Banking Risk

Recent Read: “The Looming Bank Collapse”

Interesting analysis by UC Berkeley professor Frank Portnoy in The Atlantic. Some highlights below:

I was part of the group that structured and sold CDOs and CLOs at Morgan Stanley in the 1990s. The two securities are remarkably alike. Like a CDO, a CLO has multiple layers, which are sold separately. The bottom layer is the riskiest, the top the safest. If just a few of the loans in a CLO default, the bottom layer will suffer a loss and the other layers will remain safe. If the defaults increase, the bottom layer will lose even more, and the pain will start to work its way up the layers. The top layer, however, remains protected: It loses money only after the lower layers have been wiped out.

I have a checking account and a home mortgage with Wells Fargo; I decided to see how heavily invested my bank is in CLOs. I had to dig deep into the footnotes of the bank’s most recent annual report, all the way to page 144. Listed there are its “available for sale” accounts. These are investments a bank plans to sell at some point, though not necessarily right away. The list contains the categories of safe assets you might expect: U.S. Treasury bonds, municipal bonds, and so on. Nestled among them is an item called “collateralized loan and other obligations”—CLOs. I ran my finger across the page to see the total for these investments, investments that Powell and Mnuchin have asserted are “outside the banking system.”

The total is $29.7 billion. It is a massive number. And it is inside the bank.

Even before the pandemic struck, the credit-rating agencies may have been underestimating how vulnerable unrelated industries could be to the same economic forces. A 2017 article by John Griffin, of the University of Texas, and Jordan Nickerson, of Boston College, demonstrated that the default-correlation assumptions used to create a group of 136 CLOs should have been three to four times higher than they were, and the miscalculations resulted in much higher ratings than were warranted. “I’ve been concerned about AAA CLOs failing in the next crisis for several years,” Griffin told me in May. “This crisis is more horrifying than I anticipated.”

Thus far, I’ve focused on CLOs because they are the most troubling assets held by the banks. But they are also emblematic of other complex and artificial products that banks have stashed on—and off—their balance sheets. Later this year, banks may very well report quarterly losses that are much worse than anticipated. The details will include a dizzying array of transactions that will recall not only the housing crisis, but the Enron scandal of the early 2000s. Remember all those subsidiaries Enron created (many of them infamously named after Star Wars characters) to keep risky bets off the energy firm’s financial statements? The big banks use similar structures, called “variable interest entities”—companies established largely to hold off-the-books positions. Wells Fargo has more than $1 trillion of VIE assets, about which we currently know very little, because reporting requirements are opaque. But one popular investment held in VIEs are securities backed by commercial mortgages, such as loans to shopping malls and office parks—two categories of borrowers experiencing severe strain as a result of the pandemic.

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