Kevin Drum

Risk

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

Like pretty much everyone else on planet Earth, I've been thinking about risk a lot lately.  And I suppose I've been thinking pretty much the same thing as everyone else.  The following excerpt, from a speech to a bunch of bond dealers, is a bit jargony, but gets the basic point across.  Take it away, Felix Salmon:

You and I and Alan Greenspan all thought that credit derivatives were wonderful things because they moved credit risk out of the hands of people who didn’t want it, like banks, and into the hands of people who did want it.

In reality, however, the appetite for risk was never nearly as great as we all thought. $10 billion of loans becomes less than $200 million of credit-risk instruments, and everybody else reassures themselves that they’ve managed to reduce their credit risk to zero, even as the people holding that $200 million in synthetic CDO tranches are reassured by their own single-A or triple-B credit ratings that theyaren’t taking a particularly large amount of risk either.

And of course you know what happens next: some bright spark invents the CDO-squared, which seems to reduce the total amount of risk even further. You take the mezzanine debt, the triple-B stuff, and you do all manner of securitization magic to it, and it turns out that you can turn most of that into triple-A paper, too!

Because it was all triple-A, no one felt much in the way of need to do any analysis of their own: it’s almost impossible to overstate the power of the laziness of the bond investor. You know this from your own work with municipal issuers: the reason for those monoline wraps is not because the issuers have a lot of credit risk, but because the investors are lazy, and don’t want to do their homework, and reckon they can get out of doing their homework so long as there’s a monoline guarantee. Essentially, they’re outsourcing their own job to the monolines. Which might be reasonable for a small retail investor, but is not a good idea if your job is to invest in fixed-income instruments which carry a higher yield than Treasury bonds.

Of course, we all know how reliable those monoline guarantees turned out to be — and that’s a related story. The monolines, just like the ratings agencies, believed far too much in the power of models.

This kind of thing isn't new.  The basic idea is that you take, say, a BBB-rated bond (decent quality but not great) and get a monoline to insure it, and suddenly you've got a AAA bond.  It's now risk free because even if the bond defaults, the monoline will pay you off.  In theory, this is great: somebody who wants less risk in their portfolio is able to buy insurance from someone who wants more risk in return for a greater potential return.  Everybody gets what they want — party A gets exactly the investment it wants and party B gets exactly the investment it wants — which makes the bond market more efficient and more liquid.

But although this is true theoretically, in the real world it turns out that risk is usually best measured by whoever is closest to it.  In the past, bond buyers were pretty careful about evaluating default risk because they were the ones who'd have to bear it.  Then they started selling off that risk, and the monolines, who were eager for business and comforted by the fact that their models had always worked, were just a little less careful.  Then credit default swaps were invented and popularized, and risk was sold off even further.  And then further.  And when you get three or four steps down the line, nobody is seriously analyzing the underlying securities themselves.  They're just relying on increasingly on abstract models.

So a system that theoretically makes the market more efficient ends up, for all too human reasons, with no one truly evaluating the risk of all the securities underlying the rocket science.  And eventually it comes crashing down.

All of which makes me wonder: is Felix still as bullish about credit default swaps as he has been in the past?  Unlike some credit derivatives, there's no question that CDS serves a useful purpose.  In theory.  But in practice, when their use becomes nearly universal and they start getting packaged two and three vehicles deep, they're deadly even if there's no conscious fraud or abuse going on.  They don't so much allocate risk as simply encourage people to ignore it.  It's just human nature.

As for me, I'm increasingly wondering if insurance of financial assets (as opposed to physical assets, which are a different story) is a good idea, period.  Sure, the upside is that it makes debt markets more efficient, but it's worth asking if we even want these markets to be more efficient in the first place.  What has that gotten us aside from gigantic profits for financial firms?  And if there's no upside to balance a potentially catastrophic downside, why allow it at all?  Maybe, human nature being what it is, there's no substitute for forcing debt buyers to be extremely, personally, conscious of the risk they're assuming when they make an investment.  Maybe, in the end, that's the only thing that can keep a credit bubble from overinflating.

