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The horrifying AAA debt-issuance chart (reuters.com)
126 points by MaysonL on July 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 99 comments



Author doesn't really understand the situation.

The problem, which started becoming visible in 2001, is that in the aftermath of the "dot-com boom", the ratings agencies starting rating a lot of things AAA that were not, in fact, AAA. That is not "an excess of overcaution". In fact it was an exploit of the banking/finance system, that went like this:

    -- lots of places are required by law or regulation to only invest in AAA securities, because they/the public don't want to lose any money.  They have a LOT of money to invest.
    -- but they don't check the shit themselves
    -- they depend on a rating agency
    -- ratings agencies are paid by the issuers
    -- they are exploitable
    -- bribe the rating agency to give my shit a AAA rating, and now I can sell a ton of it
    -- offer the investor a slightly greater than AAA return, and they love it
    -- everyone is happy: rating agency is bribed, investor is getting better returns than expected, and I can sell all the shit I can package up
    -- until it all falls apart.
And the far right side of the chart is just a continuance of the same thing: our shit fell apart, what should we do? Well, the easiest thing is to bribe the politicians to take our private debts and turn them into public debts. And so it happened. That big tall lavender bar in 2009 is the dark purple lines from a few years prior....

None of this has anything to do with an excess of caution or with AAA debt being more systemically dangerous than other types of debt. The blogger here almost grasps what is wrong:

> "That’s possibly the most horrifying bit of all: it simply defies credulity for anybody to be asked to believe that more than half the bonds issued in any given year are essentially free of any credit risk."

but he skips past the correct answer, which is that the ratings agencies have been suborned.


I'm quite certain Felix Salmon understands everything you mentioned, but apparently since he didn't dress the issue in the way you simplify it, it means he doesn't understand the situation. Maybe do a search on his blog for ratings and try glancing through some of the (hundreds) of posts he's written in the past few years before making your judgment?

Specifically, you're misinterpreting what is meant by "an excess of overcaution". Felix is referring to how investor demand being too cautious (i.e. only interested in or able to invest in AAA) lead to a scenario where all sorts of tricks were developed to get an AAA rating on securities [1].

1. http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/26/shrinking-b...


Maybe I misinterpreted the article too, because an "excess of overcaution" sounds a lot like blame shifting to me, in this case from the rating agencies onto the investors who believed the ratings. The argument implies that because investors were "overcautious", and only willing to buy AAA rated securities, the rating agencies were therefore compelled to rate things AAA they otherwise would/should not have. At any rate, it seems that rating agencies should be rating things accurately regardless of how cautious investors are.


Looking at the line graph, the % of total securities issues rated AAA, it's apparent that between 1991 and 1994 the proportion jumps up from ~20% to ~50% and then floats in a bracket between 50 and 60% for most of the next 2 decades. This obviously happened ahead of the dot com boom, and while I think you make many valid points, none of them address this startling change in the distribution of ratings.

Unfortunately the chart only goes back to 1990, and I don't have time to dig up historical figures. Perhaps more financial instruments used to enjoy a AAA rating until the Savings & Loan scandal of the late 80s, and the sudden upward jump in ratings represents the purging of bad assets from the financial system following the recession of the early 90s. But really, I don't know. Without disputing your observations above, I think we could learn a lot from looking at the largest discontinuity here rather than focusing on the absolute volume figures from recent years, notwithstanding the significant increase in securitization following the repeal of Glass-Steagall.


Prior to the 90's there were a number of AAA-rated bank holding companies in Japan, France, Germany, etc, who participated in securitizations by issuing Letters of Credit, lending those bonds their AAA ratings. The downgrades of those led to alternative structures, e.g. reserve funds built up from the collateral pools streams of principal and interest, to garantee timely payment of the bonds' P&I obligations.

A lot of the AAA growth from 1990 forward comes from the application of these structures to securitization of non-mortgage consumer loans, first auto and credit card loans, then others.


> downgrades of those led to alternative structures

Proliferation of "credit enhancements" certainly did spark the AAA bubble, but I'm quite certain that participating financial institutions became much more profitable under this new regulatory regime.

Specifically, the deregulation of OTC derivatives[1] in 2000, which allowed issuers to purchase insurance against loss, caused massive growth in AAA ratings for ABS (dark purple section). In fact, there is an excellent Frontline piece on the story[2].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_Futures_Modernization...

