How To Speak “Structured Finance”

Also published on the Atlantic Monthly’s Business Channel.

With all the accusations of excessive speculation on Wall Street, the media has certainly done its fair share of speculation as to what goes on in the structured finance market. And given all the public outrage, this is information the press should should get straight before they report.

Like every trade, the world of structured finance has developed its own little language describing the things that people in the market do. The first step to understanding that language is building a vocabulary. I would say that most folks in the media have developed to the point where they can identify, point at, and grunt towards objects in the structured finance space. But it’s not just the media that doesn’t understand structured finance. It’s economists, pundits, and perhaps most ironic, financiers!  Even that giant of finance, George Soros has loused up explanations of how credit default swaps work. I’ve called out economists in the past for their mumblings on credit default swaps and the like, and so has Megan McArdle. This is a serious problem because economists, finance giants, and the like command a level of authority that my local TV news anchor does not.

Continuing in the tradition of misinformation, it appears Hernando De Soto has joined the ranks of economists who demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the subject area. But rather than devote an entire article to bashing an intelligent man, I’ve decided to use the errors in his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal as the first step in exploring the world of structured finance for those (lucky) folks who have hitherto had little exposure to the area.

Speaking Structured Finance

Speaking “Structured Finance” is not as hard as those around you suggest. Sure, these are not ideas and terms you’ve grown up around. But with a bit of reading and thinking, you’ll be the star of your next wine and cheese night. In this article, I provide topical treatment of a wide range of subjects, but provide links for those brave souls who really want to dive in and impress their cheese-eating friends.

First, Mortgage Backed Securities are not derivatives. To my fellow finance wonks, this may be a trivial observation. But apparently Mr. De Soto was not aware of this distinction:

[A]ggressive financiers have manufactured what the Bank for International Settlements estimates to be $1 quadrillion worth of new derivatives (mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) that have flooded the market.

A Mortgage Backed Security (MBS) is just that, a security and not a derivative. Investors that own MBSs receive regular income from these securities. What distinguishes them from traditional securities, such as corporate bonds, is that the MBS is backed by a pool of mortgages. That is, investors buy MBSs, and as a result, they have a right to the cash flows produced by that pool of mortgages. As the homeowners whose mortgages are in the pool pay off their mortgages, the money gets funneled to and split up among the MBS holders. In effect, MBSs offer investors the opportunity to finance a portion of each mortgage in the pool and receive a portion of the returns on the pool.  For more on MBS, go here.

Similarly, a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) is not a derivative, but a security. It is similar in concept to an MBS, except the pool is not made up of mortgages, but rather various debt instruments, such as corporate bonds.  The pool underlying the CDO could be made up of loans, in which case it’s referred to as a Collateralized Loan Obligation (CLO). In general, a CDO has a pool of assets that generate cash. As that cash is generated, it gets funneled to and split up among the investors. For more on CDOs, go here and here.

A Credit Default Swap (CDS) is a derivative. So De Soto got 1 out of 3. Well then, what’s a derivative? A “derivative” is a bilateral contract where the value of the contract is derived from some other security, derivative, index, or measurable event. For example, a call option to buy common stock is a fairly well known and common derivative. A call option grants the option holder the right (they can do it) but not the obligation to buy common stock at a predetermined price. The person who sold the option has the obligation (they must do it) and not the right to sell common stock at that predetermined price. So the value of a call option that entitles the holder to buy 100 shares of ABC Co. at $10 per share would depend on the current price of ABC’s stock. If ABC is trading above $10, it would be worth something to the holder, a.k.a., “in the money.” If it’s trading below $10, it would be “out of the money.”

So what are OTC Derivatives? The term “OTC” means “over the counter.” The spirit of the term comes from the fact that OTC Derivatives are not traded on an exchange, but entered into directly between the two parties. “Swaps” are a type of OTC Derivative. And the Interest Rate Swap market is by far the largest corner of the OTC Swap market, despite media protestations as to the size of the CDS market. For more an Interest Rate Swaps, go here.

Despite the fact that the Interest Rate Swap market is an order of magnitude larger than the CDS market, we will succumb to media pressure and skip right past Interest Rate Swaps and onto the most senselessly notorious OTC Derivative of all: the Credit Default Swap.

What Did You Just Agree To?

