Friday, December 30, 2011

Bill Black Takes on the "Fannie and Freddie Did It" Meme

I really enjoyed this piece for its knowledgeable, historical analysis. Black doesn't exactly side with the "It Wasn't Fannie and Freddie" crowd, but he's more unsparing in his criticism of ideologue Peter Wallison, whose position "It Was All Fannie and Freddie" is laughable (and Black shows us even more reasons why).

I'm willing to move up Fannie and Freddie on my list of causes of the crisis to, say, number 6 or 7 from number 11. ;)

Black frames the problem well, I think. What caused problems wasn't Fannie and Freddie's mandate to help the poor -- in other words, all those do-good liberals trying to put welfare Moms in houses they couldn't afford. It was, plain and simple, accounting fraud to lavish bonuses on the top echelon of executives -- the same problem found at investment banks that were more direct causes of the crisis.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Joe Nocera Takes on the Big Lie

I've often thought you could make a case for Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's culpability in the financial crisis: a very, very small case.

So, if you started listing reasons for the crisis, they might come in, say, number 11 or thereabouts.

What amazes me is the persistence of the simple-minded Republican narrative that they were the cause of the financial crisis. Not a cause. But the cause. (And the hard-core faithful don't want any other causes entered into the record, as when the four Republicans on the FCIC voted to ban the words "shadow banking" and "deregulation" from the final report!)

This viewpoint is so ignorant and ill-informed, so contrary to "the truth on the ground" that we know from how this crisis developed and what it looked like as it unfolded, that it strains credulity. Is Peter Wallison so ideologically blinkered that he can't even process a set of historical facts in a logical way?

Joe Nocera had a good recent column about this, The Big Lie.

What I enjoyed best though was the second comment that appeared afterward. Excerpts:
I was a mortgage broker during the housing bubble. I can tell you that a "conforming" loan -- one that was run through Fannie or Freddie's "desktop underwriting" software -- always made us nervous. We got rejected for approval regularly whereas if we sold a subprime loan with a higher interest rate we got approved more easily and made much more on the loan ... rather than blame what was in essence a good government program for the housing collapse I say a lot of it deserves to go to the lenders and brokers who hustled these loans.

Once mortgages became securitized and the lenders had no skin in the game the whole system went to hell.
Exactly, and a flaw I noted in the securitization model (and I'm far from the first person to make the observation) almost two years ago.

Earth to Peter Wallison: Are you listening?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Keep an Eye on That Shadow Banking, Folks

Because it's starting to rear its ugly head again.

Turns out that what may be at the heart of MF Global's gaping hole on its (off) balance sheet: collateral that may have been shifted over to its U.K. unit to permit rehypothecation.

"Rehypothecation" is one of those mouth-filling words that basically says you can repledge the same piece of collateral (a useful trick in the shadow banking world of repo).

In the U.K., the collateral can be endlessly rehypothecated, again and again and again, creating long, unstable, dangerous chains -- and the interesting concomitant, lots of liquidity (which tends to act like a stimulant -- call it cocaine for the financial system -- and we know how hard it is to break a drug habit). Reuter's Christopher Elias:
This churning of collateral means that re-hypothecation transactions have been creating enormous amounts of liquidity, much of which has no real asset backing.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is h-u-g-e. Too few people have wrapped their brains around this. We have central banks that greatly influence money supply/liquidity through their open market operations. Then we have a massive, off-balance sheet system of shadow banking that does the same with no oversight, in complex ways we barely comprehend.

This is a powder keg waiting for a spark.

For more, check out Alphaville's "Shadow Banking and the Seven Collateral Miners."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Net worth update(November 2011)

Europe's Bailout Fund -- Seriously, WTF Is This Thing?

I tried to figure out the EFSF again (the European Financial Stability Facility) and, once again, my brain exploded.

I can't figure out if this Rube Goldbergian mother of all securitization schemes is:

(a) a way to secretly print a whole bunch of euros behind door #24 while everyone is distracted by the elephant and monkey show in Exhibition Room C.

(b) a clever new way of shunting tail-risk into a vehicle that, when it fails, will send fireworks high into the night sky as the eurozone spectacularly implodes.

(c) a way of handing out 1,000 gold-plated pigs when there are only 10 gold-plated pigs in the warehouse, vague promises of 990 more gold-plated pigs, and a whole lot of securitization in between.

(d) a full-employment act for structured finance professionals on the continent.

(e) some combination of the above.

Or add your own speculation below. Because, in this Brave New World of Structured Finance, we're obviously beyond the point where an entity (say the IMF) simply extends a loan to some country (or countries) in fiscal straits.

Here's some more commentary on this bewildering high-finance thingamabobby:

More European Financial Chicanery

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fed Funnels Money to Banks on the Sly

Excellent Bloomberg story showing what was largely an open secret (even if the details weren't known), well before the Fed was forced to cough up the paperwork on its bailout of the U.S. financial system:

Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks Undisclosed $13 Billion

This should be required reading for every American.

The hard-hitting article also reinforces the image of Geithner as a complete tool.

The ground left uncovered: that, for this enormous bailout, we the taxpayer got very little. Our financial regulators, our political leaders, failed to effectively reform a banking system that has metastasized out of control.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

5 lots of Singpost @ $0.99

Purchased 5 lots of Singpost at $0.99 today.

Reasons for purchasing Singpost are:

1) Trading at 52 week low (major support at $0.99)
2) Strong support at $1 which has been tested 3 times since August
3) Dividend yield of 6.3% at this price
4) Limited upside potential offset by limited downside risk($0.70 during 2008 crisis)
5) Singpost-DBS tie-up from 3 Jan 2012?
6) Stable operating cash flows (well in excess of its dividend commitment)
7) Consistent dividend payout

Dividend distribution over the past 10 years


Sunday, November 20, 2011

New Song Charting on YouTube: "Eat a Banker"

I found this song on YouTube with its timely message for the 99%:

"Eat a Banker"

It has a rather mellow, swaying beat -- not a violent-sounding song at all. I can even imagine it playing softly in the restaurant as some downtrodden poor person is dining on one of those overfed Wall Street bankers. ;)

In Case Anyone Forgets Why "Occupy Wall Street" Exists

1. Our Congress -- ahem, the best Congress money can buy -- decided that pizza is a vegetable. This decision makes absolutely zero sense from a health and nutritional standpoint (I love pizza -- I had three slices yesterday -- but if what I ate qualifies as a vegetable, I'm a living, breathing zucchini). However, it makes perfect sense from a food industry lobbying standpoint.

2. AIG won't help struggling homeowners. From Bloomberg: "American International Group Inc. (AIG) is holding out as rival mortgage insurers accept policy changes that support the U.S. government push to stoke refinancing among borrowers with little or no home equity."

Reminder: Not only did the U.S. bail out AIG, the U.S. is currently the MAJORITY OWNER OF AIG. If the U.S. government is too weak-spined to compel AIG to get on board with refis (which almost everyone agrees need to take place to right the listing housing market), then it's clear who's really running the show.

3. Corporations are increasingly paying a smaller percentage of their profits as income tax. At the same time, childhood poverty has been on the rise. Those trends aren't likely to change anytime soon as corporations are the kind of "people" who can write big campaign checks, but a child in poverty isn't similarly flush with excess funds to fertilize Senator Gasbag's re-election efforts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

$500,000 by 33 years old

I mentioned that one of my goals is to achieve a net worth of $200,000 by the age of 28. However, during this period major expenses such as marriage and buying a house will devour a huge chunk of my cash. Renovation and furnishing of the house alone could easily cost about $40,000, not to mention wedding expenses. To make things worse, my next target net worth is $500,000 by age 33.

To achieve $500k in investable assets by age 33, I have made several assumptions:

(1) My wife and I will save at least $2500 monthly combined($30,000 yearly) from age 28 to 30 and $3500 monthly($42,000 yearly) after I turn 30

(2) At least 2 major bear markets in the next 10years: Invest lump sum periodically during downturn to achieve an average return of 8% per year.

(3) The money in my CPF OA combined with my spouse's is enough to pay for the down payment and other miscellaneous fees - cash will only be used for renovation

(4) Spend no more than $50,000 at age 28 for renovation of house and wedding($150,000 left) : Ang Pow money can cover at least 70% of wedding dinner.

