January 24, 2008

A so-called rogue trader socked it to SocGen … 4.9-billion Euros’ worth. So called? I haven’t seen any proof yet and won’t ever see it. Assiduous Readers might not believe this – but there are still some people in the world who believe that the honchos at Barings Bank were shocked – shocked! – to hear that Nick Leeson was speculating rather than arbitraging in order to make 10% of the bank’s profits. Fitch Ratings announced it:

has today downgraded Societe Generale’s (SG) Long-term (LT) Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘AA-‘ (AA minus) from ‘AA’ and the Individual Rating to ‘B’ from ‘A/B’. SG’s Short-term (ST) IDR and Support Ratings are affirmed respectively at ‘F1+’ and ‘1’. The Outlook for the LT IDR is Stable and the Support Floor is affirmed at ‘A-‘ (A minus).

This action follows the profit warning announcement made by the bank today. The EUR4.9bn fraud-related trading loss uncovered at the bank is very substantial and has arisen within the bank’s equity trading division, core to SG’s business. While Fitch understands that SG has been the victim of fraud undertaken by one single trader under very specific circumstances, the extent to which the fraudulent positions taken were concealed raises questions about the effectiveness of the bank’s processing systems and creates reputational risk for the group.

Not much news today, frankly. I felt very hopeful about a VoxEU piece titled Ratings Agency Reform, but there’s no substance to it – it’s just a list of options with no accompanying argument, discussion or opinion.

The Congressional Budget Office does not believe the US is, or will be, in a recession – a slowdown, sure, but not an actual recession. Of far more interest than inane hairsplitting over definitions is their view on the US Federal deficit:

Our baseline – which assumes no change in current law — suggests that among other factors, the slowing economy will boost the deficit to $219 billion, or 1.5 percent of GDP, this year. If Congress provides the additional funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan requested by the Administration, the deficit would rise to $250 billion. And if a fiscal stimulus package is enacted, the 2008 deficit could be substantially higher – and at least from a short-term stimulus perspective, that could be desirable. The fiscal 2007 deficit was $163 billion, or 1.2% of GDP.

A mere $250-billion for fiscal 2008, without counting the stimulus package? Not a problem – just sell foreign investors a few more banks. It will be a lot easier than selling them LBO debt!

This is going to end in tears, you know. In Canada, we hit the wall in 1994 and since then politicians have found religion – even the NDP appears to be sincere when calling for balanced budgets. Mind you, the exercise is farcical … the federal deficit in Canada was what? $31-billion-odd in 1991, on top of huge provincial deficits? And there wasn’t anything extraordinarily stupid going on, most of that was just automatic stabilizers (welfare, unemployment insurance, reduced tax collections) acting as they should. And now we’re sitting with a massive national debt, huge health costs and reduced government revenues as the boomers retire while being told that $2-billion annually is a prudent and rational amount to pay on the national debt. It’s silly, really.

But anyway, my point is that the political climate regarding fiscal policy in Canada, for all its faults, is a lot healthier than in the States – and that’s going to get ugly when the chickens come home to roost. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario whereby nominal US allies – the ones with money – are politely asked to help defray the costs of US bases … and in the schoolyards in my neighborhood, that’s called “tribute”, “protection money” or “extortion” according to taste.

Naked Capitalism takes a gloomy view of the proposed monoline bailout – which I haven’t mentioned before because it’s not very interesting. Mr. Smith is greatly irritated by:

Sean Dilweg, the commissioner of insurance in Wisconsin, which regulates Ambac, sat in on the meeting but said he would be working with Ambac directly. Mr. Dilweg said he met separately on Tuesday with executives at Ambac, which is based in New York but chartered in Wisconsin.

“Eric is looking at the overall issue, but I am pretty confident that we will work through Ambac’s specific issues,” Mr. Dilweg said in a telephone interview. “They are a stable and well-capitalized company but they have some choices to make.”

and Mr. Smith responds:

the moron of a regulator from Wisconsin is not only not on the same page, but is dumb enough to undermine Dinallo by saying to the press that all is well in the land of cheeseheads. The odds of Ambac pulling through look even more remote.

This seems like very strong language. The potential monoline demise was mentioned in PrefBlog on January 18 when Fitch downgraded the insurer from AAA to AA. I’d say the regulator from Wisconsin is right – or, at least, he has not yet been proven wrong. What’s wrong with an AA rating from Fitch? Lots of companies would LOVE to have a AA rating from Fitch. They won’t be able to write much new business with that rating and a negative outlook, but why should the regulator care? An AA rating implies a very high probability of meeting the current obligations.

I guess I just don’t understand why this is considered a regulatory matter. I can see that the regulators should be interested, sure, and maybe send over a SWAT (Special Warning Accountancy Team), but public involvement does not yet appear to be warranted.

Again, there will be no tables for indices, performance and volume. Sorry about that!  

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