I'm not sure.  Pushback welcome on this score.  But it's certainly worth thinking about the big picture here.

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Chart of the Day - 4.23.2009

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

Just kill me now.  Via The Monkey Cage.

Where It Started

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 12:13 PM EDT

FBI agent Ali Soufan writes in the New York Times about the torture memos:

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working....It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

....There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

As it happens, I've never made arguments against torture based on whether it works or not.  I'm more in the Shep Smith camp: "We are America.  We. Do. Not. Fucking. Torture."  Still it's worth reminding everyone of exactly what happened with Abu Zubaydah, whose case helped touch off the institutionalization of torture under the Bush administration.  Ron Suskind told the story in The One Percent Doctrine, and Barton Gellman summarizes here:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be....Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics....And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."

....Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. "I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each...target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

And so it began.

A War Against Harman?

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 11:29 AM EDT

When the Jane Harman story first broke, I thought the most interesting question might very well be, Who leaked it?  The more I read about it, the more I'm beginning to think I was right.  Here's the latest from CQ:

Intelligence officials, angry that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had blocked an FBI investigation into Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's interactions with a suspected Israeli agent, tipped off Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, that Harman had been picked up on a court-ordered National Security Agency wiretap targeting the agent.

In doing so, the officials flouted an order by Gonzales not to inform Pelosi, three former national security officials said.

....A well-placed source said an official from the CIA had gone around Gonzales to inform Pelosi about Harman being picked up on the wiretap...."She knew. We made sure she knew," said one of the former officials, chuckling.

It's not at all clear that Harman did anything wrong here.  (Though it's not clear that she didn't either.)  What is clear is that the CIA is engaged in some pretty serious message sending against people they don't like.  My guess: I don't know how Harman is going to weather all this, but I don't think it's going to turn out well for the CIA.  They may have gone a couple of steps too far this time.

Down the Rabbit Hole

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

From Matt Yglesias:

Dave Weigel notes that Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX), in charge of helping GOP Senate candidates, is being surprisingly friendly with former Rep. Pat Toomey who’s mounting a challenge-from-the-right to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). Dave notes that “it becomes much, much harder to hold the seat if Specter loses.”

Matt goes on to say that this is pretty similar to what happened in the Virginia senate race last year and wonders why the GOP is essentially committing suicide.  It's a good question, and despite the general wankery involved it makes it almost irresistable to try to psychoanalyze the current Republican soul.  It's all just too weird otherwise.  Having gone crackers during the Bush years, and getting convincingly drubbed at the polls for it in 2006 and 2008, the almost unanimous reaction among conservatives has been to double down: focus even more on tax cuts to the exclusion of everything else; focus more on pure obstructionism; focus more on defending torture and insisting that it works great; focus more on gun nuttery even though Obama plainly has no intention of doing anything dramatic about guns; focus more on the absolute craziest pundits.  It's as if they're convinced, so deep in their souls, that America couldn't have really turned against them, that they can't even conceive of any strategy other than amping up the lunacy even further.

I dunno.  It's all crazy.  I can't even begin to understand it.

Negotiating With Pirates

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 1:27 AM EDT

Treasury's last offer to Chrysler's bondholders was 15% of the total value of their debt.  The bondholders sneered.  They wanted 65%.  Today, Treasury upped their offer:

The Treasury now proposes that the banks and other lenders accept as payment 22% of the $6.9 billion they are owed plus a 5% equity stake in Chrysler, said several people familiar with the matter.

....The new government offer leaves the U.S. and Chrysler lenders at least $3 billion apart with one week left before an April 30 Treasury deadline to determine the auto maker's fate. The two sides are also far apart in how big an ownership stake the lenders would get in a restructured Chrysler.

Who will blink?  I'll predict that they end up at, oh, 30% and a 20% equity stake.  Put your guess in comments.  Whoever comes closest get an autographed 8x10 of Lee Iacocca.

