Madoff and his Split-Strike Conversion

Bernie Madoff perpetrated the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. It's estimated that 65 Billion USD of his clients' money has disappeared. In the media many analysts have talked about how secretive he was with his "secret sauce". In the past people suspected his miraculously consistent returns were due to his market maker operations employing "front running" trades. This involves placing advantageous trades just prior to execution of other big trades that the firm sees coming in. In hindsight that has turned out not to be the case - it was a straight out Ponzi scheme running clandestinely next to his market making operation. But it has been reported that Madoff did say his returns were the product of a split-strike conversion investment model. So what exactly is that? After a bit of digging around I think I can offer a non-expert opinion of how that works...

First some basics. In options trading a simple "buy and write" strategy involves buying a stock (the "buy" part), and writing an out-of-the-money covered call (the "write part"), meaning the strike price of the option is greater than the current buy price of the stock. Since you are writing the call you collect the premium up front. If the stock price doesn't move you won't be exercised - the options you sold expire worthless - and you keep the option premium. If the stock goes up by an appropriate amount you will get exercised so you deliver the stock you already bought, hence the name "covered call", but you still keep the option premium. If the stock goes down, again you're not going to get exercised on the written call, but you still keep the option premium. Of course the value of the long position you are holding is going to reduce but this loss is cushioned by the premium earned on the option. In summary, you profit if the stock price increases but this profit is capped by the option premium + the difference between the purchased stock price and the option strike. If the stock goes down your loss will be offset by the premium collected, so overall the buy-and-write outperforms a strategy that merely involved buying the stock, unless of course the stock price goes above the said (initially out-of-the-money) option strike price. [For simplicity this analysis ignores transaction costs.]

Taking this one step further. If you use the proceeds of the written call to buy an out-of-the-money put option, sometimes referred to as a protective put, this strategy is then termed a “collar” or a split-strike conversion. Purchasing an out-of-the-money put gives you the right but not the obligation to sell the stock at the predetermined strike price on or before the expiry date, thus you are protected from large downward moves. So now let's consider the pay-off matrix for such a strategy by examining the differences between this and the above buy-and-write strategy. In effect the upside profit is still present but the unlimited downside we had with the buy-and-write has now been limited to the strike price of the purchased put option. Thus a collar protects you from massive losses but it also prevents massive gains.

So now you know. The split-strike conversion strategy that Madoff claimed to be his secret sauce is just a trade that consists of a long equity position plus a long put and a short call. It's not a bad strategy, but it's obvious to everyone that it cannot produce positive results when markets go down which begs the question why he would offer such a strategy to fund managers who would know that?

If you want see empirical evidence that it is not possible to produce such consistently good returns with this strategy go read this paper.


LIBOR Bottomed Out?

Eight months ago I wrote this post giving my analysis of the global financial crisis and the ensuing Wall Street meltdown. Well enough time has passed so I thought it was about time to review the critical metrics of the situation.

LIBOR - the London Interbank offered rate - is down to 0.8 % and has been declining steadily for the past month. This metric peaked at 4.8 % during October 2008 when the crisis was as its' worst as general fear around counter party risk hit the credit markets hard. After all, what bank wants to lend money to another bank if they suspect that bank might go out of business as Lehman Brothers did? The current rate of 0.8% indicates the cost of inter-bank borrowing has normalised thus indicating that the various government-induced stimulus packages and easing of policies has had a positive impact on the markets, and more importantly, confidence is returning to the market.

The TED Spread has dropped to its lowest level since August. Historically, it has been under 50 basis points during "normal" times. It is currently sitting around 70 basis points down from as peak of 550 basis points. If you recall, the higher the spread the greater the perceived credit risks (compared to "risk free" treasuries). Hence the size of this gap reflects a sort of risk or liquidity premium in the market. The recent lowering is another indication that confidence is returning to the market.

So what does all this mean? There will likely be many more months of depressed economic activity but the good news is the end of the world isn't going to bite us any day soon - the mother of all bail outs has certainly kept that dog at bay, for now!