Under a typical CDS, the protection buyer, B, agrees to make regular payments, usually quarterly, to the protection seller, D. The amount of the quarterly payments, called the swap fee, will be a percentage of the notional amount of their agreement. The term notional amount is simply a label for an amount agreed upon by the parties, the significance of which will become clear as we move on. So what does B get in return for his generosity? That depends on the type of CDS, but for now we will assume that we are dealing with what is called physical delivery. Under physical delivery, if the reference entity defaults, D agrees to (i) accept delivery of certain bonds issued by the reference entity named in the CDS and (ii) pay the notional amount in cash to B. After a default, the agreement terminates and no one makes any more payments. If default never occurs, the agreement terminates on some scheduled date. The reference entity could be any entity that has debt obligations.

Now let’s fill in some concrete facts to make things less abstract. Let’s assume the reference entity is ABC. And let’s assume that the notional amount is $100 million and that the swap fee is at a rate of 8% per annum, or $2,000,000 per quarter. Finally, assume that B and D executed their agreement on January 1, 2009 and that B made its first payment on April 1, 2009.  When July 1, 2009 rolls along, B will make another $2,000,000 payment. This will go on and on for the life of the agreement, unless ABC triggers a default under the CDS. While there are a myriad of ways to trigger a default under a CDS, we consider only the most basic scenario in which a default occurs: ABC fails to make a payment on one of its bonds. If that happens, we switch into D’s obligations under the CDS. As mentioned above, D has to accept delivery of certain bonds issued by ABC (exactly which bonds are acceptable will be determined by the agreement) and in exchange D must pay B $100 million.

Why Would You Do Such A Thing?

To answer that, we must first observe that there are two possibilities for B’s state of affairs before ABC’s default: he either (i) owned ABC issued bonds or (ii) he did not. I know, very Zen. Let’s assume that B owned $100 million worth of ABC’s bonds. If ABC defaults, B gives D his bonds and receives his $100 million in principal (the notional amount). If ABC doesn’t default, B pays $2,000,000 per quarter over the life of the agreement and collects his $100 million in principal from the bonds when the bonds mature. So in either case, B gets his principal. As a result, he has fully hedged his principal. So, for anyone who owns the underlying bond, a CDS will allow them to protect the principal on that bond in exchange for sacrificing some of the yield on that bond.

Now let’s assume that B didn’t own the bond. If ABC defaults, B has to go out and buy $100 million par value of ABC bonds. Because ABC just defaulted, that’s going to cost a lot less than $100 million. Let’s say it costs B $50 million to buy ABC issued bonds with a par value of $100 million. B is going to deliver these bonds to D and receive $100 million. That leaves B with a profit of $50 million. Outstanding. But what if ABC doesn’t default? In that case, B has to pay out $2,000,000 per quarter for the life of the agreement and receives nothing. So, a CDS allows someone who doesn’t own the underlying bond to short the bond.

So why would D enter into a CDS?  Most of the big swap dealers buy and sell protection and pocket the difference. But, D doesn’t have to be a dealer. D could sell protection without entering into an offsetting transaction. In that case, he has gone long on the underlying bond. That is, he has almost the same cash flows as someone who owns the bond. So a CDS allows someone who doesn’t own the bond to gain bond-like credit exposure to the reference entity.

I will follow this article up with another elaborating further on why derivatives are used and why they are your friends.


Surely Schadenfreude

Also published on the Atlantic Monthly’s Business Channel.

What began as bitterness has burst into a full blown battle between the haves and the havenots. Whatever the level of tension was at the outset of this crisis, public sentiment has turned an entirely new shade of red. But it’s not all bad. I’m sure this period in history will prove to be a petri dish for social scientists and political theorists for decades to come. So maybe we’ll learn something from it.  At a minimum, we can expect SSRN‘s servers to be put to extensive use (if they’re not torched as part of the bourgeois conspiracy).

So what got this whole movement started? Aside from obvious causes like crashing asset prices and mass unemployment, I think we can find additional causes by looking to popular culture, how it shaped the public’s perception of wealth, and how wealth and the wealthy took center stage, just before they all disappeared.

I’m Just Gonna Keep On Dancing

When times were good and most people had enough to get along, the public, especially in the U.S., was more than willing to envy the wealthy. This was the case whether the wealthy individual was a derivatives trader, rapper, actor, or heiress. We had gotten to the point where people were famous simply for being wealthy, whether or not they had contributed anything to the world to generate or even justify their wealth. The mere possession of wealth was fetishized, arguably beyond the level of physical beauty. A famous mantra of the era sums up the ethos nicely: “Money, power, respect – it’s the key to life.”

