By Malay Bansal & John Joshi

The issuer-paid model for ratings is widely seen as one of the most significant aspects of the process that needs to be reformed. Yet, no good solution to reform this process has emerged. Part of the reason for that are three widely held misconceptions.

Issuers select which NRSROs will rate their deal, and they pay the rating agencies rating their deals. Many blame this dynamic for causing a conflict for the agencies, and enabling ratings-shopping by issuers. This is perhaps seen as the biggest problem in the current ratings system. Dodd-Frank and other rules in the US and Europe are trying to reform the process. Some proposals suggest removing references to rating agencies from rules, while others suggest regulating them more heavily. The former leaves a hole; the latter increases the perception that the ratings have official approval. No good solutions have emerged.

A previous article in this blog and in Structured Credit Investor (The Unrecognised and Unaddressed Ratings Issue, Malay Bansal, 7 July 2010) made the point that the ratings reform is proving to be intractable because the real issue is not being recognized or addressed in any of the reform proposals. The real problem is that the rating agencies are combining two roles into one. The first role is to provide a rating based on statistical analysis of historical performance of the assets (remember that the ‘SR’ in NRSROs stands for Statistical Ratings). The second role is that of a research analyst to provide an opinion on what might happen in the future. Currently, rating agencies combine the two. The ratings are a mix of statistical analysis and somewhat subjective opinion on the future. This allows rating agencies to downgrade companies or countries even while they are in the process of attempting to improve their financial condition. The official NRSRO status gives their subjective opinions extraordinary power and can actually have an impact on the outcome, making the ratings more pro-cyclical.

The logical solution is to separate the two roles. NRSROs should be doing Statistical Ratings – based on past performance of assets, known facts, events that have already taken place, and statistical models and methods that are well disclosed. They can put bonds on watch for upgrade or downgrade if a financial event is in progress or expected, but cannot downgrade or upgrade till the event actually happens. So they will not be precipitating events.

The second role of providing credit ratings in the form of opinion on future performance should be separated from the NRSRO role, and should be open to any research provider, including NRSROs. These credit ratings could be designated as ‘Informational Ratings’, without any legal or official role impacting investor charters, debt covenants, and so on, which will only use the ratings designated as NRSRO Ratings. This will take the non-NRSRO rating agencies back to sort of where rating agencies started – as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt.

The conflict of issuer-paid ratings could be avoided if issuers paid the fee for NRSRO ratings, which will be freely available to everyone, but investors paid the fee for research and informational rating available to subscribers only. Availability of the second will serve as the important function of checks and balances on the NRSRO ratings paid for by the issuers. However, neither issuers, nor the rating agencies seem to find that suggestion appealing. This is partly because of three widely held misconceptions about issuer-paid ratings.

Misconception 1: Issuers Pay for Ratings

Investors, naturally, don’t like the idea of having to pay for ratings, especially since they get it for free in the current system. However, the reality is that they are really the ones paying for it even now. The bankers for the issuer select, engage, and pay the rating agencies, but the payment comes from the money paid by investors for purchasing the bonds. By letting the bankers pick the agencies, investors tilt the balance of power to the issuer. Since they are paying for it anyway, investors should be open to paying for ratings more directly. This will reduce their concerns about the conflict of interest.

Some have criticized the high fees charged by the raters. However, there is another factor investors need to consider in this regard.  If they want good quality output from the agencies, they need to be paid sufficiently to be able to attract and retain talented people. Lowering the fee is not the solution. Any scheme which involves investors selecting and paying for research from the agencies that provide better information and analysis will increase competition and provide the right incentives.

Another point in this regard is that only investors who purchase the bonds at initial issuance pay for ratings at present. Cost for investors will be lower if it was spread over all the investors. Subscription fees could be partly based on AUM, making it easier for smaller investors to subscribe.

Misconception 2: Investor-Paid Rating System will be Bad for Rating Agencies

Many, though not all, on the rating agency side, do not like the idea of having to rely on investors for their earnings. It is much better to get all the fees upfront, which sometimes includes the fee for surveillance of the deal throughout its life. However, the preference for upfront payment misses some important considerations.

First, there are a lot more investors than issuers. Even smaller payments from investors could provide the same or more revenue. Also, a smaller charge will cause more investors to sign on for the service.

Second, if the revenue is coming from investors, it is not dependent on the volume of deals, and will not fluctuate dramatically based on volume of issuance. This will provide more stability to those organizations, and allow them to focus on the quality of their work.

Third, more stable revenue would mean a higher multiple for the valuation of their businesses, which will be a positive for their owners and investors.

Fourth, if payment for rating is at the time of issuance, the agencies have to be picked to rate it. This does not align the interests of rating agencies with those of investors, creates a credibility problem, and leaves them open to criticism. By reducing the incentive to be picked to rate the deals at issuance, agencies will be better off, as will be the overall financial system, including the issuers.

Misconception 3: Ratings have to be either Issuer-Paid or Investor-Paid

Almost everyone seems to think that ratings have to be either paid by issuers or investors.  However, it does not have to be one or the other. Just a sufficient portion of fee has to come from investors to provide the right incentives. Especially in structured finance transactions, where it is expensive to perform the right amount of due diligence to rate the deal, some amount of upfront payment may be necessary. However, if payment from investors is a significant portion of total revenue of rating agencies, investors and the financial system will benefit from the proper alignment of incentives that would create.

Clearly, splitting the rating agency role into two is a significant change. However, if done thoughtfully, it can be a significant improvement to the current system, and work for the benefit of everyone.

Notes:  Views expressed are personal views only, and not of any affiliated organization or group. This article was originally published in Structured Credit Investor.

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By Malay Bansal

I was on a panel on Tranche Warfare last month in IMN’s 11th Annual US Real Estate Opportunity & Private Fund Investing Forum. It was a very well organized conference with a lot of people in attendance, and provided a great opportunity to exchange ideas with and listen to views of significant participants in the industry.  The conference and views expressed have been reported earlier. Below are some of my thoughts on what I heard.

