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Category: Corporate Finance

Creating Value

I’ve talked in previous posts about a “closed circuit” economy among the wealthy. A plutonomy at the top increasingly circulates buying power (be it luxury goods, real estate, gold, or securities) among itself. The middle class used to dream that a rising Wall Street tide would lift all boats; as Felix Salmon shows, that hope is fading. Whatever innovations arise out of these companies aren’t doing much for average incomes.

On the other hand, financial innovation has done wonders to extract purchasing power from the broad middle into the closed circuit at the top. Here, for example, is how one of our leading firms created enormous value in 2006:

Consider the tale of Travelport, a Web-based reservations company. [A] private equity firm and a smaller partner bought Travelport in August 2006. They paid $1 billion of their own money and used Travelport’s balance sheet to borrow an additional $3.3 billion to complete the purchase. They doubtless paid themselves hefty investment banking fees, which would also have been billed to Travelport.

After seven months, they laid off 841 workers, which at a reasonable guess of $125,000 all-in cost per employee (salaries, benefits, space, phone, etc.) would represent annual savings of more than $100 million. And then the two partners borrowed $1.1 billion more on Travelport’s balance sheet and paid that money to themselves, presumably as a reward for their hard work. In just seven months, that is, they got their $1 billion fund investment back, plus a markup, plus all those banking fees and annual management fees, and they still owned the company. And note that the annual $100 million in layoff savings would almost exactly cover the debt service on the $1.1 billion. That’s elegant—what the financial press calls “creating value.”

The corporate geniuses at Boeing offer another display of modern-day business acumen.

The more stories like this you read, the more you realize that massive unemployment isn’t a bug in our economic system; it’s a feature. A country can’t have legal rules that permit these moves without expecting to hemorrhage jobs. All the Michael Porter homilies in the world can’t put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.

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The Rule of Flaw: Ibanez and the Too-Big-to-Succeed Problem

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez  is the latest and loudest salvo in what may be the most engaging and gruesome legal aspect of the credit crisis yet:  The day of reckoning for the staggering sloppiness that infected virtually every step of the mortgage-securitization process.

Ibanez held that, according to well-established Massachusetts precedent, a mortgagee cannot foreclose unless — surprise, surprise — it actually isthe mortgagee, or a legitimate assignee thereof.  In Ibanez,  lenders or servicers had foreclosed mortgages prior to completing (or commencing) the process of taking assignment of the note and  mortgage  on which they foreclosed.  When they later sought to clear title, Massachusetts courts balked.   “Utter carelessness,” Justice Cordy scolded the plaintiffs.

mistakes were made

This is potentially a huge problem for mortgage servicers (among others), given the long and convoluted chains of title through which mortgages may have passed in order to create mortgage-backed securities (MBS).   Not surprisingly, many observers are apoplectic, warning that this will lead to the end of the financial markets as we know them. 

How did this happen? 

There are probably several answers, but I think one is that the elite financial services sector (EFSS) that created the MBS is (or believes itself to be) a unique institutional force, unchallengeable by the ordinary legal or political mechanisms that keep institutions in check.  It is immune from the rules and norms  that apply to the rest of us.  But we know that spoilt children often lack discipline, so persistent failures of scrutiny have led inevitably to failures of competence. The drip, drip, drip of deregulation left us with firms that are not only too big to fail: they’re also too big to succeed. 

What will happen next? 

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Bubble Warning on Facebook, Groupon

The mysterious ways of financial valuation manifest daily. One mystery: Facebook, the social network business, and Groupon, the buying network company, both generate annual revenues of about $1 billion. Yet reported private stock trading indicates that traders are pricing Facebook at about 50 times that while pricing Groupon at about 5 times that.

Perhaps this is attributable to analytical factors, such as observed user growth rates, potential market and revenue sources, perceived capacity to convert the revenue into earnings, competitive threats—or negotiating skill in trading of privately-held shares. But given the wildly varying pricing traders give enterprises like this in recent years, it could be a sign of a bubble.

Financial bubbles recur as a natural, inherent product of human behavior in capitalist economies—from the recent real estate bubble, to the dot-com bubble a decade earlier, and stretching back to the tronics bubble of the 70s and back to Amsterdam tulip bulbs centuries ago.  (I wrote a trade book about this after last decade’s bubble burst.)  By definition, a critical mass cannot recognize the bubble as it is in inflating, though invariably some pessimists detect something. Read More

All That is Liquid Freezes in a Panic

Argue against a complex financial practice, and you’ll hear it sooner or later: the liquidity trump card. Promoters of virtually every form of securitization, leverage, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, swaptions, you name it—will insist that, if their activity is regulated or limited, the markets will lose liquidity. For example, as John Cassidy quotes John Mack, ‘subprime-mortgage bonds . . . “give[] tremendous liquidity to the markets.’” Another private equity executive tells Cassidy, ““Part of the value in a stock is the knowledge that you can sell it this afternoon. Banks provide liquidity.’”