Here is how i calculate my net worth to be $500,000 based on the information given in point (1) to (4) above:

Based on the information that I will save $30,000 yearly from age 28 to 30 and $42,000 yearly after 30, I use a return of 8% to calculate future value of cash flows and initial principal of $150,000 at age 28:

Principal: $150,000
28: $30,000
29: $30,000
30: $42,000
31: $42,000
32: $42,000
33:  [FV of principal and cash flows from age 28 to 32] + $48,000(amt saved at age 33) = $470182 + $48,000 = $518182

Note: Cashflows in arrears

Some of the assumptions might sound unrealistic but for point (2) to (4), I realized that it is quite feasible after some thorough research and calculations. Only point (1) has the most uncertainty because I did not take kids into account and saving $3500 a month might be quite an arduous task after setting up a family. Also, I did not consider that my wife or I might be retrenched during this period. Once again, a goal should be slightly unattainable and I look forward to overcoming these challenges and uncertainties.


As indicated in a previous posting, sukuk if properly understood means certificates proving ownership of underlying assets that back up the issuance of such certificates which are for all intent and purpose issued to testify that a certain sum of money has been invested and handed over to the issuer/manager. Sukuk as per the generally accepted global definition means investment certificates of equal value issued to investors as documentary proofs of their investment. They are not debt certificates as wrongfully described by some uninformed writers unless they talk about certificates as issued in Malaysia as part of what is known as IPDS (Islamic Private Debt Securities) backed by BBA debts in which case such certificates are truly debt certificates. This IPDS cannot be considered as sukuk according to the global definition especially in the context of a relevant resolution on Sukuk Muqaradah (Mudarabah) passed by the OIC Fiqh Academy in 1988 .

True sukuks must confer true right of ownership to sukuk holders in the manner recognized by the Shariah, the same to be made available to them as true owners of the underlying assets that back up the sukuk which initially means the money capital handed over to the issuer as part of the investment. The issuer then is expected to utilize the fund to purchase productive or trade assets to be dealt with accordingly in the ensuing business to be carried out to garner profit for the investment. In this context the issuer cum manager is to act as an agent for the sukuk holders or investors in conducting the trading business or in managing the project for which purpose the sukuk have been issued.

Provided the agent/issuer/manager has conducted himself as expected ( on best effort basis) and without negligence or be in breach of the terms of the investment contract/sukuk deeds, if loss should occur then as a general rule he is not to be held liable precisely because he has been acting as an agent whose liability is fault-based. If ever he is to be held liable for the loss, the sukuk holders must come with acceptable evidence to prove it. Juristic opinion however differ in terms of how the manager’s statement as to the cause of the loss is to be relied upon: whether it is to be taken at its face value or he needs to be asked to take an oath of assertion that such loss is not due to his negligence or wrong doing.

Given this Shariah position, hardly that one can compare this position with that of a default in the context of debt securitization (bond) as understood in the conventional sense where default there would means inability of the issuer to pay coupon as agreed or to be unable to redeem the principle at its face value upon maturity. In the case of the sukuks however, there will be no default if non-payment of profit is not caused by any negligence or wrongful act on the part of the issuer/manager as profit is only payable if there has been actual profit realized by the investment. Even if the issuer is unable to redeem the sukuk at the end of the period as agreed, if such inability/loss is occasioned by no fault on his part, such loss is to be borne by the investors or sukuk holders who are in fact entitled to get back the remaining portion of any assets that belong to the fund at the material time meaning; that they must have a right of recourse to the remaining asset of the sukuk. This is only possible if the sukuk are aseet-backed sukuk and not the asset-based ones. In order for sukuk to be valid from Shariah perspective, the issuance must be in the form of asset-backed that should confer true right of ownership to the sukuk holders of all the underlying assets that backed up the issuance.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Slow progress

Progress this month has been very slow as I have been cancelling tuition due to the hectic work schedule at school. Maintained expenses at $10/day but income from tuition only amounts to $80 so far.  I will ramp up my tuition frequency next week since there are no classes due to the study week.

Having $15,000 in cash, I intend to invest in Singpost or Ascendas REIT and reduce my cash holdings to just $10,000. If my second bursary application is successful, cash holdings will increase by $3000 at the beginning of 2012.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Working on Wall Street Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Felix Salmon waxed indignant about Jon Corzine's peculiar resignation statement, and laugh-out-loud lines such as, "This was a difficult decision, but one that I believe is best for the firm and its stakeholders."

This is as absurd as someone driving a bus off a cliff, killing everyone aboard but himself, then holding a press conference during which he says in a conflicted voice, "It is with a heavy heart that I wish to announce that I have decided to part ways with the company."

Felix comments, "... would it be too much to ask for just a tiny hint of remorse here? A short apology, perhaps, to the thousands of employees and customers who have lost their jobs or their money?"

Remorse? How do you spell that again?

Wall Street doesn't DO remorse, Felix. C'mon, man. You're smarter than that. Throughout the financial crisis and its aftermath, the lack of remorse was painfully striking.

Almost two years ago to the day, I commented on this phenomenon. We taxpayers weren't thanked by the big banks that received bailout funds (as I recall, Citigroup was a notable exception that came rather late). No apology for their securitization meltdown either. But Blankfein did see fit to note that they were all doing God's work.

And AIG's Robert Benmosche memorably threw a hissy fit about not being able to pay his executives more than $500,000 a year.

Is there really any mystery any longer why "Occupy Wall Street" exists?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Morning Housecleaning

I went back and cleaned up a bunch of comment spam. Comment spam, I'm finding out, grows geometrically once it takes root. For instance, my most-popular post ever:

Debunking Gary Gorton's Fire Sale Thesis

Was completely lousy with comment spam, with more than 50 comments, and all but six just crap. The spam had overrun the comment section like some kind of kudzu-inspired mold life form.

In cleaning up the spam, I found myself in the ironic position of deleting comments that offered high (but phony, non-specific) praise of my intellectual insights, while leaving a few comments that basically suggested I was a blowhard (but that were real).

Vive l'open society.

So anyway, be forewarned if you're hawking UK dissertation papers, low auto insurance quotes, shutters for sale in Clearwater, Florida -- I'm onto you. Go foul someone else's watering hole.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Well, I Got This One Right at Least

Every so often, as a blogger, you look back on previous posts to answer the question, "Was I just being shrill and pessimistic or was I onto something?"

A year ago, I wrote "The Foreclosure Mess: 7 Reasons Why It's Much Worse Than You Think."

And I'd say, though the post wasn't wholly original content, that I got this one right as the MERS mess drags on (random observation: MERS and MESS are practically the same word, as the "r" in MERS is only one letter space -- i.e., p-q-r-s -- away from being MESS. Keep those ironies coming, mortgage industry!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

$50,000 by end of June 2012

A few days ago, I applied for another bursary valued at $2900. If I am awarded this bursary, my net worth will be at least $50,000 by the end of June 2012. This is also partly due to my internship starting on Jan 2012 which pays $1100 per month. I previously mentioned that my parents will still be giving me my $500 allowance when internship starts and I will be able to save around $1000 cash each month. However, I overlooked the CPF ordinary account, which is part of my net worth. To calculate how much money will be credited into my CPF OA, we have to first look at the CPF contribution and allocation rates.

Currently, for an employee at age 35 and below, the employer contribution is 16% and employee contribution is at 20% of wage. Therefore, the total contribution will be 36% of wage. Out of the 36% contributed to CPF, 23% of it will be credited into CPF OA, 6% into special account and 7% into medisave account.

My monthly remuneration for my 6 months internship is $1,100. Total wages earned is $6,600. Contribution to CPF OA during this period will be:  $6600 x 0.23 = $1,518

Total amount earned during internship = $1518 + 6($1000) = $7,518

Given that the $2900 bursary I just applied is awarded to me,

Guaranteed net worth by end of June 2012 will be :

$35000(current net worth) +$3000(bursary awarded this month) + $2900(bursary that I just applied) + $7518(cash and CPF OA earned during internship next year) + $1215(9 mths of RSP into ILP) + $1080(girlfriend contribution into savings account 3) + $840(tuition until internship starts) + $400(Ang Pow for 2012) = $51953(assuming no investments returns)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

DVA: Accounting Gimmickry That Makes No Sense

Once again, the banks are booking big profits based on DVA -- debt valuation adjustment -- because their creditworthiness has deteriorated. Once again, this accounting gimmickry makes absolutely no sense.

