A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love
It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize.
The Ragged Edge of the World
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rapid climate change
Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
THE ECOLOGY OF TOXIC MORTGAGES
Saturday October 27, 2007
[This musing ran in July on Huffington Post, but it's quite relevant today as the credit crisis continues to spread]
I lead two lives. Three days a week, I'm employed as chief investment strategist for a hedge fund that specializes in distressed and bankrupt situations. The rest of my time, I do what I've done for decades, which is to write about nature and the environment. There is virtually no overlap between these two worlds -- with one exception. At a metaphorical level, there are irresistible parallels between a profound flaw in early models of how to deal with pollution, and an almost exactly analogous flaw in financial models for how to deal with the financial universe's own version of toxics: risk.
My role at the fund is to look at the macro situation, and to help the portfolio managers interpret how larger trends in the economy will interact to the benefit or detriment of our investments and prospective opportunities. In that capacity, I've been looking at the unfolding debacle in subprime lending, a slow motion, far-reaching toxic poisoning, whose reach and impacts have been obvious for at least eighteen months to anyone not involved in making money off the origination, sale, and securitization of these subprime loans.
Unfortunately for investors, that aforementioned conflicted group includes virtually everybody in finance, including the mortgage brokers, subprime lenders, Wall Street firms that securitize the loans into mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street firms that then resecuritize slices of these bonds into collateralized debt obligations, and the rating agencies that, for a price, enable all these securitizations and re-securitizations, by blessing these teetering structures with ratings that imply far less risk than is turning out to be the case. There has been a good deal written about the ecology of finance in recent years, but reading about theoretical parallels between the worlds of nature and finance pales in comparison to the thrill of watching a toxics crisis in finance unfold before your eyes almost exactly as it does in the environment. For all our vaunted foresight, it's interesting to see that when greed and self-interest come into play, collectively we're no smarter than fruit flies.
In this case, the flawed environmental model for dealing with risk might be summed up by the cute phrase, "dilution is the solution to pollution." For a number of years, we freely poured toxics into the water and skies under the assumption that pollutants would disperse and become harmless in these vast receptacles. Instead, what we discovered is that these toxics re-accumulate as creatures eat each other and are eaten, a process repeated on up the food chain until the toxics reach deadly concentrations in the top predators and big animals. I remember years ago reading that dead whales washed up in the Saint Lawrence seaway contained such high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxics that in the U.S., they would be declared superfund sites.
That also could be said for some of the big investment banks, hedge funds, and Wall Street firms at the moment. The toxics in this case would be portfolios of various forms of securitization of subprime, alt-a and other loans that, amazingly enough, aren't performing according to models developed during the greatest run-up of home prices in American history. (I recall attending one conference on securitizations of home equity loans in early 2006 where the quants showed us supposedly reassuring "stress" tests of these bonds under various scenarios of home price appreciation. The most "stress" they envisioned was 3% appreciation, and not the negative price movements we are seeing just a year later). The practical logic behind packaging these risky loans was that most of them were money good, and that so long as defaults did not exceed expectations -- say 4-5% of the loans being packaged -- the great preponderance of the securitization could be treated as investment grade. And, the philosophy behind this whole process was that risk could be reduced if it was sliced up and efficiently dispersed in the investor ocean.
But, in an exact analogy, to the environmental example, risk did not stay dispersed. Rather it re-aggregated in the whales (hedge funds, investment banks, and pension funds) of the investment community. And now these top dogs are discovering that risk is just as toxic if it's sliced up and reformulated as if it never was broken up in the first place.
The analogy does break down ultimately, because in the investment universe version we have an accelerant to the toxicity of risk in the form of leverage. Because so many of these repackaged subprime loans were rated investment grade, the whales could gorge on the stuff using borrowed money. The embedded leverage is astonishing. While each deal is different, and this unregulated market remains opaque to non-participants, an idealized example illustrates this point:
Take a billion dollars in subprime mortgages and package them into a new security. Typically, a model security would rate about 95% of the slices in this new bond as investment grade. Under these high-rated slices are what are called mezzanine tranches, the lowest piece of the investment grade slices, and the lowest of these would be rated BBB-, or just above junk status. Typically, these mezzanine tranches will amount to about 4% of the$1 billion total value. Below the mezz pieces would be the lowest rated tranches, including the equity which absorbs the first losses if borrowers default. In this idealized securitization, the BBB- tranches might represent 1% of the total value of the bond and be buffered from losses by about 5% of equity and junk (which represents a computer model's estimate of the outer limit of realized losses).
