CDO Hedge Funds = Enron ?

Last night’s discussion of the Bear Stearn’s Hedge Fund melt down was remarkably sanguine.

I guess to those who look at the blow up of a small hedge fund — it was only $684 million in equity, albeit leveraged up 10-to-1 to $6.8 billion. Hey, sometimes, losses happen.

And Wall Street has been terrific about managing risk, haven’t they? I mean, they did a great job with the dot coms, and they are doing a terrific job with housing, right? There may be 49 Trillion dollars worth of derivatives — thats trillion with a "T" — so what if 1 or 2% goes belly up?  It’s well contained.

Um, not exactly.

There are several issues here that deserve closer scrutiny. Here’s how I connect the dots:

1. Side Pockets: A way to move toxic holdings "Off Balance Sheet," to a netherland, hidden from investors and perhaps regulators. This lack of transparency does not exactly comply with truth-in-reporting to your investors or FASB accounting standards.

Sound familiar? It should: Its remarkably similar to Enron Off Balance Sheet Special Partnerships. The WSJ’s Scott Patterson went into the details last week:

Even if Bear’s pain spreads through the market, other hedge-fund investors might not feel it, at least right away. Sometimes, hedge funds move big pieces of their holdings into separate accounts known as side pockets to keep declining assets from hurting a main fund’s performance record — and managers’ wallets. They can also block investors from cashing out.

2. Mark-to-Model: The similarities to Kenny boy’s outfit don’t end there:   What do we do with illiquid holdings where the fund is both the buyer and seller, and the parent company is the buyer of last resort? Unlike most mutual and hedge fund, who mark-to-market based upon the closing price pof their assets, holders of these CDOs get to indulge their "creative" side. Instead of writing the great American novel, they derive a model that optimistically prices these illiquid assets.

Why optimistic? Because the theoretical returns to investors and actual fees to management are based on the pricing of these (non-priced) assets!  Keep those Enron parallels coming!

Indeed, the reason Bear was originally willing to pony up $3.2 billion dollars was what would happen if there was an actual public auction price: The entire complex would have to reprice all oft heir holdings. Buy bye investor returns, buy bye fees!

3. Crimping Copious Consumer Lending: What does all this esoteric derivatives and murky hedge fund operations have to do with me, Al Franken the ordinary investor?

First off are lending standards: They have tightened — in some instances, dramatically. That means any debt fueled consumer purchases — most especially, homes — have a reduced pool of buyers. That will pressure prices further, reduce MEW, leading to decreasing consumer spending. The spigot that has been open wide for so long is now reducing its flow.

4. Crimping Copious Corporate Liquidity: Mr. Market has enjoyed a delightful wind at his back, funded  by corporate buybacks, Leveraged buyouts, M&A activity. The issue rates front page coverage in this morning’s WSJ: Market’s Jitters Stir Some Fears For Buyout Boom.

Remember, this is all courtesy of lots of Fed induced liquidity, and a willingness of lenders to provide lots of cash to high risk borrowers at low rates with easy terms. In Tuesday’s FT, Lombard Street Research’s chief economist, Charles Dumas noted what could happen as this dries up:

“With this mortgage-backed crisis we could simultaneously see market-price liquidity implode just as banks are forced to shrink their books by capital losses.”

“Banks’ capital is about to be slashed, and with it excess liquidity in the global system…Suppose the CDOs held by banks were valued at “market” rather than “model” levels (a fancy new euphemism for  illusionary historic book values). Their capital would turn out to be lower. Preservation of capital  ratios against loans would require fewer loans: liquidity would have imploded…  better to let the Bear flounder than reveal just what a low value the Street puts on even the A-rated paper.  A bunch of hedge funds may have problems, but that is the tip of the iceberg for “Titanic” Wall Street."

Mr.Duma may be overstating the case somewhat — he’s more Bearish than I — but he raises very significant issues that have very real risks — the same risks most of the bullish crowd seems to be overlooking.

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How might this play out? Well, Mortgages at banks with past due payments are at the highest level since 1994, according to first-quarter data compiled by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Mortgage defaults are accelerating, not getting better.

Oh, and a whole slew of Sub-prime ARM Mortgage Resets are scheduled to hit in the 2nd half of 2007.

To say the least, this is going to get increasingly interesting . . .

UPDATE: June 28, 2007 2:12pm

Caliber Global, which controlled almost $1 bln in assets, to shut down

Caliber Global Investment Ltd., a London-listed fund that controlled almost $1 billion of mortgage assets, said on Thursday that it’s shutting down after turmoil in the subprime market cut demand for its shares.

Caliber (UK:CLBR: news, chart, profile) , run by Cambridge Place Investment Management, plans to sell all of its assets over the next 12 months and return as much money as possible to shareholders, the fund said in a statement. The plan needs to be approved by investors at an extraordinary meeting in August, Caliber added.

Caliber is the latest casualty of rising delinquencies in the subprime mortgage market, which caters to poorer borrowers with blemished credit records. Bear Stearns Cos. is trying to salvage two of its hedge funds that focus on the space, while another run by UBS AG shut down earlier this year.

