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A ‘Flawed’ SEC Program [A Retrospective “April Fool’s Day” Analysis]

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SEC Failed to Rein in Investment Banks [April Fool’s Day – 2015]

By Ben Protess, ProPublica – October 1, 2008 5:01 pm EDT

Editor’s Note: This investigative report was first published ten years ago. And so, we ask you to consider – on this April Fool’s Day 2019 – how [if] things have changed since then?  

***

Flag MOney

***

The Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] last week abolished the special regulatory program that it applied to Wall Street’s largest investment banks. Known as the “consolidated supervised entities” program, it relaxed the minimum capital requirements for firms that submitted to the commission’s oversight, and thus, in the view of some experts, helped create the current global financial crisis.

But, the SEC’s decision to ax the program currently affects no one, since three of the five firms that voluntarily joined the program previously collapsed and the other two reorganized.

The Decision – 18 Months Ago

The decision came last Friday, one day after the commission’s inspector general released a report [1] (PDF) detailing the program’s failed oversight of Bear Stearns before the firm collapsed in March. The commission’s chairman, Christopher Cox, a longtime opponent of industry regulation, said in a statement [2] that the report “validates and echoes the concerns” he had about the program, which had been voluntary for the five Wall Street titans since 2004.

The report found that the SEC division that oversees trading and markets was “not fulfilling its obligations. “These reports are another indictment of failed leadership,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who requested the inspector general’s investigation.

The SEC program, approved by the commission in 2004 under Cox’s predecessor, William Donaldson, allowed investment banks to increase their amount of leveraged debt. But, there was a tradeoff: Banks that participated allowed their broker-dealer operations and holding companies to be subject to SEC oversight. Previous to 2004, the SEC only had authority to oversee the banks’ broker dealers.

Longstanding SEC rules required the broker dealers to limit their debt-to-net-capital ratio and issue an early warning if they began to approach the limit. The limit was about 15-to-1, according to the inspector general report, meaning that for every $15 of debt, the banks were required to have $1 of equity.

But the 2004 “consolidated supervised entities” program revoked these limits. The new program also eliminated the requirement that firms keep a certain amount of capital as a cushion in case an asset defaults.

Bear Sterns

As a result, the oversight program created the conditions that helped cause the collapse of Bear Stearns. Bear had a gross debt ratio of about 33-to-1 prior to its demise, the inspector general found. The inspector general also found that Bear was fully compliant with the programs’ requirements when it collapsed, which raised “serious questions about whether the capital requirement amounts were adequate,” the report said.

The report quoted Lee Pickard, a former SEC official who helped write the original debt-limit requirements in 1975 and now argues the 2004 program is largely to blame for the current Wall Street crisis.

“The SEC gave up the very protections that caused these firms to go under,” Pickard said in an interview with ProPublica. “The SEC in 2004 thought it gained something in oversight, but in turn it gave up too much public protection. You don’t bargain in a way that causes you to give up serious protections.”

Pickard, now a senior partner at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, estimated that prior to the 2004 program most firms never exceeded an 8-to-1 debt-to-net capital ratio.

The previous program “had an excellent track record in preserving the securities markets’ financial integrity and protecting customer assets,” Pickard wrote [3] in American Banker this August. The new program required “substantial SEC resources for complex oversight, which apparently are not always available.”

Asked if he believes the 2004 program was a direct cause of the current crisis, Pickard told ProPublica, “I’m afraid I do.”

The New York Times reported Saturday that the SEC created the program after “heavy lobbying” for the plan from the investment banks. The banks favored the SEC as their regulator, the Times reported, because that let them avoid regulation of their fast-growing European operations by the European Union, which has been threatening to impose its own rules since 2002.

SEC Spokesman

A SEC spokesman declined to comment for this article, referring inquires to Chairman Cox’s statement. In the statement, Cox admitted the program “was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.” But Cox, a former Republican congressman from California, offered mild support for the program as recently as July when he testified before the House Committee on Financial Services. The program, among other oversight efforts, Cox said, had “gone far to adapt the existing regulatory structure to today’s exigencies.” He added that legislative improvements were necessary as well, and has since told Congress that the program failed.

More Questions

So why did the commission not end the program sooner? Some say that the program’s flaws only recently became apparent. “As late as 2005, the program seemed to make a lot of sense,” said Charles Morris, a former banker who predicted the current financial crisis in his book written last year, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown [4]. The SEC “didn’t know it didn’t work until we had this stress.”

