Eugene Linden
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Trump, the Toxic Legacy of the Financial Crisis

Today, the Lost Angeles TIMES published my oped as part of a a package on the first anniversary to Trump's election. Space was limited, so I tho...


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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.

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Short Take

I’ve just read Black Edge, by Sheelah Kolhatkar, which is about the huge insider trading scam that characterized Steve Cohen’s SAC Capital at the height of its power. I’m going to offer the thoughts it prompted in two parts. The first will delve into the trade itself, and the second will explore the fallout from this insider trading scandal and subsequent events in the market.

Part One:

A good part of Black Edge focuses on one specific instance of insider trading at SAC Capital: Mathew Martoma’s quest for advance knowledge of the results of trials on the efficacy of Elan Pharmaceutical’s experimental drug to halt Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, bapineuzumab, was designed to attack the amyloid plaques that Elan’s scientists viewed as the cause of cognitive decline. In his quest for “black edge” (illegal inside information) Martoma and his compatriots compromised the integrity of the procedures for drug trials and ruined the life and reputation of a distinguished scientist.  Even that wasn’t enough for them. SAC also had access to vast amounts of biotech expertise, both from PhDs on their payroll, and the expert networks they paid handsomely to give them access to researchers with direct access to the studies and trials.


In the short run, this inside information paid off for SAC as Martoma’s advance knowledge of the results allowed the hedge fund to reverse a billion dollar position and make a profit of over $180 million versus certain losses of hundreds of millions had they not gotten advance information on a disappointing field trial. In the long run, while Steve Cohen skated, the insider cases led to $1.8 billion in fines, the dissolution of SAC, and jail time for Martoma.


In retrospect, it was all so stupid. SAC could have come to the conclusion that Elan’s drug was not going to work without resorting to anything illegal.


Instead of deploying all this massive intellectual firepower on getting advance word on the results of the trials, the analysts might have started by asking how solid were the assumptions on which the therapy was based: namely, whether attacking the plaques would halt or reverse the progress of the disease.


Even in 2008 and 2009, there were a number of researchers at distinguished universities who questioned that basic assumption. The alternate theory was that the plaques were not the cause of the disease, but rather an analogue of scabbing, the result of the body’s attempt to protect the brain from infection.


 In subsequent years, this alternate view has gained some traction, with some now arguing that Alzheimer’s is akin to an autoimmune disease in the sense that as the environment in developed countries has become more antiseptic, protective devices in the brain have turned on the brain itself as the infections they evolved to fight have disappeared. In any events a drumbeat of failed trials with drugs attacking amyloids has discredited this approach. As Tara Spires-Jones, of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems put it in an interview with Britain’s Independent, “Most of the trials have been based on the assumption that amyloid is important in causing Alzherimer’s diseas, as opposed to something that happens alongside it. That assumption, I think, is probably wrong…”


Even in 2007, SAC’s analysts should have known that many attempts to fight Alzheimer’s by fighting the formation of plaques had failed. Given all the time the fund spent analyzing the drug and trials it must occurred to someone to ask whether Elan was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe someone there did just that, but there’s no indication that the decision makers ever questioned the assumptions upon which the drug was built.


Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. SAC wanted certainty. Clearly, detailed advance knowledge of the results of a field trial is more compelling than a dissenting theory on the nature of the disease. Had SAC questioned the assumptions of the study, they never would have amassed a position in Elan, and they probably wouldn’t have had sufficient certainty to short the stock prior to the results being announced.


What can be drawn from this? There are implications about the pressures of the markets – SAC employees felt that had to cheat to maintain performance – but there are also implications about the culture of world of investing.  Alzheimer’s is a horrifying disease, but the book makes a strong case that neither Cohen, nor anyone else at SAC, gave a rat’s ass whether the drug worked or not; they only cared about knowing the results before anyone else and about how other traders would view the data when it came out.  The same probably applied to every other fund playing Elan.