The most common thread in a lot of comments, both in the panels and in private conversations, was the lack of opportunities to invest. Investors, remembering how much money was made purchasing cheap assets from RTC sales during the last real estate downturn of early 1990s, have raised a lot of money in anticipation of a similar opportunity this time around. However, those fire sales have not materialized, causing some disappointment. Many do not seem to realize that the investors were not the only ones who learnt from the early 90s experience. The owners of the assets, and the regulators, learnt too – if the assets are sold at cheap fire sale type of prices, investors make a killing, but the owners of assets lose out. So, this time around, the owners of the assets are trying to hold out as long as they can and it makes sense. Regulators, having learnt from the experience too, seem to be doing everything they prudently can, to give latitude to owners to avoid fire sales. Somehow, many seem to be disappointed at things not having played out the same way as they did in 90s! Seems logical that they should not, still many are surprised.

The good news from many was that the opportunities, though not as plentiful, are there. And people are doing deals. They take a little more searching, a little more digging into the things that are out there to separate the good ones from the bad, and they are often a little smaller than ideally desired, but they are there. On the easy ones, there is competition, and sometimes those assets get overbid. So, discipline in the process is as important as ever.

Another lesson that I came back with was that those GPs who gave themselves (or were able to get) more flexibility when raising funds in terms of types of investments, timeframe, and returns are better placed to take advantage of opportunities as they come up than those who got narrower mandates from their LP investors.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this time around, the process will be stretched out over a period of time. In commercial real estate, values are down – around 40% by some commonly used metrices, and there do not seem to be any immediate drivers that will quickly and significantly drive prices up. This is bound to result in transfer of assets from those owners who are overleveraged and do not have ability to put in more capital to refinance maturing loans in the new lower leverage environment. That will create opportunities for those with patient capital to invest. Just slowly. And they may not get fire sale prices, but they will be investing at today’s lower prices.

By Malay Bansal

The most important and the most basic issue related to ratings and rating agencies has not been recognized or addressed in reforms announced so far. Here’s a new idea on a practical solution to address this most fundamental issue, which also addresses the conflict of interest issue that has received the most attention so far.

The Reforms

Ratings agencies have been criticized heavily by many for their role in the U.S. financial crisis, in particular over conflicts of interest and their failure to recognize the high risks inherent in complex structured products. They have also been blamed for throwing fuel onto the fire of crises by belatedly and aggressively ratcheting down ratings. Numerous proposals have been put forward to reform the rating process to avoid these issues.

The US Congress, after resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions last week, is on the path to pass a sweeping financial regulatory reform bill aimed at increasing oversight and regulation of the US financial system. Among the issues addressed is reform of credit rating agencies. However, the compromise bill avoids most of the stronger proposals. The bill directs SEC to conduct a two-year study to determine if a board overseen by SEC should be setup to help pick which firms rate asset backed securities (the Senate version of the bill had required such a regulatory board). The bill also adopted a softer version of proposed liability provision than was in the house version of the bill (investors must show a company “knowingly or recklessly” failed to conduct a “reasonable” investigation before issuing a rating). The compromises are better than the extreme versions of proposals even though it means that the proposed regulations may not do much to change how the agencies operate.

Earlier, in mid April, SEC made some changes. In the update of Regulation AB, it eliminated the involvement of rating agencies in the shelf registration process by removing the requirement that the ABS be rated investment grade. This clearly has no impact on the rating process.

SEC also promulgated the Rule 17g-5, which went into effect on June 2, to address perceived conflicts of interest with issuer-paid ratings provided by nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (“NRSROs”). The rule aims to increase the number of ratings and promote unsolicited ratings for structured finance products. To achieve this goal, the rule requires issuers and hired rating agencies to maintain password-protected websites to share rating information with non-hired rating agencies. The concept is good, but if implementation means rating agencies will have to share all information with other agencies, they may have less incentive to dig deeper and find more data.

None of these changes are radical overhauls or even proportionate to the amount of criticism that was leveled at the agencies (Calpers has sued the three major bond rating agencies for $1 billion in losses it said were caused by “wildly inaccurate” risk assessments) or the wide ranging calls for ratings reform. In some ways, it is good that some of the more extreme proposals have not been adopted. But why is it so difficult to reform the rating process?

The Power of the Rating Agencies

One reason that makes it very difficult to make changes to the ratings process is that ratings are heavily embedded in almost every part of the financial systems around the world. They are used in investor’s charters defining what they can buy. They are used for calculation of capital charges for banks, insurance, and other financial companies. They are used in loan covenants and triggers on corporate debt. They are used to calculate haircuts on repo lines, along with many other uses.

Also, despite the recent failings, they serve a very useful purpose. Not everyone has the expertise and resources to analyze every security in detail. Presence of credit rating agencies gives smaller investors a starting point for analysis that they may not otherwise have.

This embedding of ratings in the financial system and reliance by so many participants on the ratings gives the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations or NRSROs tremendous power as ratings changes can have significant impact on companies, and even nations.

There are numerous examples of the impact that ratings changes can have. One recent one was during the onset of the 2010 European Sovereign Debt Crisis. What clearly played a role in triggering and escalating the crisis, even though it was not the cause, was the downgrade of Greece’s credit rating by three steps from investment grade BBB+ to junk rating of BB+. This came minutes after S&P downgraded Portugal by two steps to A- from A+. The announcement came at a sensitive time as the European Union policy makers and the International Monetary Fund were trying to hammer out measures to ease the panic over swelling budget deficits and create a financial rescue package for Greece. S&P followed the next day cutting Spain’s rating by one step to AA, and keeping the outlook as negative, reflecting the chance of further downgrades, with its projection of just 0.7% average real GDP growth annually from 2010 to 2016. Markets reacted violently to the cuts as investors worried about the safety of the debt of these countries, and contagion spread from Greece to other countries. Stock markets tumbled worldwide, and bond and currency markets had big moves and became very volatile.