And leverage does not always spell trouble. In a strong economy, leverage can also be attractive because it can increase the profitability of banks through lending.

In his recent statement, Cox said the inspector general’s findings reflect a deeper problem: “the lack of specific legal authority for the SEC or any other agency to act as the regulator of these large investment bank holding companies.”

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has called for a refining of the regulatory structure to reflect the global and interconnected nature of today’s financial system. In any case, the program’s failure can be seen in the disappearance of the participating banks: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

skeleton-jpeg1

***

Assessment

Merrill Lynch’s leverage ratio was possibly as high as 40-to-1 this year and Lehman Brothers faced a ratio of about 30-to-1, according to Bloomberg [5].

The Fed and Treasury Department forced Bear Stearns into a merger with JPMorgan Chase in March. And the last two months, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and sold their core U.S. business to British bank Barclays PLC, and Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the two remaining large independent investment banks, changed their corporate structures to become bank holding companies, which are regulated by the Federal Reserve.

As these banks have folded or reorganized over the last several months, the Federal Reserve has largely assumed the SEC’s oversight responsibilities, though the commission will still have the power to regulate broker dealers.

Original Essay: http://www.propublica.org/article/flawed-sec-program-failed-to-rein-in-investment-banks-101

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Who Does a Stock Broker Work for – Really?

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And … What’s Up at the Bank of America?

[By Ann Miller RN MHA]

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According to E. Dilts, BoA is making it harder for brokers to take some of their clients with them when they leave Merrill Lynch-specifically, clients that were referred to the broker by a Bank of America branch.

Brokers in recent months have been asked to sign contracts saying that if they leave Merrill Lynch, they can’t take the names or phone numbers of those customers with them, because those clients belong to the bank.

Lawyers said this policy chips away at the decade-old truce among brokerages known as the Protocol for Broker Recruiting.

The agreement was meant to end the continual and costly legal battles between brokerages and their brokers over who had the right to keep clients, and allows departing brokers to take client information including names and phone numbers with them.

***

Stocker

Stock Broker versus Brokerage House

[Courtesy Pixabay]

***

Assessment

So, who does the broker [er-ah! financial advisor] really work for – the [physician] client or the brokerage house? And doesn’t this make your account just a portion of their “book of business?”

Talk about advice versus product sales?

Link: http://wealthmanagement.com/wirehouse/bank-america-chips-away-brokerage-industry-truce?NL=WM-27&Issue=WM-27_20150224_WM-27_400&sfvc4enews=42&cl=article_2&YM_RID=CPG09000002702210&YM_MID=2033

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Conclusion

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Merrill Lynch Investigated for CDO Deal Involving Magnetar

Hedge Fund Probed

By Marian Wang

ProPublica, June 15, 2011, 3:10 pm

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The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether Merrill Lynch short-changed investors and gave undue influence to the hedge fund Magnetar in the creation of a $1.5-billion mortgage-backed security deal.

The investigation, which was first reported [1] by the Financial Times ($), appears to be the agency’s first probe of Merrill Lynch’s CDO business since the financial crisis. (Check our bank investigations cheat sheet [2] for which other firms are being probed.) Here’s the FT:

The investigation is one of several SEC probes into banks that helped underwrite billions of dollars of collateralised debt obligations, securities comprised of mortgages or derivatives linked to them.

It also marks a broadening of the SEC’s investigation into the role of collateral managers, institutions that help select the assets included in CDOs.

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The deal that the SEC is investigating—a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO, called Norma—was detailed both in our reporting last year [3] and in a report [4] by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released in January. Norma was one of more than two dozen CDO deals [5] done by Magnetar, whose bets against a number of CDOs earned it billions in the waning days of the housing boom.

As the FCIC detailed, Magnetar helped select the assets that went into Norma even though it had a $600 million bet that would pay off substantially if the CDO failed. As we reported [6], Magnetar often invested in the portion of the CDO that was riskiest and hardest for the banks to sell. Banks typically gave such investors—equity investors—more say in how the deal was structured. (Magnetar isn’t named as a target of the investigation and had no responsibility to investors. It has also maintained that it did not have a strategy to bet against the housing market.)

In the offering documents for Norma, there’s no mention of Magnetar’s role in asset selection, according to the FCIC. Investors were told that an independent collateral manager, NIR Capital Management, would be selecting the assets with their best interest in mind. The report concluded: “NIR abdicated its asset selection duties… with Merrill’s knowledge.”