The rationale for booking DVA gains: the debt you have issued becomes cheaper as your credit risk rises, so theoretically you can buy it back at a lower price, saving money.

This is ridiculous because it ignores the fact, as I explain in this post from two and a half years ago, that it costs more to raise the money to buy back the debt.

The gains don't exist. They're completely illusionary.

The DVA accounting convention is a sham. It shouldn't be allowed. Isn't there an accountant out there bright enough to see the inherent absurdity in it?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is Occupy Wall Street the Beginning of the Revolution?

When I returned to my homeland a few years ago, after the financial crisis and a brief period abroad, I was quite dismayed.

It's not that America suddenly had changed. We had been changing for a while. Money had been growing into a monster force in politics. Our Washington politicians were far too quiet on social issues, like poverty and the distribution of wealth, where armies of lobbyists didn't represent entrenched interests.

Our politics were getting uglier in other ways. There was less ability to work together for the common good. It was as if, in an age of drama-seeking reality TV shows, politicians thought they had to vie for airspace by pumping out increasingly ludicrous and confrontational soundbites.

But what angered me the most was how we blew the opportunity to have a soul-searching moment about our financial system and effect real change after the 2008 crisis.

Steve Waldman has a brilliant paragraph over at his interfluidity blog about the unfairness of TARP:
Once you understand that the problem is a fairness issue rather than a dollars-and-cents issue, the policy space grows wider. Holding constant the level of expenditure, one can make bail-outs more or less fair by the degree to which you demand sacrifice from the people you are bailing out. TARP was deeply stupid not because it meant socializing risks and costs created by bankers. TARP was terrible public policy because it socialized risks and costs while demanding almost no sacrifice at all from the people most responsible for those risks. The alternative to TARP was never “let the banks fail, and see how the bankruptcy system deals with it.” The alternative would have been to inject public capital (socialize risks and costs!) while also haircutting creditors, writing-off equityholders, firing management, and aggressively investigating past behavior. It was not the money that made TARP unpopular. It was the unfairness. And the unfairness was not at all necessary to resolve the financial problem.
Make no mistake: Something like TARP was necessary after credit markets seized up. Letting giant, highly interconnected banks collapse right and left was not an option. But, out of the ashes of the crisis, who was the leader of power and conviction who emerged and swore, Never again!, and who acted boldly and with courage to reform a financial sector that had metastasized out of control?


Everyone pretended what we had gone through was just a bad dream. What we got instead was watered-down legislation that the banks are already skillfully plotting how to evade.

I would say to friends at work, "It's amazing to me that there isn't someone agitating for a revolution. This is awful, with so many people unemployed, and the rich getting richer, and Wall Street's most powerful getting bailed out without punishment or consequence -- why isn't there a populist uprising?"

Finally, along came Occupy Wall Street. The movement has spread. Winter will probably kill the mass protests, or at least put them on hiatus until spring.

But at least the disenfranchised and angry are speaking, maybe not with enough coherence for the media, who are fussing over their nut graphs and story structure, but their frustration is 100 percent genuine and runs wide and deep.

They're speaking, and I find that quite heartening.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Strategy for the current bear market

Target Price
Keppel corp : $5
STI ETF : $2.30 (buy for every 15% drop)
Ezion Holdings : $0.35

A drop of 20% is the usual threshold for declaring a new bear market. My strategy for a bear market is to enter when stocks barely crossed the 20% threshold and buying one lot of STI ETF for every 15% drop. For example, STI ETF's one year high was $3.39. When i bought 2 lots of it at $2.72, it has already plunged 19.7% which was the borderline of a bear market. At this point, 2 things might happen. The first will see prices rebounding, indicating that the plunge was just a correction. If not, the bear market will start and prices will continue falling. Buying at this point and averaging it out for every 10 to 15% it drops will remove all guesswork and capture the whole bear market. If it is indeed a correction, I would have captured the bottom(or near bottom) of it. This will be the best of both worlds. Therefore, the next buying point for STI ETF will be $2.30, which is a 15% drop from $2.72.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Internship Offer

I was notified today that I got offered a 6 months internship. The internship will commence on Jan 2012 and the remuneration will be $1100 per month. As my parents will still be giving me my $500 allowance during my internship, I will be able to save approximately $1000 per month. Given that I maintain my expenses of $10/day, I will be able to save at least $6000 during the 6 months internship. According to my excel spreadsheet i created for budgeting, my target net worth of $70,000 will soon be achievable. By then, I will be setting a higher goal since a goal should be challenging and slightly unattainable.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Net worth update(September 2011)

Net worth for September decreased by $449.52. This is mainly due to the fall in NAV of the commodity fund. Physical cash increased as a result of prudent saving and side income such as paid surveys. Net worth for next month should increase by at least $3000 after the bursary money is credited. Also, stocks will be included under assets in October due to the purchase of 2 lots of STI ETF.

2 lots of STI ETF @ $2.72

Bought 2 lots of STI ETF at $2.72 today.

Rationale behind purchase:
1) Just got awarded bursary valued at $3000
2) Dropped 20% from its $3.39 high(in line with strategy*)
3) VIX is at 42.96 today (>40)
4) Dividend yield(ttm) is near to 3%.
5) STI is in a downtrend and stocks are generally undervalued
6) A bet on Europe's recovery
7) Time horizon of at least 5 years
8) Still have more than $10,000 in cash after purchase.  Able to buy more when prices plunge further.

*My strategy for STI ETF is to start buying when price drops 20%. Subsequently, I will buy one lot of STI ETF for every 15% it drops. Next target price will thus be $2.31(0.85 x $2.72)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Awarded Bursary

My school notified me today that I will be awarded a bursary valued at $3,000. So far, the total value of the bursaries I received is about $9000 and I did not spend a single cent of it. The bursary presentation ceremony will be held next month and they will be presenting me a cheque. There will be a huge jump in my net worth in October due to this bursary. Estimated net worth by year end should be at least $40,000.

I will also be applying for another bursary valued at $2900. However, I have to declare that I am in receipt of this $3k bursary and my application will be considered on a case by case basis. Therefore, I will have to apply with an appeal letter to unveil my family's dire financial situation. In the best case scenario, my net worth will hit $50k by mid of 2012.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

CIMB StarSaver account

After a thorough research on savings deposits in Singapore, I concluded that the CIMB StarSaver account has the highest interest rate of 0.8% pa. After confirming that CIMB deposit accounts are insured by the Singapore Deposit Insurance Corporation, transferred the funds from 'savings account 3' to a CIMB StarSaver account.

The minimum deposit is $1000 and the base interest rate is 0.5%. I will have to maintain an increasing balance equivalent to increments of $100 each month and the interest rate will increase to 0.8% pa automatically on my entire savings balance. Given that my balance is about $3000, I will be able to enjoy the 0.8% interest for 20 months.

The only downside of this account is the inconvenience involved. This is due to the limited number of branches and ATM machines in Singapore which makes withdrawing and depositing hard cash inconvenient. Currently, there are only 2 branches in Singapore and ATM machines are located only at the branch itself.

Also, I am thinking of setting up another StarSaver account(not top up existing one due to personal reasons) and transfer $10,000 from savings account 1 & 2 to it.  The monthly interest earned on the $10,000 will be approximately $6.70.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unemployment vs. Inflation: Why Do We Worry Too Much About One, Not Enough About the Other?

Something that's been kicking around my brain for a few months now:

Why do we get so bent out of shape about the threat of inflation? And why don't we get more bent out of shape about the reality of high unemployment?

I find this really, really puzzling. Inflation, it seems to me, is a bookkeeping problem. Unemployment (beyond the minimal frictional level) is a tragedy.

Thought experiment: Prices of all goods and services inflate exactly 10 percent a year, again and again, steady as clockwork. Manufacturers adjust by raising their prices 10 percent annually. Labor demands 10 percent higher wages. Savers and investors build this 10 percent inflation into their "risk-free return" expectations. Social Security checks increase 10 percent a year.

So who gets hurt? Nobody. Psychologically, you may feel dismayed that last year's $2 loaf of bread now costs $2.20, but your wages of $55,000 are $5,000 higher too.

Now try to create a similar thought experiment for 10 percent unemployment. Millions of workers in the labor force are idle. They're frustrated, angry. For every minute they lack jobs, we as a country lose part of our productive capacity. Their power to consume is weakened. They siphon resources through the social safety net, through food stamp and Medicare programs.

