The Hidden Bailout Of $1.4 Trillion
Fannie / Freddie Credit-Default Swaps
by Daniel R. Amerman, CFA | September 10, 2008Print
Something extraordinary happened on Monday, September the 8th, 2008. The government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac triggered the pending settlement of $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps. This single event could have led to a cascading series of failures that might have bankrupted Wall Street – and much of the rest of the financial world – by the end of the week. That isn’t happening, and indeed, the media is treating this as something close to a non-event. However, a very real $1.4 trillion event happened – whose resolution effectively constitutes one of the largest government bailouts in history. Nobody noticed, for even though this is occurring in “plain sight”, the simple fact is that few people outside of the financial industry understand the $600 trillion derivative securities market. In this article, written the day after the event, we will briefly explain why this hidden, massive bailout - not of Fannie and Freddie but of the financial derivatives industry - is hugely significant, with potentially profound – and arbitragable – implications for the dollar, the markets and your personal financial future.
What Did NOT Happen
(These first several paragraphs in italics do not describe what did happen, but rather what could have happened in an alternate universe in which we actually had a free market that functioned without massive government interventions.)
The financial news of the day was that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were both unable to make debt payments and had defaulted on $5 trillion in bonds and mortgage-backed securities. With the US real estate market having fallen $4 trillion in the previous two years (non inflation-adjusted), it should have been no surprise that these two highly leveraged companies were not able to absorb the staggering losses. As this became clear to the markets, Fannie and Freddie lost the ability to borrow - which their survival was based upon - and actual default followed soon after. This default immediately triggered settlements on $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps (credit derivatives), which had been entered into by major financial firms who had promised - in exchange for lucrative fee income - that if Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac were to default, these guarantor firms would make good on the defaulted bonds.
As the value of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt plunged to 30 cents on the dollar, this meant that there was a 70% loss on the bonds (if one could find a buyer at all). This then triggered a call for settlement on the $1.4 trillion in credit-default swaps outstanding. Because the debt of the two former titans of the financial world was trading at a 70% discount compared to par value, this meant that total credit losses were $1 trillion ($1.4 trillion X 70% = $1 trillion). This meant $1 trillion worth of payments was due from the companies that had guaranteed the value of this debt, through their entering into credit-default swaps.
Settlement was triggered, but as the credit-default swap beneficiaries soon found out, collecting their settlements was an entirely different matter. The financial institutions around the world who had guaranteed Fannie and Freddie in exchange for lucrative corporate fee income (and multi-million dollar individual bonuses) were all highly leveraged themselves (indeed, weaker than the companies they were guaranteeing), and absolutely reliant on the day to day availability of large lines of credit and general borrowing capacity. As the creditors of these financial giants realized that a trillion dollar hit was barreling straight at them, they pulled their financing. Having to repay or replace these loans, without being able to sell massive portfolios of illiquid assets in a market suddenly devoid of buyers, left nearly every major investment bank and commercial bank in the United States and Europe unable to meet their obligations – even before settlement of their trillion dollar credit-default swap losses.
The failure of the major financial firms triggered another massive round of credit-default swap events, with amounts well over $10 trillion by Thursday, and over $20 trillion by Friday. By that time, however, no one was naïve enough to expect actual payment on those swaps, as Wall Street and the rest of the world’s financial hubs had all been insolvent since Wednesday. When the markets eventually opened for business again more than two months later, the official drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was over 10,000 points, meaning the index was trading at a level in the 1,000 – 1,500 range.
What Did Happen
“They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. Well, there are no libertarians in a financial crisis, either.'' Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard economist
The above scenario is what might have happened if we took the naïve perspective that markets actually function on their own without government intervention, and that corporations take the consequences for their own bad decisions, in exchange for the profits that come from their good decisions. That is of course a hypothetical world that has little to do with current global financial markets.
If you want a glimpse of the real world future, and what is happening as the same flawed business model that destroyed the $1.2 trillion subprime mortgage derivative securities market now threatens the over $60 trillion credit derivatives market, then we need to look no further than what actually happened with the $1.4 trillion worth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac credit default swaps. The companies were taken into conservatorship on September 6th. They have effectively failed even if legally there are some different ways of phrasing it. As reported by Bloomberg on September 8th, that led to a unanimous agreement by 13 Wall Street firms on Monday, September 7, 2008, that settlement of $1.4 trillion in credit default swaps had been triggered.