Wall Street Meltdown

As someone with more than a passing interest in the finance/I-Banking sector it's hard not to take notice of the meltdown that has been happening on Wall Street over the past 12-18 months. The global credit crunch / subprime mortgage crisis is already and will continue to greatly affect - in a negative fashion - not just the US economy but many other institutions that have significant expose to the US debt and equity markets. So how exactly did this happen? Firstly you need to understand the flow of money that ensues, and the various entities involved, when a lending institution offers a home loan. Here's my admittedly-niaive analysis about how the money moves around gleemed from various newspaper reports, websites and information picked up from a great book I'm reading at the moment - Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis.

  1. US homebuyers with poor credit ratings (i.e. high risk) borrow money from retail banks to buy houses.  The retail banks lending the money are more generically referred to as loan originators because they may actually be a financial institution other than a bank, but that is neither here nor there in this discussion. The high-risk folks who they lent money too are referred to as subprime borrowers. But why would the banks lend money to people who are likely to default? In short, because (a) it was a large market they couldn't ignore [about 12 Trillion USD according to the New York Times], and (b) because they knew they could offload the credit default risk to other parties...

  2. The loan originators know that loans they originate (write) can be onsold to one of several government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) like Fannie Mae and Fredie Mac - known as mortgage guarantors. These organisations were originally setup by the US governement to guarantee subprime loans provided by retail banks that met certain conditions - termed conforming loans. This effectively made the GSEs a secondary market for home mortgages which enables the loan originators to onsell the loans they originate thereby getting their funds back which gives them the necessary capital to go and write/offer more loans. Apart from reducing exposure to credit defaults, the presence of the GSE-provided secondary market is advantageous to the mortgage originators in that it represents a cheaper way of raising capital than other alternatives such as issuing bonds or stock, or taking out a loan from another bank. But why would the mortgage guarantors choose to take on and guarantee such risky loans? Because the government set them up exactly for that purpose in the belief that less creditworthy borrowers should have access to finance like everyone else, and by providing a secondary market the government believed the mortgage market would have greater liquidity and flexibilty.

  3. The mortgage guarantors also take measures to reduce their risk by re-packing the loans that they purchase from mortgage originators into mortgage backed securities (MBS) and onselling them in the open market. (Perhaps the most common form of MBSs is the Collateralized Mortgage obligation (CMO), the rise of which, and the massive Wall Street profits associated with their introduction is precisely the topic of Liars Poker.) The re-packaging of loans is done by pooling together large numbers of subprime loans that have similar qualities. The aggregration process is suppose to reduce the risk assoicated with individual loans. It's much the same process as that which actuaries use for life insurance risk pooling only it's much harder to predict homeloan default rates than it is to predict mortality tables. Like insurance companies, the mortgage guarantors received a fee from the buyers of their MBSs as compensation for taking on the credit risk associated with the mortgages they accept. In the finance world this repackaging and onselling is called securitization. It effectively means groups of individual loans from bank X to Mr and Mrs Smith and co. are transformed into completely impersonal financial instruments than can be horse traded in the market like other securities. Furthermore the pooling of the loans means the resulting MBSs themselves become more attractive to institutional investors since they can be sliced and diced even more...

  4. Wall Street firms then buy the MBS instruments and, based on the attributes of the MBSs, re-package them again into Collateral Debt Obligations (CDOs). CDOs are a synthetic financial instrument issued by an investment bank that entitles the buyer to recieve future cash flows, much like a corporate bond. The issuing investment bank is paid a fee on issuance and also earns a management fee over the life of the CDO. For the buyer of the CDO - according to Wikipedia, "an investment in a CDO is an investment in the cash flows of the assets, and the promises and mathematical models of this intermediary, rather than a direct investment in the underlying collateral. This differentiates a CDO from a mortgage or a mortgage-backed security (MBS)."  Interestingly CDOs offer the issuing investment bank the ability to move debts off their balance sheet and instead reporting them as assets once they had been pooled via a CDO.