This is unquestionably terrible: for our economy, for our country's self-image, for social and political stability. You can't spin high unemployment in a neutral light. It's impossible.

Now, granted, I know inflation can be harmful. Runaway inflation (Zimbabwe) does have real costs. Also high inflation can inject uncertainty into economic forecasting and planning. And it often does produce classes of winners and losers.

But still: it's not net destructive, not like high unemployment. After all (from an illustrated encyclopedia of economics),
Ignoring menu and distortion costs for a moment, inflation is roughly what mathematicians call a zero sum game. For every loser during inflation (someone who must pay more for a given good), there is a winner (someone who receives a greater price for the things sold).
I dare you to find a respectable economist who maintains that high unemployment is a "zero sum game."

So one more time: Why do we care so much about inflation and so little about unemployment?

One (rather depressing) possibility -- look who's affected.

Unemployment tends to hit the more marginal members of the workforce. If they were any good, some of us think, they'd have jobs, wouldn't they? Inflation though tends to be more of a concern among savers, among those on a fixed income, among businesses (who might even like unemployment to be a bit high to keep their labor costs down). All these groups are politically strong and speak with a louder voice (and fling around more campaign cash) than those bitter, disenfranchised unemployed people.

So what do you think? How to explain our lopsided concern, especially with unemployment at 9.1 percent?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cost of furnishing a new flat

Recently, I have been learning everything about furnishing a new home. I also got to know the various costs involved in renovating a new flat. The following are the basic things needed to renovate a new flat and their estimated costs.

Basic package + add ons such as wall feature etc ($35,000)
1) Homogenous Flooring
2) Lightings
3) Room wardrobes and kitchen cabinets
4) Toilet shower screens
5) Wall feature for television
6) Plumbing works
7) Other carpentry works
8) Other masonry works

Furniture and other necessary stuff
9) Ceramic stove - $1200
10) Refrigerator - $2000
11) Washing Machine - $1200
12) Dining table - $800
13) Sofa - $1500
14) Television - $2000
15) Air conditioner - $2500
16) Living room table - $200
17) Shoe cabinet - $600
18) Beds - $4000

Others : $5000

A) Total cost of renovation = $56,000

According to the estimated price listed above, I will have to set aside $56,000 to renovate my future flat. Assuming that I will be buying a 4/5 room flat which costs around $500k, the costs involved will be:

1) Option fees: $2000 (cash - refunded if CPF OA is sufficient to pay the downpayment)
2) Downpayment: $50,000 [10% of purchase price (CPF or cash)]
3) Stamp fee: $9600
3) Conveyance fee : $312.60
5) Other miscellanous fees : $1000

B) Initial cost of purchasing a flat: $62,913

Total cost = A + B = $118,913

Thursday, August 25, 2011



As Ibn Khaldun, the outstanding Muslim social scientist put it many centuries ago, a man cannot live except in a civil society because he cannot survive in isolation. Demands of life could not be fulfilled unless he co-operates with others, and the others need him to fulfill their basic needs too. The gathering of people in a particular place or locality leads to urbanization which is the essence of hadharah or civilization. Civilized people need systems to conduct their daily activities and to settle disputes arising as between them. Life without dispute settlement mechanisms is a form of anarchy by definition.

In the contemporary world however, multiplicity in legal systems is a fact of life that no informed observers and students of law can ignore. The numerous systems and rules applied and followed worldwide testify to the fact that everywhere justice is sought after at whatever price. Nevertheless, the biggest question to answer is not related to what particular system that is followed but what justice it brings to real lives of the people. In the end, it is justice in itself that is sought after by nearly all irrespective of race, colour or place of abode. The quest for justice is a never-ending endeavor of the human race of all ages. Islam as a religion is very vocal about the need to uphold justice. In the Quran Allah Almighty says:

“ O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witness to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is (against) rich or poor: for God best protects both. Follow not the lusts ( of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.”

(Al-Quran 4: 135)

It is of interest to compare the above Islamic notion of justice with the so-called distributive and remedial justice of Aristotle, the natural justice of Anglo-American Common Law and the formal justice of the Roman Law. Whatever description that may be attributed to all of the above notions, one certain thing is that each system seeks to define justice and provide solutions to human problems which involve rights and obligations and the associated phenomena related therein.

One of the most important elements needed for justice to be done is the existence of an independent judiciary that seeks to settle disputes arising in the society. No law can be effective in rendering justice unless the means through which it is delivered and made applicable is supported by just process and procedure. Granted all of that, the rule of law is thus established where law reigns supreme; nothing is done or rendered except in accordance with clear provisions of law as interpreted and explained by competent and independent judges.

In the context of judicial independence the most pertinent aspect is to see whether the establishment of the judiciary itself reflects sincere regard for principles of justice. One legitimate question to ask is: to what extent, the established court system or judiciary is subject to constraint and limitations that would seek to influence its task in administering and upholding justice or whether there are constitutional provisions that guarantee its independence?. If there are in fact such constraint and limitations, whether they are justified in the context of an overall effort to establish harmony in society founded upon the noble concept of justice that is supposed to maintain workable balance with regard to competing interests and rights?.

It has been said time and again that, the judiciary is the true guardian of justice in any society such that any weakness in its roles and functions vis-a-vis other organs of the state will adversely affect the whole system of value and justice. Likewise, any deterioration in people's confidence about the independence of the judiciary will in most cases lead to instability and chaos that will sometimes be difficult to control. Therefore it is very important to realize that the duty to maintain an independent judiciary is vital to the survival and progress of any nation. Efforts must always be made to strengthen the image and dignity of the judicial system and its functionaries.

In a wider context, apart from perception held by local masses about their judiciary, international public opinion is sometimes very active in shaping the kind of image a judiciary of a certain country has. Undoubtedly, these days no country stands in isolation and immune from the scrutiny of interest groups, lobbyists and international media in particular. However there are several dangerous elements present in the current debate about democracy and the rule of law and with it the notion of independence of the judiciary.

With the ensuing move towards globalization, there seems to be efforts by some quarters to impose certain values as "universal" forgetting the facts that in reality, people are different, their habitats and upbringing are different and the levels of their civilizations are also different. If certain universal values are to be accepted by the entire world, these values must be universal enough to be accepted by all. Certainly there are values that we universally have no argument about them like:

1. one is presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty

2 . Everyone has the right to be heard,

3. the notion of right to fair hearing,

4. the right to provide defense of oneself upon accusation.

However, there are values that people may disagree about, in the context of prevailing local customs and religious belief. International conventions thus for instance recognize freedom of religion as one of the basic fundamental rights of each and every individual. Hence to force someone to abandon the creeds or rules as found in and taught by his religion is actually a denial of the right to religious freedom granted to him in the first place.

Islam for one, is a religion that is very clear about law and order as it comes with a well-embracing concept of shariah or divine law supplemented with what is known as jurist law or fiqh jurisprudence. Therefore, for Muslims, justice is both the question of religion and temporal necessity. As such the duty to administer justice is considered part of religious observance of the believers not less valuable than their worldly affairs for that matter.

Although Islam propagates sacred values as dictated by the Shariah or the divine law, yet in actual fact the Shariah itself contains both the elements of rigidity and flexibility at the same time. It is rigid when it deals with fundamental values like justice, tolerance, equity, respect for the elderly, fair distribution of property, prohibition of certain major criminal acts, just to mention a few, but still it is very flexible with respect to the way in which these principles or values are to be implemented. That flexible part of the Shariah (fiqh jurisprudence) may change with the change in time and place thereby allowing accommodation to take place for the sake of justice and equity.

Universal values, if they were to be respected, must be flexible enough that they can accommodate local circumstances, yet still relevant in a wider context. The irony is that sometimes in the pursuit of universal principles and values we forgot about the need to adjust ourselves to local circumstances and needs, thereby compromising our true quest for justice.

Independence of the judiciary is also related to the need to maintain freedom for judges to act within their powers as established by law. In order to curb unwarranted monopoly of power in a state, the doctrine of separation of powers was propounded whereby the three organs of the state ( legislative, executive and judiciary) are supposedly segregated such that each will act as a check on the others, culminating in the appearance of the notion of check and balance in constitutional thinking.

