Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wall Street Shenanigans - Is Iconic Brand USA Under Threat?

Breach of trust. Isn't that a culpable crime in financial world? How will you feel when your most trusted financial advisor, the one you even played golf with, was to commit breach of trust in order to swindle billions of dollars from you? Further, how would you feel if you happen to be the conscientious fund manager of a large Pension Fund on whom rests the onerous responsibility of ensuring that thousands of Pensioners have a respectable old age through timely pension? For a minute jump into the shoes of such a Pension Fund Manager and then tell me if  breach of trust is not a crime.

That is exactly what happened in the making of Sub Prime Crisis. Investment   bankers of Wall Street inflicted total breach of trust upon unsuspecting Institutional Investors and High Net worth Individuals(HNIs). This is becoming evident from the slew of court cases popping up against Goldman Sachs, the most venerable Investment Bank of Wall Street operating for the last 140 years. In global investment circles, Goldman Sachs' word in the final word on financial investment. And why shouldn't it be? Former employees of Goldman Sachs have headed World Bank, US Treasury Department, New York Stock Exchange, White House Staff, and financial giants like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. Some such luminaries in recent times are Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, who were United States Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton and George W Bush respectively.

Here we realize that we are talking of an all powerful global Investment Bank with some very influential links. It is so powerful that in 1995 Robert Rubin, as US Treasury Secretary, could enforce bailout of Mexican Bonds with US taxpayers'  money worth $20 billion. Reason : Goldman Sachs had huge exposure to bonds issued by Mexican Government and Mexico was in economic crisis which threatened to wipe out the value of these bonds. And also remember that Robert Rubin was a former employee of Goldman Sachs, managing  its Mexican investments. So the point is, when Goldman Sachs gives financial investment advice institutional investors around the world take action in accordance. It was this very faith which was smothered by Goldman Sachs, thereby morphing the sub prime crisis into a credit crisis of  magnitude unparalleled since the Great Depression of 1929.

As the plot unravels, deals of Goldman Sachs are continuously tumbling out of cupboard like the proverbial skeletons. From 2004 to 2008 Goldman sold 25 toxic mortgage based Collateralized Debt Obligations(CDO) products labelled Abacus. They even pressured Moody's to rate these products higher. These deals were worth billions and Tetsuya Ishikawa was one of the Goldman investment bankers who was involved in these deals. He later published a book titled " How I Caused the Credit Crunch". However Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the regulatory body of markets in US, later sued Goldman Sachs and one of its employees Fabrice Tourre in April 2010. SEC alleged that Goldman sold Abacus 2007-AC 1(a synthetic CDO product of Abacus series) by misrepresenting facts to its investors. It allowed a hedge fund, named Paulson & Co., to select underlying mortgages, which Paulson was shorting, into this synthetic CDO. In this manner Paulson made $ 1 billion in profit from shorting and investors in this Abacus deal lost the same amount. On 30 April 2010 a criminal probe has been launched into Goldman Sachs by Manhattan office of US Attorney General.

SEC is now probing a second Goldman CDO called Hudson Mezannine 2006-1. It underwrote this CDO and itself was the only short investor on all the assets worth $ 2 billion tied to the CDO. Honesty is such a orphaned word!! Last week Basis Capital, an Australian Hedge Fund, sued Goldman Sachs for $1 billion alleging that it fraudulently sold bits of toxic assets in the form of CDO called Timberwolfe-1, while itself shorting the market. When the CDO eventually collapsed with the US housing market, Basis Capital had to shut shop.

Goldman is also in the eye of the storm regarding controversial American International Group(AIG) bailout with $182 billion of taxpayers' money by US Federal Reserves in September 2008. AIG is a massive insurance corporation with almost all global banks having insurance exposure to it. It is alleged that Goldman Sachs engineered the bailout with its lobbying muscles and links inside the Federal Reserves. It is reported that AIG bailout money has finally gone into Wall Street investment banks like Goldman Sachs with overpayment. New York State Attorney General announced on March 2009 that he was investigating whether AIG counterparties improperly received Government money.

