Subprime Securities Market Began as `Group of 5' Over Chinese
By Mark Pittman
Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Representatives of five of Wall Street's dominant investment banks gathered around a blonde wood conference table on a February night almost three years ago. Their talks over take-out Chinese food led to the perfect formula for a U.S. housing collapse.
The host was Greg Lippmann, then 36, a fast-talking Deutsche Bank AG trader who aspired to make mortgage securities as big a cash cow for Wall Street as the $12 trillion corporate credit market.
His allies included 34-year-old Rajiv Kamilla, a trader at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with a background in nuclear physics, and 32-year-old Todd Kushman, who led a contingent from Bear Stearns Cos. Representatives from Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. were also invited. Almost 50 traders and lawyers showed up for the first meeting at Deutsche Bank's Wall Street office to help set the trading rules and design the new product.
``To tell you the truth, it's not very glamorous,'' Lippmann says. ``Just a bunch of guys eating Chinese discussing legal arcana.''
Those meetings of the ``group of five,'' as the traders called themselves, became a turning point in the history of Wall Street and the global economy.
The new standardized contracts they created would allow firms to protect themselves from the risks of subprime mortgages, enable speculators to bet against the U.S. housing market, and help meet demand from institutional investors for the high yields of loans to homeowners with poor credit.
Boom Turns Bust
The tools also magnified losses so much that a small number of defaulting subprime borrowers could devastate securities held by banks and pension funds globally, freeze corporate lending, and bring the world's credit markets to a standstill.
For a while, the subprime boom enriched investment bankers, lenders, brokers, investors, realtors and credit-rating companies. It allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to buy homes they never believed they could afford.
It later became clear that these homeowners couldn't keep up with their payments. Defaults on subprime mortgages have so far produced about $80 billion in losses on securities backed by them. The market for the instruments is so opaque that many firms still aren't sure how much they've lost.
Chief executives at Citigroup, Merrill Lynch & Co. and UBS AG were replaced. To forestall a housing-led recession, the Federal Reserve has cut its benchmark rate three times since August and is injecting as much as $40 billion into the credit system to encourage banks to lend to each other.
`You Can't Wait'
This is the story of how Wall Street transmitted the practices of southern California's go-go lending industry and the inflated U.S. real estate market to the global financial system:
-- In Orange County, California, a mortgage lender named Daniel Sadek was among those who took notice of the increase in Wall Street's appetite for subprime loans. He turned the staff at his firm, Quick Loan Funding, into a subprime mortgage factory. ``You can't wait,'' said his ads, aimed at high-risk borrowers. ``We won't let you.''
-- In Dallas, a hedge-fund manager named Kyle Bass taught himself to use the contracts pioneered by Lippmann's group, then went looking for mortgage-backed securities to bet against. He found them in instruments based on loans Sadek made.
-- In New York, the ratings companies Standard & Poor's, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings put their stamp of approval on securities backed by loans to people who couldn't afford them. They used historical data to grade the securities and didn't adjust quickly enough for the widespread weakening of criteria used to qualify high-risk borrowers. Among the securities on which they bestowed investment-grade ratings: those backed by Sadek's loans.
`Robert Parker of Raw Fish'
Lippmann was a Wall Street renaissance man, with a strong appetite for sushi and an online restaurant guide so comprehensive one blogger labeled him ``the Robert Parker of raw fish.'' He opened the kitchen of the $2.3-million Manhattan loft he lived in then, complete with six burners, two grills and 20- foot island, to an Italian cooking class.
The goal of Lippmann's group on that winter evening in 2005: to design a new financial product that would standardize mortgage-backed securities, including those based on high-yield subprime loans, paving the way for their rapid growth. Of the firms participating that night, Lippmann's Deutsche Bank is based in Frankfurt, UBS in Zurich and the others in New York.
In February 2005, pension funds, banks and hedge funds owned fixed-income securities that were earning returns close to historic lows. AAA-rated securities based on home loans offered yields averaging a full percentage point higher than 10-year Treasuries at the time, according to Merrill.
Lure of Subprime
The trouble was that most creditworthy borrowers had already refinanced their houses at 2003's record-low mortgage rates. To meet demand for mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street had to find a new source of loans. Those still available mainly involved subprime borrowers, who paid higher rates because they were seen as credit risks.
While the group of five banks had packaged billions of dollars in subprime-based securities, in February 2005 none was among the leaders in the home-equity bond business. Countrywide Securities, RBS Greenwich Capital Markets, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Credit Suisse Group and Morgan Stanley dominated the industry.
The banks wanted more mortgage-backed securities to sell to clients. Creating a standardized ``synthetic'' instrument, or derivative, would leverage small numbers of subprime mortgages into bigger securities. In this way, the firms could produce enough to meet global demand.
Building the Rocket
``We called up the guys we felt like we knew and could work with,'' Lippmann says.
Deutsche Bank sprang for the take-out food, and traders and lawyers sat down to design a new product and create what would soon become one of the hottest capital markets in the world.
The meetings were monthly, beginning at 5 p.m., after the trading day, and lasted more than three hours each.
``In the beginning, everybody brought their lawyer,'' says Lippmann.
Eventually, the Chinese food was replaced with deli fare because some participants complained it wasn't kosher.
The group sought to bring ``transparency,'' or openness, and ``liquidity,'' or trading volume sufficient to ensure ease of buying and selling, to the mortgage market.
The most important issues centered on how to account for the eccentricities of mortgage bonds, perhaps the most difficult-to-value securities on Wall Street. Unlike corporate bonds, home loans can be paid back at any time.