[2] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/


Yes, there were several factors that spiraled up together: the entry of 2 new rating agencies, the new credit enhancement structures, the new types of collateral that the agencies deemed to have "predictable enough" P+I cashflows, and the pension funds and insurance companies' appetites for AAA.

One other factor (from the early 90's, I think), was when getting asset sale treatment for GAAP and RAP (bank regulatory accounting) while still getting debt for tax treatment become standardized. That was a breakthrough.


No - AAA was always meant to be the best of the best.

Interestingly, there's now the question of whether the US debt should be rated AAA : Is there more than a 1-in-100 chance that the two sides can't get to some compromise (or, more likely, agree on how to kludge things) by September?

AAA is meant to lead to default at a 1-in-10000 per annum rate (it's a standardized measure). So, by that argument, USA downgrade should have already occurred.

And, since companies cannot be rated higher than the countries that they're in, that would lead to the immediate downgrade of Microsoft, etc...


> And, since companies cannot be rated higher than the countries that they're in

There's no such rule. In fact, Japanese companies have been rated higher than Japanese sovereign debt.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-27/toyota-canon-rating...


Companies cannot be rated higher than the country they are in? I don't understand why that would make sense, especially in a case like the US - congress being unable to extend the debt ceiling shouldn't have that significant of an impact on Microsoft, a globally diversified company, being able to pay back it's debts...but then, the financial world is full of fun, arbitrary rules.


Microsoft's debt would be issued in dollars. If the US fails to back the dollar, Microsoft's debt is also worthless, because it's also dollars. So it would make no sense for MS bonds to be rated higher than the US.


The rating only covers default risk, not currency risk.


Wow I never looked at it like that before. Of course if the currency collapses the companies operating in it are f'd. We need to resolve the housing foreclosure mess and stop accruing debt.


There are a lot of messes that need to be resolved, but notice that mortgages barely figure in the chart, the housing foreclosure mess is 'merely' shit rolling downhill in this picture


Really downvoters. You think we need more debt and to ignore the the housing crisis? Really?


I don't understand the jump in logic you are making from "the US government is at risk of defaulting on it's debt" to "the US dollar is at risk of failing as a currency". Can you explain this?

You seem to be jumping from one conclusion to another which much reasoning to link them, and then drawing another conclusion from that.


I'm afraid there is no jump. If the US defaults interest rates will rise but they can't as the market is dependant on cheap money. That why interest rates have been at 0% for a long as long as I can remember and it is also why QE1 and QE2 were done. To increase the supply of cheap money. If the US defaults the dollar will crash. Look at what happened to Argentina in the late 90s. No I don't think the chances are very significant now but the conditions are certainly there for it to happen. I'm sure a whole paper could be written on this but I am only trying explain where I am coming from.


FYI: using long quotes tends to break page formating on HN. If you not directly quoting something it's best not indent things or to manually break up the lines.


jellicle is correct the ratings are complete bs. If AAA actually meant something the US would have been downgraded years ago. AAA means there is no chance of default no whatever so ever. It should only be reserved for countries with little or ideally no debt. The fact that our politicians and media are openly talking about default means that AAA does apply to the US but it does. So it means nothing.


The (non-BS) default risk of the US is very close to nil. Hence the AAA is deserved. But the currency risk and the interest rate risk is very high. Here's the pair trade if you want it:

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/bc?s=JNK&t=2y&l=on&z=...

...notice that the 20 year treasury is more volatile than junk bonds.


You obviously don't understand the concept of duration. You are comparing 5-10yr debt to 20-30yr debt.

More apt comparison would be intermediate treasuries, much different picture (time frame also questionable for a pure comparison):

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/bc?s=JNK&t=2y&l=on&z=...


You can see some better numbers here. Of course, when I say "interest rate risk", that function involves duration.

http://etfdb.com/etf/JNK/fundamentals/ http://etfdb.com/etf/IEF/fundamentals/


AAA doesn't mean no chance whatsoever and never has, it means minimal credit risk

http://www.moodys.com/sites/products/AboutMoodysRatingsAttac...


Well there are 7 levels of A rating. The US certainly doesn't deserve to the top most tier since there is active discussion of default. No I don't think it actually would but what is the point of these ratings if they are being used like this?


The is no legitimate discussion of the US defaulting, just political demagoguery. Greece, on the other hand...


If a country has no debt, what security is being rated AAA?


OK, let's look at structural deficit, GDP growth, and Net International Investment Position.

