the financial system — showed nine of the 19 biggest banks have enough capital to withstand a deeper recession. Ten must raise a total of $75 billion in new capital to withstand possible future losses.

“The publication of the stress tests simply cleared the air of uncertainty,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics. “The results were not scary at all.”

He said it will take a long time for the banks to resume normal lending. But the test results didn’t alter his prediction that economy is headed for a recovery in October or November.

A key indicator of economic health will be released Friday morning, when the government announces how many more jobs were lost in April and how high the unemployment rate rose.

The stress tests have been criticized as a confidence-building exercise whose relatively rosy outcome was inevitable. But the information, which leaked out all week, was enough to cheer investors. They pushed bank stocks higher Wednesday, and rallied again in after-hours trading late Thursday once the results had been released.

Among the 10 banks that need to raise more capital, Bank of America Corp. (BAC) needs by far the most — $33.9 billion. Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) needs $13.7 billion, GMAC LLC $11.5 billion, Citigroup Inc. (C) $5.5 billion and Morgan Stanley (MS) $1.8 billion.

The five other firms found to need more of a capital cushion are all regional banks — Regions Financial Corp. (RF) of Birmingham, Alabama; SunTrust Banks Inc. (STI) of Atlanta; KeyCorp (KEY) of Cleveland; Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) of Cincinnati; and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. (PNC) of Pittsburgh.

The banks will have until June 8 to develop a plan and have it approved by their regulators. If they can’t raise the money on their own, the government said it’s prepared to dip further into its bailout fund.

The stress tests are a big part of the Obama administration’s plan to fortify the financial system. As home prices fell and foreclosures increased, banks took huge hits on mortgages and mortgage-related securities they were holding.

The government hopes the stress tests will restore investors’ confidence that not all banks are weak, and that even those that are can be strengthened. They have said none of the banks will be allowed to fail.

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The Fight Over Who Will Guard Your Nest Egg

March 28, 2009

By JASON ZWEIG
wsj.com

A power struggle in Washington will shape how investors get the advice they need.

On one side are stockbrokers and other securities salespeople who work for Wall Street firms, banks and insurance companies. On the other are financial planners or investment advisers who often work for themselves or smaller firms.

Brokers are largely regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is funded by the brokerage business itself and inspects firms every one or two years. Under Finra’s rules, brokers must recommend only investments that are “suitable” for clients.

Advisers are regulated by the states or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which examines firms every six to 10 years on average. Advisers act out of “fiduciary duty,” or the obligation to put their clients’ interests first.

Most investors don’t understand this key distinction. A report by Rand Corp. last year found that 63% of investors think brokers are legally required to act in the best interest of the client; 70% believe that brokers must disclose any conflicts of interest. Advisers always have those duties, but brokers often don’t. The confusion is understandable, because a lot of stock brokers these days call themselves financial planners.

Brokers can sell you any investment they have “reasonable grounds for believing” is suitable for you. Only since 1990 have they been required to base that suitability judgment on your risk tolerance, investing objectives, tax status and financial position.

A key factor still is missing from Finra’s suitability requirements: cost. Let’s say you tell your broker that you want to simplify your stock portfolio into an index fund. He then tells you that his firm manages an S&P-500 Index fund that is “suitable’ for you. He is under no obligation to tell you that the annual expenses that his firm charges on the fund are 10 times higher than an essentially identical fund from Vanguard. An adviser acting under fiduciary duty would have to disclose the conflict of interest and tell you that cheaper alternatives are available.

If brokers had to take cost and conflicts of interest into account in order to honor a fiduciary duty to their clients, their firms might hesitate before producing the kind of garbage that has blighted the portfolios of investors over the years.

Richard G. Ketchum, chairman of Finra, has begun openly using the F-word: fiduciary. “It’s time to get to one standard, a fiduciary standard that works for both broker-dealers and advisers,” he told me. “Both should have a fundamental first responsibility to their customers.”

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Phases of fear and elation in the VIX

March 18, 2009

Here we show a nice relationship between the VIX and the SPX.  While this is a commonly referenced pairing, many still challenge the value of using the VIX as a market indicator.  There are numerous ways too use the VIX and almost everyone has their own tweaks.  This chart shows a very clear inverse relationship with several distinct “phases” discernible in the value of the VIX.  These “phases” correlate well with the action in the SPX.  We have labled these phases “euphoria”, “fear” and “panic”.  We also included the 400 day moving average (equivalent to the 80 week) which we discussed previously in The Significance of the 400 day (80 week) moving average.  This bull/bear market reference point matches up very well with the action in the VIX, as the VIX moves into the “fear phase” just as the 400 day is coming under assault, before eventually breaking.  A final test of the 400 day from below, which we highlighted in late April 2008, was accompanied by one last dip into the “euphoria” zone for the VIX.  That was the “last chance” to get out before the drop gathered steam as the SPX then dropped over 50% in less than 12 months.

We added the notes on Bear Stearns and Citigroup for a consensus of the “expert” opinion at the time.

vixspx031809


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