Another way ratings impact markets is via the feedback loop between the markets and ratings through portfolios tied to indexes mandating certain holdings of particular debt. For example, the Barclays Euro Government Bond Index includes Greek debt as 4% of index, but only if the bonds maintain a certain credit quality based on lower of the rating from S&P and Moody’s. Greece had been 4% of that index but was excluded starting May 1, due to S&P’s downgrade. That in turn likely forced selling from investors tracking that index.

Critics assailed rating firms for fueling woe in Europe and Europeans criticized debt-rating agencies, accusing them of spooking the markets and worsening the plight of financially stretched governments such as Greece, struggling with heavy debt loads.

There are several other examples where a company needing to raise more debt in capital markets finds it cannot do so, or not at a reasonable cost, once it has been downgraded even while it was attempting to raise capital to improve its financial situation. The downgrade increases cost of financing as investors demand more yield reflecting lower rating. The downgrade may also result in existing investors having to sell holdings, further increasing the yields in the market. It can become a vicious circle increasing the likelihood of default. The downgrade reflects rating agency’s opinion of the outcome, but it also becomes a causal factor in determining that outcome. The rating agencies in effect become the judge, jury, and the hangman for the company.

The Real Problem That Has Not Been Recognized

In the current system, the rating agencies’ opinion can become a causal factor in making that opinion become reality. Time and again, in structured products and otherwise, it has been clear that the rating agencies are not infallible in their judgment, and do not have any special powers of predicting future. Their failures in predicting subprime mortgage performance have been appalling. But even if you look at the forecasts of defaults in corporate bonds, the predictions do not match the actual outcome, and the predictions themselves change over time, as they should.

So, if ratings are heavily embedded in the system and are needed, and yet rating agencies are not smarter than everybody else, and if they do not have special predictive powers about the future, how do we avoid giving their subjective opinions so much importance and extraordinary power?

The answer lies in recognizing the real problem – one that has not been addressed in any of the proposals so far. The real problem is that the rating agencies are combining two roles into one. First role is to provide a rating based on statistical analysis and past performance of the assets – remember that SR in NRSROs stands for Statistical Ratings. The second role is that of a research analyst to provide an opinion on what might happen in the future. Currently, rating agencies combine the two. The ratings are a mix of statistical analysis and somewhat subjective opinion on the future. This allows rating agencies to downgrade companies or countries even while they are in the process of attempting to improve their financial condition. At the same time, it leaves rating agencies open to criticism if they do not act and the feared worse outcome becomes reality before their downgrade. This also allows subjectivity and flexibility in ratings process that creates perceived conflicts of interest in issuer paid ratings.

 

The Solution

The logical solution is to separate the two roles. NRSROs should be doing Statistical Ratings – based on past performance of assets, known facts, events that have already taken place, and statistical models and methods that are well disclosed. They can put bonds on watch for upgrade or downgrade if a financial event is in progress or expected, but cannot downgrade or upgrade till the event actually happens. So they will not be precipitating events, and cannot be blamed for not downgrading sooner. This role will be limited to those approved as NRSROs.

The second role of providing credit ratings in the form of opinion on future performance should be separated from the NRSRO role, and should be open to any research provider, including NRSROs. These credit ratings could be designated as Informational Ratings without any legal or official role impacting investor charters, debt covenants, etc, which will only use the ratings designated as NRSRO Ratings. This will take the non-NRSRO rating agencies back to sort of where rating agencies started – as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt.

The information provided to NRSROs should be made available to all NRSROs and other non-NRSRO rating agencies, in a manner similar to password-protected website required under SEC Rule 17g-5. However, to promote competition and improve quality, the other rating agencies should be free to gather more information and not have to share it with others.

The conflict of issuer paid rating could be avoided if issuers were required to pay a fixed fee based on deal type (maybe to a group set up by the SEC or an industry association for that purpose) which would be divided between all NRSRO raters informing issuers of their decision to rate the deal after the issuers post the information on the password-protected website for credit raters. This will avoid ratings-shopping by issuers even though the agencies will be indirectly paid by the issuers. The NRSRO Rating will be provided to investors without any charge. The NRSROs will only provide the current rating, along with disclosing their rating methodology to investors. They will not provide any opinions or qualitative information.

For more qualitative information and opinions, investors will look to the Informational Ratings and more details from research providers (including NRSROs and non-NRSROs). This will be paid for by the investors looking for enhanced information and research. This will be the main source of income for credit raters and will incentivize them to compete with others for investor subscriptions and produce quality results.

Separating the two roles avoids the issues of rating agencies precipitating events if they act or facing criticism if they do not. It avoids the perception of conflict from issuer-paid ratings, by allocating costs between the issuer and the investors. It also preserves the role of rating agencies where its needed, while encouraging the investors to do more work on their own and look for third party unbiased research and opinion.

Note: Versions of this article were published in Structured Credit Investor and Seeking Alpha.


 

 

These suggestions, sent to the Treasury & FRB in Oct 2008, proposed a plan similar to the TALF and PPIP programs, months before Treasury and others came around to the idea. They were mentioned in the NY Times Executive Suite column by Joe Nocera (complete document is available at nytimes.com here). The Treasury plan was first announced by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Feb 10, 2009. The writeup also included the Turbo concept of limiting interest payments and using  excess interest to pay down loan principal, which was included in the TALF announcement on Legacy CMBS on May 19, 2009.

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Suggestions for Additional Steps for Tackling the Credit Crisis

By Malay Bansal

Oct 19, 2008

Several steps have been taken by the Treasury and Federal Reserve to address the current economic crisis. These are important and useful first steps, but as everyone knows, the problems are complex and will require additional action, including steps to tackle the root cause of the problem – declining house prices.

Obviously, any step to stabilize house prices will need to focus on decreasing supply by preventing foreclosures as much as possible, and increasing demand by providing incentives to new home buyers. Making mortgage payments more affordable is key to both. Most efficient will be approaches that help people on the margin – people on the verge of defaulting on their mortgage, or those considering buying a house.

Below are outlines of three suggestions I have for consideration along with other steps being contemplated:

1. Better use of part of TARP Funds targeted to buy mortgage assets: Treasury can partner with private buyers instead of buying assets itself.