NIIP is interesting. Despite the US's huge debt, they have a reasonable NIIP of about -25% (I think). So the money is mostly there. It's mostly in private hands, but as long as the private sector is OK, the government will keep collecting taxes.

The obvious problems with the US are its health system (more public funding than countries with free health, but terrible value for money), its military deployments (the military can be an OK if they use it to drive high-tech growth, but actually deploying it very expensive), its prison system (they tend to lock criminals up for a little too long, and they have way too much crime for other reasons).


Sorry you are correct the debt is rated not the country.


He's saying that it's not the people who are receiving the investments who are driving up demand for AAA ratings, but the investors. People with lots of money aren't willing to take any risks, so they increase demand for AAA-rated investment opportunities. They will patronize ratings agencies that give them more AAA-rated options to invest in.


Only no one needs to be bribed. That's attributing malice where stupidity suffices. The 'shit' is so complicated the rating agencies actually think they are AAA and issue that rating without a bribe. The politicians have plenty of other reasons besides bribes to turn private debts into public debts.


He said everything you said already, in the single phrase "regulatory arbitrage". He's covered debt for years, before he branched out into more broad finance coverage.


The author argues that AAA debt is dangerous because it breeds complacency because it is considered risk-free. It strikes me that this is begging the question of how all these debt instruments can carry the same grade and do so so consistently. Is it not the case that AAA debt is dangerous because most of it is probably not really AAA?

I thought we established a long time ago that the ratings system is broken, this is just another symptom of that illness that no one is willing to even try to cure.


That's his point. There is no conceivable way that even a large fraction of that debt is AAA. What instead appears to be happening is a vicious circle:

* The finance industry engineers new ways to massage riskier debt into AAA products

* The market eagerly devours all the new AAA debt, building new business models and expanding previous ones based on the increased availability of risk-free products, thus

* Sparking demand for more AAA debt.


An example of why not all AAA debt is truly AAA grade:

"As it turned out, triple-A-rated mortgage bonds stuffed with bad subprime mortgages were considered very low risk" Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/magazine/sheila-bairs-exit...


I wonder; is it not increasingly obvious that rating agencies are fraudulent by nature/rent-seekers writ large?


Maybe, but BRK and the US Treasury are meaningfully AAA. There is clearly a class of AAA risk that means something, and a (far larger) lower tier of AAA risk that merely rides the coattails.


Right. I think that overall that's correct - for all intents and purposes it's effectively impossible for the US Treasury to run out of dollars. But the way the incentives for agencies are set up makes me think we're begging to be lied to.

Mind you, despite all this you can have a serious news piece of "someone from Moody's" claiming that they might be forced to lower the US' rating http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14142621 - which frankly just sounds all kinds of ridiculous.


Why ridiculous? The treasury cannot, by law, issue more than a certain amount of debt. The politicians may change the law - but that's a vote that's yet to have been taken. Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for Japan to have had a lower credit rating than AAA.

Also, the US owes money in currencies other than $, which the Treasury doesn't have the power to print.


Guess we'll know whether or not US Treasuries are meaningfully AAA in the next couple of weeks :-)


Really? I'm not real enthusiastic about dragging politics into this, but i think the US Treasury is one elected religious fanatic away from declaring intrest usurious and declining to pay. "Fiscal Responsibility" seems to last until about 5 minutes after any given election.

I'm not saying the probability is big, but is 1% an unbelievable number? Just for reference, back in 2000 what odds would you have put on the US electing a black president before 2050? Back then, I thought that number was very close to zero.

I'm (obviously) not an analyst. I'm baffled at how they can predict return with much confidence 10 years out.


Are you envisioning a real version of Nehemiah Scudder? In the Heinlein books, he is elected in 2012 ...


The US Treasury is not, by definition, AAA. It can print money at will, but it cannot guarantee that that money will have value.


Credit ratings are only supposed to predict risk of default; if a loan denominated in dollars is repaid in dollars, the loan is satisfied. They don't have to also predict what the real value of that repayment will be in other currencies.


What we're talking about is: What is the risk of default of the tbills issued by the US treasury. It's conventionally considered that AAA means "1 in 10,000" chance of default.

Considering that tbills are issued with "the full faith and credit" of the United States and that it's against the US Constitution to default on them, the agencies have historically rated the debt as AAA.

And yes, technically, the US could not default and still pay back worthless bonds by deliberately hyper-inflating the currency.