If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had actually failed to make payments on their debt - the consequences would have quite likely destroyed Wall Street right there. As illustrated in the scenario above, there simply isn't a big enough capital base on Wall Street to absorb a trillion dollars in losses in a week, particularly once your creditors catch on to what is happening. Much smaller losses from subprime mortgage derivatives incrementally dribbling out over the course of the year, still might have taken down Wall Street, had it not been for the ability to hide losses in Tier Three assets (with the full complicity of the government), as well as the reassurances that the Federal Reserve provided by so swiftly bailing out Bear Stearns via JP Morgan, when a creditor driven bankruptcy (as described above) threatened to take down a major player.
Of course, the hypothetical collapse did not happen. The meltdown was averted because the federal government proactively and aggressively intervened to keep a financial disaster from taking down Wall Street (just as it did with Bear Stearns, and Long Term Capital Management the decade before). When the situation started to get bad, the federal government stepped in and - even if they still are hedging a bit legally - effectively guaranteed the debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac .
Which means that they also – and this is crucial – bailed out the firms who had guaranteed the $1.4 trillion in credit derivatives. There may very well be losses, perhaps significant losses, but there would be no catastrophic loss there, that would threaten the viability of the financial system. Because what has really happened is that you have replaced a credit default swap on a quasi-governmental agency, that being Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, with a credit default swap on the full faith and credit of the United States government. If the US guarantee had not been substituted then it would be a catastrophic failure. But because the US guarantee was substituted, it’s seemingly not a big deal, though much remains to be worked out.
In other words, the biggest beneficiaries of the $1.4 trillion Fannie and Freddie bailout were not Fannie or Freddie at all, but the Wall Street firms whose senior officers just happen to be major political contributors to both political parties – with some of those senior officers also running the Treasury Department on a revolving door basis.
How the ending valuation of the credit default swaps for settlement purposes will work out is a fascinating question. Arguably you could say that the value of Fannie and Freddie debt just rose, not only in comparison to prices during the recent financial turmoil, but also compared to par value. After all, we have just gone from quasi-governmental debt to something that is much closer to being explicitly a full faith and credit obligation of the United States Government, which means we should be losing part of the small spread that Fannie and Freddie traded at as quasi-governmental debt over direct governmental debt yields. From this perspective, one could say that the United States stepping in and taking over actually improves credit quality and the value of the bonds, so there is no loss at all - but a gain.
However there still remains a level of uncertainty, as the debt has not explicitly been made full faith and credit of the United States government. There's a taint involved, and there could be liquidity issues - as investors typically are not too fond of even small uncertainties. So there's a good chance the ending value will end up somewhere in the 90s - perhaps very close to par or perhaps a little bit further away. Wherever the ultimate settlement prices, however, it will not be a massive loss, because what has really happened is that a swap has indeed taken place, and the United States government bailed Wall Street out of self-inflicted credit swap-driven destruction, through preemptively swapping its guarantee for the guarantees by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The real implication of this then is that there is no danger from credit default swaps directly taking down Wall Street, so long as the federal government is willing to aggressively intervene every time there is a potential failure. I think we can see a clear path to the future here.
Where Did That Trillion Come From?
Before going any further, let’s stop and ask a simple question.
Where did the money for the bailout come from?
How did a strapped federal government come up with the trillions (if need be) to make good on all of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s obligations?
How did a government that is already running over a $400 billion deficit so smoothly and easily come up with an extra trillion dollars or two, if needed? (With the $400 billion being based upon government accounting standards whose usage would get an individual or private firm thrown in prison. The deficit is far, far higher when unfunded retirement obligations are taken into account.)
And, for that matter, now that we’re on the subject – where did the government come up with the money for the $170 billion “tax rebate”?
How about that $59 trillion number for unfunded retirement related government obligations that keeps being bandied around? (The real number is a good bit higher as I cover in my article “The $2 Million Opportunity.”)
Where does the government come up with all that money, anyway?
The answer is simple – there is an unlimited supply of dollars. When you issue your own currency, and you are sufficiently determined, then there is an infinite supply of money available. Which could be a very good thing(?), for the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac credit-default swaps are only one small part of a much larger market – and much larger risk. As we will discuss later in the article, however, while the supply of money is infinite, the value of that money is a different matter.
