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I Knew It Was Bad, But...

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Actual prices where traders can really buy and sell is substantially lower than where investors are marking their positions.

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I asked a large broker firm to send over its smartest math person on Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) structuring. I wanted to know what I am missing: why is the market so sanguine in the face of deteriorating collateral values in the mortgage market? One of my firm's theses has been that, as the mortgage market deteriorates, investors holding CDO as an investment would realize losses and this would feed into other risky asset classes. Why aren't losses being seen when the market is clearly deteriorating?

The team that came over was headed by a very smart gentleman. He was very good at math and very straightforward. Working for a broker I was prepared for some sugar coating. I didn't get any.

The answer is simple and scary: conflict of interest.

He explained that due to the many layers of today's complicated credit products, the assumptions used to dictate the pricing and outcome of CDO are extremely subjective. The process is so subjective in fact that in order to make the market work an "impartial" pricing mechanism must exist that the entire market relies upon. Enter the credit agencies. They use their models, which are not sensitive to current or expected economic activity, but are based almost entirely on past and current default rates and cash flow to price the risk. This of course raises two issues.

First, it is questionable whether "recent" experienced losses over the last few years really represent the worst of the credit market (conservative). But even more importantly, it raises a huge conflict of interest: the credit agency's customers are the very issuers of the tranches they rate. The credit agencies, therefore, need to compete for business based at least in part on the ratings they are willing to give these tranches. As a result, they will only downgrade when forced to by experienced losses; not rising default rates, not a worsening economy, but only actual, experienced losses. Even more disturbing, they will be most reluctant to downgrade the riskiest tranches (the equity tranches) since those continue to be owned by the issuers even after the deal is sold.

So even though the mortgage market has deteriorated substantially, mark-to-market losses by those holding the CDO paper have generally not been realized simply because the rating agencies have not changed their ratings for all the above reasons. Accounting rules only require holders of the paper to mark prices according to the accepted model, not actual prices. For example, below is a chart of the actual BBB minus tranch of the mortgage-backed securities pool from November '06 to present. Actual prices where traders can really buy and sell is substantially lower than where investors are marking their positions.



The levels at which investors are carrying the paper is not reflecting underlying reality as the holders simply hold their collective breath and the rating agencies ignore a worsening environment.

I asked them what would force the rating agencies to change their ratings and the response was "it's just a matter of time if the market continues to deteriorate, for the agencies at some point will be forced by the cumulative losses to acquiesce." Because these losses have been compressed, any re-adjusting of ratings by these agencies are likely to result in a massive repricing of risk.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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