During this period, which I would define roughly as the last decade, the residents of Manhattan embraced an exaggerated, almost ridiculous adherence to this “bling culture.” To live in Manhattan during this time period was to submit to wealth and celebrity being determinative of your daily experiences. And even the wealthy were peasants here. Real estate prices ballooned to unimaginable levels with 1 bedroom apartments renting at costs that exceeded the average income of U.S. citizens.  Manhattan had become the epicenter of American capitalism, and Wall Street was without question its Holy See.

Although there were some economic rough patches over the last decade, in retrospect it seems like a straight shot to the top, at least when compared to the current situation. The salaries of young professionals skyrocketed to create a well educated, highly paid, stimulus addicted sub-culture. And there was nowhere else that young professionals would care to call home than a four thousand dollar a month closet in one of the many coveted neighborhoods of Manhattan’s downtown area.  With ready access to “bling” that the rest of the hoi polloi could experience only on television, Wall Street’s traders, bankers, and lawyers were the fuel of Manhattan’s economic engine. The feigning of celebrity through wealth was the apparent end. Conspicuous consumption, designer clothes, and late hours were the means. Without being famous, 6 and 7 figure-earning 20-something professionals could “party like rock stars” at the city’s restaurants, bars, and clubs and burn out every ember they had left during the 12 hours a week they weren’t working.

Wall Street’s riches were no secret to the public.  Stories of hedge fund managers receiving compensation in excess of a billion dollars a year were already old-hat by the time the housing crisis got underway. But what reports of wealth never focused on was how the money was made. The story of the rise to wealth was secondary to reports of its present expenditure.  Reality TV shows featuring the wealthy, their homes, their boats, and their conquests offer little insight into how wealth is generated. And it seems the public’s perception of how wealth is generated has suffered as a result. The emphasis on the present status of being wealthy has left gaps in the story, and seems to justify the presumption that the wealthy are undeserving, that the money just appeared. But this should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, entertainment is a product, subject to competition, and only the most fit products will survive. So ask yourself, what’s more entertaining: a piece on a 28 year-old banker strung out on uppers at 4AM grinding through a power point presentation on the cash flows of some pharmaceutical company; or that same 28 year-old banker drunk out of his mind spending thousands of dollars on bottle service and a raw bar at some trendy club with techno music blasting and scantily clad women dancing on tables? I think we’d all agree that the latter would be an easier sale to the networks.

And Then The Music Stopped

And then it all came crashing down on top of us. What began with the collapse of markets in obscure corners of high finance escalated to a global liquidity crisis, and then a global recession. And now, jobless, and angry, the public remembers that piece about the 28 year-old slurring his speech with a piece of crab hanging off his chin. They think to themselves, “This is who did this to me. This brat making more money than I can count and eating food I can’t pronounce.” What they don’t think is, here’s the kid who is the pride of his family, who’s worked hard his entire life to get into top schools and get a job at a top bank, working 80 hours a week at a cubicle strung out on uppers to push him through to the next day. And yes, on Saturdays at 3 AM he can be found somewhere on the Lower East Side with a piece of crab attached to his face.

The danger we face is not a lack of understanding or sympathy for the wealthy. Wall Street is not running a charity. People who work there know what they’re getting into and don’t deserve sympathy for choosing demanding careers. And in any case the thanks come via direct deposit. Rather, the danger we face is shaming the accumulation of wealth. Those who forcefully pursue their own selfish goals within the bounds of the law generate wealth for those around them. This is a tried and tested fact. By succumbing to anger and an easy answer for what went wrong, in the short term we run the risk of being distracted from the more pressing issues before us. And in the long term, we run the risk of discouraging the entrepreneurship and progress that has lifted humanity out of poverty.

The Reality Of Mortgage Modification

Also published on the Atlantic Monthly’s Business Channel.

Why A Decline In Home Prices Should Not Cause Defaults

It seems that we have taken as an axiom the idea that if the price of a home drops below the face value of the mortgage, the borrower will default on the mortgage. That sounds like a good rule, since it’s got prices dropping and people defaulting at the same time, so there’s a certain intuitive appeal to it. But in reality, it makes no sense. Either the borrower can afford the mortgage based on her income alone or not.  However, it does make sense if you also assume that the borrower intended to access the equity in her home before the maturity of the mortgage. That is, the home owner bought the home with the intention of either i) selling the home for a profit before maturity or ii) refinancing the mortgage at a higher principle amount.