  • Will increase efficiency by tapping private funds. There is a lot of capital waiting to be invested in distressed assets, but has not been invested yet as prices need to be lower to achieve targeted returns without leverage.
  • Treasury can lend to or partner with private buyers of distressed mortgage assets with terms like the following:
    • Treasury will put up 50% and the private buyer will put up 50%, with Treasury’s interest being the senior interest.
    • Funds will be used to buy distressed mortgages and securities at a discount from various large and small banks and financial institutions.
    • Mortgage payments from purchased assets will be used in sequential order to (i) pay 5% interest to Treasury, (ii) 5% interest to the Private buyer, (iii) principal to Treasury, (iv) principal to the Private buyer, and finally (v) all residual to the private buyer as its return for the risk. This ensures that Treasury gets its money back first.
  • The 5% interest for Treasury will apply for 5 years. After that, it will increase by 0.5% every year till it reaches 9%. Interest for private buyer will stay at 5%.
  • Those taking the loan from treasury will need to agree to change mortgage terms to help homeowners including giving borrowers the option to (i) increase loan term by 5 to 10 years, and (ii) prepay loans at any time without penalty (any existing prepay penalties will be waived). Other terms to help homeowners may be included.
  • Treasury will offer mortgage assets from banks for bids. The private buyer with the highest bid will get funds from Treasury. Banks will have option of accepting the highest bid or keeping the assets themselves.
  • This type of plan will allow participation by numerous large and not-so-large investors. Since there will be multiple buyers competing to buy assets, with their own capital at risk, the plan would help in determination of fair market prices for distressed assets (instead of a situation in which TARP manager is the only buyer).
  • This program can run in parallel with direct purchases of assets by treasury, or can be used to sell off assets purchased by Treasury at a future date.

2. Make mortgage principal payments tax-deductible for next 5 to 10 years.

  • Mortgage interest is already tax-deductible. Making principal also deductible will make it easier for those who want to but are barely able to make their mortgage payments, and those who are considering buying a house.
  • As an example, someone with a $350,000 mortgage and 28% marginal tax rate will save $6,250 over 5 years or $1,250/yr. Over 10 years, savings will be $14,900.
  • Better than a single-shot stimulus payment, since (i) it will provide relief over a longer period of time, (ii) it attacks the root cause of the problem by targeting housing, and (iii) it will benefit local governments by preventing loss of property taxes that will otherwise result from foreclosure.
  • The deduction may be limited to maximum 15 to 20% of total mortgage payment to focus the benefit more towards newer mortgages (after ten years, principal payment is likely to be more than 20% of total mortgage payment), &/or to mortgages issued in certain years to control total cost.
  • The deduction can be phased out above a certain level of AGI to focus the benefit towards those who need it more.

3. Encourage mortgage modifications to lower monthly payments by extending the mortgage term by 5 to 10 years.

  • Modify mortgages by increasing the term by 5 to 10 years to lower monthly payment. As an example, monthly payment on a 30 year mortgage with 6.5% rate will decrease by 4.4% (or $1,172/year on a $350,000 mortgage) if term is increased by 5 years. An increase of term by 10 years would reduce monthly payment by 7.4% (or $1,960/year on a $350,000 mortgage).
  • Lowering payment without lowering interest rate may be more palatable from fairness perspective, and should be attractive to lenders if it avoids default. Removing any prepayment penalties should also be part of the modification as much as possible.

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On Feb 10, 2009, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, in a much anticipated speech, announced the long-awaited toxic asset plan, but the market was disappointed by lack of details and sold off.

Extract from Treasury’s 10-Feb-2009 Fact Sheet on the Financial Stability Plan:

FACT SHEET

FINANCIAL STABILITY PLAN

1. Public-Private Investment Fund: One aspect of a full arsenal approach is the need to provide greater means for financial institutions to cleanse their balance sheets of what are often referred to as “legacy” assets.  Many proposals designed to achieve this are complicated both by their sole reliance on public purchasing and the difficulties in pricing assets.  Working together in partnership with the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department will initiate a Public-Private Investment Fund that takes a new approach.

  • Public-Private Capital: This new program will be designed with a public-private financing component, which could involve putting public or private capital side-by-side and using public financing to leverage private capital on an initial scale of up to $500 billion, with the potential to expand up to $1 trillion.

  • Private Sector Pricing of Assets: Because the new program is designed to bring private sector equity contributions to make large-scale asset purchases, it not only minimizes public capital and maximizes private capital: it allows private sector buyers to determine the price for current troubled and previously illiquid assets.

NY Times Links:

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/executivesuite/posts/MalayBansalPlan.pdf

http://executivesuite.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/where-is-fdr-when-we-need-him/?scp=2&sq=Malay%20Bansal&st=cse

 

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Solving the Bad Asset Pricing Problem

Note: This write-up was published on the Seeking Alpha here. It was a follow-up to the original suggestions, sent to Treasury & FRB in Oct 2008, which proposed a plan similar to the TALF and PPIP programs, months before Treasury and others came around to the idea.

By Malay Bansal

Feb 5, 2009

The Original TARP plan and the Aggregator Bad Bank ideas both have one major flaw: lack of a mechanism to determine appropriate prices for bad assets. Here is an approach to tackle this pricing issue. This approach also gets more bang for the buck for the Treasury by involving private capital in buying of these assets. More clarity in pricing and involvement of private investors are desperately needed for markets to return to normalcy.

There are already a lot of private investors who have raised significant amounts of money to invest in distressed assets. However, a lot of this cash has not been invested yet. Part of the reason is that they desire lower prices to get their returns to higher target levels than what they can get at present. Sellers, on the other hand, are often not ready to sell at even lower than current prices, especially when they believe that prices are already too cheap based on fundamentals. This has led to a stand-off which is leaving these assets on bank balance-sheets. So long as these assets stay on their balance-sheets and uncertainty about their prices continues, banks facing mark-to-market losses can not focus on restarting lending in these markets again.

