Betting on Financial Armageddon

My Dad used to tell me there is no accounting for standards when looking at something that seemed odd. Today, we have faulty standards for accounting that are ripping apart the fabric of the world's economy. How can a security that has a high probability of full repayment be downgraded from AA to junk levels? What we will explore today tell us a lot about why we are in the crisis state of affairs. Since I wrote you last Friday, the financial landscape of the world has changed even more. And what will happen this weekend will change it even more. And our kids will be paying for it for a long, long time. At the end I offer a few thoughts on the events, and if there is time my thoughts on the new short covering rules. All in all, it should make for an instructive and interesting letter. We'll jump right in with no "but first."

I was invited to an invitation only presentation to a room of chief executives of a number of small Texas banks made by Rich Berg of Performance Trust Capital Partners this week ( He graciously gave me permission to go over the main points of his presentation. I think you will find it eye-opening to say the least. You probably have seen Rich, as he is all over the media lately.

Let's jump back 18 months. I spent several letters going over how subprime mortgages were sold and then securitized. Let's quickly review. Huge Investment Bank (HIB) would encourage mortgage banks all over the country to make home loans, often providing the capital, and then HIB would purchase these loans and package them into large securities called Residential Mortgage Backed Securities or RMBS. They would take loans from different mortgage banks and different regions. They generally grouped the loans together as to their initial quality as in prime mortgages, ALT-A and the now infamous subprime mortgages. They also grouped together second lien loans, which were the loans generally made to get 100% financing or cash-out financing as home owners borrowed against the equity in their homes.

Typically, a RMBS would be sliced into anywhere from 5 to 15 different pieces called tranches. They would go to the ratings agencies, who would give them a series of ratings on the various tranches, and who actually had a hand in saying what the size of each tranche could be. The top or senior level tranche had the rights to get paid back first in the event there was a problem with some of the underlying loans. That tranche was typically rated AAA. Then the next tranche would be rated AA and so on down to junk level. The lowest level was called the equity level, and this lowest level would take the first losses. For that risk, they also got any residual funds if everyone paid. The lower levels paid very high yields for the risk they took.

Then, since it was hard to sell some of the lower levels of these securities, HIB would take a lot of the lower level tranches and put them into another security called a Collateralized Debt Obligation or CDO. And yes, they sliced them up into tranches and went to the rating agencies and got them rated. The highest tranche was typically again AAA. Through the alchemy of finance, HIB took subprime mortgages and turned 96% (give or take a few points depending on the CDO) of them into AAA bonds. At the time, I compared it with taking nuclear waste and turning it into gold. Clever trick when you can do it, and everyone, from mortgage broker to investment bankers was paid handsomely to dance at the party.

Will we ever forget Charlie Prince's line, the CEO of Citigroup, saying that "As long as they are playing music, you have to get up and dance?" just a few weeks before the market imploded? Apart from having his rhythm being proven totally horrendous and overseeing an implosion which cost Citigroup tens of billions, it was a great statement of the zeitgeist of the financial world at the time.

The key word here is model. The ratings agencies used data supplied by the investment banks on what the likely default rates would be. It was something like taking an open book test where you get to write the questions. And since home values had only gone up, default rates were low. And of course, the data was from an ear when bankers lent money actually expecting to get paid back.

Inside a RMBS

Let's look at a RMBS. As Berg points out, when you are buying a mortgage backed security, there are really only three questions you need to know the answers to:

How many mortgages will default? How much will I get back on a defaulted loan? How much credit enhancement is there in the security?

Let's set the table by looking at a few terms and definitions. Using his example, let's take a mortgage where the home was originally appraised for $400,000 and there is a $300,000 mortgage on the home. Let's assume a default and the bank takes back the home. If they sell the home and recover $240,000 that means they lose $60,000. This is called a 20% severity. If they sold and recovered $150,000 it would be said to have a 50% severity.

Next, let's look at how the rating agencies come up with the AAA rating. First they model the expected losses, with emphasis on the word model. If they figure that worst case that 8% of the loans default at a severity of 50%, then the security would lose 4% of its value. To get an AAA rating you have to have at least two times the coverage of the "modeled" loss. In this illustration, that means that 92% of the loans would be put into the AAA tranche. An A rating assumes a coverage of more than 1 times but less than 2. B means you expect to get your money back and if they model that you will get below 100% back then the rating would be at junk levels.