Having authored the perceptive book How Markets Fail, Cassidy looks behind the liquidity talisman and finds it tends to melt into cliche:

“Liquidity” refers to how easy or difficult it is to buy and sell. A share of stock in a company on the Nasdaq is a very liquid asset: using a discount brokerage such as Fidelity, you can sell it in seconds for less than ten dollars. A chocolate factory is an illiquid asset: disposing of it is time-consuming and costly. The classic justification for market-making and other types of trading is that they endow the market with liquidity. . . .

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Treasury’s Prime Directive: Protect the Banks

Adam Levitin has been one of the most courageous and compelling commentators on the financial crisis. So it’s not much of a surprise to see this report on his latest testimony before the Senate Banking Committee:

First off, he lamented the fact that we have been holding hearings like this since 2007. “Every year we have another set of hearings, and you can add 2 million foreclosures” to the bottom line. Nothing gets fixed, despite all kinds of documented evidence that the banks and servicers have committed fraud. Levitin’s position is that the servicers should be banned from the loan modification business entirely, because they don’t have any interest in it except as a profit-maximization scheme, and they have massive conflicts of interest that cut against doing right by the borrowers (and even the investors for whom they work).

Levitin said that we don’t have the full data sets from the servicers, or any comprehensive data to see whether there is a full-on crisis of unclear title and improper mortgage assignment. In other words, we don’t quite know the full extent of the problem. Levitin said, essentially, “The federal regulators don’t want to get info from servicers, because then they’d have to do something about it.” They don’t want to recognize the scope of the problem because it would require them to act. And Levitin in particular singled out the Treasury Department. “The prime directive coming out of Treasury is ‘protect the banks’ and don’t force them to recognize their losses.”

While I’m sure the FCIC will issue a nuanced report on the web of causes behind the foreclosure crisis, Levitin sees the spider. It looks like courts are beginning to identify it, too. As Kate Berry reported in the American Banker,
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Mad Glee-actica: The Virtues of Extreme Recycling

I don’t watch much TV.  So, I am hardly the person to make strong claims about its quality or trends.  That said, I find it fascinating that three of the best shows of the past few years—Battlestar Galactica, Madmen, and Glee—share a really odd structural feature:  They have all taken ridiculously bad ideas from cringe-able eras and turned them around completely, made them not only fresh, but evocative, disturbing, intriguing.

Where's the goo?

They are, in short, evidence of the virtues of extreme recycling.

Just imagine the pitch meeting for Galactica:  We’ll take what has to have been one of the dumbest pop-culture packing peanuts ever and make it stronger, faster, better:  How about an allegory about civil liberties and faith after 9/11 using Cylons and vats of goo?

Or what about Madmen:  Let’s explore the most virulent cancers on our culture with lovingly pornographic attention to detail, to demonstrate the complex symbiosis among banality, beauty, evil and exculpation.  Madmen is the money shot of commodity fetishism, proving once again the truth of Chomsky’s admonition that if you want to learn what’s wrong with capitalism, don’t read The Nation, read the Wall Street Journal.

And Glee?  Well, all I can say is:  Don’t Stop Believing.

Which may lead you to this question:  No one really takes the “and everything else” part of CoOps’s desktop mantra seriously, so what the frak does this have to do with law? Read More

Rule of Law in Russia

This presentation by Bill Browder at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is a pretty astonishing account of the Russian economy over the past two decades. I am familiar with the usual story of oligarch profiteering, but Browder’s experience shows how even the ostensibly sound legal arrangements of today can quickly unfold into a nightmare for investors. As the Stanford GSB news puts it,

Browder soared to fame and fortune investing in Russian equities amid the chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet economy. His hallmark: finding hidden values in Russian companies and driving up their share prices by exposing corporate malfeasance and mismanagement. His widely publicized campaigns for shareholder rights and corporate governance helped propel the Hermitage Fund from $25 million in 1996 to $4 billion a decade later. But eventually the U.S.-born financier ran afoul of the Russian government, which banned him from the country in 2005 as a threat to national security.

According to Browder, “Anyone who would make a long-term investment in Russia right now, almost at any valuation, is completely out of their mind. . . .My situation is not unusual. For every me, there are 100 others suffering in silence.” And for a “bigger picture” presentation about the “disembedded markets” and the types of forces Browder was a victim of, Nancy Fraser’s Storrs Lecture podcast on “Predatory Protections, Tragic Tradeoffs, and Dangerous Liaisons: Dilemmas of Justice in the Context of Capitalist Crisis” is also well worth listening to.

