From CDO’s to BTO’s: Wall St. tees up the next financial disaster

Wall Street Greed CDO

Think Progress picked up on a piece from Bloomberg News which ought to be raising eyebrows on Main Street.  The banksters are at it again, only this time those pesky Credit Default Obligations which brought down our financial system in 2007-2008 have been repackaged and served up under a new label: Bespoke Tranche Opportunities.

As the Think Progress analysis reports, these derivatives were an extremely important part of the last mess:

“The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that derivatives “were at the center of the storm” and “amplified the losses from the collapse of the housing bubble by allowing multiple bets on the same securities.” In 2010, the total on-paper value of every derivative contract worldwide was $1.4 quadrillion, or 23 times the total economic output of the entire planet.”  [TP]

Let’s be careful here, not all of that $1.4 quadrillion is in BTO’s, but the newly labeled derivative has that same capacity to “amplify the losses” when the underlying value of the securities becomes volatile.  For those who would like this explained in really clear diagrams, click over to the Wall Street Law Blog and follow along with the  White Board Wine Glasses Explanation – one of the best I’ve discovered to date.

Now, we can move on to what makes these BTO’s a problem, beginning with their creation:

“The new “bespoke” version of the idea flips that (CDO) business dynamic around. An investor tells a bank what specific mixture of derivatives bets it wants to make, and the bank builds a customized product with just one tranche that meets the investor’s needs. Like a bespoke suit, the products are tailored to fit precisely, and only one copy is ever produced.” [TP]

Now, why would anyone want to buy one of these products, much less order a special one?  In the Bad Old Days  fund managers could choose to purchase some tranched up CDO, those blew up, so why go out and order one tailored to their specifications?  Let’s return to the Bloomberg article:

“Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is joining other banks in peddling something they’re referring to as a “bespoke tranche opportunity.” That’s essentially a CDO backed by single-name credit-default swaps, customized based on investors’ wishes. The pools of derivatives are cut into varying slices of risk that are sold to investors such as hedge funds.

The derivatives are similar to a product that became popular during the last credit boom and exacerbated losses when markets seized up. Demand for this sort of exotica is returning now and there’s no real surprise why. Everyone is searching for yield after more than six years of near-zero interest rates from the Federal Reserve, not to mention stimulus efforts by central banks in Japan and Europe.”  (emphasis added)

Translation: Because interest rates have been kept low by central banks hoping to keep struggling economies moving ahead, banks haven’t been able to make what they deem to be enough profit off corporate and Treasury bonds, and therefore have started playing in the “financial product” game again (not that they ever really stopped for long) and have started making ‘bets’ (derivatives) in the Wall Street Casino – with ‘products’ (BTO’s) which aren’t subject to the reforms put in place by the Dodd Frank Act.

So, what’s the problem? A hedge fund manager wants to buy a structured financial product from a bank which has a higher yield than what he can get by investing in corporate bonds or Treasuries… what could go wrong?  Let us count the ways.

#1.  These securities aren’t tied to the performance of the real economy as corporate bonds would be.  In the jargon du jour, the BTO portfolio is a table of reference securities.  Here come the Quants again, there are formulas for determining the ‘value’ of these securities which may or may not be valid, and they certainly weren’t during the Housing Bubble.

#2. The yields are related to the the ratings.  Here we go yet again. One of the major ratings services, Standard & Poor, is ever so sorry (to the tune of a $1.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department) they helped create the Derivatives Debacle of ‘07-‘08, but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to get involved in evaluating derivatives. [See the FIGSCO mess]

#3. The BTO encourages the same Wall Street Casino behavior we saw in the last Housing Bubble/Derivatives Debacle.  It’s explained this way:

“The trouble with this game is that the value of most structured finance products is opaque and subject to sharp and violent change under conditions of financial stress. So when they are “funded” in carry-trade manner via repo or other prime broker hypothecation arrangements, the hedge-fund gamblers who have loaded up on these newly minted structures are subject to margin calls which can spiral rapidly in a financial crisis. And that, in turn, begets position liquidation, plummeting prices for the “asset” in question, and even more liquidation in a downward spiral.” [WolfStreet]

Sound familiar? Sound a bit like Lehman Brothers?  Remove the jargon and the message is all too familiar – no one really knows the value of the structured product, and if the product is purchased with borrowed funds it’s subject to margin calls (people wanting their money back) which in turn leads to sell offs and the price for the “thing” drops off the financial cliff, and…. down we go. Again.  We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending wasn’t pleasant.

#4. The BTO is a way around financial reform regulations. The offerings, be they FIGSCO or BTO’s are being peddled at the same time the Financialists are trying their dead level best to (a) get Congress to whittle down the regulations put in place under the Dodd Frank Act financial reforms; and (b) figure out ways to get around the Dodd Frank Act provisions – witness the BTO.

The profit motive is perfectly understandable. If I can invest in something that pays more than a Treasury bill or bond, or more than a corporate bond, then why not?  However, at this point, as an investor, I need to make a decision – Am I investing or speculating?  If I’m investing then it would make more sense to take a lower yield on something that has a more credible value. If I’m speculating (gambling) then why not borrow some money and purchase some exotic structured financial product the value of which is far less credible (or even comprehensible) and “make more money?”

It’s speculation that tends to get us into trouble. This new round of creative financial products shows all the elements that got us into financial trouble the last time in recent memory.  Formulaic determination of value which ran head first into the wall of reality. Valuations which were based on “what’s good for business,” rather than on what might be other plausible outcomes.  Emphasis on speculation rather than investment – or on financialism rather than capitalism.  Short term yields as opposed to long term investment.

It was a recipe for trouble in 2007-2008 and it’s still a recipe for trouble in 2015.

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