Then there is this skeleton of Goldman Sachs having created the recent European Sovereign Debt Default crisis. It is reported that from 1998 to 2009 Goldman has been systematically helping the Greek Government to help mask facts about its true national debt. Then in September 2009 it created a special Credit Default Swap(CDS) index for cover of high risk national debt of Greece. The Greek national bond prices fell drastically, making it difficult for Greece to raise further funds thereby leading the economy to near bankruptcy.

Let us not get carried away by the wrong notion that only Goldman Sachs is to be blamed. What Goldman Sachs did, other Investment Banks on Wall Street also did the same. Take the court cases piling up against Merrill Lynch  where the stories sound exactly similar to those of Goldman Sachs' cases, albeit with different name. One case filed by Rabobank against Merrill Lynch is so similar to Goldman's Abacus case that it is quite unnerving. It is because the entire Investment Bank community on Wall Street was practising what by then had become glorified business of daylight robbery in the garb of global investment opportunities in housing market of Brand USA. Imagine devastating plots being hatched by coterie of investment bankers in smoke-filled-cellars of Wall Street, plots which crippled the financial world and is now ready to take down nations with debt burden.

What is most disturbing in all this is that breach of trust is not being given due importance. No one has been found guilty so far in any meaningful way and hence no one has been sufficiently punished. As I mentioned in my last post of 6th June 2010 titled " Isn't It Anymore Immoral to Loot!- Oh Wall Street Ethics", derivatives is a zero sum game. If trillion dollars have been lost collectively in sub prime crisis by vast majority of global investors, then there will be a handful  who would have gained trillion dollars. Track down these few heroes and investigate their dealings and links with  Wall Street Investment Banks and you will get your answer. Although some investigations are directed towards that but they are yet to bear any fruit. A global crisis which could propel a German billionaire to commit suicide is no mean crisis. What US has build painstakingly as  iconic Brand America over decades is at a risk of being diluted, if not lost, just because Wall Street honchos cannot control their excessive greed. Breach of Trust can have a telling effect on pecking order of financial world , so what if it gets unnoticed in courtroom battles.

In the next post we shall scrutinize the role of nations in pumping steroids into  their respective economies hit by the tsunami of credit crisis. Commonly known as stimulus packages, we will dwell on the fallout of such steroids.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Isn't It Immoral to Loot Anymore? - Oh Wall Street Ethics!

Chief Investment Officer, J P Morgan Chase lashes out on US investors calling them "predictably irrational" and "stupid". This he did  in an interview given to Forbes magazine few days back. What cheek!! Calling majority of 95 million US investors as "stupid" and "predictably irrational"? This is after what the Wall Street bankers did to willfully defraud common investors? We all know what happened to investors in 2008 sub prime mortgage crisis in US. Who were the actual brains behind the global meltdown that followed? To arrive at an answer let us analyse the sub prime crisis step by step that brought the world dangerously close to the Great Depression era. By the way, what we see today as turmoil in financial world across nations is majorly gifted by the sub prime crisis. And Lord knows how much more pain world has to endure before the venom of sub prime crisis gets thrown out completely from the system! But first let us focus on the genesis of sub prime crisis.

Sub prime crisis started with mortgage companies giving loans to American public at near zero interest and with no due diligence and no collateral. This led to a boom in economic activity as homes were sold like hot cakes. The mortgage companies were fully aware that most of these loans were going to default because these loans were mostly given to people with little or no repaying capability. That is why it has been exotically termed as loans to Sub Prime (below Prime) borrowers, meaning borrowers with very poor credit history and below par repaying capacity. They went so far as to having no document check for the sub prime borrowers, with computer generated automated approvals given to loan applications within 30 seconds. In this format you can declare anything as your income and there will be no questions asked.

The mortgage companies therefore knew that there will be payment defaults. Initially when the default started, the housing market in US was booming. So the mortgage companies gave away mortgage loans for second time to defaulting borrowers against their homes to pay off their first mortgage. It was a win-win-situation for all since the property prices were rising fast and furious. The exponential rise in property prices was forming a housing bubble, and any bubble has to burst sometime or the other. This fact was known to financial wizards in the mortgage companies.

