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Month: August 2017

Did someone say something about synthetics?

Did someone say something about synthetics?

Two words excite me like no others.

They are synthetic securitisation (or, for the truly old-school, they are three words: regulatory capital trades). These deals usually involve repackaging loans on a bank’s balance sheet, then slicing them up into different tranches, and selling the exposure to a non-bank entity like an insurer, hedge fund, or asset manager through the use of credit derivatives.

In many respects, they hark back to the early days of securitisation, when JPMorgan first put together its BISTRO trades, otherwise known as the first synthetic CDOs. Banks may be genuinely offloading risk here, and the deals were called reg-cap trades precisely because they offered capital relief that’s so far been genuinely sanctioned by regulators. On the other hand, they seem to speak to some of the worst of the current environment: a pervasive search-for-yield that may see investors put their money in silly things at silly prices (for this reason, you will sometimes hear reg-cap specialists – usually hedge funds – gripe about the non-expertise of new entrants and the need to price the deals perfectly), as well as nagging concern that in fortifying the banking system post the financial crisis, we’ve simply offloaded a bunch of balance sheet risks onto other entities in a classic case of regulatory arbitrage.

In any case, I bring it up because in less than a week we’ve seen two stories published on the market, now said to be booming, first in the Financial Times and then in the Wall Street Journal. Both detail the rise of the market, with issuance described as having jumped by anywhere from 5.6 percent in the first quarter to at least 33 percent so far this year.

Those looking for a graphical representation of the recent rise of synthetic CDOs, could do worse than this chart from Deutsche Bank. It shows European deals only, but the direction of the trajectory is pretty obvious. The WSJ story also references some interesting figures from consultancy Coalition, pointing out that structured credit revenues at the top 12 investment banks more than doubled year-on-year to $1.5 billion the first quarter of 2017, exceeding the growth rate in more conventional trading businesses in the same period.

Growth in the business is not exactly a surprise, though.

More than five years ago I wrote in the FT about some of the bigger banks working hard to get the business going as a way of securing some new fees at a time when many of their other revenue streams were sluggish. In retrospect, that story’s now looking pretty prescient.

Big banks seek regulatory capital trades


Big banks are aiming to help smaller lenders cut the amount of regulatory capital they need to hold against loans in an attempt to make money from deals similar to those first created in the early days of securitisation more than a decade ago.

The big banks want to create so-called regulatory capital trades for smaller lenders as they expect demand for these kind of securitisation structures will rise ahead of regulations designed to provide more stability in the financial system.

Such trades, also known as synthetic securitisations, involve repackaging loans on a bank’s balance sheet, then slicing them up into different tranches.

The bank typically then buys protection on the riskiest or mid-level tranche from an outside investor such as a hedge fund, insurance company or private equity firm.

Doing so allows a bank to reduce the amount of regulatory capital it has to hold against the loans – a tempting prospect as banking groups are forced to hold more capital ahead of new regulation such as the forthcoming Basel III rules.

Some of the biggest global and European banks, including Barclays and Standard Chartered, are known to have recently built and used the structures to reduce the amount of capital they need to hold against corporate or trade finance loans.

But some large banks are now hoping to sell their structuring expertise and help distribute the resulting trades to buyers, investors in the trades say.

“The holy grail for some of the investment banks is to try to get some of the second and third tier banks involved, to get structuring fees,” said one investor. The trades hark back to the early days of securitisation in the late 1990s, which helped fuel the financial crisis.

“It’s almost as if you’re seeing the start of the securitisation market coming back in a very modest way,” said Walter Gontarek, chief executive of Channel Advisors, which operates Channel Capital Plc, a vehicle with $10bn in portfolio credit transactions with banks and has started a new fund dedicated to these structures.

Investors such as Channel Advisors say the yields on the deals are attractive compared with other debt securities on offer, and they are able to gain exposure to a specific portion of a bank’s balance sheet rather than invest in the entire thing. The insurers, hedge funds or private equity firms are not bound by the same, relatively onerous capital regulations as the banks. That makes it easier for them to write protection on the underlying loans in a classic case of regulatory arbitrage.”


Some more early coverage below, for those interested.

Synthetic tranches anyone? – FT Alphaville
Anti-Abacus, anti-BISTRO and anti-balance sheet synthetic securitisation – FT Alphaville
Big banks seek regulatory capital trades
– FT, April 2012
Banks share risk with investors – FT, September 2011
Balance sheet optimisation – BOOM! – FT Alphaville, 2010

Safe assets, revisited

Safe assets, revisited

The idea of a shortage of ‘safe’ assets is a favorite of mine, dating back from 2011 when I first wrote about a crunch in triple-A rated assets for FT Alphaville to more recent things such as this piece for Bloomberg, and sometimes even on this blog. So it was a pleasure to discover, courtesy of Simon Hinrichsen (a former Odd Lots guest whom you should definitely follow on Twitter), a new paper on exactly this topic from Ricardo Caballero, Emmanuel Farhi and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas. Read it for rather glorious sentences such as this one: “What is relatively new, relative to post–World War II history, is that the global economy is going through a complex structural period where the standard valuation adjustment for safe assets— via interest rate changes—have run out their course.”