Now, this next fact is important. All ratings assume a par value of 100. The rating of these bonds has nothing to do with price. After the presentation, Rich sat down with me and pulled up an actual mortgage backed security that was being offered that day on his screen. It was once a AAA rated Alt-A security. If I remember correctly it was a 2006 vintage security.

As of the latest reporting, a little over 5% of the mortgages were over 60 days past due or in foreclosure. In this security, there are no toxic option ARMS. The numbers of mortgages in this security that are in trouble are rising. S&P has downgraded that AAA tranche to BBB, which of course means its value is going down.

And sure enough, the offered price of the security is 70 cents on the dollar, or 70% of the original par value. Now remember, this particular AAA bond will only start to lose money after the lower tranches take up the first 8% of losses. Thus, this bond can be said to have an 8% credit enhancement.

Pricing in Financial Armageddon

Now, let's stress test that loan. For the AAA portion of the loan to lose money, that would mean that 16% of the loans would have to default with a severity of 50% losses. Could that happen? Sure.

But let's look at what buying that loan at 70 cents on the dollar does for the new owner. First, you are getting a much higher yield (interest rate) because you are buying the security at a lower valuation. But something else even more interesting happens.

Even though the security sold at 70 cents, it still gets all of the first of the proceeds of the home owners who pay their mortgages, up to 92% of the original value in the security. How many loans would have to default in order to make the buyer at 70 cents lose money? Remember, we already had credit enhancement of 8%. But at 70 cents, we just "bought" or priced in another 30%. Let's think Armageddon and that 50% of the mortgages default and they only recover 50% of the loans. That would only be a total loss of 25% to the entire collateral of the deal, but it would mean that the new investor still get all of my 70 cents plus another 13% back! The proud new owner could get up to 92% of the monies paid. Even in a pretty bad scenario, you get more than you paid for the security.

Let's walk through the math. Let's say the original security was $100 million (which would be a very small RMBS). The AAA tranche would have cost $92 billion. If you have it at 70 cents on the dollar you paid approximately $64 billion. In my Armageddon scenario above, the security loses 25% or $250 million. The lower rated tranches are completely wiped out losing $8 billion. Your tranche loses the remaining $17 billion which means you get $75 billion and you only paid $64 billion.

So, how bad would things have to get to lose money on this security? If I am doing the math right, 72% of the loans would have to default with a severity of 50% before your investment of $64 billion was impaired by even so much as 1 dollar. If that happened, it would be Armageddon.

Like what you’re reading?

Get this free newsletter in your inbox every Saturday! Read our privacy policy here.

So, why is it rated BBB? Because the rating is over the entire tranche and it is made at a par price of 100. The rating is not affected by the current price. As of today, assuming that even double the number of mortgages currently delinquent default with a 50% severity, your returns over the life of the security would be well over 12%. You would get back $92 million for your $64 billion dollar investment along with interest payments.

The reason this presentation was being made to banks and institutions? Because if you are a bank, you can generally only get prime plus 2% on a loan you make. But if you buy this security with your capital, you can make prime plus 6%. That is a large difference to a bank. Performance Trust has sold billions of this type of paper to banks and institutions.

If this is such a good deal, then why isn't everyone hitting the bid? Because these securities are very difficult to analyze. It is time consuming. You need to analyze every loan and develop your own valuations. You simply can't trust the ratings, as they are measuring something completely different.

And the real truth is that many of the various RMBS securities will in fact be totally wiped out or lose a great deal. Many are seeing default rates of 30% or more. You have to be very careful when you walk through this minefield. And in a time of crisis, it is not clear what the new rules will be. What if the government forces lenders to re-set mortgages at some loss level? What if the housing crisis gets worse? On the other hand, what if the government comes in and buys up all the bad mortgages in an attempt to stop the erosion in the home markets. The level of uncertainty in these times makes people a lot more cautious.

