Friday afternoon I decided to take on the broad topic of Moral Hazard, the concept for which this blog is unpinned. I collected links and research and then promptly experienced writers block for which even my gratuitous bashing of Rossie could not break. Then as per normal (and in true Talebesque fashion) Russell serendipitously emails me a link that ties things together. This becomes part 1 because there is no way I can tackle the topic in one post and do it justice. The bonus is I get to indulge a personal interest in Game Theory and of course poke some fun at what one observer calls moral hazard lite which represents the intersection of politics with the calamity that has shaken our banking system to its core. Let’s start with a quick definition of Moral Hazard:
Moral hazard is the prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
How does this “different behavior” that results from having no ri$k play out in the financial markets? We have a case study in progress commonly known as the bailout that provides some clues. Russell knows me as an intuitive trader when it comes to individual issues and I’ve been casually telling people this current rally in the financial services sector is an illusion in respects. We’ll have to retest our lows and that could happen as many as three times between now and Q4. Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge gives us a 2009 example to the old Wall Street saying, “Sell in May and go away” as he details why banks as a whole were surprisingly profitable the past two months. Hopefully this will stick with us when the bank execs collect their bonuses from these “results” down the road. Here are some snippets from the Zero Hedge exclusive: AIG was responsible for the bank’s January and February profitability:
Zero Hedge is rarely speechless, but after receiving this email from a correlation desk trader, we simply had to hold a moment of silence for the phenomenal scam that continues unabated in the financial markets, and now has the full oversight and blessing of the U.S. government, which in turns keeps on duping U.S. taxpayers into believing everything is good.
I present the insider perspective of trader Lou (who wishes to remain anonymous) in its entirety:
“AIG-FP accumulated thousands of trades over the years, all essentially consisted of selling default protection. This was done via a number of structures with really only one criteria – rated at least AA- (if it fit these criteria all OK – as far as I could tell credit assessment was completely outsourced to the rating agencies).
Main products they took on were always levered credit risk, credit-linked notes (collateral and CDS both had to be at least AA-, no joint probability stuff) and AAA or super senior portfolio swaps. Portfolio swaps were either corporate synthetic CDO or asset backed, effectively sub-prime wraps (as per news stories regarding GS and DB).
Credit linked notes are done through single-name CDS desks and a cash desk (for the note collateral) and the portfolio swaps are done through the correlation desk. These trades were done is almost every jurisdiction – wherever AIG had an office they had IB salespeople covering them………..
During Jan/Feb AIG would call up and just ask for complete unwind prices from the credit desk in the relevant jurisdiction. These were not single deal unwinds as are typically more price transparent – these were whole portfolio unwinds. The size of these unwinds were enormous, the quotes I have heard were “we have never done as big or as profitable trades – ever”.
As these trades are unwound, the correlation desk needs to unwind the single name risk through the single name desks – effectively the AIG-FP unwinds caused massive single name protection buying. This caused single name credit to massively underperform equities – run a chart from say last September to current of say S&P 500 and Itraxx – credit has underperformed massively. This is largely due to AIG-FP unwinds.
I can only guess/extrapolate what sort of PnL this put into the major global banks (both correlation and single names desks) during this period. Allowing for significant reserve release and trade PnL, I think for the big correlation players this could have easily been US$1-2bn per bank in this period.”
For those to whom this is merely a lot of mumbo-jumbo, let me explain in layman’s terms:
AIG, knowing it would need to ask for much more capital from the Treasury imminently, decided to throw in the towel, and gifted major bank counter-parties with trades which were egregiously profitable to the banks, and even more egregiously money losing to the U.S. taxpayers, who had to dump more and more cash into AIG, without having the U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner disclose the real extent of this, for lack of a better word, fraudulent scam.
In simple terms think of it as an auto dealer, which knows that U.S. taxpayers will provide for an infinite amount of money to fund its ongoing sales of horrendous vehicles (think Pontiac Azteks): the company decides to sell all the cars currently in contract, to lessors at far below the amortized market value, thereby generating huge profits for these lessors, as these turn around and sell the cars at a major profit, funded exclusively by U.S. taxpayers (readers should feel free to provide more gripping allegories).
What this all means is that the statements by major banks, i.e. JPM, Citi, and BofA, regarding abnormal profitability in January and February were true, however these profits were a) one-time in nature due to wholesale unwinds of AIG portfolios, b) entirely at the expense of AIG, and thus taxpayers, c) executed with Tim Geithner’s (and thus the administration’s) full knowledge and intent, d) were basically a transfer of money from taxpayers to banks (in yet another form) using AIG as an intermediary.
For banks to proclaim their profitability in January and February is about as close to criminal hypocrisy as is possible. And again, the taxpayers fund this “one time profit”, which causes a market rally, thus allowing the banks to promptly turn around and start selling more expensive equity (soon coming to a prospectus near you), also funded by taxpayers’ money flows into the market.If the administration is truly aware of all these events (and if Zero Hedge knows about it, it is safe to say Tim Geithner also got the memo), then the potential fallout would be staggering once this information makes the light of day.
The fact AIG stock still trades, albeit around a dollar, also speaks to Moral Hazard. In simpler times, say like 2004, equity in common stock of a insolvent company would largely be flushed in bankruptcy court. The evidence is mounting that the taxpayers have gotten swindled with this AIG bailout.
Next up contract sanctity.