Bank of America

Bank of America, which took over Merrill Lynch in 2008, declined our request for comment. The firm’s general counsel told [4] the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that it was “common industry practice” for equity investors to have input during the asset selection process, though the collateral manager had final say.

NIR Capital Management

NIR Capital Management is also being investigated by the SEC, according to the FT. The firm did not immediately respond to our request for comment. (The Wall Street Journal did an impressively detailed story in 2007 on how NIR came to be manager [7] of the Norma deal.)

Magnetar declined our earlier requests for comment on Norma, but FT reports it has denied claims [1] that it selected the assets for Norma.

Assessment

As we reported, the SEC had launched a probe of Merrill’s CDO business 2007, but that investigation petered out without resulting in any charges.

Conclusion

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Where Are the Financial Crisis Prosecutions?

The White Collar Slump?

By Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica: jesse@propublica.org

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You may have noticed that prosecutors in this country are in something of a white-collar slump lately.

The stock options backdating prosecutions have largely been a bust [1], not because it wasn’t a true scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department investigated more than 100 companies. Over a hundred took accounting restatements. Yet only a handful of executives went to prison, with some high-profile cases fizzling out. Prosecutors also stumbled in other high priority corporate fraud prosecutions, like the KPMG [2] tax shelter and the stock-exchange specialists [3] cases.

Bear Sterns

The most spectacular prosecutorial flameout [4] was the case against the Bear Stearns hedge fund managers. The consequences of that disaster are still reverberating. The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn rushed to haul low-level executives in front of a jury based on a few seemingly incriminating emails. The defense was easily able to convince jurors that these represented only out-of-context glimpses of fear as markets swooned, not a conspiracy to mislead. But, now we have a supposedly new push: the insider trading scandal.

Insider Trading

The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, and the United States Attorney, General Eric H. Holder Jr., are hyping their efforts. “Illegal insider trading is rampant and may even be on the rise,” Mr. Bharara dubiously pronounced in a speech [5] in October. The Feds are raiding [6] hedge funds and publicly celebrating their criminal investigations related to insider trading.

The storyline is that Wall Street now lives in fear. Hedge fund managers’ phones might be tapped, any stray remark is suspect, and old trades are being exhumed so that the entrails can be examined.

In fact, plenty of folks on Wall Street are happy about the investigation. A scant few — the ones with clean consciences — like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason: They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness. Everyone is wondering: Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

Enron, Lehman, Merrill, Citigroup and Others

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders: “Have they committed the resources in the right place? Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything. No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted. All former American International Group executives are running free. No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

How about someone other than the Fabulous Fab [7] at Goldman Sachs? How could the Securities and Exchange Commission merely settle with Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo [8] — and for a fraction of what he made as CEO?

The world was almost brought low by the American banking system and we are supposed to think that no one did anything wrong?

The most common explanation from lawyers for this bizarre state of affairs is that it’s hard work. It’s complicated to make criminal cases in corporate fraud. Getting a case that shows the wrong-doer acted with intent — and proving it to a jury — is difficult.

But, of course, Enron was complicated too, and prosecutors got the big boys. Ken Lay was found guilty (he died before he served his time). Jeff Skilling is in prison now, though the end result was bittersweet for prosecutors when much of his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski are wearing stripes.

Complicated Cases

Sure, it takes time to investigate complicated cases. Many people think that the SEC, at the least, will bring some charges against top executives at Lehman Brothers. The huge, ground-breaking special examiner’s report [9] on Lehman Brothers laid bare problems with Lehman’s accounting. But that report came out back in March — on a bank that blew up more than two years ago. That seems awfully slow.

The most popular reason offered for the dearth of financial crisis prosecutions is the 100-year flood excuse: The banking system was hit by a systemic and unforeseeable disaster, which means that, as unpleasant as it may be to laymen, it’s unlikely that anyone committed any crimes.

Stupidity is No Crime

Or, barring that wildly implausible explanation (since, indeed, many people saw the crash coming and warned about it), the argument is that acting stupidly and recklessly is no crime.

As I ride the subway every morning, I often fantasize about criminalizing stupidity and fecklessness. But alas, it’s not to be.