`Pay as You Go'
Traditionally, the best mortgage traders have been those who can read macro-economic trends to guess when homeowners will pre-pay their loans. Until recently, early repayment was perceived as the biggest risk faced by Wall Street's mortgage desks.
One concern with creating a standardized contract for mortgage-backed securities was that it was difficult to agree on a simple method of determining how market-changing events affected the values of the complicated, layered instruments.
To deal with the complexity, the group of five decided to install a ``pay-as-you-go'' system. When something happened affecting the cash flows underlying the security, the seller would have to make cash payments to the buyer immediately, and vice versa.
ISDA Steps In
As the group nailed down the details, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which sets trading terms for dealers, arranged conference calls including more of Wall Street.
To this point, some of the biggest mortgage underwriters -- Lehman Brothers, Merrill, Bank of America Corp. and Morgan Stanley -- hadn't been included in the negotiations. These firms heard about the talks and demanded to be let in.
On the conference calls, which included the market leaders, things got testy. One point in dispute was whether the contract should be traded on the basis of price or yield.
``Some of those points of detail were getting a little heated on the calls, and it was just thought it would be better to have a meeting face to face to move beyond those points,'' says Edward Murray, a London-based partner of the international law firm of Allen & Overy who was the chairman of the meeting and the outside counsel for ISDA. ``To be frank, the dealers that were not in the group of five were not that happy that there was a group of five.''
ISDA sought to resolve the differences by calling a sit- down meeting at its New York headquarters. Over coffee and pastries, Murray faced a crowd of dozens of traders and lawyers. Kamilla and Kushman acted as discussion leaders.
`Talk Was Very Firm'
``Rajiv would say something, and I'd be absolutely convinced about what he said,'' Murray says. ``And then Todd would say, `Well, I don't agree.' And I would be absolutely convinced about what Todd said. And then Rajiv would say `Well, the reason you're wrong is' and so on, et cetera.'' Kamilla and Kushman declined to discuss the negotiations.
Michael Edman, one of Morgan Stanley's representatives at the ISDA conference, was less chipper, Murray says.
``Arms folded, frown on his face, I'm not sure that's exactly true, but he wasn't in a happy-go-lucky mood,'' Murray says. ``There wasn't any shouting or anything, but the talk was very firm.'' Edman, who no longer works for Morgan Stanley, declined to comment.
By June, the differences were sorted out, the new contract was endorsed, and banks that hadn't been party to the group of five negotiations signed on. The banks would go on to create similar derivative contracts to trade securities backed by loans for commercial buildings and collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, which are securities backed by various kinds of debt.
Creation of Index
Another necessary step was to create an index to represent the market and help hedge general market exposure. It was called the ABX-HE and would be similar to the indexes traders use for baskets of stocks. This, participants believed, would add to the market's liquidity, or depth, by attracting more trading.
By September 2005, some within Deutsche Bank were beginning to worry about defaults on subprime mortgages and how that might affect the securities based on them. A team of Deutsche Bank analysts that month warned of growing subprime market risks.
The ABX-HE index started trading on Jan. 19, 2006. At 8 a.m. on the first day, John Kane of Sorin Capital started phoning dealers. Kane, then 27, was a trader at Sorin, which runs hedge funds that invest in mortgages and other securities.
His auto mechanic, in describing the debt burden he was carrying to own a home, had planted the idea in Kane's mind that the housing market might be in trouble. Kane thought it through, ran an analysis on available data, and decided to wager against, or ``short,'' subprime. To do that, he turned to the portion of the ABX index dealing with the lowest investment-grade subprime securities.
Investors Go Short
The trouble was that quotes from brokers selling the ABX were already dropping, an indication that a number of investors wanted to do the same thing.
``All the other dealers were already scared'' and dropping their bids, Kane said while on a panel at a November industry conference. ``All but Goldman. So I bought from them.''
On its first day, the index traded more than $5 billion. The cost of wagering against the securities was rising, a sign that traders saw an increased chance of default. An early warning was visible to anyone who knew where to look.
The new derivatives were a hit among the group of five's customers -- the banks and other institutional investors that bought them to lock in high yields.
In the months to come, Deutsche Bank and at least one other member of the group of five, Goldman Sachs, began using subprime derivative contracts to bet the other way and guard against the possibility that subprime mortgages might default.
For Lippmann's part, he says, it wasn't that he had ``any secret knowledge'' of the damaging events that were about to unfold in the U.S housing market. Rather, he says, he thought the risks of a downturn were significant enough to justify the millions of dollars it would cost to ``short,'' or wager against, subprime securities.
He says he told his bosses: ``If we're right, we're looking at a sixfold gain. And since a housing market slowdown is not as big a long shot as that, we should take the risk.''
Lippman disputes that the derivatives the group of five helped create -- which banks packaged into CDOs -- caused the subprime crisis.
``The problems in subprime are what they are and derivatives did not cause them,'' Lippmann says. ``Derivatives enabled more CDOs to be created and the stakes to be bigger. But the transparency made people realize the problem faster.''
Others see things differently. Derivatives, or ``synthetics,'' are ``like wearing a seatbelt that allows you to drive faster,'' says Rod Dubitsky, director of asset-backed research for Credit Suisse. ``The total dollar amount of losses, all these losses you're seeing, are from synthetics. No question, it changed the game dramatically.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Pittman in New York at email@example.com
Last Updated: December 17, 2007 00:09 EST
Hard to say their bets weren't rigged given Mortgage Servicing Fraud epidemic. So much for firewalls between trading desks and subsidiary servicing companies.