Bank of New York Mellon is back in the news for offering a special promotion to its valued FX customers: if you act now, instead of screwing you with the worst possible price for your FX trades, they will not do that. OWS is working!
The thing about that is … well, wait, let’s start with something more important: I don’t really think that Gretchen Morgenson understands anything about derivatives. That would be ridiculous. Good to have that off my chest.
What I meant to say yesterday was not that she did, or that anything she’s said about derivatives was technically correct. It was that getting all excited about how she mislabeled a repo a swap misses the point. If a repo and a swap have substantially the same cash flows and achieve substantially the same economic effect – here, letting MF Global leverage a position by separating funding from credit risk – then there’s nothing substantive about calling one thing a “repo” and another a “swap.”
BoNY Mellon, though, shows that what you call a thing actually can matter. Thinking that everything is a derivative may lead to confusion and anger if you’re, say, Gretchen. Because Derivatives Are Bad. But, if you’re me, thinking that everything is a derivative might make you a little bit more sympathetic to BoNY. Because I don’t think that what they were doing was – or was only – screwing their customers by secretly giving them the worst price of the day. I think that they were “long a floating-strike, intra-day option on their FX transaction.” Read more »
Here’s a trade. I’ve got these bonds, see? I will sell them to you. You will pay me $100 and get $100 face amount of bonds (if you like, you can get $80 or $120 face value of bonds, depending on where the bonds are trading – but let’s make them par bonds, to keep things simple).
But we’re not done. I will also write a contract under which, if these bonds default prior to maturity, you can hand them back to me, and I will give you back your $100. My loss will be the $100, minus whatever I can get from the defaulted bonds. In exchange for this commitment from me, you will pay me a running payment. That payment will be equal to (1) the coupon payment on the bonds (remember, they’re par bonds, for simplicity), minus (2) a risk-free rate of equal maturity, plus or minus (3) a basis driven by the cost of funding and differences in relative demand for different sorts of payments. Let’s say the bonds pay 6%, the relevant risk-free rate is 2%, and our funding costs are 50bps. Then you pay me 350bps running. The payments, and the contract, expire at maturity of the underlying bond.
Ah, but you have an objection. You’re paying me this running payment in exchange for my promise to cash you out if the bonds default – but how do you know I’m good for it? Fair. Why don’t we do this. I will collateralize that promise. At first my collateral will be quite small, since default is unlikely so the expected value of my promise is small, but it will go up if the bonds decline in value and/or my credit deteriorates.
Okay, fine, now we’ve got a deal. So … what is our deal? I’ve sold you bonds in a spot sale – that much seems clear – and we’ve got … this other thing, this contract. What do we call that contract?
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S&P’s decision not to downgrade a whole bunch of municipal issuers, and its claim that “the fiscal autonomy, political independence, and generally strong credit cultures of U.S. states and local governments can support ratings above that of the U.S. sovereign” reminded us of all the other good news about state and local government financial genius. Such as the Maine municipal authority who swears through bites of bank-sponsored filet mignon that closing dinners for negotiated bond deals aren’t costing his state anything (hint: bankers aren’t buying you dinner because they’re dying to hear about your fishing trip!). But our favorite muni news is Gretchen Morgenson’s story from this weekend about her favorite topic, municipal derivatives.
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