So is that it? Is the downturn over? After bouncing off of 6500, or more than half its peak value, and with Citigroup briefly breaking $1, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has rallied back more than 1200 points. So, is it safe to go back in the water? Best to figure out what went wrong first -- what I like to call a bear-raid extraordinaire.
The Dow clearly got a boost from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's new and improved plan, announced on Monday, to rid our banks of those nasty toxic assets. The idea is to form a "Public-Private Investment Fund" to buy up $500 billion to $1 trillion worth of bad assets -- mostly mortgage backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).
While it's true that private interests can conceptually help establish the right market price for these assets, the reality is Mr. Geithner's public-private scheme won't work. Why? Because the pricing paradox remains -- private parties won't overpay, yet banks believe these assets are extremely undervalued by the market. As Edward Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association, said recently on CNBC, "You have to go into the securities, examine the securities, examine the cash flow. I've seen it done, and the market is so far below what they're really worth."
The Treasury can't just keep throwing money at the problem, but needs instead to figure out what's really been going on -- the aforementioned bear-raid extraordinaire that's crushed Citigroup and Bank of America and General Electric, among others. Only then can Mr. Geithner craft a real plan to fight back.
In a typical bear raid, traders short a target stock -- i.e., borrow shares and then sell them, hoping to cover or replace them at a cheaper price. Once short, traders then spread bad news, amplify it, even make it up if they have to, to get a stock to drop so they can cover their short.
This bear raid was different. Wall Street is short-term financed, mostly through overnight and repurchasing agreements, which was fine when banks were just doing IPOs and trading stocks. But as they began to own things for their own account (MBSs, CDOs) there emerged a huge mismatch between the duration of their holdings (10- and 30-year mortgages and the derivatives based on them) and their overnight funding. When this happens a bear can ride in, undercut a bank's short-term funding, and force it to sell a long-term holding.
Since these derivatives were so weird, if you wanted to count them as part of your reserves, regulators demanded that you buy insurance against the derivatives defaulting. And everyone did. The "default insurance" was in the form of credit default swaps (CDSs), often from AIG's now infamous Financial Products unit. Never mind that AIG never bothered reserving for potential payouts or ever had to put up collateral because of its own AAA rating. The whole exercise was stupid, akin to buying insurance from the captain of the Titanic, who put the premiums in the ship's safe and collected a tidy bonus for his efforts.
Because these derivatives were part of the banks' reserve calculations, if you could knock down their value, mark-to-market accounting would force the banks to take more write-offs and scramble for capital to replace it. Remember that Citigroup went so far as to set up off-balance-sheet vehicles to own this stuff. So Wall Street got stuck holding the hot potato making them vulnerable to a bear raid.
You can't just manipulate a $62 trillion market for derivatives. So what did the bears do? They looked and found an asymmetry to exploit in those same credit default swaps. If you bid up the price of swaps, because markets are all linked, the higher likelihood (or at least the perception based on swap prices) of derivative defaults would cause the value of these CDO derivatives to drop, thus triggering banks and financial companies to write off losses and their stocks to plummet.
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt famously complained that "by spending 25 million bucks in a handful of transactions in an unregulated market" traders in credit default swaps could tank major companies. "I just don't think we should treat credit default swaps as like the Delphic Oracle of any kind," he continued. "It's the most easily manipulated and broadly manipulated market that there is."
Complain all you want, it worked. In early March, Citigroup hit $1 and Bank of America dropped to $3 and GE bottomed at $6.66 from $36 not much more than a year ago. Same for Lloyds Banking Group in the U.K. dropping from 400 to 40. Citi CEO Vikram Pandit recently announced that the bank was profitable in January and February. (How couldn't they be? With short-term rates close to zero, any loan could be profitable). Never mind they still had squished CDOs, it was enough to get some of the pressure off, for now.
Oddly, with the new Treasury plan, these same bear raiders are still incentivized to manipulate the price of swaps to depress toxic derivative prices, especially so with the government's help to get hedge funds to turn around and buy them. Perversely, they may get rewarded for their own shenanigans.
This week's Treasury announcement of private buyers isn't going to magically change the depressed prices of these toxic derivatives. The Treasury needs to fight fire with fire. If I were Mr. Geithner, I'd pull off a bull run -- i.e., pile into the CDS market and sell as many swaps as I could, the opposite of a bear raid. If the bears are buying, I'd be selling, using the same asymmetry against them. Sensing the deep pockets of Uncle Sam, the bears will back off. Worst case, the Fed is on the hook for defaults, which they are anyway!
With the pressure of default assumptions easing, prices of CDOs should rise, which not only gives breathing room to banks, but may actually get these derivatives to a price where banks would be willing to sell them, replacing toxic assets in their reserves with cash or short term Treasurys, which ought to stimulate lending.
So are hedge funds villains? Not especially. The bear raid probably saved us five to 10 years' of bank earning disappointments as they worked off these bad loans. Those that mismatched duration set themselves up to be clawed. Under cover of a Treasury bull run, banks should raise whatever capital they can and dump as many bad loans before the bear raiders come back. Let the bears find others to feast on, like autos, cellular, cable and California.