Lower asset prices is one way private investors can get higher returns. The other method is if they can get financing for buying these distressed assets. If for example, they can get 50% financing on purchase price of assets, they can buy twice the amount of assets they could buy without the financing, thus roughly doubling their returns (minus the cost of financing). This will allow them to pay higher prices for assets and still earn their target returns.

In the current environment, financing is generally not available to investors in these assets. Given that financing can increase returns significantly, it is especially valued by investors at present. And that is what provides the solution to the pricing problem, and can ensure that the banks get the highest prices possible for these assets today, without the risk of any future Mark-To-Market (or actual) losses.

To attract private investors to buy distressed assets, the Treasury can offer to provide financing to private buyers. Prospect of higher returns, especially in an environment where returns on other assets are low, will attract lot of investors to the sector. However, financing will be provided to the buyer who has the highest bid on a given set of assets. That is important. The bidding process creates a mechanism for determining a fair market value for these assets. This plan will allow participation by numerous large and not-so-large investors, not just a few large investors selected by the Treasury. If the bid is too low and the bidder can make an exceptionally high return, another investor is likely to step in with a higher bid, if the bidding process is transparent and open to everyone. Different investors have expertise in different products. Those with the best expertise in the assets being offered will be able to value these assets and bid more aggressively. Since there will be multiple buyers competing to buy assets, with their own capital at risk, the plan would help in determination of fair market prices for distressed assets (instead of a situation in which TARP/Aggregator Bank manager is the only buyer). This bidding process also ensures the banks get the highest price possible for their assets in the current environment. If none of the bids are high enough, the bank is not required to sell, and can retain their assets. This ensures that banks are not forced by the program to sell assets at too low a price. If they choose to sell, their balance-sheet is cleared of these assets, and there is no future claw-back or liability related to these assets for them – the assets will be owned by a third party. They can go on to focus on other things.

Any cash flow received from the assets will be used first to pay interest to the Treasury and the private investors. Then, it will be used to pay principal back to the Treasury. Private investors will not get any of their principal back till Treasury has been paid back completely. The interest paid to private investors will be small (perhaps 4 to 5% range on their invested funds, not the face amount of securities) and will be meant to cover their expenses. Majority of their return will come at the back-end, their higher risk reflecting their higher returns. This priority for paying back Treasury funds first will protect public funds by decreasing the probability and amount of any potential losses on these assets.

Also, for home mortgage backed assets, Treasury can help homeowner mortgage-holders facing difficulty by requiring recipients of financing to agree to certain pre-specified steps to help homeowners in loan workouts.

Providing financing, instead of buying assets itself, provides more bang for the buck for the Treasury. As an example, if the Treasury offered 50% financing on AAA assets, and it has $100 Bn allocated to the program, the program will clear $200 Bn of assets from bank balance sheets. If the treasury used the funds to buy the assets itself, it will be able to remove only $100 Bn of assets from the banks’ balance sheets. Also, it reduces the risk of loss on these assets for public funds, since Treasury will be paid first and private investors will be bear the loss before the Treasury takes any hit.

Since private investors, who will have their own capital at risk before Treasury’s capital, will be buying and managing the assets, the Treasury will not need to build as big an infrastructure as it will need if it were to buy the assets itself. Nor will it need to pay management fees to third-party managers. Also, by using the private sector, this program can be ramped up much more quickly.

To achieve the highest rational prices, the bidding process must allow wide participation by large & small investors (bids should be requested for portfolio sizes that do not discourage small to medium size investors), amount and cost of financing should be known in advance of bidding (will likely be different for different pools and can be announced for each portfolio when it is put up for bid – treasury can even ask for multiple bids for different amounts of financing), and private capital must be at risk while protecting public funds (otherwise plan may face opposition from public).

I had originally included this suggestion among a few I had made to the Federal Reserve and Treasury officials in October after the original TARP plan was announced. I was happy to see the announcement of TALF, which will provide financing for new origination. However, financing for existing distressed assets will help clear the bank balance sheets of these assets, which is needed before banks are likely to increase originating new loans. Also, current Treasury plans do not include the Commercial Real Estate sector. It should be included before the issues in the sector escalate and become much bigger, as it will have significant impact on smaller regional banks that hold a lot of commercial real estate debt.

No single step will solve all the problems. Neither will this one, and it should be one of many approaches. But this approach can be effective since it will start the process for establishing prices for distressed assets, involving private capital in solving the problem, and cleaning up bank balance sheets, which are all prerequisites for eventual return to normalcy in the credit markets.

 

Restarting CMBS Lending

February 9, 2010

By Malay Bansal

The DDR deal, the first CMBS deal after nearly eighteen months, was ten times oversubscribed. The following two deals also saw good demand even though they did not allow for TALF financing. So, clearly, there is good demand for CMBS bonds backed by well underwritten loans. Also, borrowers clearly want loans if they can get a reasonable cost of financing. DDR loan, with about 4.25% all-in cost of financing for the borrower, showed that a low cost of financing is possible even in the current market. Yet, prospects of a conduit style multi-borrower deal seem bleak at the moment. Any CMBS deals that come to market are expected to be single-borrower deals, as in those deals the borrower takes the market risk and not the underwriter doing the deal. Securitization shops do not want to take the spread risk while aggregating the pool because there is no way to hedge that risk, and so are unable to originate loans even though many are eager to restart their lending operation. If they do originate loans without ability to hedge, they would require much wider spread resulting in higher cost of financing than borrowers would find attractive.

Inability to hedge loans while aggregating a pool for securitization is one of the biggest obstacles preventing restarting of conduit lending for commercial real estate properties.

In the past, the conduit originators were able to hedge loans while they were aggregating a pool big enough to securitize. So, they were not exposed to risk from changes in interest rates and bond spreads between loan origination and securitization. The hedging generally involved hedging the interest rate risk by selling interest rate swaps, and hedging the bond spread risk by using Total Return Swaps on Lehman or Bank Of America CMBS indices. These indices allowed loan originators to effectively sell their risk to investors who wanted to gain exposure to CMBS in their investment portfolio. They sold the risk when they originated the loan, and bought it back when they securitized the loans. The hedge worked because spreads on new CMBS deals moved in parallel with the spreads on existing deals.

