B12 Solipsism

Spreading confusion over the internet since 1994

Fools Gold

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“Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe” (Gillian Tett)

According to Gillian Tett (by way of New Yorker columnist John Lanchester), our current financial meltdown started because of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

first bore fruit when Exxon needed to open a line of credit to cover potential damages of five billion dollars resulting from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. J. P. Morgan was reluctant to turn down Exxon, which was an old client, but the deal would tie up a lot of reserve cash to provide for the risk of the loans going bad. The so-called Basel rules, named for the town in Switzerland where they were formulated, required that the banks hold eight per cent of their capital in reserve against the risk of outstanding loans. That limited the amount of lending bankers could do, the amount of risk they could take on, and therefore the amount of profit they could make. But, if the risk of the loans could be sold, it logically followed that the loans were now risk-free; and, if that were the case, what would have been the reserve cash could now be freely loaned out. No need to suck up useful capital.

In late 1994, Blythe Masters, a member of the J. P. Morgan swaps team, pitched the idea of selling the credit risk to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. So, if Exxon defaulted, the E.B.R.D. would be on the hook for it—and, in return for taking on the risk, would receive a fee from J. P. Morgan. Exxon would get its credit line, and J. P. Morgan would get to honor its client relationship but also to keep its credit lines intact for sexier activities. The deal was so new that it didn’t even have a name: eventually, the one settled on was “credit-default swap.”

[From Outsmarted: Books: The New Yorker]

I haven’t read the book yet, but I ordered it after reading these sentence:

The value of Gillian Tett’s book is in the level of detail with which she tells the story, concentrating on the specific sequence of inventions and innovations that made it possible. Tett, a Financial Times reporter who covered the credit markets, was one of the few people to have seen the implosion coming. A critical factor was that she has a Ph.D. in social anthropology—a “hippie” background, as one banker told her, intending no compliment. It helped her focus on what she calls “social silences” in the world of banking.

Midas Touch

Bankers and their greed, but of course, greed with consequence for all of us.

There was one final component to the J. P. Morgan team’s invention. The team set up a kind of offshore shell company, called a Special Purpose Vehicle, to fulfill the role supplied by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the first credit-default swap. The shell company would assume $9.7 billion of J. P. Morgan’s risk (in this case, outstanding loans that the bank had made to some three hundred companies) and sell off that risk to investors, in the form of securities paying differing rates of interest. According to J. P. Morgan’s calculations, the underlying loans were so safe that it needed to collect only seven hundred million dollars in order to cover the $9.7-billion debt. In 1997, the credit agency Moodys agreed, and a whole new era in banking dawned. J. P. Morgan had found a way to shift risk off its books while simultaneously generating income from that risk, and freeing up capital to lend elsewhere. It was magic. The only thing wrong with it was the name, BISTRO, for Broad Index Secured Trust Offering, which made the new rocket-science financial instrument sound like a place you went to for steak frites. The market came to prefer a different term: “synthetic collateralized debt obligations.”

John Lancaster’s article is fascinating, give it a read before the Rapture takes your neighbors away…

Written by Seth Anderson

June 11th, 2009 at 7:46 am

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