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Sources:
Recent Woes Cast Light on Hedge Funds’ Murkiness
Scott Patterson
WSJ, June 21, 2007; Page C1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118238374972442738.html
 

Is Cheap Debt Drying Up?
Breaking Views
WSJ, June 27, 2007; Page C14
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118291029012849552.html

Market’s Jitters Stir Some Fears For Buyout Boom
Takeover-Related Debt Gets Chilly Reception;  Hearing ‘Wake-Up Call’
SERENA NG, TOM LAURICELLA and MICHAEL ANEIRO
WSJ, June 28, 2007; Page A1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118299592168350999.html

Market insight: Liquidity under threat
Charles Dumas
Finacial Times, June 26 2007 17:47 | Last updated: June 26 2007 17:47
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2b7e102a-2401-11dc-8ee2-000b5df10621.html

Category: Credit, Data Analysis, Derivatives, Finance, Hedge Funds, Markets, Psychology

Blade Runner’s 25th Anniversary

Category: Digital Media, Film

Media Appearance: Kudlow & Company (6/27/07)

Category: Media

Fun with Subprime Debt

Category: Derivatives, Fixed Income/Interest Rates, Hedge Funds, Psychology

What Does the iPhone Teach Us About Technology & Commerce?

Iphone The reviews for the iPhone are coming in, and they are breathless (see below).

Rather than add to the over-the-top-hype about the gorgeous little thing, I would rather think about what lessons can be drawn from its mere existence.

I believe there are quite a few practical things to be taken away from the development and marketing of this. An education is available to those companies, corporate mangements, engineers, inventors and investors who are paying attention:

1. Committees Suck: The old joke is that a Camel is a Horse designed by a committee. As we have seen all too often, what comes out of large corporations are bland-to-ugly items that (while functional and reliable) do not excite consumers.

When a company decides to break the committee mindset and give a great designer the reins, you get terrific products that sell well. The Chrysler 300 does not looks like it was designed by a corporate committee. Think of Chris Bangle’s vision for BMW — and its huge sales spike — and you can see what the upside is in having a visionary in charge of design.

Better pick a damned good one, though . . .

2. Present Interfaces Stink: How bad is the present Human Interface of most consumer items? Leaving the improving, but still too hard to use Windows aside for a moment, let’s consider the mobile phone market: It was so kludgy and ugly that the entire 100 million unit, multi-billion dollar industry now finds itself at risk of being completely bypassed, all because some geek from California wanted a cooler and easier to use phone.

What other industries may be at risk? 

3. Industrial Design Matters:  We have entered a period where industrial design is a significant element in consumer items. From the VW Bug to the iPod, good design can take a ho-hum ordinary product and turn it into a sales winner.

4. R&D is Paramount: While most of corporate America is slashing
R&D budgets (and buying back stock), the handful of companies who
have plowed cash back into R&D are the clear market leaders this
cycle: Think
Apple, Google (Maps, Search), Toyota (Hybrid), Nintendo (Wii). A well designed, innovative product can create — or upend — an entire market. Even Microsoft did it with the X-box;

What other companies have the ability to disrupt an entire market?

5. Disdain for the Consumer can be Fatal: As we have seen with Dell, Home Depot, The Gap, Sears, etc., the consumer experience is more important than most corporate management seem to realize. Ignore the public at your peril.

What other lessons are there for companies in the business of designing products for consumers to use?

For the moment, let’s put the iPhone aside and answer the questions above:  What markets, companies, products , segments are at risk due to their poor designs?  (Use the comments to answer).

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Note:  Some of the commenters are missing the point of the post — this is about the business of creativity and innovation.

We are not looking for a discussion of Apple in general; Off topic comments will be unpublished.

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Read More

Category: Digital Media, Film, Music, Technology, Web/Tech

Sub-Prime Housing Problems Limited to Just 7 States

Category: Data Analysis, Psychology, Real Estate

Who Owns Troublesome CDO/CMOs?

Category: Data Analysis, Derivatives, Financial Press, Hedge Funds, Real Estate

Housing Deterioration Continues

"The housing market
has continued to deteriorate throughout the second quarter" and "the
supply of new and existing homes has continued to increase, resulting
in declining home prices across our markets.

As Lennar looks into the third quarter and the
rest of the year, it continues to see weak, and perhaps deteriorating,
market conditions’ and expects a third-quarter loss."

-Lennar President/CEO Stuart Miller

 

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Case Shiller Home Price Index, Year-over-year price changes
Case_shiller_june
Source: S&P

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As the chart above shows, the S&P/Case-Shiller House Price Index fell the most it has in 6 years. Dropping 2.1% y/o/y, this is the index’ 4th consecutive down month. Home prices are still up 26.5% from 3 years ago, and 8.8% from 2 yrs ago.

CNN/Money reports that "While sales picked up from the early part of the year, they tumbled
15.8 percent from May 2006 – marking the 18th straight month of
year-over-year declines."

This index differs from the pricing data from the Office of Fed’l Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) in that it includes the homes in all price ranges — OFHEO pricing data only covers "conforming mortgages" which doesn’t include most of the upper end of the housing market.

Meanwhile, Home Inventory continues to rise: The WSJ reported the number of homes on the market "increased 5% in May, adding to a glut
in many parts of the country and threatening to push prices lower as
the housing market keeps tumbling."

This amounts to a 15 year high of home inventory. And, all this inventory is not going away anytime soon. At current sales levels, the annualized housing sales rate has slipped below 6 million — 5.99 — a four-year low.

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Category: Data Analysis, Economy, Real Estate

Connectivity problems this morning!

Category: Weblogs

A Fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax?

Category: Politics, Taxes and Policy