If you are in the business of selling derivatives you have to value them from time to time, because counterparties want to know what their thing is worth, and regulators want to know how deep in the hole you are. This is not always as easy as valuing a stock by just going out and getting a quote. But the principles can be stated sort of simply: you just take an integral of your net discounted cash flows over every possible future state of the world, appropriately probability weighted.*
Easy to say, but hard to do, because you have only so much direct access to possible future states of the world. Fortunately there are rules of thumb for this, of greater or lesser reliability, which exclude the unlikely and immaterial states of the world (your BAC warrants are worth zero if the world ends this Friday, but that’s unlikely; you’re perhaps equally likely to eat a bacon bowl or a salad for lunch tomorrow, but your choice will have only an immaterial effect on the value of your BAC warrants). All of these methods, however, provide only market-sanctioned guesses about the fair value of your derivatives; if the future world moves in ways not contemplated by the moving parts of your model your calculations are just wrong.
This is, I’ve always thought, a nice way to think of the world, and certainly more conceptually satisfying than “it’s worth what people will pay for it” or “it’s worth what the formula says.” And once you get into thinking of things this way, you can have fun thinking of all the possible things that (1) are not trivially unlikely and (2) would have a not trivial effect on your stuff.
Like, it turns out, your own demise. Read more »
You could probably think a few things about GS’s earnings released this morning. If you’re an employee, you might gulp nervously at that $292k comp accrual so far and the 1,300 folks whose mastery of the universe became less masterful this quarter. If you’re a shareholder, you have to be modestly pleased with mostly adequate revenues in most businesses though kind of pissed about ICBC. If you’re an accounting purist, you thrill to the idea of a bank that managed not to book billions in DVA gains.
Here, though, is a thing not to think: “Goldman Sachs lost money by doing all of the things the Volcker Rule says it shouldn’t be doing.”
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A thing I liked about being a banker, but that made me consistently terrible at managing my PA, was that in banking you don’t really get paid to be right about things. Nobody made any money telling AOL and Time Warner that maybe they’d be better off on their own. Instead, your job is telling a persuasive story – a story that often ends with “so that’s why you have to [buy this company][sell your company].” You tell that story with DCFs and PowerPoint and steak dinners, but ultimately all the numbers and charts are aimed not at objective reality but at persuasion. And the easiest way to make a story persuasive is to tell people what they want to hear.
It is, however, possible to take that concept too far. Fairness opinions are a troublesome example. Nobody in the real world believes all that much in fairness opinions, but banks actually take them pretty seriously because they represent in a vague and highly caveated way a bank’s conclusion that the price paid in a merger is (within a wide range of) “right,” or at least somehow connected to objective reality. This is a hard mindset to get into when your day job is basically persuasion, and you can expect some slips every now and then.
Here, for instance, is a useful tip for any junior analysts: this is not what a DCF looks like:
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You could, if you wanted to, divide the world into people who find parsing through the Volcker Rule draft creepily fascinating, and people who would rather not, thanks for offering. The first category, as far as I can tell, consists of (1) me, in small doses, and (2) a PowerPoint-enabled band of lawyers at Davis Polk, who helpfully put together an insane flowchart of the Volcker Rule. The latter category is everyone else.
So if you were, say, David Viniar, and you clicked on Davis Polk’s flowchart and noticed that it had nineteen slides many of which look like this:
… you might say “fuck it, there has to be an easier way.” Fortunately, there is, and it’s right there on Step 1: if you’re not an insured depositary institution (or bank holding company or affiliate), you’re not subject to the rules and you can go merrily on your prop trading way.
True? Somebody thinks so:
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A thing that most people kind of know about the business of investment banks is that it’s not that hard. You have to be able to do basic math and communicate with humans, but most of what front-line bankers and salespeople do is not rocket science. It’s also not that differentiated. Everyone looks at comps and DCFs to write fairness opinions. Everyone markets IPOs by calling big investors and saying “this is a good company,” and then tries to get the highest price. Any new product that a bank invents is reverse-engineered and offered everywhere within a week. There’s no investment banking iPhone.
So how do you convince clients to pay you for services? Well, you can offer services more cheaply than your competition. That is unpleasant. Or you can try to convince clients that your business is awesomely complicated and you provide awesomely differentiated service. That is why IPO pitch books are 80 pages long.
