October 15, 2007

The Web is alive with commentary on the plan to create a super-SIV, which would hold about $80-billion in non-sub-prime ABS, finance with commercial paper and be guaranteed by the super-major banks – notably Citigroup, which took a beating today on credit concerns.

The Wall Street Journal has used the word “Bailout” in describing this plan; James Hamilton at Econbrowser asks:

The reality is that someone must absorb a huge capital loss. The question we should be asking from the point of view of public policy is, Who should that someone be?

My answer is: the shareholders of Citigroup.

Accrued Interest has taken a more nuanced view:

if the assets are valued correctly, a significant loss will still be realized by the sellers, because even very strong non-resi ABS have widened significantly in recent months. The losses might only be like 1-2% of par, … We’ll see how well the assets are indeed valued. Call me highly skeptical.

SivieMae will supposedly have a limited life, although I’m skeptical on that as well, perhaps as short as 1-year.

Here we have some banks, particularly Citigroup, who were using off-balance sheet vehicles to increase their leverage. … Those that choose to stay away from the SIV structures were still dragged down by the liquidity crunch.

Now squint your eyes a little and what do you see? One bank paying another bank a fee to avoid reporting their complete assets and liabilities on their balance sheet.

I find it rather surprising that this move should arouse so much interest, frankly. $80-billion in financing is a big deal, but not an incredible deal. What interests me much more about the deal is the banks motivations. Liquidity guarantees are charged to the banks’ risk-weighted assets at a 10% CCF. If the banks actually have to implement those guarantees – either directly or through buying the commercial paper – then it gets charged at a 100% CCF.

Naked Capitalism notes:

Citi can provide funding for however many days and weeks until the conduit is functioning, but it seems highly unlikely that this entity will be up and running before Citi starts feeling squeezed.

I have previously speculated as to the adequacy of the 10% number, suggesting that:

perhaps something like … “10% on the first capital-equivalent, 15% on the next, 20%…” might permit the market to operate efficiently while keeping the number of lines under control.

However, Citigroup’s Tier 1 Capital Ratio has declined to 7.4% in 3Q07, from 8.6% in 1Q06. That’s a hell of a drop, and it has occurred even as Shareholders equity increased from $114.4-billion to $127.4-billion. Note that HSBC had a Tier 1 ratio of 9.3% at June 30, 2007, while Bank of America was at 8.64% at year-end and 8.52% at the half. Bank of America, it will be recalled, recently purchased LaSalle Bank as part of the ABN AMRO deal for USD 21-billion. Bank of America has issued a press release stating:

consortium of leading global banks today announced an agreement in principle to create and provide liquidity support to a master conduit to enhance liquidity in the market for asset-backed commercial paper and medium-term notes issued by structured investment vehicles (“SIVs”).

Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC), Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) and several other financial institutions have reached an agreement in principle to create a single master liquidity enhancement conduit (“M-LEC”). Once established, M-LEC will agree, for a set period of time, to purchase qualifying highly-rated assets from certain existing SIVs that choose, in their sole discretion, to take advantage of this new source of liquidity. Access to such liquidity is intended to allow participating sellers to meet pending redemptions and facilitate asset-backed commercial paper rollovers.

Now: why?

All the comment so far is to the effect that this is a bail-out of Citigroup. Is it? Is it really?

Citigroup’s Tier 1 ratio is low for a global bank, but it not yet anywhere close to the point where they have to make room for extra Fed Inspectors. Given Citigroup’s exposure to the SIV market of about $100-billion, they clearly have the most to gain from a re-normalization in ABCP … but are they really afraid of financing or are they afraid of spreads?

I’m not going to stick my neck out too far here. I haven’t studied the market in detail, I’m not hearing the gossip. But I will suggest that there’s a reasonable chance that the consortium is pulling a JPMorgan.

We all remember, of course, the Panic of 1907. In the denouement to that crisis, Morgan stuck it to a fellow banker, purchasing a big whack of stock extremely cheaply – and I’m afraid I cannot remember the name of the company off-hand. I don’t think it was the US Steel deal; US Steel had to be bullied into buying whichever it was they bought. This was Morgan’s bank buying common equity in something else, a railroad, perhaps, if memory serves. At any rate, once Morgan had become convinced the world was not going to end, he got down to the serious business of sticking it to the competition.

Update: I am remembering two different versions of the same incident. Geisst claims that “Morgan agreed to rescue Moore & Schley if it would sell him its holdings in Tennessee Coal & Iron at $45-million, considerably less than the market price…. US Steel acquired the stock, Moore & Schley and the Trust Company of America were saved, and the steel trust became larger and more influential than ever. … Almost all were in agreement that the deal found remarkably little resistance given that Morgan made at least a $650 million profit”. The story in Bruner & Carr is more complex, and has US Steel resisting the importunities to take over TC&I. For sources, see The Panic of 1907

So how about this scenario? The ABCP market could really use a helping hand, and this consortium is going to provide it. A decline in spreads will benefit Citigroup. And note, from BofA’s press release:

Once established, M-LEC will agree, for a set period of time, to purchase qualifying highly-rated assets from certain existing SIVs that choose, in their sole discretion, to take advantage of this new source of liquidity. Access to such liquidity is intended to allow participating sellers to meet pending redemptions and facilitate asset-backed commercial paper rollovers.

We know, from the continuing decline in US ABCP that I have been gleefully documenting every Thursday for the past month or so, that there are some US conduits that are on the ropes. And Canadian conduits, of course, are on the mat, but there’s no indication as yet whether these conduits will be eligible to sell assets to the consortium.