So in this case, those buying the BBB- tranche are betting that losses for the entire billion dollars in loans never rise above $50 million over the life of the bond. Fair enough, but if they do rise higher, those holding this tranche lose money in a hurry. Let's say, losses rise to 8% (some predictions are even higher). In that case, the value of the BBB- tranche would be worthless, and losses would take out all of the BBB tranche and half the BBB+ tranche as well. That's the price of leverage.
But it gets worse.
Given the risks of subprime loans, many lenders could not afford to make large volumes of loans if they were forced to keep the loans on their own books since they would tie up too much capital. So they finance the loans with short term borrowing and then sell the mortgages into securitizations. The buyer -- the securitizer -- then puts together his MBS. To do this, the buyer has to sell the mezzanine tranches (many securitizers keep the equity themselves). These tranches buffer the whole structure from losses, and once they have been sold, it's easy to sell the higher rated stuff.
In recent years, the money funding these mezzanine tranches has come from a subset of another securitization called collateralized debt obligation or CDO. To form a CDO that invests in subprime mortgages, a securitizer will buy up mezzanine tranches from perhaps 100 different mortgage-backed securities, and then package them in different tranches similar to the way a mortgage backed security was packaged in the first place. Thus, some CDO's can consist entirely of BBB- tranches of subprime mortgage MBS, but still have 95% of their value rated investment grade.
Here is where leverage is the true killer. While an increase in realized losses from 5% to 8% will wreck havoc on a $1 billion MBS, even a smaller increase from say 5% to 6% losses could utterly destroy a CDO based on BBB- tranches where the leverage is over 100 to one. That additional one percent in losses will not only wipe out the bottom tranches of the CDO, but it will eat through most of the investment-grade slices as well. Bearing in mind that many hedge funds also used leverage (meaning that they borrowed most of the funds to buy a CDO tranche), it becomes obvious that even minor variations from the expected performance of subprime loans can have a huge impact on results.
This is why we are beginning to see some very sick whales, and what happens to them affects us all. Since $1 invested in a CDO ultimately funds $100 in subprime lending, this poisoning will reduce subprime lending (as much as 50% this year alone) sending further ripples through the housing market. Moreover, most Americans have exposure to this mess since pension funds accounted for 18% of purchases of the riskiest tranches of CDOs, and insurers and pension funds were investors in the investment-grade tranches as well.
So, given the stakes and leverage, why haven't we seen more blow-ups such as what happened to the Bear Stearns funds? Just wait. The system has built in lags in recognizing losses since the rating agencies don't have to downgrade until losses are actually realized, and that can take 18 months or more. Moreover, markets for these bonds are highly illiquid, and without trades, holders can maintain the illusion nothing bad has happened.
That's a dangerous game, however, because, investors don't have to wait for downgrades or price adjustments before pulling out of exposed hedge funds or otherwise dumping suspect investments. If a fund wants to take advantage of the illiquidity and lags in the system to maintain the illusion of good performance, it runs the risk of having to pay investors more than market value if they withdraw at the end of the quarter. That's probably why we've seen a number of funds halt withdrawals from investors in the past few weeks.
This sets up an interesting dynamic for the coming months. Typically, an investor gives 90 days notice before withdrawing money from a hedge fund, and the price for the redemption will be marked to the next quarter's performance. Clearly that puts some pressure on hedge funds to come clean in their accounting of performance in the quarter that just ended, but, because alarm about this market has soared in the past month, it puts even greater pressure on funds to accurately price for the third quarter ending in September. What's likely to happen is that unlevered funds will mark down their investments in this now-toxic stuff and pay off those who want to redeem.
Is there a way to avoid this day of reckoning? CDOs are actively managed, and in theory the manager can swap out badly performing investments for better stuff. The bad stuff has to be sold, however, and given the illiquidity of this market such sales could hasten the repricing of many billions of similar toxics sitting in portfolios. Also, subprime accounted for over 50% of the collateral for CDO's in 2006, and an asset class that disproportionately represented is not easy to swap out even in the best of times.
More likely, this toxics crises will play out in finance just as it does in nature -- with a mass die-off.
Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.
I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.
The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.
Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.
As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”
Koko signed, “Not teeth.”
Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”
“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.
“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.
Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.
Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.
Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.
We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.
I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.
Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.
Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.