My favorite financial news story of 2013 so far might be the Reuters story last Friday about how NYSE and Nasdaq each listed more IPOs than the other during the first quarter. A normal human might find that odd: listing an IPO is the sort of thing that you tend to notice and keep a record of, so you could pretty easily just add up the IPOs you listed and compare. But to a banker, it’s obvious that everyone would claim, with some sort of semi-plausible justification, to be first in every league table. In fact the explanation is perfectly, almost paradigmatically natural: Nasdaq excludes REITs, spin-offs, and best efforts deals.1 I remember when I used to exclude REITs! Excluding REITs is, like, 20% of what a capital markets banker does.
A deep tension at the heart of the financial industry is that it attracts a lot of quantitative logical evidence-oriented people and then puts them to work in essentially sales roles, and a lot of what it sells is unsubstantiated mumbo-jumbo. You wrote your senior thesis on geometric Brownian motion in the prices of inflation-linked Peruvian bonds from 1954 to 1976? Great, go make a page telling clients why Bank X is so much better at underwriting commoditized debt deals than Bank Y. Or: your thesis took for granted the truth of the efficient markets hypothesis? Great, go market a hedge fund that charges 2 and 20 to beat the market. You have to be quantitative enough to manipulate the data to get it to say what you want (“This fee run is 0.2% higher if we exclude REITs” “Well, do that then”), but not so quantitative that you find the whole process revolting. It’s a hard line to walk, and it’s not surprising that Eric Ben-Artzi or Ajit Jain or the quant truthers at S&P end up disgruntled and either blowing whistles or writing regrettable emails.2
Does that explain Lisa Marie Vioni? I dunno, her economics degree came with a side of French, she became a hedge fund marketer, and she’s done it for over 20 years, so I’d have pegged her as pretty comfortable in the gray areas. But in January 2012 she went to work for Cerberus as an MD selling its RMBS Opportunities Fund, and in February 2013 they fired her, and now she’s suing them. She’s suing in part for gender discrimination, which is hard to evaluate from her complaint but sure, maybe.3
But she’s also suing as a Dodd-Frank whistleblower, because she complained about what she thought were misleading marketing materials and was more or less told to go pound sand. And those accusations go like this: Read more »
Remember Paulson & Co’s investment in Sino-Forest? One of the less than stellar trades that helped contribute to 2011 being an annus fucking horribilis for the hedge fund? Got a former investor named Hugh F. Culverhouse all riled up, shouting about “gross negligence” and “failure to properly monitor” the situation and making claims that it was clear no one at P&C bothered to perform any due diligence on the company, because if they did, “the Paulson companies could…have foreseen Sino-Forest’s problems?” Things actually worked out for JP&Co on this one. Read more »
I’ve occasionally pointed out that one problem with the antitrust Libor lawsuits is that the allegations are mostly “the banks lied about Libor in order to trick each other about their creditworthiness and/or screw each other on some swaps trade,” so it’s hard to claim that they were all working together in a big antitrust conspiracy. But Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who mostly dismissed a batch of Libor lawsuits on Friday, has an even better objection, which is that even if it was a conspiracy, it was supposed to be a conspiracy:
[T]he process of setting LIBOR was never intended to be competitive. Rather, it was a cooperative endeavor wherein otherwise-competing banks agreed to submit estimates of their borrowing costs to the BBA each day to facilitate the BBA’s calculation of an interest rate index. Thus, even if we were to credit plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants subverted this cooperative process by conspiring to submit artificial estimates instead of estimates made in good faith, it would not follow that plaintiffs have suffered antitrust injury. Plaintiffs’ injury would have resulted from defendants’ misrepresentation, not from harm to competition.
As Judge Buchwald points out, in a delightfully sensible 161-page opinion, antitrust violations require a competitive market that can be subverted by a conspiracy. Here, there was no competitive market to subvert, and the injury that the plaintiffs suffered – manipulated Libors – could have come as easily from individual bank manipulation as from a grand conspiracy. Normal markets don’t work that way: if I just decide to charge you twice the going rate for my product, and no one else does, that tends not to work. If I submit twice the real rate for my Libor, and no one else does, that kind of still works, though I guess it works better if everyone joins in.