Nevertheless, it’s hardly reassuring that bankers, out of necessity, have universally adopted the dumb-rather-than-venal justification. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of us need to buy it. It’s shocking how pervasive and triumphant this narrative of the financial crisis has been.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/thetrade/item/where-are-the-financial-crisis-prosecutions/

Assessment

Just as it’s clear that not all bankers were guilty of crimes in the lead-up to the crisis, it strains credulity to contend no one was. Corporate crime is usually the act of desperate people who have initially made relatively innocent mistakes and then seek to cover them up. Some banks went down innocently. Surely some housed bad actors who broke laws.

As a society, we have the bankers we deserve. Sadly, it’s looking like we have the regulators and prosecutors we deserve, too.

Conclusion

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Beware Medical and Money Management ‘Groupthink’

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Helping Doctors Understand Peer Comparisons

By J. Wayne Firebaugh CPA, CFP® CMP™

By Dr. David E. Marcinko MBA, CMP™

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More than a few mutual, hedge and endowment fund managers have noted that they commonly compare their endowment and portfolio allocations to those of peer institutions and that as a result, allocations are often similar to the “average” as reported by one or more surveys/consulting firms.

One interviewed endowment fund manager expanded this thought by presciently noting that expecting materially different performance with substantially the same allocation is unreasonable. It is anecdotally interesting to wonder whether any “seminal” study “proving” the importance of asset allocation could have even had a substantially different conclusion. It seems likely that the pensions and funds surveyed in these types of studies have very similar allocations given the human tendency to measure one-self against peers and to use peers for guidance.

This is a truism in medicine as well as the financial services sector.

Understanding Peer Comparisons

Although peer comparisons can be useful in evaluating your portfolio, or your hospital or medical practice’s own processes, groupthink can be highly contagious and dangerous.

For historical example, in the first quarter of 2000, net flows into equity mutual funds were $140.4 billion as compared to net inflows of $187.7 billion for all of 1999. February’s equity fund inflows were a staggering $55.6 billion, the record for single month investments. For all of 1999, total net mutual fund investments were $169.8 billion[1] meaning that investors “rebalanced” out of asset classes such as bonds just in time for the market’s March 24, 2000 peak (as measured by the S&P 500).

Of course, physicians and investors are not immune to poor decision making in upward trending markets. In 2001, investors withdrew a then-record amount of $30 billion[2] in September, presumably in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. These investors managed to skillfully “rebalance” their ways out of markets that declined approximately 11.5% during the first several trading sessions after the market reopened, only to reach September 10th levels again after only 19 trading days. In 2002, investors revealed their relentless pursuit of self-destruction when they withdrew a net $27.7 billion from equity funds[3] just before the S&P 500’s 29.9% 2003 growth.

Amateurs versus Professionals [is there such a thing?]

Although it is easy to dismiss the travails of mutual fund investors as representing only the performance of amateurs, it is important to remember that institutions are not automatically immune by virtue of being managed by investment professionals.

For example, in the 1960s and early 1970s, common wisdom stipulated that portfolios include the Nifty Fifty stocks that were viewed to be complete companies.  These stocks were considered “one-decision” stocks for which the only decision was how much to buy. Even institutions got caught up in purchasing such current corporate stalwarts as Joe Schlitz Brewing, Simplicity Patterns, and Louisiana Home & Exploration.  Collective market groupthink pushed these stocks to such prices that Price Earnings ratios routinely exceeded 50 [nothing in the internet age]. Subsequent disappointing performance of this strategy only revealed that common wisdom is often neither common nor wisdom.

The Bear Sterns Example

Recall that The New York Times reported on June 21, 2007, that Bear Stearns had managed to forestall the demise of the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies and the related Enhanced Leveraged Fund.  The two funds held mortgage-backed debt securities of almost $2 billion many of which were in the sub-prime market.  To compound the problem, the funds borrowed much of the money used to purchase these securities.  The firms who had provided the loans to make these purchases represented some of the smartest names on Wall Street, including JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank.[4]  Despite its efforts Bear Stearns had to inform investors less than a week later on June 27 that these two funds had collapsed. The subsequent fate of these firms, and the history of the past two years, need not be repeated to appreciate that the king surely had no clothes.

Assessment

What broader message lies in this post relative to such medical initiatives as P4P, various clinical quality improvement endeavors and benchmarks, hospital peer-review, PROs, Medicare compliance, etc?  

Conclusion

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References


[1]   2001 Fact Book, Investment Company Institute.

[2]   Id.

[3]   2003 Fact Book, Investment Company Institute.