Additionally the judiciary is also empowered with judicial review over actions by executive agents to ensure that discretion is properly exercised. In practice however, such noble aim has been the most difficult task to achieve given the dominance of the executive branch in a day to day running of the state, not to mention the fact that in most cases, judges, especially at the highest level, are normally appointed by the head of the executive.

Apart from issues relating to appointment of judges, what we mean by the term independence of the judiciary is that judges who are so appointed should be able to exercise their unfettered discretion in the interpretation of laws and administration of justice, and that they are not influenced by anyone in discharging their duties as adjudicators for disputes. Only when this aim is achieved that the major condition of rule of law is fulfilled thus ensuring that justice is done and liberty established. The process that leads to the above noble aim is related, among others, to issues surrounding modes of appointment of judges, judicial tenure, removal of judges, judges’ salaries and also qualifications of judges.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

After Many Words, a Short Conclusion on Information-Insensitive Debt

Why six lengthy blog posts on information-insensitive debt? (By the way, they were published all at once because Blogger has been acting screwy lately, barring me from my account for more than a month. In case you want to refer back to them: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.)

I strongly believe that the shadow banking system was never confronted and dealt with properly after the financial crisis, and that this was a tragic error.

I suspect that the shadow banks will be back, with fresh problems, in the not-too-distant future.

At that time, we may finally be forced to figure out what to do with them. I expect various approaches to be proposed.

To decide wisely how to deal with the shadow banking system, I think we have to possess the right theoretical framework for understanding it. In my opinion, policy based on a flawed theory of “information-insensitive debt" will lead us to create an even more dangerous financial system.

Information-Insensitive Debt and the Strange Case of Haircuts

Now for part 6 of my rather exhaustive (and exhausting) look at Gary Gorton's theory of information-insensitive debt.

This post is rather granular, to show inside-out how a very dubious assertion at the theory's center leads Gorton to what (I think) is a wrong-headed interpretation of what occurred during the height of the financial crisis.

We start with haircuts -- in the repo market, not at the local barber shop. Anyone who needs a refresher on how repurchase agreements work, go here.


Per Gorton, the haircut is the "percentage by which an asset's market value is reduced for the purpose of calculating the amount of overcollateralization of the repo agreement."

That's very gnarly sounding. Here's an unpack that gets at the gist of the matter.

When you "deposit" say $100 million in a shadow bank through a repurchase agreement, the bank essentially posts collateral (to guarantee your funds in case it defaults). The haircut can be thought of as a way to ensure you get ALL your money back. So you may receive $105 million of securities for that $100 million -- a haircut of 4.8 percent (5/105). If the shadow bank collapses overnight, you're holding $105 million of securities to make you whole on $100 million -- not a bad proposition, it seems.

Haircuts vary with the nature of the collateral debt. During the financial crisis, for AAA corporate debt, they were minor (about 5 percent, according to Gorton). A graph of haircuts on asset-backed securities, on the other hand, resembles a Stairmaster in profile. They climbed from zero percent to about 40 percent when the financial system was in extremis. That deep 40 percent haircut was the shadow banking equivalent of a large amount of money being sucked out of the system -- a bank run, in other words.


Now comes a question that turns out to be more interesting than it first appears. Namely, what are these haircuts based upon? This is where things get curious. You might assume, if you're a common-sensical markets person, that “depositors” demand haircuts because if their counterparty in the repo agreement fails (a la Lehman), they need to be compensated for the fact that the securities may not really be worth what they were told. Or, an alternative explanation could be that they’re afraid the value of the securities might drop while they’re holding them.

Both interpretations, however, would be incorrect, according to Gorton.

Gorton informs us that:

Haircuts are a function of the default probabilities of the two parties to the transaction, as well as of the information-sensitivity of the collateral.
Now, before we analyze that, here's another excerpt you need to read, to get the full picture of where Gorton is coming from (this is also from his paper titled Haircuts, the bold is mine):

Keep in mind that the collateral offered in repo is valued at market prices. If the bonds become riskier, and their prices go down, then they would be valued at these lower prices. Furthermore, if there is more uncertainty about their price in the future, that risk can be addressed with a higher repo rate. Repo rates can and did go up (see Gorton and Metrick (2009)). Why should repo collateral be haircut? And why should these haircuts go up? Our answer, following Dang, Gorton, and Holmström (2010a,b), is that a haircut amounts to a tranching of the collateral to recreate an information-insensitive security so that it is liquid. The risk that is relevant here is different than the risks we usually think about, which are related to the payoff on the security. A haircut addresses the risk that if the holder of the bond in repo, the depositor, has to sell a bond in the market to get the cash bank, he may face a better informed trader resulting in a loss (relative to the true value of the security). This risk is endogenous to the trading process. It is not the risk of loss due to default. Consequently, the price cannot adjust to address this risk.

The first thing you should have noticed: Gorton very much appears to be some form of EMHer (Efficient Markets Hypothesis, or the belief that market prices are efficient and reflect all existing public information). (As a reformed EMHer, I can spot a member of the species. This is precisely how they talk: "If the bonds become riskier, and their prices go down, then they would be valued at these lower prices." They don't simply make a point; their stating of a proposition has a whiff of the evangelical.)

Being an EMHer, though, paints him in a corner, starting with his explanation of the two factors contributing to haircuts. Because for an efficient markets guy, the "default probabilities of the two parties to the transaction" -- reason #1 for haircuts -- shouldn't matter at all.

After all, if the collateral for your deposit is a security at market price, that's what someone would buy it for at that moment. And you're only holding the security overnight -- or for a few days -- so where's the risk? Of course, the price may change. But Gorton covers that in the longer excerpt above, saying you'll demand a higher repo rate to compensate for that risk. The more detailed excerpt, in fact, appears to conveniently forget about counterparty risk.

So, back to square one: why do you need a haircut?


This is where the theory starts crumbling around the edges. Remember, the centerpiece is information sensitivity, so that's the Procrustean bed Gorton has to fit his analysis into. Here's how he explains why a shadow banking “depositor” requires a haircut: if forced to sell the debt (my bold again), "he may face a better informed trader resulting in a loss (relative to the true value of the security)."

Ah, so the real problem is a "better informed trader." But what does that phrase mean? And what does it imply? I'm not sure whether Gorton tries to use it in a special way, but let's assume he doesn't. In that case, a "better informed trader" would presumably be a trader who knows the worth of the debt better than you do. And, it appears, you're worried that his information will be negative and push his offer price lower.

So a better informed trader knows something about the value of the security that you don't, so you're afraid that the debt may be mispriced, and that's why you demand a haircut?

No, Gorton would probably demur, it's not quite that. He tells us "This risk is endogenous to the trading process. It is not the risk of loss due to default." See, the market price plus the repo rate has already captured the risk of loss due to default, according to Gorton. But then, what is the nature of the knowledge possessed by a better-informed trader? When the donut cart makes its rounds at corporate headquarters? Because, seriously, when I hold a debt security, I'm concerned mainly with one thing: getting paid what I'm due, when I'm due it (and the probability of that occurring).

(Another thing: what is the "true value" of the security? What relationship does it have to the "market price"? Which should I care about? If the true value is $100 million but the market price is $200 million, why should I mind paying $200 million as long as other traders in the market are willing to pay that, especially if I possess the security for only a day or two?)

The other problem with these "better-informed traders" is that it stretches credulity that they suddenly appear on the horizon, a sagacious glint in their eyes, waiting to take advantage of you. Presumably they were also there the day before. So why weren't they pushing down the "market price" before? And if these better-informed traders are feared, why not find some of the apparently dumb traders of the day before who helped set the "market price" -- and simply sell to them instead, if they're so enamored of the security?


Gorton wants to convince us that the securities were fairly priced (they capture all the risk of loss due to default, remember) and that depositors extracted giant haircuts of 40 percent for fear that, if they got stuck with the debt, the only traders they encounter may possess an "information advantage." He never clarifies why, if this information advantage necessitates such a large haircut, the better informed traders aren't already profiting from their (considerable) advantage by trading in the market.

So Gorton basically says that market prices on asset-backed securities (a key kind of collateral in the shadow banking system) during the financial crisis were accurate. He makes this claim even though there were some 100,000 of them -- sui generis problems abound* -- and trading in particular ones probably got pretty thin and the value of asset-backed securities is often derived from a model (hence "mark to model") and investors were just starting to realize these things had been misrated and were probably lousier than they thought and ... you get the idea.