If neither of these are true, then why would a homeowner default simply because the home they lived in dropped in value? She wouldn’t. She might be irritated that she paid too much for a home. Additionally, she might experience a diminution in her perception of her own wealth, which may change her consumption habits. But the fact remains that at the time of purchase, she thought her home was worth X. And she agreed to a clearly defined schedule of monthly payments over the life of the mortgage assuming a price of X. The fact that the value of her home suddenly drops below X has no impact on her ability to pay, unless she planned to access equity in the home to satisfy her payment obligations.  Annoyed as she might be, she could continue to make her mortgage payments as promised.  Thus, those mortgages which default due to a drop in home prices are the result of a failed attempt to access equity in the home, otherwise known as failed speculation.

In short, if a home drops in value, it does not affect the cash flows of the occupants so long as no one plans to access equity in the home. And so, the ability of a household to pay a mortgage is unaffected in that situation. This is in contrast to being fired, having a primary earner die, or divorce. These events have a direct impact on the ability of a household to pay its mortgage.

I am unaware of any proposal to date which offers assistance to households in need under such circumstances.

The Dismal Science Of Mortgage Modification

Simply put, available evidence suggests that mortgage modifications do not work.


The charts above are from a study conducted by the Office Of the Comptroller of the Currency. The full text is available here. As the charts above demonstrate, within 8 months, just under 60% of modified mortgages redefault. That is, the borrowers default under the modified agreement. If we look only at Subprime mortgages, just over 65% of modified mortgages redefault within 8 months. This may come as a surprise to some. But in my mind, it reaffirms the theory that many borrowers bought homes relying on their ability to i) sell the home for a profit or ii) refinance their mortgage. That is, it reaffirms the theory that many borrowers were unable to afford the homes they bought using their income alone, and were actually speculating that the value of their home would increase.

Morally Hazardous And Theoretically Dubious

Why should mortgages be adjusted at all? Well, one obvious reason to modify is that the terms of the mortgages are somehow unfair. That’s a fine reason. But when did they become unfair? Were they unfair from the outset? That seems unlikely given that both the borrower and the lender voluntarily agree to the terms of a mortgage. Although people like to fuss about option arm mortgages and the like, the reality is, it’s not that hard for a borrower to understand that her payments will increase at some point in the future. Either she can afford the increased payments or not. This will be clear from the outset of the mortgage.

So, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a case for unfairness at the outset of the agreement. Well then, did the mortgage become unfair? Maybe. If so, since the terms didn’t change, it must be because the home dropped in value and therefore the borrower is now paying above the market price for the home. That does sound unfortunate. But who should bear the loss? Should the bank? The tax payer? How about the borrower? Well, the borrower explicitly agreed to bear the loss when she agreed to repay a fixed amount of money. That is, the borrower promised “to pay back X plus interest within 30 years.” This is in contrast to “I promise to pay back X plus interest within 30 years, unless the price of my home drops below X, in which case we’ll work something out.” Both are fine agreements. But the former is what borrowers actually agree to.

Not enforcing voluntary agreements leads to uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to inefficiency. This is because those who have agreements outstanding or would like to enter into other agreements cannot rely on the terms of those agreements. And so the value of such agreements decreases and the whole purpose of contracting is defeated. In a less abstract sense, uncertainty creates an environment in which it is impossible to plan and conduct business. As a result, this type of regulatory behavior undermines the availability of credit.

But even if we do not accept that voluntary agreements should be enforced for reasons of efficiency, mortgages represent some of the most clear and unambiguous promises to repay an obligation imaginable. The fact that a borrower was betting that home prices would rise should not excuse them from their obligations. There are some situations where human decency and compassion could justify a readjustment of terms and socializing the resultant losses. For example, the death of a primary earner or an act of war or terrorism. But making a bad guess about future home prices is not an act that warrants anyone’s sympathy, let alone the socialization of the losses that follow.

The Elephant In The Room

This notion that Subprime borrowers were victimized as a result of some fraudulent wizardry perpetuated by Wall Street is utter nonsense. Whether securitized assets performed as promised to investors is Wall Street’s problem. Whether people pay their mortgages falls squarely on the shoulder of the borrower. Despite this, we are spending billions of public dollars, at a time when money is scarce and desperately needed, on a program that i) is demonstrably ineffective at achieving its stated goals (helping homeowners avoid foreclosure) and ii) rewards poor decision making and imprudent borrowing. Given the gravity of the moment, a greater failure is difficult to imagine. But then again, we live in uncertain times, so my imagination might prove inadequate.