Back in the pre-Lehman days Citigroup owned a lot of things that, in hindsight, turned out to be awful. Everyone knows that now but various people didn’t know it then, including (1) the people who bought some of those awful things from Citi, (2) the people who bought stock in Citi while it hung on to the bulk of those awful things, (3) the people who bought bonds in Citi while it hung on to the bulk of those awful things, (4) the people who bought preferred stock in Citi … you get the idea. The world being as it is – full of lawyers1 – each of those groups of people is slowly making its separate peace with Citi. We’ve talked about some of them before, including a rather controversial $285mm SEC settlement on behalf of the awful-thing-buyers and a $590mm private settlement on behalf of the stock-buyers. Today brings the biggest settlement yet, $730mm on behalf of the bond- and preferred-stock and TRUPS-buyers, who lost billions when Citi defaulted on its bonds.
In the case settled Monday, plaintiffs alleged the New York company misled them about Citigroup’s possible exposure to losses on securities backed by home loans, understated its loss reserves and said some assets were of higher credit quality than they actually were. The pact covers 48 preferred-stock and bond deals between May 2006 and November 2008.
Those possible exposures became real exposures, and Citi incurred plenty of unpleasantness. But these bonds mostly didn’t. Read more »
The antitrust lawsuit against all the big private equity firms, accusing them of colluding with each other to drive down prices on LBOs in the 2003-2007 boom, was always a bit of a puzzler. On the one hand, there were lots of emails between private equity firms that they’d probably like back, to the effect of “hey thanks for not bidding on my last deal, hope you enjoy my not bidding on your next deal!” On the other hand, the lawsuit was sort of a mess, full of hazy accusations, unsupported conspiracy claims, and the sort of unfalsifiable tin-hattery that sees occasional fierce bidding wars between private equity firms as just a cunning cover-up of their conspiracy not to bid against each other.
Plaintiffs persistent hesitance to narrow their claim to something cognizable and supported by the evidence has made this matter unnecessarily complex and nearly warranted its dismissal. Nevertheless, the Court shall allow the Plaintiffs to proceed solely on this more narrowly defined overarching conspiracy because the Plaintiffs included allegations that Defendants did not “jump” each other’s proprietary deals in the Fifth Amended Complaint and argued in response to the present motions that the evidence supported these allegations. Furthermore, the Court concludes that a more limited overarching conspiracy to refrain from “jumping” each other’s proprietary deals constitutes “a continuing agreement, understanding, and conspiracy in restraint of trade to allocate the market for and artificially fix, maintain, or stabilize prices of securities in club LBOs” ….
And so he ruled today on a summary judgment motion, getting rid of most of the crackpottery but letting the plaintiffs go forward on the claim that the private equity firms had an agreement not to jump each others’ deals after they’d already been signed. Read more »
One day Herbalife will either be put out of business by consumer-protection regulators or it won’t. If it is then Bill Ackman will make a lot of money and Carl Icahn will lose a lot of money, and if it isn’t Ackman will lose a lot of money and Icahn will make a lot of money, and in the meantime everyone will shout that everybody else should be investigated.
In a statement late Tuesday, Pershing Square Capital Management’s Ackman said that he was pleased that the NCL was requesting an FTC investigation and believes it will show that the company is a pyramid scheme.
We regret that the National Consumers League has permitted itself to be the mechanism by which Pershing Square continues its attack on Herbalife. If anything, it is Pershing Square that should be investigated by appropriate authorities. Its actions are motivated by a reckless $1 billion bet against the company based on knowingly false statements about Herbalife.
Now Herbalife may or may not be a pyramid scheme but I’ve always thought that demands to investigate short sellers are unfair and one-sided. People who say mean things about stocks they’re short are always accused of manipulation. People who say nice things about stocks they’re long – which happens all the time – are rarely accused of market manipulation.1
Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former American International Group chief executive, has more than doubled the size of his class-action lawsuit against the United States over the insurer’s bailout to roughly $55.5 billion from $25 billion. In an amended complaint filed late Monday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Greenberg’s Starr International Co said it is now seeking damages over Maiden Lane III LLC, a vehicle designed to rid banks of toxic debt underlying transactions with AIG. The claims are in addition to claims that Starr previously asserted over the government’s taking of a 79.9 percent stake in AIG in September 2008, which was eventually swapped for 562.9 million common shares. In the amended complaint, Starr said it is seeking to recover, on behalf of shareholders and the company, $23 billion over the government’s 79.9 percent stake, plus as much as $32.5 billion of collateral it said was given away through Maiden Lane III. It is also seeking unspecified damages related to AIG’s 1-for-20 reverse stock split in June 2009. [Reuters]