It isn’t news that the markets are amoral, but this amorality has real world consequences. The punishment the market meted out to Elan (and other companies with failed trials) makes all but the largest companies risk averse about investing in therapies for difficult diseases. There is a short-term logic to this from an investor’s point of view, but, increasingly, the market sets research priorities, and the market’s priorities – controlling costs and maximizing short-term profits – may not serve the needs of society. Researchers know that breakthroughs often come from learning from failed previous attempts.  So where will breakthroughs come from as fewer and fewer companies risk failure?


Part Two:


Further thoughts on Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar

The insider trading scandal at SAC confirmed a widely held suspicion among ordinary investors that Wall Street is a rigged game where powerful players can cheat with impunity.  Regardless of the truth of that suspicion, the widely held perception that this is the case has had its own reverberations. In a delicious irony, one of the derivative effects of the market crash and subsequent insider trading scandals has been to make more likely a future in which black edge is less useful.


Bear with me.


What happened with Elan revealed a contradiction at the heart of the markets. SAC was driven to seeking black edge by the ruthless competition of the markets. In the minds of their analysts and portfolio managers, access to publicly available information wasn’t enough because competing funds had their own PhDs pouring over the same information. Moreover, competing funds also had access to the same expert networks (which might be viewed as “grey edge”) as did SAC.


In such a situation, we’d expect that different analysts would take different perspectives on the prospects of the drug and the trials. I would have expected that at least some analysts would question whether the assumptions behind the drug were correct. The market says that wasn’t the case. Rather the hedge fund world was massively longs before the release of the trial results, and Elan’s subsequent 66% price drop suggests that the herd mentality applied on the way down too.


So market efficiency drove SAC and some others to seek black edge, while the subsequent drop exposed a herd mentality and deep inefficiency that made the market anything but a black box that continuously adjusts prices for all information.


The result for the markets is analogous to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium: markets will proceed smoothly until some event produces rapid change. Because, as the crash of 2008 demonstrated, the big price-change inducing event can come from any number of directions inside or outside the economy, many investors are giving up on analysis of individual stocks and moving to passive investment funds and ETFs. The size of this shift is staggering. The amount of managed money in passive strategies has risen from an estimated 6% in 2006 to as much as 40% today (these figures vary depending on definitions of what a constitutes passive strategy).


That latter figure may be larger given the relationship between value investing and money moved by algorithms and quantitative strategies.


Quantitative types try to beat their peers by focusing on changes in pricing or volatility, and/or seeking an edge through speed and data crunching, rapidly identifying anomalies, and then trading at warp speed. Many hundreds of billions of dollars now take this route into the markets. And results have proven that this approach can work; some of these funds have done fabulously well.


So, stepping back, it becomes clear that the trillions of dollars invested through passive strategies and ETFs basically piggybacks on the decisions of active managers relying on traditional analysis of individual companies and sectors. Moreover, the hundreds of billions of dollars of money invested in quantitative, momentum, derivative, and volatility strategies, also piggybacks and even amplifies, the decisions made by traditional investors as those decisions become evident in price movements.


So the response to the pain inflicted by past booms and busts and insider trading scandals has created a situation today where the huge amounts of money moves in sync with an ever smaller base of active managers. Value investing based on analysis of individual companies has become an ever-smaller tail wagging an ever larger dog.


Perversely, this, in turn, has created a situation where in the next crash, Steve Cohen, the quant and momentum funds, and even the Warren Buffets will ultimately have no edge. All it will take to set the next crash in motion is for a fair number of investors to say, “gee I think I should shift more to cash.” Then the passive investment funds will be forced to sell, and they will sell regardless of the merits of any individual stock. This will cause volatility to rise and the billions of dollars of investments tied to volatility will also start selling, and as this is happening, the algorithmic traders, the momo guys and the others looking for direction to exploit will jump in juicing the sell off.  The trigger might be some external event, or something as banal as a simple change in mood, but no insider will have any better insight as to when this occurs than anyone with access to a newspaper.


As a coda, it’s worth noting that Steve Cohen has now been cleared to manage other people’s money. At the end of Black Edge the author quotes a savvy market player as saying that the day Cohen could do that, money would come pouring in. Well, according to the New York Times, that day is here and money is not pouring in. Maybe this is because his fees are too high, or because the insider trading scandal has made him tainted goods. Or maybe, it’s because investors doubt that he can achieve his former results without black edge.

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