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First Movers

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

Some recent research apparently shows that the first brand of some particular good to hit the shelves in some particular area (Miller beer in Chicago, Heinz ketchup in Pittsburgh, etc.) manages to retain outsize market share for a very long time.  This prompts Matt Yglesias to look at maps showing the density of Starbucks stores and Walmarts:

You see some of the stereotype “latte liberal” stuff going on here, but it’s also clear that pure proximity to Seattle or to Bentonville is a big factor. And in the CPG market, these kind of impacts seem to last a long time. And somehow Tim Horton’s can be very popular in Canada but not make it big in the states. Why doesn’t In-and-Out Burger spread to the east coast?

I don't know about Starbucks, but a big part of the reason the Walmart map looks this way is simply that Walmart management chose to expand first and most densely close to its home territory.  In the case of In-N-Out, my understanding is that the family that owns them has declined to sell franchises, which limits their geographical reach based on how fast they can finance growth through internal cash flow.

So there's more going on than just first mover advantage.  Though there's certainly plenty of that too, especially for food items, I think, where people get accustomed to a particular taste and stick with it for a long time.  Taste in candy, for example, is famously set in childhood, which is why Americans scarf down megatons of Hershey's chocolate every year, while the rest of the world considers it barely fit for pig swill.  Lots of interesting stuff going on here.

Moral Relativism

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

When the subject has anything to do with sex, the right in America is the party of moral absolutes.  We know what's right, we know what's wrong, and even if there's a price to pay we can't shirk our responsibility to set a proper example and do the right thing.

But when the subject is torture, suddenly it's all about carefully weighing the costs and benefits.  Having an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves.  Understanding the context of what happened.  It's just not possible to flatly say that waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions are barbarisms unfit for use by a civilized country.  It's much more complex than that.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

Oil Shocks

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 12:27 PM EDT

Ryan Avent points today to a paper by Jim Hamilton suggesting that the real cause of our current recession is the spike in oil prices between 2007-2008.  Here's Hamilton on the implications of a model he originally constructed in 2003:

I used [] historically estimated parameters to find the answer to the following conditional forecasting equation. Suppose you knew in 2007:Q3 what GDP had been doing up through that date and could know in advance what was about to happen to the price of oil. What path would you have then predicted the economy to follow for 2007:Q4 through 2008:Q4?

....Somewhat astonishingly, that model would have predicted the course of GDP over 2008 pretty accurately and would attribute a substantial fraction of the significant drop in 2008:Q4 real GDP to the oil price increases.  The implication that almost all of the downturn of 2008 could be attributed to the oil shock is a stronger conclusion than emerged from any of the other models surveyed in my Brookings paper, and is a conclusion that I don't fully believe myself.

Well, I don't fully believe it either.  But do I believe that the oil spike played a significant role?  You bet.  I don't have any kind of background in econometrics, but I can create simple-minded charts showing how the economy responds to sharp rises in oil prices, and four years ago I did just that.  My chart is on the right, and it shows that every time since 1973 that oil prices have risen by 50% or more in a short period, the American economy has tanked — and the bigger the spike, the bigger the tank.  The far end of my chart is labeled with question marks, but of course we can now fill in that data: the rise in oil prices that began in 2003, retreated a bit in 2006, and then spiked sharply starting in 2007 did indeed touch off a recession.  And as in previous episodes, the fact that it was a big rise meant that the result was a big recession.

Plus there was the whole subprime thing, a huge credit expansion, the rise of financial wizardry, the end of the housing bubble, and so forth.  A perfect storm.  But if you want to persuade me that oil prices played a role too, I'm all ears.  I'd be pretty surprised if it were otherwise.

Paying to Play

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

Jonathan Turley tells me something I didn't know:

The King family has long been criticized for insisting on payment for the use of their father's name, image, speeches and virtually anything that they can claim for themselves or their foundation. The family reached a new low this week when it was revealed that they had been paid more than $800,000 by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation for the use of King's image and words on the planned King memorial on Washington's Mall.

....In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family's Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a "management" fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

A speech can be copyrighted, but I didn't realize that the image of a dead person — and an extremely public one at that — could be protected the same way.  Live and learn.