Taking Full Advantage Of Implicit Government Guarantees
Once you understand that the supply of money is effectively infinite for a sufficiently grave emergency, then you are ready for the next step in understanding some recent events which might otherwise seem indecipherable. From some perspectives, this near catastrophe which could have so easily taken down all of Wall Street (had the federal government not intervened), was not a catastrophe at all. It was instead a highly successful experiment. For the many firms which purportedly took on the risk in creating $1.4 trillion of credit-default swaps for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do so for the fun of it or out of the goodness of their hearts. They did so because they got paid enormous sums of money for purportedly taking on all those risks. With much of that money quite directly passing through to the already wealthy individuals involved.
If Fannie and Freddie had not run into problems then the guarantor financial firms would have just pocketed all of their fees, ultimately as pure profit. Instead of that, a worst case scenario occurred that arguably should have destroyed every one of the firms involved in this business - and would have likely done so if there had genuinely been a free market involved.
What the experiment proved was that as long as the risk that you take is big enough, then the federal government and your former coworkers down at the Treasury Department can be absolutely relied upon to bail you out. Now, Wall Street felt this was likely already the case. It was kind of a shame to lose a firm like Bear Stearns, but the good part about it was it proved that a major derivatives market failure wouldn't be allowed to occur, as was remarked upon in the article from last month quoted below:
“Government intervention has saved the $62 trillion credit derivatives market from facing the nightmare of counterparty failure during the credit crisis of the past year…
After the government backed rescue of Bear Stearns, the market views other major derivative counterparties as also “too big to fail”, and this implicit support… means the credit derivatives market will likely be spared the ultimate test.” Reuters (Karen Brettell), August 7, 2008
With the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the markets have been shown to be correct, and the reliability of the government bailout occurring has now been proven on a much larger scale. If the dollar amount is great enough, then no individual firm has to go down. Instead the United States Treasury and/or Federal Reserve will preemptively step in, and effectively make every one whole (or close thereto), perhaps without even affecting Wall Street bonuses.
The principle is very simple. Take huge risks that you know cannot possibly pay out if you lose. In fact - that's the key to the whole transaction. The risks have to be so large that you cannot afford to lose, and the economy and markets cannot afford for you to lose. Then one of two things happens. Either the risk event does not come about and you make an extraordinary amount of money as an individual and as a firm for having taken on this huge amount of risk. Or the risk happens and you have to pay out. Except you really don't, because you can't afford to pay out and you have effectively blackmailed the rest of the population through being too big to fail. Then the government steps in and bails you out. Except it's not really the government, because the government can't truly do that, it is the rest of the population which bails you out.
Situations like this are sometimes referred to as “moral hazard” – a weak and theoretical sounding term for an insider’s game of global economic blackmail that is growing at a rate much faster than the overall global economy. The cozy relationship between Wall Street and regulators is crucial, and much of the massive, hidden derivatives bailout that just occurred can be explained by looking at just who the chief “cop” is. US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson built his half billion dollar personal fortune as the former head of Goldman Sachs, meaning he was chief executive of one of the world’s leading derivatives players.
Making Sense Of The Irrational
It is only when you understand the game that is being played, that the actions of Wall Street and much of the rest of the financial world after the subprime mortgage crisis becomes clear.
The subprime mortgage derivates experiment failed spectacularly. The firms that were creating these derivative securities and the rating firms who were rating them were making numerous and obvious mistakes. Yet once the fundamentally flawed business model was disproven - the world did not move away from derivative securities. Oh, they stopped creating new subprime mortgage derivatives, but when we look at the arguably much riskier credit derivatives market (this greater risk is explored in my article “Credit Derivatives Dangers In 2008 & Beyond – A Primer”), the market grew from $35 trillion in outstanding credit derivatives in July 2007 -- the same time it was becoming clear that something was going very badly wrong in the subprime mortgage derivatives market -- to a current level of about $62 trillion. In other words the market reacted to the real world proof that these things don't actually work by, almost doubling the amount in existence in one year. Indeed, the amount of credit derivatives outstanding grew at an annual rate that was about twice the size of the entire United States economy.
Now if you are an academic modeling a hypothetical world of free markets and rational behavior by sophisticated investors keeping the markets safe and fairly valued for all involved, this would make no sense whatsoever. Rational investment firms ought to be fleeing markets like credit derivatives – not doubling up on an already failed experiment.