The problem now is that those indices are no longer appropriate for hedging, especially for new origination loans, because of two problems. One, ratings downgrades have impacted the composition of the indices. Second, and more important, the spreads on new bonds with newly underwritten loans cannot be expected to move in tandem with spreads on old bonds with the old underwriting. This lack of correlation between the two spreads makes the old bonds or indices unusable as a hedge for newly originated better quality loans.

What this means is that to hedge new loans with better underwriting, originators need bonds with better underwritten new loans. In other words, to originate loans, you need bonds with new underwriting, and to create bonds with better underwritten loans, you need the better underwritten loans. That’s the chicken-and-egg type problem of loan aggregation. This is what has prevented loan origination from restarting once the spreads on old bonds widened out.

To solve this chicken-and-egg problem, back in February 2008, I made a suggestion to Markit, which administers the CMBX indices. My suggestion was to create a new CMBX type of index based on future deals that met minimum credit quality. Only deals which met pre-set criteria based on LTV, DSCR, and other credit parameters would be eligible to be included in the new index. Trading of the index would have allowed the market to determine spreads on bonds backed by good newly originated loans, and provided a hedging mechanism for loan originators, solving the chicken-and-egg problem.

Markit discussed the idea in a conference call with the trading desks, but it was thought to require too much work to create, when dealers were busy with the market volatility. Also, the idea was complicated, since it was based on future deals. Additionally, the CMBX is based on CDS (Credit Default Swap), and cash and CDS markets do not always move together, and so the hedge would not have been as good as Total Return Swaps on cash bonds.

Luckily, things have changed since then.

One, MarkIt has created new indices called TRX, which are based on Total Return Swaps on cash CMBS spreads, which will be a much better hedge for loans than a CMBX or CDS type of hedge. Total Return Swaps are what many originators used in the past to hedge the credit spreads.

Second, new deals with newly underwritten loans have been done and exist now. So, it is not necessary to base the index on future deals, avoiding a lot of complexity. That simplifies things considerably.

One solution to the hedging problem for newly originated loans is to create a new TRX index based on the new deals. It will allow the originators to sell risk, and will allow all the investors (many who did not get any allocations in the over-subscribed deals that have been done recently) to get exposure to new CMBS bonds.

Some may argue that three deals is not enough diversity to create an index. Admittedly, it would be better to have a more diverse pool of deals for the index. However, even with just three deals, the index will allow many originators considering starting origination to solve the chicken-and-egg problem. Also, this by itself will not solve all the problems the CMBS industry is facing. Yet, it will be better to have something, even if it is not perfect, than to have nothing at all.

I urge Markit and the dealers to make available a new index that will be attractive to both loan originators and investors, and just might help solve one of the major roadblocks preventing restarting of CMBS lending.

Note: This article was published on Seeking Alpha.

 

By Malay Bansal

Originators want to originate new loans, investors want to buy bonds with new conservatively underwritten loans, Treasury & Federal Reserve want the new issue CMBS market to start, borrowers certainly want to take out new loans to refinance maturing loans, and yet, four months after the Treasury launched the program, not one new issue CMBS deal has come to the market.

This highlights the chicken-and-egg type problem that the CMBS market faces. Everyone knows that the new origination will be of higher quality and so should have tighter spreads than the legacy bonds. Yet, lacking an efficient hedge, all that the originators have for indication of spreads are the legacy bonds, which are still too wide for new issue deals. In other words, originators are looking for tighter and stable bond spreads to originate, and market is looking for new collateral for tighter spreads – sort of a chicken-and-egg type problem.

One solution is to wait till legacy bond spreads tighten and stabilize, giving loan originators more confidence, but that might mean new issue TALF program may not get much traction before it ends. Another approach is to accelerate the legacy TALF program by removing some of the uncertainty that borrowers in that program face today. There are two easy to implement steps that will be helpful and allow investors to buy bonds throughout the month, rather than waiting till just before the TALF subscription date. First, the price used for calculating loan amount can be adjusted for interest rate movement from purchase date to the subscription date, and second, Federal reserve can allow potential borrowers to submit a list of potential bonds for purchase before actually buying the bonds, with approvals announced two or three weeks before the subscription date. Pre-approval of bonds will be almost as effective as disclosure by the Fed of their bond approval (or rejection) methodology, which more and more market participants are asking  the Fed to do, and which Fed has been reluctant to do, probably because doing so might reduce their flexibility.

Note: A version of this article was published on Seeking Alpha.

By Malay Bansal

Treasury announced details of the Legacy TALF program for CMBS on May 19th. It had several interesting features.

One that surprised some in  the market was a turbo feature that limits the payment to TALF borrowers and uses the excess interest to pay down the TALF loan. To me that is a very important and necessary requirement, and I had that in my Oct 2008 suggestions.

What I found interesting was the idea of making the haircut based on Par rather than Market value. Makes the haircut adjust automatically for changes in market value and simplifies administration. Clever idea.

By Malay Bansal

Note: This write-up was published on the Seeking Alpha website here.

On Feb 10, when the Treasury secretary Tim Geithner announced the Financial Stability Plan, which included a Public-Private Partnership Fund to remove bad assets from banks’ balance sheets, the markets reacted very negatively because of disappointment with lack of details on the plan. According to news items, the announcement of details is imminent now. Given the magnitude of reaction to the original announcement, many in the market await the plan details with interest.

That Fed should provide financing to private investors, instead of buying toxic assets itself (to help remove these troubled assets from banks balance sheets), is accepted by a lot more people now. By involving private capital, the government can minimize use of public funds and provide a mechanism for determination of fair prices for these toxic assets based on competitive bids by multiple private investors (my follow-up and original articles describe the reasoning).