Doing so would also make worthless all of the private debts demoninated in US Dollars and effectively destroy the US Economy.

While it's certainly possible that could happen, it's quite remote. Quite.


The ratings agencies DO factor inflation risk into their ratings, and are on record multiple times publicly citing inflation risk as a reason. The ratings agencies know that default risk is not the only type of bond investment risk and they rate accordingly -- their track record might be questionable but they're not stupid. You are absolutely right with this comment.

For those who don't understand what's the problem with inflation so long as the bond is repaid, imagine you buy a 10-year, $1,000,000 dollar bond paying 10% interest from the Weimar Republic in 1918. You get $100,000 per year. By 1923 the Mark is worth a trillion times less than it was when you bought your bond, so the resale value is now the 1918 equivalent of $.000001 and the annual interest income is $.0000001. You complain about this to your friend, and he points out that Weimar is still rated AAA because they obviously can print an infinite amount of money to meet their obligations. Do you feel consoled? What kind of interest rate would you require to consider buying another bond?

The United States most likely won't see this kind of inflation because it doesn't have the problems Germany had, but it could certainly see enough to drop the rating to a low A if things really got out of hand.


This argument is fallacious (not that its not kicked around a lot).

The point is that the US treasury will pay its debt. The value of the dollar simply a different question.

By your argument (and apparently, some of the rating agencies'), a supposedly necessary downgrading of treasure bonds would require the downgrade of every existing dollar denominated bond in the world - ie, nearly every AAA bond. Oddly enough, Moody's isn't threatening to do this.


Isn't all of its debt dollar-denominated?

edit: Now that I think about, it isn't. They have inflation-indexed bonds as well. The more they print money, they bigger their debt grows!

http://www.treasurydirect.gov/indiv/products/prod_tips_glanc...


Yes, but which agency determines the rate of inflation? :)


At the end of the day, politicians could mandate that the government statisticians lie about the inflation rate (make it artificially low to lower CPI-index bonds payout rate).

But the currency markets would not be so easily fooled.


That's a meaningless statement. The US holds debts denominated in dollars. If it can print money at will, by definition it cannot default.

You would be correct if they held debts denominated in other currencies, like virtually every other country in the planet.


Where did I make any claim related to that? The only remark I made was that, "entity X can print money at will" does not imply "entity X has AAA status", as the comment I replied to seemed to imply.

I did not check this, but Zimbabwe definitely did not have an AAA rating in, say, 2008.


There's nothing rent-seeking about it; anyone can start a ratings agency. All Moody's et al have is what we would now call "mindshare" . It's no more rent seeking than say the Met Office having a monopoly on weather forecasting...


It's more than mindshare, it's also the fact that the ratings given by NRSROs ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationally_Recognized_Statistic... ) are often written into statutes. There are many massive funds that are restricted by legislation from investing money somewhere that Moody's has rated at lower than X, X often being AAA.


Why do you say that? I'm not saying you're wrong I'm just genuinely curious since I don't know much about the subject.


As the article states and as we found in the recession, there can't possibly be this many AAA rated organizations. I'll give an example at the risk of my memory failing and there being a difference in which exact organization it was: Days before they went bust, GMAC bonds were still AAA rated.


I believe that until about 1995 there were fewer than 5 bond issuers subject to Chapter 11 proceedings (strategic bankruptcies) that were AAA at the time of the Chapter 11 filing: Texaco and, I think, Manville the asbestos maker. There was also one AAA muni bond that defaulted. There were several cases where issuers like Lilco (Long Island Lighting) were rapidly downgraded from AAA to junk.


i guess people either understand "grading on the curve" or not :)

Anyway, seems to be a business opportunity to start issue ratings for AAA papers, as obviously there is a lot of junk AAA out there.


The documentary "Inside Job" covers why and how the "grading on a curve" happened. I'd recommend it if you're at all interested in this stuff.


Also, just the amount of issuance will in itself increase the risk, as interest payments are higher.


I don't believe that this inherently true. The market generally revoles around risk, additional returns are possible when taking more risk. Higher rates of issuance just mean that there is more availability and possibly drive the prices down due to supply.

Now, a lower rating would result in a hirer interest, as lower ratings means higher risk (at least in theory, but what this article actually shows is that this isn't the case).


Higher issuance means that the company has higher leverage, which means higher risk. This should of course cut ratings, but might not.


Aren't most corporate bonds insured by a third party?


No that is not generally the case.