There are Alt-A RMBS like the one mentioned above that are probably not worth even 70 cents on the dollar. These things are marked to a market that is frozen. Everything gets lumped into the same basket and it all has to be marked to market by the new accounting rules called FASB 157. The institution selling the above mentioned security is being forced to do so, either because they are in financial trouble or they are not allowed to hold BBB securities in their portfolios and by law are required to sell. And in times of crisis, the selling price is not that of normal times.

Ratings to Collateral to Ratings: A Vicious Cycle

What's a recipe for a perfect financial storm? Let's make a massive amount of bad loans and get them on the books of most of the major financial institutions because they are rated investment grade. Then let's have the loans start to go bad. Throw in some general panic as everyone tries to sell the loans. No one is buying.

Let's make a new rule that you have to mark your illiquid securities to the last price paid by someone desperate to sell. That means that many institutions now have to mark their capital down and that means those pesky rating agencies must by their own rules mark down the ratings of the institutions which of course means that it costs them more to raise capital at a time when they can't get it which means they get lower ratings and so on. It becomes a vicious cycle.

In the early 80's, every major US bank was bankrupt because they had loaned Latin American countries far more than their capital they had on their books. The Latin American countries defaulted. If the US banks had been forced to mark to market, they would have all gone down taking the US economy along with them. So, the Fed simply allowed them to carry the loans at book value, offering liquidity and allowing the banks to buy time to make enough money to eventually write off the loans.

The current mark to market rule, while nice in theory, works in normal times. But it has the unintended consequence of making things worse in crisis times. Why should an institution have to write down a security which over time is going to pay back the lion's share or more of its value just because a severely stressed institution was forced to sell that security at a very low price in a time of crisis?

Yes, there needs to be transparency and we as investors need to know what is on the books of the companies that we invest in. But it is somewhat like my bank asking me to mark to market my home and pricing my loan daily based on that new price. If my neighbor loses his job and sells his home at auction, does that mean my home is now worth less two years from now. Maybe an even better analogy, if I am renting that home to a very good tenant, does my neighbor's price impair my income?

I was, and am, a fan of mark to market pricing. But we need to think through what a market price is. Not all things can be easily marked to market. This is doubly true when "market price" is a nebulous index of mortgage securities which may or not have a fundamental relationship with an illiquid security on the books of an institution which has no intention of selling, especially in a time of credit crisis.

It is one thing to require that you mark your stocks or bonds to market values. It is another thing entirely to require all mortgage backed securities, which are extremely complex things, can be very different one from another and which require a lot of time and effort to value, to be priced as though they are all the same.

FASB 157 needs to be amended this week. If Congress can create a new Resolution Trust Corp in a week, the surely the accounting board, with the suggestion of Treasury, can figure out a better way to price illiquid securities.

This Too Shall Pass

I know that you probably are reeling from all that has happened the past few months and especially the past two weeks. Lehman and Mother Merrill gone? We the people own AIG? Fannie and Freddie? A new housing bailout which will cost hundreds of billions? The Fed creating whole new programs to provide liquidity? Did you notice they loaned some $250 billion this last week to banks all over the world? Stopping short selling?

Want to see in graph form how bad it got and what spooked Paulson, Bernanke and company to act so quickly? Look at these graphs from my friends at Casey Research ( 30 day commercial paper went to 5% from 3% a week ago. The market was literally freezing. And the amount of paper issued is in free fall. Commercial paper is the life blood of the financial and business world. Without it commerce will soon grind to a halt.


Like what you’re reading?

Get this free newsletter in your inbox every Saturday! Read our privacy policy here.


It simply takes your breathe away. As President Bush said today, it does not help to find who is at fault today, we have to figure out how to get out of this mess. It is going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money. While I think the losses on AIG will be rather minor in the grand scheme of things, if you add up Fannie and Freddie and a new RTC, coupled with the stimulus package, you can easily get to $500 billion, and that is probably a low number.

For such a price, we had better get a new regulatory scheme which requires reduced leverage. Want to get really mad? Up until 2003, all investment banks were allowed only 12 to 1 leverage. Then in 2004, the SEC basically gave five banks (and only five banks) the ability to lever up 30 or even 40 to 1. Bet you can guess the five banks. Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Morgan and Goldman. Three down.