*(Brief aside: The uniqueness of these assets, and the difficulty accounting for them, was why Paulson scuttled his original plan for TARP, as Hernando de Soto recounted in Businessweek: “When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the "troubled assets" held by the world's financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk.”)


Is there an alternative explanation of what happened?

Yes, and it might go like this: Before the financial crisis, the haircut was zero on asset-backed securities because it was practically unthinkable that the large investment bank opposite you on the repo transaction would fail. And so, because the counterparty is deemed safe, the asset-backed securities being offered for repo aren't examined too carefully. The "magic pig" phenomenon starts to set in. "Sure, they're worth what we claim," Mr. Investment Banker says. "Would you like to see our math-heavy, extremely complex model or just take our word that you'll get repaid?" And you say: "I'll take your word, no problem."

But then the investment banks start looking shakier, and the asset-backed securities begin looking dodgier as well. You realize too that the banks are frightfully interconnected, boosting risk further. So you begin looking askance at asset-backed securities that you suspect aren't at "market price" at all. Further, you expect you'll have trouble reselling them. This would naturally lead you to demand deep haircuts.

Now you may resist going as deep as 40 percent -- that's pretty severe -- until you get really, really scared. What would scare you the most? If you think that the collateral may be mispriced, the scariest thing would be seeing one of those investment banks go under. Say Lehman Brothers. Until then, if you think the chance of the investment bank failing is remote, you may not extract much of a haircut for the mispriced securities. Who cares what they’re really worth? But once it becomes clear you may get stuck with this collateral -- the game changes totally.

You need a deep discount, and 40 percent would be reasonable. Gorton would have you think that such a discount implies crazy sale prices. This alternative explanation doesn't need to invoke a fire sale to make sense. It would, however, suggest there was a bit of the "magic pig" in those asset-backed securities.

Next: Many words later, a short conclusion: why should anyone care so much about this arcane subject?

Down the Rabbit Hole on Information-Insensitive Debt: Inscrutable Complexity Is a Good Thing!

Part 5 of a detailed look at Gary Gorton's curious theory of information-insensitive debt in which we ask two key questions.


Not really, it seems.

A more useful theoretical construct would steer away from the bi-phase nature of "information insensitive" and "information sensitive" and would at least posit a sliding scale between the two. But an even better theory would ditch information sensitivity completely. Risk is the key to understanding how the world of debt works and how securities are analyzed, not information sensitivity (note: it’s probably no accident, in fact, that certain bloggers have equated Gorton's "information insensitivity" phrasing with the quality of being "risk free" -- but a careful reading of Gorton shows he makes no such equivalence, so he appears to be aware that there's a critical distinction).

A better theory might assert that, with the financial sector's demands for collateral to back derivatives transactions and so on, there will be a need for less-risky securities to fill that role.


Gorton seems to like asset-backed securities as information-insensitive debt for all the wrong reasons.

He likes them partly because of the senior nature of the debt and the fact that it's backed by a portfolio. He doesn’t recognize that the worth of being senior is firmly attached to credit risk. As an investor, which would you rather hold, if you're anti-risk: the senior debt of Energy Future Holdings (the former TXU that’s freighted with debt after being bought in the biggest LBO in history) or some (not senior) debt of AAA rated Johnson & Johnson?

This isn't a gratuitously needling point, because structured debt likes "yieldy" (read: riskier) assets. Collateralized loan obligations, a type of CDO, are stuffed with leveraged loans -- the high-risk borrowing that private-equity firms take out to make an acquisition. Why? The structuring doesn't make sense using investment-grade debt; you can't wring out enough yield.

So to say a securitization is more "information insensitive" because it may be backed by a portfolio composed of senior debt -- and then to be agnostic about the contents of that portfolio -- is very wrong. And what's more, you should be looking at how correlated the movements within the portfolio are. Junk loans in CLOs will display high correlation if the economy double-dips; that's pretty much a given.


Then there's the really dangerous feature of asset-backed securities that Gorton, bizarrely, is attracted to: complexity. This should be a bug, not a feature, but we've gone down the rabbit hole, folks. Here's his rationale: complexity raises the cost of producing private information. It's too expensive to figure out the debt is mispriced. Ingenious, though the arrant screwiness of this is never acknowledged.

However, here's the catch: that same complexity will, at some point, confer a significant advantage for a dedicated investor (such as a Michael Burry type in the Big Short) to do enough research to determine the extent of the mispricing. This will only occur though, after the mispricing becomes significant enough.

So what you get in the trading of this complex debt is the equivalent of a tectonic shift, violent and jarring, instead of the smooth adjustments that are made by say a U.S. Treasury, which trades largely on public information -- millions of bits of it, clashing and conflicting and impressing various traders in various ways. The asset-backed security, however, manifests itself as stable and information-insensitive -- partly because of its impenetrability -- then, on reaching a certain tipping point of mispricing, lurches into “information sensitivity.” Also, because of its complexity, ratings services will be sluggish to downgrade the debt -- especially after they have been complicit in the initial misrating -- adding to the sudden volatility.

Note, however, that this volatility wouldn't have to be characteristic of a panic or widespread fire sales, as Gorton wants us to believe was the main problem during the financial crisis. This aspect of volatility is inherent in the very nature of complex debt -- a kind of debt that Gorton lauds because it raises the cost of producing private information.

And Gorton sees this as a feature, not a bug. Hmmm.


Information insensitivity is NOT what we need more of in our financial system. Magic pigs are information insensitive, until there is a revelation (the discovery that they are not magic), at which time they become dangerously information sensitive. We DON'T WANT a shadow banking system built on magic pigs (or on securities that want to become magic pig-like).

Next: What’s behind haircuts in the repo market, according to Gorton? (Surprise: It’s not what you think.)

The Worrisome Analogy at the Heart of the Theory on Information-Insensitive Debt

Now for Part 4 on Gary Gorton's theory about information-insensitive debt, in which we begin by dusting off our SAT analogy skills.

Retail banking : deposit insurance :: Shadow banking : x

"X" is, of course, the kind of insurance that will save the day when there's another run on the shadow banks, as we saw during the financial crisis. Deposit insurance is a neat innovation that traces back to 1934; it eliminated runs on commercial banks in times of panic. It also made deposits at a bank "information-insensitive" debt -- the value of your $1,000 at Fidelity and Security Trust is secure, even if the CEO absconds to Tahiti with $10 million in a duffel bag.

Before solving for "x" -- or, better, asking whether we should even try to solve for "x" -- let's look at how shadow banking works.


Retail banking is for you, me, Aunt Edna. Shadow banking is for the giants in the financial system, who have large amounts of cash to park -- typically money market mutual funds, insurers, pension funds. They make “deposits” and “earn” interest through a process that involves something called a repurchase (repo) agreement.

Here's an example of how that works.

A pension fund spends $100 million to "purchase" AAA asset-backed securities from JPMorgan. As part of the deal, JPMorgan agrees to buy back these securities, after a short period of time -- overnight, or maybe a week or two. The pension fund will receive a small amount of interest (a fraction of 1%, as the lending is so short term). If JPMorgan goes insolvent, the pension fund holds those securities as collateral. They can be sold and (theoretically) the pension fund recovers all its money.

Now consider what happens with retail banking with a $100 deposit if the bank becomes insolvent. The FDIC makes the investor whole, paying the $100. Similarly, the pension fund in our example really wants its $100 million returned and doesn't want to deal with those collateral securities, which may not really fetch $100 million on the open market if they happen to be complex products, especially in times of stress.

So what happens in the repo market during a "bank run"? Nervous depositors -- like this pension fund -- demand greater and greater haircuts on securities they “purchase.” In other words, instead of “depositing” $100 million and accepting say $102 million of securities, they may demand much more collateral: $110 million, $120 million. Haircuts on asset-backed securities may go from zero to 40 percent (as they did in the crisis). This has the effect of sucking 40 percent of that $100 million out of the shadow banking market.

Spread this effect around, and the impact is similar to that of a bank run.


Here’s a big problem, for those who see insuring shadow banking "deposits" as the obvious solution to bank runs: This kind of banking has a wrinkle that's not found with its retail counterpart. In the shadow system, to guarantee a depositor’s $100 million, you essentially would have to say, “Whatever the actual value of that security you bought in a repo agreement, we’ll buy it back for $100 million.”