Time was running out. So to wriggle out of this imbroglio, these mortgage companies went to the omnipotent and omniscient investment bankers of Wall Street to bail them out of their impending doom. And thus a devious and intricate plot was hatched by big daddys of Wall Street.

Mortgage Backed Securities(MBS) : The investment bankers were quick to securitize the mortgage loans and pass on the risk to the buyers of these securities. Simply put they bought the mortgage loans, made  a  pool of these loans, and issued out bonds against the pool. The mortgage companies got their money back, and again went back to give out more loans to more undeserving borrowers.

Credit Default Swap(CDS) : Not content with passing on the risk to bond holders of MBS plan, they further wanted to make big bucks out of the situation of rising property prices. Thus they thought of exercising the financial instrument of CDS to make a killing. If  you are a bond holder you would like to insure yourself against the huge investment you have made in these bonds. So you get advised to buy CDS as an insurance. Suppose you have bought $1 million as mortgage bonds  and then you buy CDS as insurance,  you are required to pay annual premium of $10000(say) for such an insurance. By doing so you are insured to get your $1million in case the bond fails. CDS also allows that even if you are not the bond holder or property holder you can still participate in the housing market through CDS by speculating. Supposing you have an opinion that property prices will fall and by extension the MBS bonds will fail, then you buy CDS against these bonds, pay the yearly premium of $10000 and make a killing of $1 million as and when the bonds fail.

Collateralized Debt Obligation(CDO) : Still not content with raising mega bucks through MBS and CDS, these investment bankers devised more hideous plans to spread the risk right across the globe. They invoked CDO, a name that now sends shivers through millions of hapless investors on planet earth. All MBS and CDS were grouped into a pool, divided into tranches and sold as bonds of CDO. The tranches with least risk were given highest investment rating of AAA through rating agencies like S&P, Fitch and Moody's. The riskier tranches were given lower ratings in steps starting with AA, A, BBB, BB and B. Riskier the tranche, higher was the promised return and vice-versa. These were then sold to all financial institutions and big investors across continents as financial products, with  investment grade stamp and authority of the most hallowed names in financial world.

CDO Squared : Yet not satisfied that they have done enough, the investment bankers this time made a pool of CDOs itself as underlying asset and issued out CDO Squared. In doing this, slices were taken from CDO proper and mixed so horribly that the riskier tranches got thoroughly mixed with healthy tranches. Now the credit rating agencies had no problems giving AAA ratings to CDO Squared. Further, CDO Squared were put into a pool and made CDO Cubed and bonds issued against them. They have even gone further and sold derivatives of CDO Cubed and so on. No one really knows how far these investment bankers have gone in this game of deceit. All that one knows is that these financial products were manufactured in the factories of Wall Street and sold across the globe with investment grade ratings from the most venerable names in the rating business. Who will not buy these products, made in USA?!!

Synthetic CDO : One step further into the quagmire, Synthetic CDOs were sold which had no asset backing at all. This was the last nail in the coffin, as investment bankers on Wall Street sold Credit Default Swaps(CDS) of the already complex CDOs, terming them as Synthetic CDO.

When the housing bubble finally did burst in US, everything got complicated. The credit unworthy or sub prime borrowers defaulted and this time with their property prices plummeting, no one was ready to
re-mortgage their property. Not being able to pay the loans they vacated their homes. The banks had deluge of foreclosures, but there were no buyers for foreclosed homes. Hence there was distress selling from bankers. This led to further fall in property prices and the malaise slowly spread across to the prime mortgage market.

With such huge defaults from sub prime borrowers all derivative instruments starting with MBS and all hues of CDOs  crumpled. Anyone having exposure to these toxic assets had to book huge losses. Even those who did not have any exposure to such toxic assets were also hit. They were the pensioners in US who found out to their horror that the pension funds had exposure to these toxic assets.

