TheCorporateCounsel.net Blog, Broc Romanek and Dave Lynn, March 17, 2008:
Subprime Crisis: The PWG Weighs In
Last week, the President's Working Group on Financial Markets issued a Policy Statement on Financial Market Developments, reflecting the collective views of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the SEC and the CFTC on how to deal with the current market turmoil.
The report does not appear to break any new ground in describing the underlying causes of the problems: sloppy mortgage underwriting; the "erosion of discipline" in the securitization process, including failures to provide adequate risk disclosure; flaws in the credit rating process; and weaknesses in risk management and failures in banking policies to mitigate those weaknesses. The recommendations in the report might best be characterized as a suggestive – and perhaps soft – in terms of getting at these identified issues. Much of what is suggested could take years to implement – such as getting all states to implement nationwide licensing standards for mortgage brokers (if all states need to do it might not a federal licensing standard be a better idea?), compelling institutional investors to seek better risk information and better ways to evaluate risk other than through credit ratings, reforming the credit rating process, and enhancing risk management practices and prudential regulatory policies for financial institutions.
The one issue that the report actively sidesteps is what sort of concrete steps must taken with respect to the enormous OTC derivatives market that remains the 800-pound (or maybe $500 trillion) gorilla in the room. It has been the common wisdom that regulators need to continue to steer clear of the OTC derivatives market, lest they snuff out the flames of financial innovation that everyone loves until someone (or everyone) gets burned. Now we have a north of $500 trillion in notional amount market that has virtually no oversight – other than industry "oversight" – and no way to get a handle on the systemic risks posed to the worldwide financial system. Instead of suggesting any radical reforms, the PWG says that financial institution regulators should insist that the industry promptly "set ambitious standards for accuracy and timeliness of trade data submissions and the timeliness of resolutions of trade matching errors for OTC derivatives," urge the industry to amend credit derivative documentation to provide for cash settlement in the event of a credit event and ask the industry for a long terms plan for developing an integrated operational infrastructure. Whoa, some tough words on derivatives from the PWG!
The Bear Stearns Bailout: Is this the Big One?
Almost as if to underscore that the suggested fixes in the PWG report aren't going to do anything to alleviate the current state of locked-up credit markets and rapidly deteriorating asset values, news began to break early Friday about the need for a Federal Reserve lifeline to the venerable Bear Stearns. The SEC put out this press release on Friday, noting that it was monitoring Bear's capital adequacy in the light of the firm's rapidly eroding liquidity. In a conference call on Friday – memorialized in this real time blog of the call – Bear Stearns executives said that the ability to borrow against the firm's collateral from the Fed through JP Morgan was going to give them a chance to look at strategic alternatives – although they apparently weren't thinking at the time that filing for bankruptcy or selling the firm at a fire sale price within 48 hours were among those alternatives.
As noted in this article from today's WSJ, JP Morgan has agreed to purchase Bear Stearns for $236 million or $2 a share – quite a delta from the firm's market value of $3.5 billion on Friday. The Bear Stearns board was apparently cajoled by government officials, who indicated that they might not be able to bail the firm out if it did not do a deal before markets opened again this week. Shareholders interests were of little concern, it seems, as the firm's insolvency became imminent when counterparties continued to refuse to do business with Bear and prime brokerage customers ran for the exits. Apparently the Fed's credit line on Friday was not enough to stave off the "run on the bank."
The WSJ article notes that financial regulators are "scrambling to come up with new tools because the old ones aren't suited for this 21st-century crisis, in which financial innovation has rendered many institutions not 'too big too fail,' but 'too interconnected to be allowed to fail suddenly.'" Not too comforting by any stretch of the imagination.