Think about this. If you deposit $100 in a commercial bank, the FDIC says you’ll get that $100 back -- which seems fair; you have deposited a fiat currency, and you receive the same amount of that fungible currency in return. But this differs hugely from what the shadow banking system would be guaranteeing: that you would be made whole no matter what the true value of the security that you hold as collateral.

Why is this problematic (other than for the obvious reason that the security, especially if thinly traded and "marked to model," could be mispriced -- and that this tendency to mispricing will be exacerbated because of the very existence of the insurance)?


Well, significant differences exist between retail and shadow banking systems.

"Deposit insurance" for commercial banking means: You're insuring that a depositor of money (common currency) will receive that money back. The bank involved is usually not too risk-loving, not too large, not too interconnected, and not too complex -- plus its commercial banking activities are regulated.

"Deposit insurance" for shadow banking means: You're insuring that a depositor of money (common currency) will receive that money back. The bank involved is usually risk-loving (often an investment bank), large, highly interconnected and complex -- plus its shadow banking activities are unregulated.

Being large and highly interconnected implies that when a bank in the shadow system gets in trouble, others will soon be at risk and the amount of "deposit insurance" ultimately needed may be very high (and the FDIC model won't work, where a team of examiners takes over the bank on Friday and sorts out things so the institution can re-open on Monday -- Lehman, which was enmeshed in the shadow banking system, is still painfully crawling through bankruptcy, almost three years later, even spawning its own periodical: Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy News).


Enormous problems arise when it comes to how securities will be chosen to be insured in the shadow banking system. It's comparatively easy in retail banking. The FDIC insures dollar claims. Dollar claims are in money, or fungible currency.

But in shadow banking, how will securities be selected that will qualify as "information-insensitive" collateral worthy of insuring? Will government regulators be involved in picking and/or rating them? If so, why does anyone think our regulators have the expertise to assess asset-backed securities (one form of information-insensitive debt prevalent in shadow banking) that S&P and Moody's failed miserably to understand properly during the financial crisis?

Who determines how much of this insured information-insensitive debt is appropriate? Who pays for this "insurance" and how? And, if the debt is insured to market value, that will pervert the price at which it trades (Q: What would you pay for a security that is insured for however much you pay for it? A: Potentially, the sky’s the limit.).

And if the debt is insured to market value minus a haircut, who sets the haircut? How is the haircut adjusted if that debt class grows riskier? And, even with a haircut, insurance will tend to push the price higher as traders discover ways to game the system (Here's a scenario: X buys Security C for $100, its true price. Security C, which is classified as "information-insensitive" debt, is insured up to 90 percent of its market value. X sells Security A to Y for $200, who later sells it back to X for $210. Y makes $10 and X now possesses a security that's insured to $189 -- a great game for everyone but the insurer of the debt.)

Also what precautions will be taken to ensure that financial institutions don't start smuggling in junk disguised as quality securities, trying to get them classified as "information-insensitive debt" -- the designation of which will immediately boost the value of the assets?

Next: Is “sensitivity to information” really the way investors analyze debt?

The Theory of Information-Insensitive Debt Prompts Some Head-Scratching Questions

Here's Part 3 on the magic pigs of high finance, information-insensitive debt (everyone still awake?). Last time we looked at the concept using a common-sense definition of the term. Now let's try to figure out where the theory is unsatisfying on a more granular level, by using Gorton’s own words.

First, to show us what qualifies as information-insensitive debt, he offers examples: high-grade corporate debt, government bonds (presumably U.S. Treasuries, and not Greek 10-year bonds), and AAA rated asset-backed securities.

In different places, he characterizes such debt as (the bold is mine):

[Debt that] "is very liquid because its value rarely changes and so it can be traded without fear that some people have secret information about the value of the debt. If speculators can learn information that is private (only they know it), then they can take advantage of the less informed in trade. This is not a problem if the value of the security is not sensitive to such information."
Also (page 7 of the same document, Slapped In the Face by the Invisible Hand):

"Bank debt is designed to be informationally-insensitive, that is, these bonds are not subject to adverse selection when traded because it is not profitable to produce private information to speculate in these bonds."
These definitions sound impressive, in that arid academic way, but what do they mean when applied to real debt in the wild? For example, the first one doesn't really make sense. He's saying that speculators can't take advantage of the less informed while trading information-insensitive debt, even after learning private information, because "the value of the security is not sensitive to such information."


What debt could Gorton possibly be thinking of here? Does he really believe that even Treasuries are immune to being profited upon, by someone who possesses private information? If I wiretap the Federal Reserve Board meeting, and learn the Fed is about to announce an operation to purchase $800 billion of Treasuries, he doesn't think that gives me an advantage trading in this market? (Note: the second definition does add "it is not profitable" to produce private information, but this opens a new can of worms, which we’ll soon see.)

Also, U.S. Treasuries are very liquid, but it’s not true that their value rarely changes -- their value changes constantly. Now, do the bonds trade without fear that some people possess secret information about that value? For the most part, yes -- but there may also be certain junk bonds that trade without fear that some people have secret information about them. If so, could these junk bonds qualify?

And what if the junk bonds are "information insensitive" for six years, then the company reveals itself to be tottering near bankruptcy and their price becomes volatile? Do they suddenly become information sensitive, or were they always information sensitive but only seemed information insensitive?

In other words, is this quality of being “information insensitive” only ascertained after empirical evidence of how the security actually behaves? Or is a security considered information insensitive only if we can’t imagine a situation in which someone could profitably produce private information to speculate in the debt? But, honestly, no security exists for which that’s an inherent quality, as the thought experiment for Treasuries shows.


And "it is not profitable to produce private information" raises many fresh questions. What's profitable for a trader to do at any given moment depends on many variables that seem as though they should have little to do with information sensitivity.

A trade may be profitable simply because I can lay my hands on large-enough blocks of securities to make chasing a minuscule gain on each one worthwhile. Or, a narrower trading spread may allow me to turn a profit more easily. (Of course more-liquid securities tend to trade with narrower spreads, which leads to a Gortonian paradox, as being liquid is supposed to be a sign of information-insensitivity.) Profitability also hinges on what I pay my workforce -- so does a security become information sensitive simply because I’ve got six traders in Bangladesh who work at one-sixth the salary of their U.S. counterparts? Also how does "private information" factor in? What if it's profitable to ransack Company X's Dumpster for trading information. Does that make its debt information sensitive until the Dumpster is relocated to a more secure place?

Some of the above may sound a bit picayune. But here are the takeaway points: (1) If so many questions can be posed, doesn’t information-insensitive debt sound like a theory that presents a false dichotomy at best? (2) There are so many trades, and so many price movements on securities (especially liquid ones), how do you sort out evidence that proves a security is information insensitive, instead of the opposite?

Next: The troublesome analogy that Gary Gorton’s theory leads to.

Information-Insensitive Debt: An Unnatural Concept, For Starters

Now for Part 2 on Gary Gorton’s theory of "information-insensitive debt" in which we continue to study the question, "Is it a bad thing or is it a really bad thing?" :)

One big problem: the concept happens to be quite unnatural.

Fiat currency is probably the best example of information-insensitive debt, but it's essentially a trivial, artificial case. Retail banking deposits also qualify as a good example, but they're something different: a special case. Exactly how they're special is important to understand.


Gorton likes to illustrate the information insensitivity of retail banking deposits by using an example involving a check. Let's say I write a check for a $14 haircut. That piece of paper isn't worth $13.89 or $14.05 to my barber. It's worth exactly $14.

Likewise, if I go directly to my bank instead to withdraw that $14, I can be sure of getting the full amount, even if my bank is Lehman Brothers Savings Inc. and everyone's glumly packing their desk contents into boxes when I arrive. The FDIC insures my deposits up to $250,000. I can breathe easily.

So it doesn't behoove me, or anyone I trade with, to spend time investigating the financial soundness of my bank. No matter what terrible information surfaces about that bank, my deposits are covered.

See a problem already? The debt isn't naturally insensitive to information. It achieves this property by being insured. But the value of anything -- your collection of Pokemon cards or seashells -- can become information insensitive if insured. So, becoming information insensitive this way feels like cheating a bit.

That leaves the tantalizing question: which debt is naturally information insensitive?

None of it, really. On its face, the phrase is oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp.” (Note: Gorton parses the term in a special way, which we'll look at later.)