I suggest that the following hypothesis at least be considered: the consortium is willing to extend itself to bail out the non-bank conduits. With every expectation of making an obscene profit from the deal.

As support for this idea, I’ll go back to the Naked Capitalism post:

That takes us to the problem of the assets that will go into the MLEC. As the New York Times tells us:

To maintain its credibility with investors from whom it would raising money, the conduit will not buy any bonds that are tied to mortgages made to people with spotty, or subprime, credit histories. Rather, it will buy debt with the highest ratings — AAA and AA — and debt that is backed by other mortgages, credit card receipts and other assets.

Huh? The market is objecting to the crappy assets in the SIVs, not the better quality ones. It would seem more logical to take the lousy assets, issue a guarantee, and seek funding for them, and let the banks keep the good assets in existing SIVs, which ought to be marketable once the dodgy assets are excised. The banks are on the hook for the SIVs, anyhow, since they are having to fund the SIVs via backup credit lines, so any mechanism that enables them to get third party funding advances the ball.

My point exactly. Everybody’s screaming bail-out here, worried about Citigroup’s finances and deeply suspicious of Treasury’s involvement … but the actual structure looks a lot more like a vulture fund than anything else to me – with, perhaps, Citigroup as weak sister, but still a member of the family … especially as it benefits so directly from tighter spreads on ABCP in general.

I’ll look up the details on the 1907 Morgan thing shortly.

Good volume in prefs today; perpetuals continued to slide.

Note that these indices are experimental; the absolute and relative daily values are expected to change in the final version. In this version, index values are based at 1,000.0 on 2006-6-30
Index Mean Current Yield (at bid) Mean YTW Mean Average Trading Value Mean Mod Dur (YTW) Issues Day’s Perf. Index Value
Ratchet 4.73% 4.68% 654,375 15.91 1 0.0000% 1,043.7
Fixed-Floater 4.88% 4.76% 102,267 15.84 7 +0.0998% 1,039.5
Floater 4.51% 4.20% 73,604 10.73 3 -0.0134% 1,040.8
Op. Retract 4.86% 4.07% 76,215 3.13 15 -0.1042% 1,027.8
Split-Share 5.16% 4.86% 84,464 4.26 15 -0.0308% 1,044.7
Interest Bearing 6.26% 6.36% 56,608 3.64 4 +0.4626% 1,056.5
Perpetual-Premium 5.68% 5.48% 95,634 8.81 17 -0.2495% 1,012.0
Perpetual-Discount 5.42% 5.46% 325,647 14.73 47 -0.2831% 928.9
Major Price Changes
Issue Index Change Notes
W.PR.H PerpetualDiscount -3.2573% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.77% based on a bid of 23.76 and a limitMaturity.
NA.PR.L PerpetualDiscount -1.6431% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.61% based on a bid of 21.55 and a limitMaturity.
RY.PR.W PerpetualDiscount -1.5183% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.32% based on a bid of 23.35 and a limitMaturity.
ELF.PR.G PerpetualDiscount -1.5078% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.90% based on a bid of 20.25 and a limitMaturity.
PWF.PR.E PerpetualDiscount -1.2092% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.55% based on a bid of 24.51 and a limitMaturity.
RY.PR.C PerpetualDiscount -1.1312% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.34% based on a bid of 21.85 and a limitMaturity.
RY.PR.E PerpetualDiscount -1.1111% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.35% based on a bid of 21.36 and a limitMaturity.
ELF.PR.F PerpetualDiscount -1.0634% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.72% based on a bid of 23.26 and a limitMaturity.
BSD.PR.A InterestBearing +1.5021% Asset coverage of just under 1.8:1 as of October 12, according to Brookfield Funds. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 7.09% (mostly as interest) based on a bid of 9.46 and a hardMaturity 2015-3-31 at 10.00
Volume Highlights
Issue Index Volume Notes
BMO.PR.K PerpetualDiscount 399,385 Recent new issue. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.39% based on a bid of 24.50 and a limitMaturity.
BNS.PR.N PerpetualDiscount 114,300 Recent new issue. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.32% based on a bid of 24.80 and a limitMaturity.
MFC.PR.C PerpetualDiscount 111,014 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.23% based on a bid of 21.66 and a limitMaturity.
BNS.PR.L PerpetualDiscount 45,788 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.34% based on a bid of 21.17 and a limitMaturity.
GWO.PR.H PerpetualDiscount 38,603 RBC crossed 32,000 at 22.95. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.34% based on a bid of 22.90 and a limitMaturity.

There were seventeen other index-included $25.00-equivalent issues trading over 10,000 shares today.

Update: I have updated the reference to Morgan in the body of the post.

2 Responses to “October 15, 2007”

  1. […] Controversy continued regarding the US ABCP Super-Conduit mentioned yesterday. Noriel Roubini dislikes the plan, but bases his reasoning on a somewhat dubious assumption: Indeed, if we assume that many of the assets held by the SIVs are of low quality, the attempt to avoid losses that would be incurred by selling these assets in secondary markets would not be possible. […]

  2. […] I don’t buy it. Regular readers will remember that while I am all in favour of a very strong financial system, I am also a big fan of an unregulated “country bank” sector where innovation is king … a junior league where risks are taken and products are developed. While the existence of such a sector should not be allowed to endanger the core banking system, this policy objective does not require stringent regulation of the sector. What it requires is stringent regulation of the banking system’s exposure to this sector – readers with memories going back to October 15 will remember that I suspect that such exposure has not been stringent enough; the risk-weighted assets deemed to be on the banks’ balance sheets through such exposures should simply be weighted more highly. […]

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