Here’s a summary I wrote as part of our morning ‘Five Things’ newsletter, which you can sign-up for here.

“Want a stylized prism through which to understand almost everything that’s happened in the global financial system over the past two decades? Then take a look at this paper on “The Safe Assets Shortage Conundrum.” In it, the authors argue that savers’ desire to put their money in a reliable instrument has created a need for ‘safe’ assets that the financial system has had various degrees of success in fulfilling. In the early 2000s, the private sector tried to fill that need by creating triple A-rated bonds out of subprime mortgages. We know what happened next. After that, safe financial assets became largely the purview of governments via the bonds they sell – first the eurozone (which then experienced its own ratings problems) and then the U.S. Supply has ultimately failed to keep up with demand, however, mostly because slower growth has meant ‘safe’ governments in the developed world have been unable to generate assets at a fast enough pace to satisfy savings from emerging markets. It’s a state of affairs that will probably stick around for a long time, and one that helps explain why bond yields continue to plumb new lows, seemingly without rhyme or reason. But seriously, go read the whole thing.”

A side note: I do wonder what might constitute safe in the current environment. Yes, government debt is the clear winner here but corporate debt issued by cash-heavy, investment grade, national champion corporates – think Apple – can’t be far behind…

Fair wages for robots

Fair wages for robots

No, seriously.* Hear me out.

Citi’s Willem Buiter offers one possible explanation to stubbornly low-inflation, and by extension, sluggish economic growth. Here’s the excerpt:

“We draw attention to one additional hypothesis: that we underestimate the amount of slack in the economy not primarily because we underestimate the amount of slack in the labor market or overestimate the degree of utilization of tangible capital but rather because potential output can be boosted greatly at effectively zero social marginal cost and without increased use of labor and tangible capital, through the use of new production methods based on recent advances in information technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things, robotics, automation, autonomous machines and nanotechnology.

Because the value added in many of these new activities is mostly pure rents (returns to genius, luck and monopoly power) the distribution of income and wealth created by these activities is increasingly unequal. That weakens the aggregate marginal and average propensity to consume. Unless this shortfall of demand is made up for by increased consumer demand through fiscal redistribution towards households with higher marginal propensities to spend, or by capital expenditure, public consumption or net exports, some of the potential output gains may not materialize but turn into excess capacity and a growing (or at least larger than expected) output gap. Lower-than-expected inflation is the result.”

As Paul Caple pointed out on Twitter, there’s a simple mismatch at play here. Advances in technology mean you can boost potential output without the need for (mere) humans, yet consumption remains a human-driven activity. With more profits accruing to owners of capital — the Piketty-esque element in Buiter’s argument above — consumption drags. After all, there’s only so much a billionaire can spend, much as they might try. Meanwhile, the proximate cause of greater potential output is paid nothing, and presumably contributes nothing to consumer demand beyond potentially making goods more affordably or efficiently, which may or may not encourage people to by them (As the cycle of improvement continues there’s only so many times you’re going to upgrade your TV. iPhones appear to be the exception here).

The solution is simple: pocket money for robots.

A politically-unpalatable solution for sure, but think of the “fiscal redistribution” that could be achieved. The nuts and bolts spending, if you will. Unlike human beings, robots can also be programmed to spend consistently, thereby avoiding the over-savings problem that has plagued the 2000s. So long as the robot-owners don’t extract the wages as rent. And so long as the robots themselves don’t go off the rails: I can save I I everything else to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me.

Fail GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

*Readers assume all responsibility for taking this seriously.

Flows before pros?

Flows before pros?

A recent Barron’s interview with James Montier got me thinking. In it, the GMO man answers a question about lofty valuations across both bonds and stocks that have caused consternation for asset allocators seeking good value in the market. In response, he says: “The US market is at its second or third most expensive point in history. So people are saying, ‘I either don’t understand the world anymore, or I don’t think that valuation matters anymore.'”

I think he has a point but maybe not the one he means. Valuations do matter because in a world of inflated asset prices but suppressed actual price inflation or economic growth, they’ve become the easiest and most surefire way for investors to generate outperformance, and so, that is what they are chasing. I still think Citigroup’s Matt King put it best, when he argued two years ago that something fundamental had changed in the market’s behaviour.

The crux of this argument is that markets used to be self-limiting. Prices of securities would move up to a point where their yields would become unattractive, at which time investors would trim some of their positions, causing prices to go down and yields to recover. Now the intense search for returns has altered that dynamic, with investors chasing inflows as a means of getting higher prices and higher profits.

While the notion that  value investing is disappearing in a market that has moved ever upward for the past five years is not exactly new, King’s presentation here is stark. Investors have been moving in tandem, he says, making markets far more homogenous. The chart below shows investor positioning in credit markets, where the number of longs has vastly outnumbered the shorts, along with the International Monetary Fund’s herding metric. In short, investors across a number of asset classes are going mooo as one-way positioning dominates…

We often say the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. Maybe the updated version should be that the market can self-perpetuate for longer than expected.