Pretty much all debt in its natural state is information sensitive. Markets trade on this information. Some is public. Some is private (e.g., a stock price spikes right before a merger announcement, as the news leaks out). Much information arguably occupies a gray area between public and private. Is private analysis of public data showing that a bond is undervalued private or public information?

Even fear and wild speculation is information of a sort. Say there's a rumor that a neutron bomb will be detonated in Microsoft's main cafeteria tomorrow, based on absolutely nothing. If enough stupid investors believe it (ever hear the phrase "dumb money"?), they may sell their bond holdings in the software giant. Information about this crazy rumor will prompt a smart trader to jump in, scoop up Microsoft debt, and score a neat profit when the price rebounds.

A smart theory would posit that just about all debt is information sensitive. The theory might make an argument that there are varying degrees of sensitivity, and that a particular instance of debt lies on a continuum between very information sensitive and not-that-information sensitive. Okay, fine -- that would at least be nuanced and cautious. But instead, in Gorton's world, we get debt that is either "information insensitive" or "information sensitive" -- and of course debt that lurches from the former to the latter during a financial panic, as if undergoing a change of phase, like ice to water.


Because there’s a shadow banking system in the U.S. that’s larger than the retail banking system. It’s where the financial crisis began in 2008.

Information-insensitive debt plays a key role in shadow banking’s repo market, according to Gorton (later, we’ll look at how repo works). Asset-backed securities, for example, are posted as collateral against repo borrowings. During the financial crisis, the securities suffered huge haircuts once they became "information sensitive" (or once investors discovered they more closely resembled magic pigs than Treasuries). At the same time, Gorton notes, other kinds of debt suffered very minor haircuts.

So here’s something to ponder: If we must have "information-insensitive" debt in our financial system, shouldn't we look to these other types for what it should look like, and not to securitizations that are opaque and become thinly traded with alarming suddenness?

Next: Gorton’s own definition of information-insensitive debt comes up short.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Information-Insensitive Debt But Were Afraid to Ask

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the idea of "information-insensitive debt" (also known less gracefully as "informationally insensitive debt"). Gary Gorton, a professor at Yale’s graduate business school, appears to be the intellectual progenitor (or one of them) of this concept. In 1990, he wrote an academic paper with George Pennacchi titled "Financial Intermediaries and Liquidity Creation."

My fascination with information-insensitive debt arose from a sneaking suspicion that it was a bad thing (except for a couple of notable exceptions). My keen interest in writing about it, after all this research, arises from a conviction that it is a bad thing, and that the theory itself isn't much good either.

A rough-and-ready definition of information-insensitive debt -- we'll return later to Gorton's own more nuanced and precise definition -- is this, by way of Felix Salmon:

Financial assets which (normally) don’t change in price when new information about them emerges.
Now if you're a markets-oriented person, this very idea should make your skin crawl from the get go. What kind of zombie asset doesn't change in price when new information about it emerges? How weird is that?


To begin this series of posts about information-insensitive debt (there’s waaay too much to fit into a single piece, unfortunately), let me introduce you to my magic pigs.

Each magic pig is worth exactly $1 million. Its astonishing value resides in something I call a noumenon. When asked what this noumenon is, which is a thing unseen, I gladly provide a 9,000-word document, with much high-level math and abstruse concepts and economic formulas, to justify its value. I trade a lot in financial markets, and whenever my counterparty demands collateral, I offer bonds entitling him to a number of my magic pigs, should I fail to deliver on whatever I have promised.

So when $10 million of collateral is requested, I hand over certificates for 10 magic pigs. My counterparty doesn't object: the whole market has accepted that these pigs are magic and worth $1 million apiece (after all, I do have documentation and the pigs have been rated top grade by Standard & Poor’s -- ignore for the moment their pro-animal bias, as one of their officials once famously observed, “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it”).

Sometimes I sell a magic pig for $1 million, and the holder of that pig then uses it for collateral, or sells it. Or whatever. Because the value of the pig lies in this complex noumenon, no market participant has any advantage in trying to profit on my pigs (through trading), by first gaining private information. And if a leg falls off a pig, that doesn't matter because its noumenon isn't affected. Even if the pig dies, its noumenon stays intact. So it's still worth $1 million.

The certificates for my magic pigs are truly information insensitive debt -- at least, until I am revealed as a fraud, at which point they very rapidly become information sensitive and start rising and falling in accordance with the market on hog futures.

Next: What do “jumbo shrimp” and “information-insensitive debt” have in common?

Friday, August 19, 2011


Stocks watchlist target price

Singtel: $2.50
STI ETF: $2.712 (0.8 x $3.39)
Ezion Holdings: $0.35
Keppel Corp: $5

Entry point:
1) Target prices hit
2) VIX > 40

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


In the last post, we raised up an issue pertaining to “waad” or promise in Islamic finance and how it seems that this concept has been employed to achieve some objectives aimed at helping one party but denying justice to the other side in a transaction. Islamic law right from the outset has recognized a distinction between a promise and a contract where a contract has been viewed more important than a promise at least in the context of external binding effect. However even in the case of contracts, Islamic law does look at the nature of the contracts concerned when it comes to the question of their external binding effect that will define whether the court will enforce the ensuing obligations or not. In this connection there are at least three major contracts to talk about in terms of the binding effect of a contract. Firstly there are contracts held to be binding on both contracting parties upon their formation where none of the parties are allowed to unilaterally terminate the relevant contract, and among others this includes sale and purchase and leasing or contract of/for service known as ijarah. The second type comprises contracts that are held to be not binding on both of the parties such that at any time any one of them can unilaterally put an end to the relationship without any need to get approval from the other side like in the case of the contract of wakalah (agency), mudarabah, sharikah (partnership) and the likes. And lastly there are contracts that are viewed to be of special category when one of the party is allowed to terminate while the other is to stick to them with no right to terminate unless with the consent of the first party. One example is the contract of surety or guaranty, where the creditor can always free the guarantor from the contract at any time, but the guarantor has no such a right as he is to stick to it as per the term agreed.

It is interesting to note, even in the case of the contracts that are supposed to be binding on both of the parties like sale and ijarah, both parties if they wish, can insert the right to terminate the contract in their agreement based on a concept known as khiyar al-shart provided in the contract according to which the party who asks for it will have the right to terminate such a contract within a specific time period. This concept is very similar to the modern notion of right of cooling off (cooling off period) where the parties can provide for its as part of the contractual terms, in which case they have right to set aside the duly formed contract within specific period of time.

Coming back to the issue of binding promise as previously discussed (refer to previous post), now it has become clear that if the concept is relied upon, it (binding promise) will take away the flexibility of the law of contracts itself by not allowing the relevant parties to have equal bargaining power in their dealings. The binding effect of a contract of exchange like sale and purchase derives its sanctity from the fact that if one of the parties unilaterally backs off from his contractual duty without agreement from the other side ( who is ever willing to provide his part of the bargain), then the one who is ready to continue can pursue the first party in the court of law for enforcement (for specific performance). Therefore in the case of a contract that is binding on both of the parties, there is an element of consideration where there are bargains on both sides which are not the case in a one-sided promise. How come a party (promisee) who himself has not made any commitment to provide any bargain/return/consideration to the other side is allowed to pursue the first party (promisor) for an enforcement of a promise. Promise itself is said to be not more than a statement by a person that he intends to carry out some good deeds in future, such that it is up to the promisor to fulfil it or not even though in a religious/moral term he is commanded to fulfil it unless there is any justified reason not to fulfil it. Given that the promisee has not made similar commitment, he cannot enforce the unilateral declaration of promise made by the promisor, as there is no equal bargaining in the equation. Apart from that there is always a general Shariah prohibition on taking away anything from an owner save on the owner’s consent either premised on a sale or gift contract. In short, if the notion of binding promise is to be widely applied, it will defeat the purpose of the law of contract in accordance to which people generally bargain their positions in a level playing field. Although the approach that allows for a promise to be made binding seems to address the issue of a customer not wanting to conclude a promised sale contract in limited scope, the danger of putting aside the general theory/rule of Islamic contract is far more serious than the anticipated benefit as it will defeat the very contractual framework that has been there for the general benefit/protection of all, not to mention the flexibility of the law of contract itself when it recognizes the different categories of contracts from their binding effect perspective.