Although no details have been announced, and the details are likely to change till the program is finalized, recent news articles have suggested that the administration is considering setting up multiple Investment Funds, with a Private Investment Manager running each fund. The Investment Managers will put up some equity, and government will provide financing to the funds. The private investment managers would run the funds, deciding which assets to buy and what prices to pay. Since there would be a limited number of funds, they would most likely target all types of assets rather than focusing on one specific type of distressed security. In addition to providing financing, government will also add equity to the fund alongside the private manager and would share in any gain or loss with the manager.

Even this simple description has couple of factors that are significant and bear watching.

First, if the government sets up a limited number of Investment Funds, it will reduce the competition for assets. One of the major results desired is for the selling banks to get the highest rational price possible for these assets to avoid further losses to them. With just five to ten investment funds bidding, the banks will be less likely to get the highest possible price. Instead of setting up just a few Investment Funds, the financing should be available to all investors – whoever has the highest bid on the legacy assets being sold should get it. Let various people and companies who have expertise in different types of assets assess and bid on them. Greater expertise and competition will result in higher sale prices.

Second, the idea of government putting in equity in these Investment Funds is less than ideal. The logic for doing this, of course, is that the private investors will benefit from the plan, and so the public should benefit too by investing alongside them. However, the goal of government in this endeavor is not to take investment risk for any potential gain, and Treasury should not be risking public money in this manner.

Also, saying that public should benefit alongside the private investors implies that the private investors are getting a sweet deal from the government and would make outsized returns by using government’s help. Suggesting this would only generate opposition to the plan from the public. Reality is, and should be, that the private investor should be taking the first loss risk. No public money should be at risk of loss till the private investor has been fully wiped out. This risk is what justifies the higher returns the private investors will get, if the asset performance does not turn out to be worse than pricing assumptions. Their returns will be less than expected if the asset performance is worse than assumed at the time of pricing. It will be very important to explain this aspect to lawmakers and general public to promote understanding and to avoid criticism and opposition of the plan. Private investors should not be asking the government for additional guarantees, and should clarify the risks they are taking to avoid backlash from general public and lawmakers.

Another justification offered for Treasury to put in equity in these funds may be to increase the total amount of funds used to buy toxic assets. Using simple numbers of let’s say 50% equity and 50% financing, the argument may be that, if the private investor puts $100 million, then government will put in another $100 mm resulting in total $200 mm of capital. If however, the government also put in $100 mm of equity alongside the $100 mm of private investor’s capital, then the total of $400 mm will be available to purchase assets. However, this logic is flawed. In this example, the government will be putting in $300 mm of capital and private investor $100 mm. If the government only provided financing, using the same 50% equity and 50% financing, it will be able to get total of $600 mm to purchase assets.

The TALF program has undergone significant changes since it was originally announced. In fact, the Public-Private Program could even be modeled along somewhat similar lines.

The Public-Private Partnership program will play an important role in the cleanup of bank balance sheets, which is one of the prerequisites for eventual return to normalcy for credit markets. We watch with interest what it would look like when the Treasury announces the details.

By Malay Bansal

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced the long-awaited toxic asset plan, but the market is disappointed by lack of details.

The plan is headed in the right direction but  implementation details will be important.

Extract from Treasury’s 10-Feb-2009 Fact Sheet on the Financial Stability Plan:

FACT SHEET

FINANCIAL STABILITY PLAN

1. Public-Private Investment Fund: One aspect of a full arsenal approach is the need to provide greater means for financial institutions to cleanse their balance sheets of what are often referred to as “legacy” assets.  Many proposals designed to achieve this are complicated both by their sole reliance on public purchasing and the difficulties in pricing assets.  Working together in partnership with the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department will initiate a Public-Private Investment Fund that takes a new approach.

  • Public-Private Capital: This new program will be designed with a public-private financing component, which could involve putting public or private capital side-by-side and using public financing to leverage private capital on an initial scale of up to $500 billion, with the potential to expand up to $1 trillion.
  • Private Sector Pricing of Assets: Because the new program is designed to bring private sector equity contributions to make large-scale asset purchases, it not only minimizes public capital and maximizes private capital: it allows private sector buyers to determine the price for current troubled and previously illiquid assets

Note: This write-up was published on the Seeking Alpha website here. It was a follow-up to the original suggestions, sent to Treasury & FRB in Oct 2008, which proposed a plan similar to the TALF and PPIP programs, months before Treasury and others came around to the idea.

By Malay Bansal

The Original TARP plan and the Aggregator Bad Bank ideas both have one major flaw: lack of a mechanism to determine appropriate prices for bad assets. Here is an approach to tackle this pricing issue. This approach also gets more bang for the buck for the Treasury by involving private capital in buying of these assets. More clarity in pricing and involvement of private investors are desperately needed for markets to return to normalcy.

There are already a lot of private investors who have raised significant amounts of money to invest in distressed assets. However, a lot of this cash has not been invested yet. Part of the reason is that they desire lower prices to get their returns to higher target levels than what they can get at present. Sellers, on the other hand, are often not ready to sell at even lower than current prices, especially when they believe that prices are already too cheap based on fundamentals. This has led to a stand-off which is leaving these assets on bank balance-sheets. So long as these assets stay on their balance-sheets and uncertainty about their prices continues, banks facing mark-to-market losses can not focus on restarting lending in these markets again.

Lower asset prices is one way private investors can get higher returns. The other method is if they can get financing for buying these distressed assets. If for example, they can get 50% financing on purchase price of assets, they can buy twice the amount of assets they could buy without the financing, thus roughly doubling their returns (minus the cost of financing). This will allow them to pay higher prices for assets and still earn their target returns.

In the current environment, financing is generally not available to investors in these assets. Given that financing can increase returns significantly, it is especially valued by investors at present. And that is what provides the solution to the pricing problem, and can ensure that the banks get the highest prices possible for these assets today, without the risk of any future Mark-To-Market (or actual) losses.