All that is known to all of us. Now the question that begs an answer is this: "If derivatives is a zero sum game then how come the whole financial world is crying fowl?" If majority has lost billions of dollars ( last estimate of loss by IMF was about a trillion dollars) then who are the minority gainers. If the investment banks like Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and mortgage companies like Countrywide Financial have all lost billions of dollars and had applied for bankruptcy, then who have profited those lost billions? Surely not the poor sub prime borrowers who are on the street with their homes foreclosed. I would like to provide a clue to the answer. Investment bankers working for these investment banks had in their internal emails described all these derivative instruments like MBS, CDO as worthless papers. And yet they were wilfully selling these worthless papers with gusto and guise to all investors. Before the sub prime crisis all you needed to do was to take credit default swaps(CDS) of all these exotic mortgage derivatives and you would have made billions before you could say Jack Robinson. But for that you have to be an Insider and part of a Cartel !!

I have tried to explain a very complex phenomenon of sub prime crisis in a very simplified manner. Each financial instrument has many degrees of complexity attached, which I have conveniently left out so that it is easy to understand. As sequel to this understanding, I shall be discussing about the ramifications of  sub prime crisis on world economy in my next post. We shall also try to evaluate as to how much more pain is left in the system. Till then trade with caution!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Can You Spot a Design in Market Madness? - Cartels at Work

Sixth of May 2010. A day I simply cannot seem to erase from my recent memory region. US markets plunged nearly 10% on a single day!!! Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed 1010 points from its day high. New York Times headlines screamed "Stocks Plunge on Concerns Over Greece". Investors on Wall Street are left licking their wounds and the general public sympathizes.

Concerns over Greece? What was so new about concerns over Greece on that particular day that stock prices had to be reduced to few cents and then made to rebound up to 70%  within an hour or so? By the way, financial problems facing Greece was not a new fact uncovered that very day that market players had to sell off in utter shock anything and everything in sight in such tearing hurry. In fact on 17 Dec 2009 I had published a post titled "Debt Laden Dubai - When Will The Woes End?". In that post I had indicated that Greece and Spain were simmering with debt troubles and global investors were worried more on that account than Dubai defaulting. It was common knowledge in global investment circles for the last six months or so that Greece was tottering on a serious financial crisis and would be the first of the European nations to start the Domino Effect. Now would the regulators please explain to US public as to what really happened on 6th May 2010 and who were the extraordinary beneficiaries?

One can understand European markets selling off with one or the other bad news. First from the blocks was Greece with its credit contraction, then Spain bailing out one of its banks and then Germany banning short selling - all that is understood. In between North Korea brandishes its sword on South Korea and China goes on clean up drive to rein in inflation by pulling back some stimulus packages in small measures. Perfectly fine. But what would you say when Financial Times on 26th May tells investors with all authenticity that China was going to sell its reserve of Euro bonds. China holds about $ 630 billion in Euro bonds. That news sent jitters down the spine of global investors.

The shock waves created in Europe from the shattering news in Financial Times was so great that Euro currency nosedived and almost became  serious competitor of Zimbabwean Dollar!! With it the European stocks were dragged down and US exports to Europe presented a great challenge. Pandemonium broke loose in global investment circles. Dow Jones lost 230 points from its day high. Investors were planning their exit strategies further when the very next day China in a surprise move rubbished the news of Financial Times and reiterated its faith in Euro and the European Union. European markets and Euro rebounded with zest and Dow Jones gathered 295 points extra weight.

In all this high drama, one thing stands out very clearly. Influential parties will go to any length and pull off any stunt to browbeat the investors. How can Financial Times, the venerable publication of global markets, be so callous as to publish a news which is so far from the truth? Who are responsible for painting such panic-setting scenarios? Has Financial Times apologized to the investors and to its readers? Will market regulators take some time off their busy schedule and look beneath the cover? Bizarre things are on the cards in global markets. There will be more rude shocks and many more deceptions. Wild swings will tear short term  traders apart on both sides of the trade. Welcome to the Year of Volatility, because cartels are at work with a vengeance.

I will be providing more evidence of big boys of Wall Street who are working in cahoots with other big global players to swindle billions from honest investors. Watch this space for more on this issue of cartelization. Till that time just mull over the news that Wall Street investment banks have engaged lobbying firms for close to $ 450 million to block financial bank reforms in US. You will get to know more about big boys of stock markets and their Machiavellian plans in the sequel to this article. God save US investors!!