Will Charles Ferguson be Our Ferdinand Pecora? (Review of Inside Job)

In his post on Michael Perino’s book Hellhound of Wall Street, Lawrence Cunningham observes that “Our predecessors were fortunate to have someone like Ferdinand Pecora to uncover top-secret financial shenanigans. No such person appears in our midst.”

It’s a tragic situation, especially because there are some real truth tellers out there—Yves Smith, Mike Konczal, Michael Greenberger, and many affiliates of the Roosevelt Institute come to mind. The difference between Pecora’s time and ours is a fragmented and manipulated media that a) can barely follow a complex financial story for more than a few hours, and b) fastidiously counterbalances every account of a Wall Street misdeed with some “expert” assuring us that it’s just business as usual in an industry that’s way too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

Charles Ferguson’s compelling film Inside Job steps in for a phantom mass media. Every citizen should be conversant with the basic narrative Ferguson puts together. Andrew Sheng, Chief Advisor to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, puts it in a nutshell: there was massive private gain in the US financial sector leading to massive public loss. Looking back, we might have all been better off if the finance tycoons profiled in the film had simply demanded hundreds of millions of dollars directly from the government back in 2000, and retired to Capri.

Instead, these deci- and centimillionaires helped build up the Rube Goldberg contraption of derivative deregulation, CDO’s, and CDS’s Ferguson describes. Fortunately, the film concisely explains that farrago in a way that will both educate the uninitiated and intrigue those who’ve read some books on the crisis. The film’s real contribution lies in four arguments it makes.
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On the Colloquy: The Credit Crisis, Refusal-to-Deal, Procreation & the Constitution, and Open Records vs. Death-Related Privacy Rights

NW-Colloquy-Logo.jpg

This summer started off with a three part series from Professor Olufunmilayo B. Arewa looking at the credit crisis and possible changes that would focus on averting future market failures, rather than continuing to create regulations that only address past ones.  Part I of Prof. Arewa’s looks at the failure of risk management within the financial industry.  Part II analyzes the regulatory failures that contributed to the credit crisis as well as potential reforms.  Part III concludes by addressing recent legislation and whether it will actually help solve these very real problems.

Next, Professors Alan Devlin and Michael Jacobs take on an issue at the “heart of a highly divisive, international debate over the proper application of antitrust laws” – what should be done when a dominant firm refuses to share its intellectual property, even at monopoly prices.

Professor Carter Dillard then discussed the circumstances in which it may be morally permissible, and possibly even legally permissible, for a state to intervene and prohibit procreation.

Rounding out the summer was Professor Clay Calvert’s article looking at journalists’ use of open record laws and death-related privacy rights.  Calvert questions whether journalists have a responsibility beyond simply reporting dying words and graphic images.  He concludes that, at the very least, journalists should listen to the impact their reporting has on surviving family members.

The Question Concerning Finance: Party Like It’s 1929? Or Prepare Like It’s 1957?

Another day, another story of Wall Street’s failure to allocate capital responsibly. Today’s installment appears on ProPublica, and describes how “Wall Street bankers perpetrated one of the greatest episodes of self-dealing in financial history:”

Faced with increasing difficulty in selling the mortgage-backed securities that had been among their most lucrative products, the banks hit on a solution that preserved their quarterly earnings and huge bonuses: They created fake demand.

A ProPublica analysis shows for the first time the extent to which banks — primarily Merrill Lynch, but also Citigroup, UBS and others — bought their own products and cranked up an assembly line that otherwise should have flagged. The products they were buying and selling were at the heart of the 2008 meltdown — collections of mortgage bonds known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.

As the housing boom began to slow in mid-2006, investors became skittish about the riskier parts of those investments. So the banks created — and ultimately provided most of the money for — new CDOs. Those new CDOs bought the hard-to-sell pieces of the original CDOs. The result was a daisy chain that solved one problem but created another: Each new CDO had its own risky pieces. Banks created yet other CDOs to buy those. . . .Because of Wall Street’s machinations, more mortgages had been granted to ever-shakier borrowers.

The article explains the details of the deals, whose byzantine structures should be numbingly familiar to anyone who’s read ProPublica’s earlier work on Magnetar, or chapter 9 of Yves Smith’s book Econned. Smith calculated that, “if you look at the non-synthetic component, every dollar in mezz ABS CDO equity that funded cash bonds created $533 in subprime demand” (Econned, 261). (If mezz ABS CDO means nothing to you, I highly recommend Smith’s blog, or John Lanchester’s I.O.U., the most stylishly written of the “crisis” books.)

Behind all the reticulated swaps of risk and reward, in article after article, the crash of 2008 is boiling down to a familiar story: endless leverage designed to support ever more fee-generating deals. Read More