Saying "AAA bonds will cause a crisis" is like saying "Homeowners' mortgages caused the mortgage crisis". They're an essential part of the situation, but the actual cause was the misrepresentation of the riskiness of the securities, due to capture of the rating agencies by their customers, the securities issuers.

Is there a term analogous to "regulatory capture", for capture of non-government organizations like rating agencies by the subjects of their ratings?


Yet another non logarithmic graph of money, sigh. When will people learn.


This sounds like an interesting insight. Could you elaborate?


Compare the difference between 1000 and 2000, vs 4000 and 8000. In both cases it's double, but in the second case the difference appears to be 4 times as large.

This graph is linear, so it makes it look like the jump from 4000 to 8000 is more significant than the jump from 1000 to 2000, but actually it's not. It's identical.


How is it identical? One has a difference of 1000 the other of 4000. We all know that $4000 is much more than $1000.

The only thing they have in common is that both amounts have doubled, but I think there is a huge difference between 1000 to 2000 with 1 million to 2 million although they both have only doubled.


No, actually. With money the only thing that matters is the degree of change, not the simple number.

The change from 1 million to 2 million is much more important than the change from 99 million to 100 million.

Try an experiment: take a calculator or a spreadsheet. In one case start with 1000 then keep doubling it. In the other start with 1 million and keep adding 1 million.


I think the idea is simply that, since inflation is a compounding process, given a constant rate of inflation prices will form an exponential graph.

A log scale would let you see more detail in the 90s, but in this case I think I actually prefer the linear, 0-anchored version.


If contracts and regulations require AAA-rated securities, then AAA-rated securities will appear to match the demand.

As the author rightly points out: we have too many groups requiring AAA-rated securities and not enough real AAA stuff to go around, so most of the AAA ratings are going to be unreliable.


If contracts and regulations require AAA-rated securities, then AAA-rated securities will appear to match the demand.

I believe that this is what is happening, but the argument that demand for AAA securities by overcautious investors is the root of the issue makes it sound like all of our problems could have been avoided by curtailing the demand itself- in this case, by encouraging investors to take on more risk (don't be overcautious!) and be willing to purchase lower-quality securities.

As an investor, shouldn't I be able to choose what level of risk I'm willing to accept? And isn't it the job of rating agencies to provide accurate information so I that I can make an informed decision as to the level of risk I'm taking?


If everyone switched from buying 6-month Treasuries to buying 3-month Treasuries, debt issuance by the U.S. Treasury would double in one year, so there is not enough information in the article to merit an "Oh no," but I guess the OP had a deadline to meet.


It isn't clear to me why AAA rated bonds represent such systemic risk, the article says the following:

"They breed complacency and regulatory arbitrage, and they are a key ingredient in the cause of all big crises, which is leverage."

Is the author arguing that these should all just be rated below AAA and as such be accompanied with higher interest rates? This would obviously depress the rate of issuance because companies would be less inclined to take the terms (at least in theory). This makes sense to me, but doesn't necessarily indicate that AAA rated bonds inherently have systemic risk as the author states.

Perhaps I'll read the article a second time through.


From the article:

Then look at the green line. Triple-A debt wasn’t a huge part of the bond market back in the early 90s, but for the past decade it has invariably accounted for somewhere between 50% and 60% of total global fixed income issuance. That’s possibly the most horrifying bit of all: it simply defies credulity for anybody to be asked to believe that more than half the bonds issued in any given year are essentially free of any credit risk.

That seems like the nut. It's prima facie obvious that much of what is called AAA can't be AAA; it almost mathematically beggars the definition of AAA.

Meanwhile, all kinds of contracts, regulations, and instruments rely on AAA ratings to prevent money that can't reasonably be put at risk from going into e.g. mortgage bonds.


This is exactly correct. Basically folks are lying about the AAA rating of this debt, it is not mathematically possible to have 65% of the bonds issued to be risk free. Therefore, there are bonds here which are not AAA, therefore we can expect that they will fail. Now the kicker ...

There are funds which can only invest in AAA type securities, think pension funds which have contractual obligations far in the future to provide money.

When these AAA instruments blow up, they will take down pension funds which will cash out their equities to rebalance their holdings which will cause a market crash that made 2009 look like a minor correction, which will, in all likelyhood throw us into a deep deep depression because rating agencies will have lost so much credibility that they won't be believed and governments won't have any way to raise funds to 'bail out' their economies.

Kind of a scary thing to think about.