To attract private investors to buy distressed assets, the Treasury can offer to provide financing to private buyers. Prospect of higher returns, especially in an environment where returns on other assets are low, will attract lot of investors to the sector. However, financing will be provided to the buyer who has the highest bid on a given set of assets. That is important. The bidding process creates a mechanism for determining a fair market value for these assets. This plan will allow participation by numerous large and not-so-large investors, not just a few large investors selected by the Treasury. If the bid is too low and the bidder can make an exceptionally high return, another investor is likely to step in with a higher bid, if the bidding process is transparent and open to everyone. Different investors have expertise in different products. Those with the best expertise in the assets being offered will be able to value these assets and bid more aggressively. Since there will be multiple buyers competing to buy assets, with their own capital at risk, the plan would help in determination of fair market prices for distressed assets (instead of a situation in which TARP/Aggregator Bank manager is the only buyer). This bidding process also ensures the banks get the highest price possible for their assets in the current environment. If none of the bids are high enough, the bank is not required to sell, and can retain their assets. This ensures that banks are not forced by the program to sell assets at too low a price. If they choose to sell, their balance-sheet is cleared of these assets, and there is no future claw-back or liability related to these assets for them – the assets will be owned by a third party. They can go on to focus on other things.

Any cash flow received from the assets will be used first to pay interest to the Treasury and the private investors. Then, it will be used to pay principal back to the Treasury. Private investors will not get any of their principal back till Treasury has been paid back completely. The interest paid to private investors will be small (perhaps 4 to 5% range on their invested funds, not the face amount of securities) and will be meant to cover their expenses. Majority of their return will come at the back-end, their higher risk reflecting their higher returns. This priority for paying back Treasury funds first will protect public funds by decreasing the probability and amount of any potential losses on these assets.

Also, for home mortgage backed assets, Treasury can help homeowner mortgage-holders facing difficulty by requiring recipients of financing to agree to certain pre-specified steps to help homeowners in loan workouts.

Providing financing, instead of buying assets itself, provides more bang for the buck for the Treasury. As an example, if the Treasury offered 50% financing on AAA assets, and it has $100 Bn allocated to the program, the program will clear $200 Bn of assets from bank balance sheets. If the treasury used the funds to buy the assets itself, it will be able to remove only $100 Bn of assets from the banks’ balance sheets. Also, it reduces the risk of loss on these assets for public funds, since Treasury will be paid first and private investors will be bear the loss before the Treasury takes any hit.

Since private investors, who will have their own capital at risk before Treasury’s capital, will be buying and managing the assets, the Treasury will not need to build as big an infrastructure as it will need if it were to buy the assets itself. Nor will it need to pay management fees to third-party managers. Also, by using the private sector, this program can be ramped up much more quickly.

To achieve the highest rational prices, the bidding process must allow wide participation by large & small investors (bids should be requested for portfolio sizes that do not discourage small to medium size investors), amount and cost of financing should be known in advance of bidding (will likely be different for different pools and can be announced for each portfolio when it is put up for bid – treasury can even ask for multiple bids for different amounts of financing), and private capital must be at risk while protecting public funds (otherwise plan may face opposition from public).

I had originally included this suggestion among a few I had made to the Federal Reserve and Treasury officials in October after the original TARP plan was announced. I was happy to see the announcement of TALF, which will provide financing for new origination. However, financing for existing distressed assets will help clear the bank balance sheets of these assets, which is needed before banks are likely to increase originating new loans. Also, current Treasury plans do not include the Commercial Real Estate sector. It should be included before the issues in the sector escalate and become much bigger, as it will have significant impact on smaller regional banks,that hold a lot of commercial real estate debt.

No single step will solve all the problems. Neither will this one, and it should be one of many approaches. But this approach can be effective since it will start the process for establishing prices for distressed assets, involving private capital in solving the problem, and cleaning up bank balance sheets, which are all prerequisites for eventual return to normalcy in the credit markets.

_______________________________________________________________

Extract from my original Suggestions sent in Oct 2008 to the Treasury & the FRB (the write-up was mentioned in the NY Times Executive Suite column by Joe Nocera and the complete document is available at nytimes.com here). My writeup included the Turbo concept of using part of excess interest to pay down loan principal, which was included in the TALF announcement on Legacy CMBS on May 19, 2009).

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Suggestions for Additional Steps for Tackling the Credit Crisis

By Malay Bansal (malay.bansal@gmail.com)

Oct 19, 2008

2. Better use of part of TARP Funds targeted to buy mortgage assets: Treasury can partner with private buyers instead of buying assets itself.

  • Will increase efficiency by tapping private funds. There is a lot of capital waiting to be invested in distressed assets, but has not been invested yet as prices need to be lower to achieve targeted returns without leverage.
  • Treasury can lend to or partner with private buyers of distressed mortgage assets with terms like the following:
    • Treasury will put up 50% and the private buyer will put up 50%, with Treasury’s interest being the senior interest.
    • Funds will be used to buy distressed mortgages and securities at a discount from various large and small banks and financial institutions.
    • Mortgage payments from purchased assets will be used in sequential order to (i) pay 5% interest to Treasury, (ii) 5% interest to the Private buyer, (iii) principal to Treasury, (iv) principal to the Private buyer, and finally (v) all residual to the private buyer as its return for the risk. This ensures that Treasury gets its money back first.
  • The 5% interest for Treasury will apply for 5 years. After that, it will increase by 0.5% every year till it reaches 9%. Interest for private buyer will stay at 5%.
  • Those taking the loan from treasury will need to agree to change mortgage terms to help homeowners including giving borrowers the option to (i) increase loan term by 5 to 10 years, and (ii) prepay loans at any time without penalty (any existing prepay penalties will be waived). Other terms to help homeowners may be included.
  • Treasury will offer mortgage assets from banks for bids. The private buyer with the highest bid will get funds from Treasury. Banks will have option of accepting the highest bid or keeping the assets themselves.
  • This type of plan will allow participation by numerous large and not-so-large investors. Since there will be multiple buyers competing to buy assets, with their own capital at risk, the plan would help in determination of fair market prices for distressed assets (instead of a situation in which TARP manager is the only buyer).
  • This program can run in parallel with direct purchases of assets by treasury, or can be used to sell off assets purchased by Treasury at a future date.
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