As Barry Ritholtz wrote: "So while the SEC runs around reinstating short selling rules, and clueless pension fund managers mindlessly point to the wrong issue, we learn that it was the SEC who was in large part responsible for the reckless leverage that led to the current crisis." (Don't get me started on blaming the short sellers. Let's not blame the people who leveraged up their companies 40 to 1 with bad investments.)

We absolutely must move credit default swaps to a regulated exchange, no matter how much investment banks and hedge funds scream. Must be done. Do it now. Real rules about writing mortgages, although now that losses are in the hundreds of billions, underwriting rules are already becoming quite restrictive.

And while we are at it, a thorough revamping of the rating agencies and the rules they use should be at the top of someone's list.

South Africa, Boulder and Stand Up to Cancer

It is time to hit the send button. Chuck Butler of Everbank and Thomas Fischer of Jyske Bank just walked into the office to watch the Texas Rangers play Anaheim from my balcony (which is inside the Ballpark where the Rangers play). That would be baseball to those not from the states. Chuck is a huge baseball fan and when I heard he was going to be in town I had to have him come, even on a writing day.

Everbank is known for letting clients open CDs denominated in scores of different currencies. If you are interested in diversifying away from the dollar, you can go to Or call EverBank at 800-926-4922.

Chuck has had some very serious cancer, and has been going through lots of chemo. He just told me that his latest scan shows him 100% cancer free, and he is going off the chemo. Sometimes good things do happen to good guys.

And speaking of cancer, Stand Up to Cancer is a charity formed to raise money to find cures for cancer and fund innovative new therapies and research. SU2C is going to make a difference in how cancer research is conducted over the next five years, with its focus on targeted treatments that interrupt the mechanisms of uncontrolled cell growth. This is the kind of emphasis that can make cancer into a disease patients live with, rather than one they die from (sort of like AIDS has become for most of its victims in developed countries). You can and should see the program broadcast live a few weeks ago on most major networks. And then send money. Their web site, with tons of information is and the TV show is at

I leave for Cape Town in South Africa tomorrow morning. I will be speaking at the ABSIP (Association for Black Securities & Investment Professionals) Annual Conference in Cape Town on September 23. Then that evening I fly to London for meetings with my partners and clients there and fly back to Dallas on Thursday. I hope to be able to keep up with what is going on and write the letter next Friday. And then Sunday I fly to Boulder to meet with Dr. Bart Stuck and learn about a company called InPhase which is making holographic memory. Pretty cutting edge stuff.

I mention this because it is companies like InPhase, and a thousand more like them, which will power the next big wave of change. The crisis on Wall Street will pass and the world will continue to change. I think it is going to change for the better for most people.

The game ahs started, so I think I am going to find an adult beverage and really, truly celebrate with Chuck, who was on the road when he got the news. I know he will be celebrating with his family when he gets home.

Your not looking forward to a 15 hour flight analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
John Mauldin

P.S. If you like my letters, you'll love reading Over My Shoulder with serious economic analysis from my global network, at a surprisingly affordable price. Click here to learn more.


Suggested Reading...

Don't Send Chocolates or Flowers... Send Stocks


Access John Mauldin's weekly reading list

Did someone forward this article to you?

Click here to get Thoughts from the Frontline in your inbox every Saturday.

Looking for the comments section?

Comments are now in the Mauldin Economics Community, which you can access here.

Join our community and get in on the discussion

Keep up with Mauldin Economics on the go.

Download the App

Scan it with your Phone
Thoughts from the Frontline

Recent Articles


Thoughts from the Frontline

Follow John Mauldin as he uncovers the truth behind, and beyond, the financial headlines. This in-depth weekly dispatch helps you understand what's happening in the economy and navigate the markets with confidence.

Read Latest Edition Now

Let the master guide you through this new decade of living dangerously

John Mauldin's Thoughts from the Frontline

Free in your inbox every Saturday

By opting in you are also consenting to receive Mauldin Economics' marketing emails. You can opt-out from these at any time. Privacy Policy

Thoughts from the Frontline

Wait! Don't leave without...

John Mauldin's Thoughts from the Frontline

Experience the legend—join one of the most widely read macroeconomic newsletters in the world. Get this free newsletter in your inbox every Saturday!

By opting in you are also consenting to receive Mauldin Economics' marketing emails. You can opt-out from these at any time. Privacy Policy