Colossal Collateral Damage

Does Bear Stearns, CDOs and Commercial Papers ring a bell ? Frankly, I have never heard of them a year ago. Nowadays, they appear often in financial news. To avoid the ‘frog in the well’ syndrome,  I am determined to find out more about them by reading this excerpt from the earlier article.

The multi-trillion dollar US-centered securitization debacle began to unravel in June 2007 with the liquidity crisis in two hedge funds owned by Bear Stearns, one of the world’s largest and most successful investment banks. The funds were heavily invested in sub-prime mortgage securities. The damage soon spread across the Atlantic to a little-known German state-owned bank, IKB. In July 2007, IKB’s wholly-owned conduit, Rhineland Funding, had approximately €20 billion of Asset Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP). In mid-July, investors refused to rollover part of Rhineland Funding’s ABCP. That forced the European Central Bank to inject record volumes of liquidity into the market to keep the banking system liquid.

Rhineland Funding asked IKB to provide a credit line. IKB revealed it didn’t have enough cash or liquid assets to meet the request of its conduit, and was only saved by an emergency €8 billion credit facility provided by its state-owned major shareholder bank, the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, ironically the bank which led the Marshall Plan reconstruction of war-torn Germany in the late 1940’s. It was soon to become evident to the world that a new Marshall Plan, or some financial equivalent, was urgently needed for the United States economy; however, there were no likely donors stepping up to the plate this time.

The intervention of KfW, rather than stopping the panic, led to reserve hoarding and to a run on all commercial paper issued by international banks’ off-books Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs).

Asset Backed Commercial Paper was one of the big products of the asset securitization revolution fostered by Greenspan and the US financial establishment. They were the stand-alone creations of the major banks, set up to get risk off the bank’s balance sheet.

The SIV would typically issue Commercial Paper securities backed by a flow of payments from the cash collections received from the conduit’s underlying asset portfolio. The ABCP was a short-term debt, generally no more than 270 days. Crucially, they were exempt from the registration requirements of the US Securities Act of 1933. ABCPs were typically issued from pools of trade receivables, credit card receivables, auto and equipment loans and leases, and collateralized debt obligations.

In the case of IKB in Germany, the cash flow was supposed to come from its portfolio of sub-prime US home mortgages, mortgage backed Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). The main risk faced by ABCP investors was asset deterioration—that the individual loans making up the security default—precisely what began to cascade through the US mortgage markets during the summer of 2007.

The problem with CDOs was that once issued, they were rarely traded. Their value, rather than being market-driven, were based on complicated theoretical models.

When CDO holders around the world last summer suddenly and urgently needed liquidity to face the market sell-off, they found the market value of their CDOs was far below book value. So, instead of generating liquidity by selling CDOs, they sold high-quality liquid blue chip stocks, government bonds, precious metals.

That simply meant the CDO crisis led to a loss of value in both CDOs and stocks. The drop in price of equities triggered contagion to hedge funds. That dramatic price collapse wasn’t predicted by the theoretical models built into quantitative hedge funds and led to large losses in that part of the market, led by Bear Stearns’ two in-house hedge funds. Major losses by leading hedge funds further fed increasing uncertainty and amplified the crisis.

That was the beginning of colossal collateral damage. The models all broke down.

Lack of transparency was at the root of the crisis that had finally and inevitably erupted in mid-2007. That lack of transparency was due to the fact that instead of spreading risk in a transparent way as foreseen by accepted economic theory, market operators chose ways to "securitize" risky assets by promoting high-yielding, high-risk assets, without clearly marking their risk. Additionally, credit-rating agencies turned a blind eye to the inherent risks of the products. The fact that they were rarely traded meant even the approximate value of these structured financial products was not known.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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