  5. After construction these CDOs get a credit ratings from one of the credit rating firms, S&P, Moody's, or Fitch, and are then sold on the open market to institutional investors. In some cases they are held by the issuing investment bank due to the significant leverage and higher rates that they offer. It should be noted that, when evaluating CDO "tranches", the credit rating agencies receive a fee much greater than they do when evaluating ordinary corporate bonds. This would indicate that they are harder instruments to evaluate. The agencies used to use more complex assessment models including Binomial Expansion Techniques (BET) for rating CDOs. Such methods rewarded balanced portfolios and punished concentrations of assets via "diversity scores" however in 2004 Moody's dispensed with the components of their evaluation which focused on diversity of the debt assets underpinning the CDO. Questions are now being asked about how prudent the credit rating firms were in their rush to evaluate a large number of these new insturments as their popularity increased over the years which ironically saw many of themn given AAA ratings the vast majority of which have been drastically downgraded since. 

  6. So what about that other big company that was in the news, AIG? Well, apart from being a sponsor of the Red Devils, AIG provides insurance products intended to protect against credit defaults, in exchange for a premium or fee. They are required to post a certain amount of collateral (e.g., cash or other liquid assets) to be in a position to provide payments in the event of defaults. The amount of capital is based on the credit rating of the insurer. Effectively, AIG provided "CDO insurance" to the investment banks.

 So with the money flow diagram fleshed out let's now consider how this system went so very bad.  

  1. The decline starts by subprime borrowers defaulting on their loans in large numbers. As a result of this more houses are put on the market due to foreclosures and the subsequent firesales drive down the price of houses. With declining house prices it make it significantly harder for subprime borrowers to refinance loans they realise they can't afford to service once the honeymoon interest rate period is over. The net result: it's been said that it's the worst US housing slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

  2. This puts pressure on the mortgage guarantors, Fredie Mac and Fannie May, and everyone else who are holding MBSs since their prices are rapidly decreasing as buyers see them as more riskier investments. Both of these GSEs ultimately got into serious finanical trouble under the weight of debt obligations they couldn't meet which caused the US government to step in and bail them out, but not before massive writedowns took place.

  3. Holders of CDOs constructed from MBSs suffer the same fate of MBS holders - they see rapid price declines causing massive loses amongst investment banks and institutional investors holding them. In many cases these organisations were using borrowed funds to purchase already leveraged CDOs. i.e the inherit leverage of the CDOs were further leveraged. These organisations (Lehman Brothers was one) were legally allowed to use such high levels of leverage since US investment banks aren't subject to the same regulations as commercial banks.

  4. The decline in MBS and CDO prices is further exacerbated by (naked) short sellers who smell blood and want to extract some profits from an otherwise poorly performing market. The downward pressure on CDO prices is noticed by other investors who want to close out their positions before incurring further losses adding to the price freefall.

  5. With banks highly suspicious of other banks going under due to exposure to business partners who can't meet their payments market liquidity for interbank lending is greatly reduced. This is reflected in 3 clearly visible metrics:

    • the LIBOR - the London Interbank Offer Rate - is the interest rate in London as which one bank lends money to another.
    • the TED spread which is the difference betweek the LIBOR rate and the interest rate on 3-month US Treasury bills. This is a key measure of funding pressures and illiquidity and has broken 3 % in recent times.
    • the credit default swaps (CDS) prices. A CDS pays the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities, or the cash equivalent if the borrower fails to adhere to the debt agreements. As such they are used used to hedge against bond losses as well as speculate on corporate creditworthiness. In short they are a form of insurance contract against bond defaults. With significantly more defaults happening, the price of CDS naturally increas.

So in short - the practice of lending money to people who really couldn't afford it combined with a plethora of mortgage-backed securities whose leverage couldn't be resisted by US investment banks in an environment with ineffective regulation on cash reserves ultimately led to a significant liquidity problem in the market place at a time when it was needed most. If you gamble large stakes you eventually get burned bad!