[4]    Bajaj, Vikas and Creswell, Julie. “Bear Stearns Staves off Collapse of 2 Hedge Funds.” New York Times, June 21, 2007.

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Bank Deals Similar to Goldman Sach’s Gone Awry

Other Major Banks Participated, Too?

By Marian Wang, ProPublica – April 16, 2010 1:36 pm EDT

As you may have heard, or read on this ME-P, Goldman Sachs is being sued for fraud [1] by the Securities and Exchange Commission [2] for allegedly misleading investors about a deal that Goldman helped structure and sell. In the civil suit, the SEC specifically faulted Goldman for failing to disclose that a hedge fund was helping create the investment while betting big the deal would fail.

According to the SEC, Goldman Sachs knew about the hedge fund’s bets, knew it played a significant role in choosing the assets in the portfolio, and yet did not tell investors about it. (Goldman Sachs has called the SEC’s accusations “completely unfounded in law and fact.” And in another more detailed statement [3], it said it “did not structure a portfolio that was designed to lose money.”) 

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In ProPublica

As we reported at ProPublica last week, many other major investment banks were doing a similar thing [4].

Investment banks including JPMorgan Chase [5], Merrill Lynch [6] (now part of Bank of America), Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and UBS also created CDOs that a hedge fund named Magnetar was both helping create and betting would fail. Those investment banks marketed and sold the CDOs to investors without disclosing Magnetar’s role or the hedge fund’s interests.

Here is a list of the banks that were involved [7] in Magnetar deals, along with links to many of the prospectuses on the deals, which skip over Magnetar’s role. In all, investment banks created at least 30 CDOs with Magnetar, worth roughly $40 billion overall. Goldman’s 25 Abacus CDOs — one of which is the basis of the SEC’s lawsuit — amounted to $10.9 billion [8].

One reporter Jake Bernstein explained the investment banks’ disclosure failures on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life [9]:

On the Magnetar Hedge Fund

The role of Magnetar, both as equity investor and in their bets against the very CDOs they helped create were not disclosed in any way to investors in the written documents about the deals. Not the marketing materials, not the prospectuses, not in the hundreds of pages that an investor could get to see information about the deal was it disclosed that it was in fact Magnetar who’d helped create the deal, and who’d bet against.

That is, of course, along the lines of what the SEC is suing Goldman Sachs for now. The SEC’s suit also says CDOs like the ones Goldman built “contributed to the recent financial crisis by magnifying losses associated with the downturn in the United States housing market.”

Notably, the SEC did not sue the hedge fund [10] involved in Goldman’s Abacus deals — Paulson & Co. — or its manager, John Paulson. Instead, it’s going after Goldman. And as we pointed out in our reporting, there’s no evidence that what Magentar did was illegal [11].

Assessment

We’ve called the major banks involved in Magnetar CDO deals to see if they were concerned about similar lawsuits. Thus far, Bank of America, Citigroup, Deutsche, Wells Fargo (which bought Wachovia) and UBS have responded and have all declined our requests for comment. Here is Magnetar’s response [12] to our original reporting.

Conclusion

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How One Hedge Fund Helped Keep the Bubble Going

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On the Magnetar Trade

By Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, ProPublica – April 9, 2010 1:00 pm EDT

In late 2005, the booming U.S. housing market seemed to be slowing. The Federal Reserve had begun raising interest rates. Subprime mortgage company shares were falling. Investors began to balk at buying complex mortgage securities. The housing bubble, which had propelled a historic growth in home prices, seemed poised to deflate. And if it had, the great financial crisis of 2008, which produced the Great Recession of 2008-09, might have come sooner and been less severe.

Precise Timing

At just that moment, a few savvy financial engineers at a suburban Chicago hedge fund [1] helped revive the Wall Street money machine, spawning billions of dollars of securities ultimately backed by home mortgages.

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When the crash came, nearly all of these securities became worthless, a loss of an estimated $40 billion paid by investors, the investment banks who helped bring them into the world, and, eventually, American taxpayers.

Yet the hedge fund, named Magnetar for the super-magnetic field created by the last moments of a dying star, earned outsized returns in the year the financial crisis began.

The Magnetar Trade

How Magnetar pulled this off is one of the untold stories of the meltdown. Only a small group of Wall Street insiders was privy to what became known as the Magnetar Trade [2]. Nearly all of those approached by ProPublica declined to talk on the record, fearing their careers would be hurt if they spoke publicly. But interviews with participants, e-mails [3], thousands of pages of documents and details about the securities that until now have not been publicly disclosed shed light on an arcane, secretive corner of Wall Street.