Seen a lot of interesting uses of the term "mathematically" in this thread. Is there some theorem that proves a certain portion of issued debt must be risky? It seems unlikely to me.


A fair point.

There is a population of bond investments, the risk to the principle in those investments is scored by a rating agency on a scale from D to AAA [1]. The market prices bonds using a combination of risk (as reported by a rating agency) and desired return. (Return is the independent variable). Economic theory says that the quantity of a good demanded influences the quantity supplied such that prices rise until there are no more buyers who will pay more and no more sellers who will offer for less. This relationship between risk and return manifests itself as a spectrum of bond offerings from those with low risk (AAA) and low return (< 2%) to those with high risk (D, aka 'junk bonds') and a high return (> 9%). [2]

It was with this understanding that I used the term 'mathematically impossible' when I was thinking 'the chances that there more AAA bonds in the population of all bond offerings than all the sub-AAA rated bonds put together, is astronomically slim.' For example, California's general obligation bonds are only rated at "A+" (up from BBB but still far from AAA). [3]

It could be legitimate, but were that the case the return on non-AAA bonds would be news because that would be the only way people would buy them. Since I'm not seeing offers for C and D grade bonds with 25 and 30% rates of return (and for some reason those folks seek me out and cold call me) I believe the simpler explanation which is that some portion of the bonds that are rated AAA don't deserve that rating (i.e. they are riskier than they purport to be).

And that, combined with some of the structural ways in which capital is managed in the world, makes for a much more explosive combination than we might otherwise be expecting.

[1] http://www.investopedia.com/articles/03/102203.asp#axzz1SD85...

[2] "Investors have been snapping up the new non-investment-grade bonds, having grown frustrated with stocks and with the meager yields on safer government and high-grade corporate bonds." http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870396000457542...

[3] http://www.treasurer.ca.gov/ratings/history.asp


But the point of these AAA ratings is that they are the 'top slice' of a pool of lower rated debt.

Suppose a typical student is has around $50 in their wallet at any one time : Demanding $50 from a student is pretty risky, and so is demanding $25. But if I have a large enough room full of students (say 100), demanding $2500 from the room (which on average holds $5000) is much less risky than requiring $25 from each person.

That's how AAA securities can be built from bad credits : Not everyone goes bad at the same time.

So the argument should not be about how crazy the idea of bad credits allowing the creation of good credits. The argument is about correlation coefficients.

Moodys / S&P / Fitch got the correlation coefficients between subprime borrowers completely wrong, because they believed that house prices could not all simultaneously decline in the US. And the investment banks had no incentive to explain the errors of their ways to them - and people who weren't "On-Side" at the rating agencies were relegated to lower-growth areas. And the regulators had no clue.

And here we are.


Isn't the difference between the AAA held by Berkshire Hathaway and the AAA assigned to a CDO tranche that very simple erroneous assumptions can lead you to assign low risks to large numbers of credit events that are subtly but decisively correlated? Finding uncorrelated investments in large groups of standardized assets is actually as much a tricky social science project as it is a green-eyeshades math problem, right?

When you AAA a product built out of supposedly uncorrelated risks that turns out to be correlated, you're fucked.

So, to extend your analogy: suppose you designed instruments backed by $5 debts from college students. And suppose as time goes on, Ivy League students used it less and less, while at UMich-Flint the program spread like wildfire. At some point, without even changing the explicit structure of your instrument, basic market forces might up converging on highly correlated (and very risky) buckets of risk, mispriced at AAA (or whatever).

And all the while, every incentive is set up to get people to throw away unfavorable results and cherry pick the most lucrative interpretations.

My point (you are by this point I am sure exasperated with me) is that ratings agencies and product designers are trying to build models to assign risks to quickly moving targets, by taking a spot measurement of the current correlation coefficients and extrapolating them.

Whereas on the other hand the credit history and business model backing BRK is (relatively) straightforward.


Your comment makes total sense [1] : I started looking at these collateralized debt obligations (i.e. CDOs) back in 2002. That was around the time of the first 'crash' in these structures (CBOs : structures backed by High Yield Bonds).

The basic error with CBOs is that the rating agencies allowed the structures additional diversity 'points' for investing in different sectors (a decent idea), but then segmented the market so that many, many different telecom-related businesses got put in different sectors. The telecoms bubble then proceeded to wipe out about half the contents of each CBO. Why didn't anyone point out the problem? Because the investment banks, having been given the published specification of how the Rating Agencies would model any hypothetical structure, went about optimizing the portfolios of bonds to maximize the 'ratings arbitrage' available.

