Monday, 29 September 2008

Market Fallacy #2: too big to fail

Another of the market fallacies doing the rounds is the argument that some institutions, because of their size and their systemic importance, are too big to be allowed to collapse. The logic goes as follows:

The key objective is to maintain market stability and consumer confidence in
financial markets. This would be put at risk by the failing of institutions
deemed to be of systemic importance. That is, it is better to bail out a failing
enterprise than let it collapse and bring instability and chaos to the system.
The damage done by the collapse of one firm could be too great, so we must
prevent that from happening, even if it means using government funding.
In summary, the above is a synopsis of what the proponents of government intervention advocate.

But there is a perversion in the above argument. During the boom times, nobody told us that the key objective was market stability. The objective was growth, and to achieve that, the financial community kept telling us, governments should not meddle in the business of global finance. The less government intervention, the better, as global markets regulate themselves more efficiently, they claimed.

But now that the cycle has turned, the objective is stability. And how is stability achieved? By government subsidies, the very thing that investment bankers and financiers have always lobbied against.

The rules of the game have changed, the goalposts have been moved.

But secondly, the argument that some institutions are of systemic importance, it’s also bogus. Financial intermediation is the most fragmented market I know of. Firms survive with market shares of less than 1%. My own firm has a market share in the UK of less than 1% of the retail funds and pension market. Yet, we are highly profitable and we get paid very well. There are dozens of small financial institutions with a market share that does not even compute in the statistics.

To argue that some firms are of systemic criticality is a self-serving, self-protecting lie to scare inept politicians and a servile, unintelligent mass media.

First, let’s deal with the issue of interbank exposure in the OTC market between investment banks, broker-dealers and institutional funds. Proponents of the systemic-risk argument advocate that the counterparty exposures between all banks are so big that should one fail, it could create a domino effect and bring down the whole system.

This is a lie: I know of no entity that does not use collateral agreements to reduce counterparty exposure. If one big bank fails, the counterparty will be entitled to the collateral pool that was pledged. It is as simple as that. Collateral is what financial firms use to mitigate their exposures to one another. Collateral takes the form of government bonds and AAA-rated bonds, with the appropriate discount rates (haircuts). My own firm had about £200m counterparty exposure to Lehman. But our collateral is worth about £280m. Once the administrators liquidate the collateral pool, and we get our money back, all of it, we will probably have to return money to Lehman as we had more collateral than was required. This is the case for the vast majority of institutions. Since volatility in credit markets started in summer 2007, haircuts have increased so much that hardly any serious players have any material exposure to the investment banks.

So let me repeat this: Lehman Brothers, the fourth biggest investment bank and one of the key market makers in fixed income has collapsed and nothing systemic has happened. No other bank has gone down in a domino effect–because counterparty exposures are collateralised.

The only people that have lost any money are those with uncollateralized issuer exposure: those who bought money markets and bonds from Lehman. However, this is part of the game: debtholders buy bonds because they get compensated by receiving a spread (margin) over government bonds (or more appropriately, the LIBOR curve) of similar maturity. It is an accepted risk for which we (institutional investors) get rewarded. If a bank cannot pay its creditors, then it is too bad. Creditors should have sought to diversify their exposure or to mitigate it with insurance. Or have conducted better analysis and moved business elsewhere.

The “too big to fail” is a way for Wall St to protect itself from downsizing. A calculated scare tactic. Sadly, our leaders in government and the media are too inept or too coward to challenge this fallacy.

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