10 October 2017

Whalen on CDOs, OBS, Fraud and Europe - I suggest you be very afraid

In 2006, after reading one of my friend Chris Whalen's articles in which he discussed the size and dangers of the Synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) market, I picked up the phone and rang him. "Chris, I have to admit that I simply do not understand what you've just written. Could you please explain it to me in small words?"

To his credit he did, and he took his time, and used small words, and at the end of our call, the only thing I could say was "Chris, based on what you've just taught me and what you are saying, you are now the scariest person I know."

Not long after came the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the slide into the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Everything Chris had written seemed to come to fruition, as if he had written the play-book for the crisis, or at least the reasons for the processes creating the crisis.

Fast forward to 2017, and over the past two weeks Chris has again written two very alarming articles. Last week focusing on CDOs and OBS risk, while this week's article sheds light on why Europe should worry us.

Last week Chris wrote a piece, this time called "CDO Redux: Credit Spreads & Financial Fraud". Read this article from Chris. It is as scary as anything he wrote in 2006. Toward the end you'll find the following statement:
The fact that Citi, JPM and GS are now pushing back into the dangerous world of off-balance sheet (OBS) derivatives just illustrates the fact that the large banks cannot survive without cheating customers, creditors and shareholders.
He points out that the very largest banks, like retailers, cannot be profitable by selling a greater volume at a lose, but only by, in effect, cooking the books. This suggests that systemic fraud is part of the natural business cycle, and he seems to be saying that we are nearing the end of this cycle.
As we note in "Good Banks, Bad Banks," larger institutions suffer from a fatal lack of profitability that ultimately dooms them to commit fraud and, eventually, suffer a catastrophic systemic risk event.
How big is this problem? Chris has a nice chart. Sure, it looks like the problems were in the past, but look at the re-growth to today. Notional Off Balance-Sheet Derivatives (OBS) are, between the three largest (Citi, JPMorgan, and Goldman Sacks) over $140 Trillion, not far from the GFC peak of around $130 and a later peak of possibly $175 Trillion.

Now, I seem to remember that "OBS" - Off Balance-Sheet, is bad. I seem to remember that it was the Off Balance-Sheet manipulation via the use of Special Purpose Vehicles (SVPs) that distorted their true debt position, and lead to the crash of Enron in late 2001.

Imagine a bank for which a 30BP (Basis Points: 100 PB = 1%) move in the OBS book would wipe out the bank's capital. Imagine wiping out a bank's capital with a .07% move (7 basis points). Imagine any entity leveraged 8000:1.

Note too that the relatively small GS has a notional OBS derivatives book of more than $41 trillion, almost as large as that of Citi and JPM.  More alarming, a move of just 7bp in the smaller bank’s OBS derivatives exposures would wipe out the capital of Goldman’s subsidiary bank. This gives GS an effective leverage ratio vs its notional OBS derivatives exposures of 8,800 to 1.
Worried yet?

Jumping forward to this week, and he has nothing comforting to say about Europe (or again, the American situation). This the following is not a surprise, the clarity of statement leaves no doubt:

Zero rates and QE a la Yellen, Draghi and Abe is not about growth so much as it is about subsidizing debtors, especially governments and other public obligors who are beyond the point of recovery in terms of ability to repay debt.

Meanwhile we continue to see the Rape of Greece, with bailouts primarily intended to subsidize European banks and governments, with Germany seeming to take the lead. All this as European banks continue to record interest "income" against non-performing loans. Many of those loans will never be repaid, and a haircut is inevitable. Chris points out that "more public sector debt has been incurred and the banks – which admit to some €850 billion (6%) in non-performing loans – are essentially insolvent as a group."

The big question will be whether Cyprus becomes the model for Europe, and if so, how long can the banking sector survive a run, or at least a slow walk, on deposits by individual savers. So far, QE in Europe has been used to avoid this, but not forever.
Europe is drowning in debt and there are a number of large EU banks that are demonstrably insolvent.
This continued pretense by the Europeans, coupled with the CDO & OBS situation in the US points to two of the three major economic blocks (counting China & ROTW {Rest of the world} as the third) piling on higher and higher levels of systemic risk. And not matter what anyone says, it will not be different this time.

Chris is being scary again. and again, we should listen to him.