Your point about migration of the underlying risks is spot-on. The rating agencies looked at the historical performance of each of the classes of risk. For CBOs, once people saw how the rating agencies would give them points for particular sorts of High Yield bonds, suddenly telecoms (& fibre, & cable, & satellite, & etc..) companies found it very easy to raise what were known in the market as 'CBO bonds' : bonds that no rational investor would want, but would be very appealing for a structure to buy (since it would help its ratios).

Similarly, once there were evening classes in how to improve your FICO score, the whole history of sub-prime borrower repayment statistics became irrelevant. The manipulation of the fundamental inputs to the models by 'good hardworking Americans' was rampant... But the Rating Agencies were being paid well to continue to rate structures (at a crazy pace), and the Investment Banks were in no hurry to point out that the models should be harsher.

Part of the whole problem, though, stems from banking & insurance regulations that mean that its very cheap (from an equity capital point of view) to leverage up AAA paper. That's what drove everyone to demand AAA paper in the first place. And the AAA designations is/was handed out by rating agencies that now claim it was 'free speech' and they're not liable for anything.

As for the moving target aspect : Investment Banks are continually trying to innovate, since that's where it's less competitive, and the margins haven't been competed away. They would ask Rating Agencies to look at new products all the time. If all the Ratings Agencies were too conservative (or cautious), then the product wouldn't work, and would be abandoned. However, if one of them could be persuaded to come up with an exploitable methodology, then they would get all the business...

And before anyone says : Ahh, Wall Street is just about the exploitation of loopholes, think about examples from hacker-space : SEO comes to mind...

[1] except for the example of BRK : That's a bit of a special business. Reinsurance is a tricky thing, and it's possible to look very smart until you discover you're an idiot. AXA looked pretty smart, until... Better examples would be AAA industrial businesses, or a hard-asset business, for instance.


>Is there some theorem that proves a certain portion of issued debt must be risky? It seems unlikely to me.

No, but there is a theorem -- or call it an axiom -- that the amount of debt issued is equal to the amount of debt owed... okay, not a theorem, it depends on people being honest. Now the thing that's hard to believe is that we went from a situation in which the vast majority of debtors were unreliable to the current situation where a significant proportion are considered reliable, and did all of this without any really significant or obvious cultural change, and during a period in which bankruptcy was just as common as before... basically, the "mathematically impossible" thing is that there is a lot more debt being considered reliable but there aren't any more reliable debtors.

Now, you could contest the latter: are there more reliable debtors today? It's not impossible, but I don't see very many, beyond the US Treasury.


No - the ABS markets are all about slicing up pools of debt.

Suppose I created a security that would give me back all the loose change found on the streets of Manhattan at any one instant. How much is that worth - $5, $20, more? (there's a lot of streets, and I'm always surprised how often I find a coin).

But I can guarantee that it's worth at least $1.00. That would be a AAA risk. And Moody's would rate it so, just by looking at the statistical properties of coins * streets.

This adds 1 security to the totals. The 'new idea' is that investors were willing to invest in new 'slices' of existing pools - chosen so that they'd get a AAA rating.

The idea itself isn't bogus. But the historical statistics of the subprime market were not valid for the wave of 'new money' moving into the Florida & Vegas markets... Subprime mortgages were a different animal than the rating agencies modeled, and no-one had any incentive to call them out on it.


Then I'm inclined to disagree at another portion of the post which seems somewhat contradictory to the point:

"it wasn’t an excess of greed and speculation which led to the financial crisis, but rather an excess of overcaution"

The greed then exists in alternate areas of the system. It isn't AAA bonds that are the issue, it is the fact that lesser bonds are being rated as AAA. Why are they being rated that way? The ratings companies have conflicts of interest and were... (wait for it) greedy.

In addition, calling this an "excess of overcaution" is laughable, if I can get decent returns from a "risk free" investment, that isn't cautious, it is logical.


It was pseudo caution. The finance industry saw that investors wanted to (in some cases, had to) buy conservative investments like AAA paper. They sold them a fantasy of conservative investment. It was so compelling that the utterly ridiculous notion of that much AAA paper was ignored.

After calling it 'excess of overcaution' he declared that it is leverage that causes crises. Leverage does not connect strongly with caution to me.


