Thursday, October 25, 2007

What if there comes a time when the Fed has to tighten?

It might seem now that it was in a different world, but it was in this one, and in fact it was in the United States. Traders watched their bank of broker screens as the 30-year Treasury dropped below 8% for the first time in their youthful memory. That was in the 1980s. I was working at Morgan Stanley at the time, and someone on the Treasury desk made a trade for his own account just so he could frame the ticket from that momentous event. Yes, interest rates can go above 8%. In fact, at the time an 8% rate seemed quite reasonable.

I mention this because over the past decade or so we have constructed a financial landscape where an 8% interest rate not only is hard for us to envision, but where it would be disastrous. The reason is the huge stock of adjustable rate mortgages. Looking at the dislocations that are coming about from the subprime problems and the related credit crunch, it is hard to fathom the effect on the housing market and the overall economy if all those remaining homeowners with various flavors of adjustable rate mortgages saw rates shoot up hundreds of basis points. I don’t know how to quantify the effect, but I would hope that there are researchers at the Fed who do. And I would bet that the implications are pretty scary. Maybe so scary that the Fed would not be able to push interest rates up very far for fear of triggering a populist revolt.

Of course, now all of the discussion is about possible Fed easing. So I am worrying about something that is not even on the radar screen. But can anyone envision a scenario where a substantial increase in interest rates would make sense from an economic standpoint, but where the Fed finds its hands tied because the costs to homeowners would be too great?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Risk Management and Shake-up Time at the Investment Banks

What a mess. With multi-billion dollar trading losses, we are starting to see heads roll. Citigroup is losing its long-time fixed income head Tom Maheras and several of his lieutenants. Merrill is continuing in its approach to managing human capital, bringing in new blood and losing experienced hands in the fixed income business. Oh, and they are putting someone into a Chief Risk Officer role. Talk about closing the barn door….

Other firms have fared very poorly but so far without executing any of the troops. Morgan Stanley layered a heart-stopping $390MM one-day loss in its prop trading desk on top of far bigger losses on leveraged loans and the like. This loss in Process Driven Trading was similar in timing to the losses at Goldman’s Global Alpha fund, AQR and other quant hedge funds. Which pretty much tells us that what this secretive group at Morgan Stanley was up to was a not-so-secretive strategy: They had a lot of capital riding on the same sort of momentum and value versus growth quant equity strategies as the rest of the gang.

What I don’t understand in all of this is that for all the mention in the press of the risk takers, there is not a single mention I have found of the people who are supposed to be overseeing the risk. If you are the Chief Risk Officer and everything blows up, don’t you bear some responsibility?

To get the idea of the CRO job, let me tell you a bit about myself. Although I am older and have a slight build, I am an Olympic athlete. My event is the shot put. I consider myself a top notch athlete in this event. I work out like the other competitors, follow a high protein diet, steer clear of performance enhancing drugs and train at the local track. The only trouble I have is when the Olympics roll around every four years, because it turns out that for an Olympic athlete, I am not very good. But then, that is only an occasional blip in my otherwise Olympic-worthy regimen.

In the CRO job 99% of the days there is nothing going wrong. The only test you get of how well you are doing – short of pouring out risk reports and looking ponderous and prudent in meetings – is what happens to the firm during times of market crisis. Every few years something calamitous happens in the market; if the firm gets blown away, that suggests you did not do a very good job.

What about the job of the risk taker? Well, a risk taker does, after all, take risk. He tries to do so intelligently, that is, he tries to put on positions that he hopes have a high return per unit of risk. But how much risk he takes and where he takes it has to be dictated by someone. You can’t just say “take risk, and good luck”.

The job of the risk manager at these firms is to convey the risk parameters to the risk takers, to define the boundaries. And that should involve more than simply running a value at risk calculation on the computer. If that is all you want, you don’t need a guy making a few million a year and employing a staff of hundreds. Before I would be so harsh on Tom Maheras and his compatriots, I would be calling to task the people who allowed that risk level to be taken in the first place.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Systemic Risk -- My Testimony before the House Financial Services Committee

I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday in a hearing on "Systemic Risk: Examining Regulators Ability to Respond to Threats to the Financial System". In my written testimony I provided my views on specific questions they had posed in their invitation.

One of the points I made in my testimony was the idea of the government taking on a role as a liquidity provider of last resort. This is something I addressed in my September 10th post, "Bailouts for Profit", and it was also a central point brought up in the testimony of another member of the panel, Professor Steven Schwarcz of Duke University. I had considered this a radical idea, but it was a dominant focus from the members of the committee during the two hours of questions.