But most of what you do is just make people like you and find you useful. That’s why you play golf. Read more »
Today seems to be the day of banks praising each other with faint damns, what with James Gorman handing out copies of a Credit Suisse report lowering estimates for Morgan Stanley. Goldman equity research is also out with a mammoth and interesting note on French banks, which against this market backdrop actually manages to sound pretty chipper despite warning of increasing risks, reducing earnings estimates and downgrading Soc Gen from buy to neutral. They also think that French banks will need to improve capital ratios, but aren’t sweating it too much. Here’s how they think that goes:
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Paul Volcker has made himself surprisingly relevant recently as an enemy of both (1) inflation/whatever Paul Krugman might be up to and (2) proprietary trading/whatever Kweku Adoboli might be up to. As for the second category, on Friday I guessed that I was not alone in being confused by the Volcker rule, which would ban “proprietary” trading by big banks while still allowing not-”proprietary” (“flow”? “customer facilitation”? “market making”?) trading. So I was pleased to learn today that the regulators designing the Volcker rule seem to be equally confused:
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The fact that one lovable rogue in London misplaced UBS’s bonus pool for the year has people talking again about the Volcker rule, which would ban proprietary trading at banks. I still don’t really understand that, and I’m not alone. Here is a thing about the Volcker rule and “Delta desks” (what?):
Yet the definition of what constitutes proprietary trading can be fuzzy. Many on Wall Street consider proprietary trading, or prop trading, to involve only trades made by dedicated traders who are using the bank’s capital and do not have access to client information. The trading done on Delta desks, they contend, is done on behalf of clients.
Those boundaries, however, can blur. A bank may buy a derivative or security from a client in order to make a market, then decide it is worth hanging onto, turning it into a proprietary bet.
The Volcker rule of the Dodd-Frank act is named after Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who proposed it. It is intended to prevent American banks from taking on too much risk. The fine print, however, has yet to be worked out, and regulators are debating just how comprehensive to make the definition of proprietary.
This is sort of correct but nicely embodies the conceptual confusion that I suspect lies behind the Volcker rule. Let’s spend four hours talking about it, shall we?
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Nah, it was much worse.
Some people have questioned the “proclivity of UBS for getting involved in fiascos in which the bank believed it was taking relatively little risk but ended up losing large amounts of money” and a risk management policy that (really!) consisted of “still don’t lose any money, but do more.”
You might feel justified in those doubts about UBS risk management after reading (1) that stuff about the guy who lost all the moneys and (2) this:
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A while back Del Monte Foods agreed to be bought by KKR, with Barclays advising Del Monte on the merger. After the deal was announced, Barclays ran a go-shop period for Del Monte, which found no better bidders. The thing about that was that Barclays was providing KKR’s financing for the deal – and that KKR was paying Barclays more than Del Monte was. Some people thought that was kind of shitty, they sued, a Delaware court agreed, it enjoined the deal, a boutique bank (Perella Weinberg) had to run a second go-shop, there was a lot of weeping and wailing and judges saying things like:
Barclays secretly and selfishly manipulated the sale process to engineer a transaction that would permit Barclays to obtain lucrative buy-side financing fees. On multiple occasions, Barclays protected its own interests by withholding information from the Board that could have led Del Monte to retain a different bank, pursue a different alternative, or deny Barclays a buy-side role. Barclays did not disclose the behind-the-scenes efforts of its Del Monte coverage officer to put Del Monte into play. Barclays did not disclose its explicit goal, harbored from the outset, of providing buy-side financing to the acquirer.
It was a thing.
Now it’s going to be less of a thing:
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The term “living will,” applied to liquidation plans for big banks, has always seemed like a bit of a euphemism. After all, it really means “instructions on how to divide up our stuff when we die.” So, y’know, more of a regular will:
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. board voted unanimously today to release a joint final rule laying out what the largest and most complex financial firms must include in so-called living wills they’re required to file. The panel also approved contingency planning guidelines for insured banks. … Regulators are requiring financial firms to file plans that are developed under the context of the bankruptcy code, with each designed to give a blueprint for how a firm could be taken apart.
And, lest your estate planning was going to be along the lines of “I must keep in good health and not die,” the Feds are on to that scheme too. From the rule:
Several commenters were concerned that the Proposed Rule favored resolution over recovery and was biased in favor of separation of the insured depository institution from the parent organization rather than looking to maintain enterprise value. By issuing the Rule, the FDIC does not intend to substitute resolution planning for recovery planning. Both are very important and serve complementary purposes. The Rule, however, focuses on resolution planning.
It turns out, though, that this may be a bit of an exaggeration. Read more »