According to bankers and others involved, the Magnetar Trade worked this way: The hedge fund bought the riskiest portion of a kind of securities known as collateralized debt obligations — CDOs. If housing prices kept rising, this would provide a solid return for many years. But that’s not what hedge funds are after. They want outsized gains, the sooner the better, and Magnetar set itself up for a huge win: It placed bets that portions of its own deals would fail.

Chance Enhancement

Along the way, it did something to enhance the chances of that happening, according to several people with direct knowledge of the deals. They say Magnetar pressed to include riskier assets in their CDOs that would make the investments more vulnerable to failure. The hedge fund acknowledges it bet against its own deals but says the majority of its short positions, as they are known on Wall Street, involved similar CDOs that it did not own. Magnetar says it never selected the assets that went into its CDOs.

Magnetar says it was “market neutral,” meaning it would make money whether housing rose or fell. (Read their full statement. [4]) Dozens of Wall Street professionals, including many who had direct dealings with Magnetar, are skeptical of that assertion. They understood the Magnetar Trade as a bet against the subprime mortgage securities market. Why else, they ask, would a hedge fund sponsor tens of billions of dollars of new CDOs at a time of rising uncertainty about housing?

Key details of the Magnetar Trade remain shrouded in secrecy and the fund declined to respond to most of our questions. Magnetar invested in 30 CDOs from the spring of 2006 to the summer of 2007, though it declined to name them. ProPublica has identified 26 [5].

Independent Analysis

An independent analysis [6] commissioned by ProPublica shows that these deals defaulted faster and at a higher rate compared to other similar CDOs. According to the analysis, 96 percent of the Magnetar deals were in default by the end of 2008, compared with 68 percent for comparable CDOs. The study [6] was conducted by PF2 Securities Evaluations, a CDO valuation firm. (Magnetar says defaults don’t necessarily indicate the quality of the underlying CDO assets.)

From what we’ve learned, there was nothing illegal in what Magnetar did; it was playing by the rules in place at the time. And the hedge fund didn’t cause the housing bubble or the financial crisis. But the Magnetar Trade does illustrate the perverse incentives and reckless behavior that characterized the last days of the boom.

Major Players

Magnetar worked with major banks, including Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and UBS. At least nine banks helped Magnetar hatch deals. Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and UBS all did multiple deals with Magnetar. JPMorgan Chase, often lauded for having avoided the worst of the CDO craze, actually ended up doing one of the riskiest deals with Magnetar, in May 2007, nearly a year after housing prices started to decline. According to marketing material and prospectuses [5], the banks didn’t disclose to CDO investors the role Magnetar played.

Many of the bankers who worked on these deals personally benefited, earning millions in annual bonuses. The banks booked profits at the outset. But those gains were fleeting. As it turned out, the banks that assembled and marketed the Magnetar CDOs had trouble selling them. And when the crash came, they were among the biggest losers.

Assessment

Of course, some bankers involved in the Magnetar Trade now regret what they did. We showed one of the many people fired as a result of the CDO collapse a list of unusually risky mortgage bonds included in a Magnetar deal he had worked on. The deal was a disaster. He shook his head at being reminded of the details and said: “After looking at this, I deserved to lose my job.”

Magnetar wasn’t the only market player to come up with clever ways to bet against housing. Many articles and books, including a bestseller by Michael Lewis [7], have recounted how a few investors saw trouble coming and bet big. Such short bets can be helpful; they can serve as a counterweight to manias and keep bubbles from expanding.

Magnetar’s approach had the opposite effect — by helping create investments it also bet against, the hedge fund was actually fueling the market. Magnetar wasn’t alone in that: A few other hedge funds also created CDOs they bet against. And, as the New York Times has reported, Goldman Sachs did too. But Magnetar industrialized the process, creating more and bigger CDOs.

Conclusion

Several journalists have alluded to the Magnetar Trade in recent years, but until now none has assembled a full narrative. Yves Smith, a prominent financial blogger who has reported on aspects of the Magnetar Trade, writes in her new book, “Econned,” [8] that “Magnetar went into the business of creating subprime CDOs on an unheard of scale. If the world had been spared their cunning, the insanity of 2006-2007 would have been less extreme and the unwinding milder.”

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