Thursday, October 01, 2009

From Black Scholes to Black Holes (part 4- Finance)

Were a modern-day financial Rip Van Winkle to awake today having slumbered for the past 20 years, he would observe a capital market vastly different from the one he knew. Introduction: From Black Scholes to Black Holes

It's been 16 years since the above noted book-a collection of essays explainging how one models the risks associated with certain derivative securities- was published and the introductory statement is more true now than then. In 1992, the notional amount of interest rate derivative exposure in US banks was about 77% of GDP. The graph below shows the growth since.

I begin this 4th look at the US economy from a flow of funds perspective with derivatives to "cut to the chase." This isn't to diminish the still currently intractable problems of mortgage finance, but that topic has been ably covered by many others. Further, as hard as it may be to believe, the problems associated with mortgage finance pale in comparison to those associated with derivatives. Warren Buffett famously called these securities financial weapons of mass destruction, but I think he understated the problem. These securities are far worse- a Ponzi scheme even Carlo wouldn't have dreamed of. We can choose to fire a WMD, but these securities have taken on a life of their own and they will, in my view, drag everything financially tied to them into oblivion- into a black hole.

The intent of the book From Black Scholes to Black Holes, to cloak these securities in an aura of cool, is quite ironic in its, apparently unintended, prescience. Black Holes are singularities in Einstein's space-time continuum which swallow, for want of a better term, everything that comes near. They are the Charybdis-es of space. Derivatives are the Charybdis-es of finance. They are creating their own ever stronger gravitational field that has already swallowed 3 of the 8 major US players since 1998. The 5 banks which remain are increasingly linked together.

Last night, after perusing the derivatives data from the BIS and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), I was wondering what the end game would be, happened to glance at my book shelf and the book title jumped out at me. "It's a Black Hole," I realized. In the end the remaining banks will merge into one and money, instead of light, would never be able to escape as the fallacy of netting benefits- the assumption that they are all similarly valued- is exposed.

In the OCC Report on Derivatives, the benefits of netting are explained: For a portfolio of contracts with a single counterparty where the bank has a legally enforceable bilateral netting agreement, contracts with negative values may be used to offset contracts with positive values. This process generates a “net” current credit exposure (NCCE)

I had some experience with this fallacy of netting when I was trading FX derivatives for Chase. When Drexel Burnham collapsed I had to "net out" - put on the opposite trade with the same counterparty- the exposure of my option portfolios with Drexel's. While this seems easy to describe there was a problem. They didn't value their options at the same values we did. In some cases I was short low delta (far out of the money) options I had marked to the (lower) at-the-money value. Who should take that revaluation loss? In other cases, I might have to net out a position I needed only to find that replacing it was far more expensive than our agreed upon price.

Fortunately, markets I was trading at that time were not excessively volatile, which would have made the procedure even more difficult. Even more fortunately, the notional amounts were orders of magnitude less than currently carried by US banks.

50 basis points (a fairly trivial change in an option value, or, if you prefer, an aggressive post Volcker Fed tightening) on $100M (roughly the size of trade back then) is $500K. 50 basis points on $7Tln (or 1/5th (5 banks left) of the notional exposure in interest rate derivatives with maturities between 1-5 years) is $35B (7 times the total net income for JPM in 2008).

Why has interest rate derivative exposure grown so much over the past few years? The search for profits in an ultra low interest rate environment seems, in part, a good answer as the graph below depicts.

The other answer is that, as I discovered, the easiest way to make money from a derivatives portfolio is to grow it. Increasing risk in the far dates that is mispriced in your favor can cover many sins as derivatives mature.

Warren Buffett describes the pain of going in reverse on (winding down) such portfolios: When Berkshire purchased General Re in 1998, we knew we could not get our minds around its book of 23,218 derivatives contracts, made with 884 counterparties (many of which we had never heard of). So we decided to close up shop. Though we were under no pressure and were operating in benign markets as we exited, it took us five years and more than $400 million in losses to largely complete the task. Upon leaving, our feelings about the business mirrored a line in a country song: “I liked you better before I got to know you so well.” General Re's derivatives exposure was orders of magnitude less than that of GS, C, or JPM.

The OCC seeks to assure us that they have things under control: While market or product concentrations are normally a concern for bank supervisors, there are three important mitigating factors with respect to derivatives activities. First, there are a number of other providers of derivatives products whose activity is not reflected in the data in this report. Second, because the highly specialized business of structuring, trading, and managing derivatives transactions requires sophisticated tools and expertise, derivatives activity is concentrated in those institutions that have the resources needed to be able to operate this business in a safe and sound manner. Third, the OCC and other supervisors have examiners on-site at the largest banks to continuously evaluate the credit, market, operation, reputation, and compliance risks of derivatives.

In addition to the assumed virtues of netting, the OCC seeks to calm you with VaR (value at risk analysis) analysis (about the shortcomings of which, more here). The average VaR in 2008 relative to 2008 net income according to 10K and 10Q SEC reports is roughly 3% for JPM, C, and BoA and higher for GS. In the event revenues from interest rate derivative trading for Q1 2009 was $9B. Those tails sure seem to be fatter than assumed. If you can make it, as all traders eventually learn, you can certainly lose it.

Perhaps now we can see why the Fed is being so tentative with talk of removing stimulus and raising rates. 50 basis points can wipe out a bank. Imagine if the Fed is faced with the situation of a full blown currency crisis- the Scylla near the Charybdis- and needs to lift the Fed Funds rate 200, 300 or 500 basis points swiftly- a policy response chosen by the Fed in the late 70s/early 80s and many other Central Banks since.

In that event, the black hole becomes operative and another type of derivative, the credit default swap starts sucking the financial life out of the remaining big banks.

Since Q3 2007, credit default derivatives have generated $28B in losses. As of Q2 2009 there were still some $13.44Tln in notional exposure or 95% of GDP. What happens if only 1 bank is left? even if that bank has successfully bet on the collapse of the other 4? Who pays?

From Black Scholes to Black Holes indeed. In my view, the sooner, the better. If Warren Buffet's experience is any guide, an implosion of the 5 biggest banks seems a better alternative to an attempt to wind down these portfolios.