Hmm,

I guess I agree but the thing is that "greed" and "over-caution" actually very similar. Over-caution is greed for income without risk.

For example, Bernie Madoff's appeal wasn't based on offering income level that no mutual fund could match but rather offering an apparent combination of income and stability that no mutual fund could match (10%/year as reported each quarter).


I think there are some differences, but regardless within the context of this article the author states:

"it wasn’t an excess of greed ..., but rather an excess of overcaution"

I disagree with this statement, and clearly, based on your definition here, this can't be true either. Unless, saying "is wasn't greed it was greed" actually makes sense. Obviously I don't think you believe that, I'm just pointing out a major issue with the article as a whole.


The real fiscal danger -- in addition to the murky issue of complacency -- is that financial institutions can call AAA debts "risk free" and hold them off their balance sheet. It allows them to leverage-up far more than they otherwise could, and since the big investment banks are publicly traded now it exposes shareholders to undisclosed risk.

This is tightly correlated with the problem of credit default swaps. At their core, a CDS is an insurance policy. You pay me a premium every year. If the insured bond defaults, I'll pay you out.

Well, if I'm insuring a AAA bond, or the AAA tranche of a bond, I can call that risk-free insurance. IOW, I can call the premiums I'm earning to be risk-free profit.


There is several ways systems can break down. One of the largest in recent US history went something like this:

You have 100 million. Now you can put it into a bank, but there is no FDIC for banks so AAA security's are basicly the safest place to put that money. You now look for someone selling safe debt and don't really care about intrest rates just AAA. Banker notices this demand and sells AAA debt from a pool of AA grade debt and get's to keep the intrest as long as a rating agency is willing to certify his bonds as AAA. But how do you satisfy the new demand for AA debt, well a slightly larger pool of A debt can quickly become AA debt etc. But wait if I can take A to AA then AA to AAA why not save some paper work and make AAA from A.

After a while demand for AAA debt is satisfied with large amounts of what amounted to junk bonds and rediculus amounts of leverage. And that huge flow of money went directly to people and institutions that spent it, which stimulated the economy and make it like this where far more stable than they actually where. Meanwhile the people that bought the bonds in the first place now have even more money because the economy is doing great!!!, or atleast it looks that way.


Naked Capitalism weighs in on this article as well:

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/07/felix-salmon-misreads...


In what way do AAA-rated products "breed ... regulatory arbitrage." What does that mean?


See tptacek on this thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2768921

A lot of regulation tells big often state-based institutional investors like retirement plans and university funds that they have to invest X% in AAA rated investments.

Demand for AAA rated products creates not just financial wizardry that spawns more AAA products from riskier products, but the increasingly powerful finance industry/lobbyists pressure government officials (usually appointed representatives from the finance industry) to make this easier...if not transparent.


I assumed it meant something like a corporation using regulatory loopholes to get their bonds rated as risk-free (and thus desirable to own) when they would more accurately have been rated risky. Put more simply, borrowing money more cheaply than their creditworthiness should allow.

His point was about the prevalence of AAA-rated products, not their existence.



It is either fear or greed.


Some items to keep in mind:

1. War on Terror and TARP are large portion of the current USA deficit, probably 80% or higher.

2. Over-issuance of AAA ratings will come back to bite as it has to be rolled-over at some point.

3. TARP spending direct result of not controlling the security class known as derivatives ...precedent last time we had to assert Federal control to correct market excesses in securities as 1929-1930 with the SEC act. IN other words we could force security exchanges to outlaw derivatives to bring order/stability back but anyone receiving bank lobby money will not broach that subject.


False...

TARP is expect to cost the taxpayers, $25 billion. A small price to pay to avert total financial ruin.

http://cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=11980&zzz=41404


If you give me a loan, then as it expires I take out a new loan to pay you back, would you say that you've made money from the arrangement? I would say that you haven't, as if I default the second loan you still take a net loss across all our transactions. However in the case of TARP, many TARP loans were rolled over into non-TARP loans, without the principal being returned at all.

We could also discuss whether it is a good idea to subsidize the losses of some parts of the financial and automotive industries but not others, whether this is really conducive to a healthy economy based on competition, and whether the incentive structure created by handing bags of stolen money to anyone who can credibly threaten to damage the economy is a good one, but this probably isn't the place to do it.


That is quite curious because we never had any deficit reduction debate before 2007 or any talk about government having too much debt yet now we all the sudden do.

I think if there was a graph of government debt it would show a big spike around 2008.




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