The reason? It’s the best game in town. Take a huge amount of risk, be paid exceedingly well for it and if you screw up -- you have absolute proof that the government will come in and bail you out at the expense of the rest of the population (who did not share in your profits in the first place).
Investing For The Bailout, Not The Crisis
Once we recognize that what is happening here is not a massive credit default, but a monetization by the US government of those losses on a potentially multi-trillion dollar scale, then our investment strategy changes dramatically. We are no longer investing for the crisis – but for the bailout. The combination of this bailout and the Federal Reserves unprecedented actions in forcing interest rates so far below the rate of inflation creates a “target-rich environment” for the execution of arbitrage strategies by both corporate and individual investors.
The federal government is not going to let the financial system fail. It will create however much money needs to be created to bail out the institutions and attempt to bailout the economy, as it has already shown in real world test after test, from the so-called “tax rebate”, to Bear Stearns, to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Which means that the government is prepared to destroy the dollar, and is not just prepared to, but is currently actively destroying the value of the dollar rather than let those firms fail. So the way you invest for the failure of an out of control derivatives market is to invest for the destruction of the dollar. Which means taking on new tools for a new time.
Four Steps To Creating Wealth From Catastrophe
The first step in creating wealth in an unfair world - is to avoid getting cheated. If you are investing money at short term rates of 1%, 2% or even 5%, while the value of your money is eroding at 9% a year, then you are being deliberately played for a sucker, and cheated out of the value of your money by the Federal Reserve.
Not that secret meetings are being held and an explicit agreement is being made to “get the little guys”. It’s just that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good to try to avert a catastrophic market meltdown, and that means that trusting individual investors get paid a negative interest rate on their money (after adjusting for inflation), while paying taxes on (economically) non-existent income for the privilege. Keep in mind as well that one of the purposes in destroying the value of your money is to keep the prices on financial assets propped above where they would otherwise be, if genuine market forces were setting short term interest rates. Which means that you are systematically overpaying for financial assets compared to actual fundamental values, and are getting played for a sucker there as well, to the extent that you are not being subsidized with below (real) market rates like the banks, investment banks and hedge funds. (See my article “Fed Manipulations Subsidize Wall Street & Cheat Investors” for more on this.)
The second step to turning financial catastrophe into personal wealth requires understanding one simple thing – which most investors do not. Inflation does not destroy real wealth, at least not directly. Inflation redistributes real wealth. Indeed, inflation can be used by individuals to quite directly take real wealth from both financial institutions and other individuals, as I illustrate in my (slightly twisted) morality tale “Inflation Pickpocket”. (To add insult to injury, those doing the pocket picking can often do so tax-free, even while their victims pay real taxes on illusory income.)
The third step is to understand that wealth redistribution on a massive scale creates personal opportunity on a massive scale. John Paulson (no relation to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) saw the crisis that was coming in subprime mortgages, researched and educated himself on this area (which had not been his field of expertise), and he turned the crisis into a $3-$4 billion personal payday in 2007. If you're not a hedge fund manager like John Paulson, you may not have the tools that he used to turn a market crisis into personal billions. That’s OK, because Paulson didn’t start with the tools either. He started with educating himself and learning about a new area, until he came up with a novel way to profit from disaster. A method that wasn’t in the financial textbooks, and that he didn’t find by reading a financial columnist in the paper.
Next you need to understand that you personally may have more tools than you may think, some of which may surprise you. Tools which can give you the opportunity to turn financial disaster into personal net worth. There are ways you can use those tools to turn the destruction of the currency into perhaps the greatest real wealth-building opportunity of your life, on a long-term and tax-advantaged basis. But, if you want this to happen --you will need to start with learning. That is the irreplaceable fourth step. You are going to have to educate yourself, and work to not just understand, but to master some of the financial forces and methods in play here. You will have to learn how to turn the destruction of paper wealth into real wealth. With Turning Inflation Into Wealth being the key to this next step. My best wishes to you for turning this challenge into an extraordinary personal opportunity.
© 2008 Daniel R. Amerman, CFA
Daniel R. Amerman is a futurist and financial consultant with a unique approach to helping individuals and organizations prepare for and profit from an upcoming time of generational change and likely financial turmoil. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst and former investment banker, with MBA and BSBA degrees in finance and over 20 years of financial experience.