Thursday, February 05, 2009

Five Rules for Life

Trader-X did a post about this site: Five Rules for Life. Check it out and especially Trader X's contribution.

Read others, think about your own; if nothing else, it will give you a chance to reflect on where your own priorities are right now in life. Basic introspection, we believe, is key not only to successful trading, but evolving as human beings.

On less spiritual matters: a close on XLF over 9.2 would be a good start for this market.

XLF talk

As we wrote yesterday, bullish or bearish, XLF had to break-down. Thus far the bullish scenario of "We break-down, and then reverse higher setting up a strong bear trap" is playing out with XLF over 8.87 again. We'll see how they close it but for now, but unless we go back through support, the ball is in the bull's court.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bear Flag

It would be very surprising for this flag not to break sometime soon. Watch financials to lead the way with XLF through 8.87 and then 8.07.

Bearish Scenario: We break-down through this up-trend line and then possibly test the lows of last year.

Bullish Scenario: We break-down, and then reverse higher setting up a strong bear trap.

In either scenario, we break-down first.

The Plot Thickens

BAC already broke down; but XLF above support. Some kind of resolution coming soon as the range has tightened considerably.

Financials on life support with two breaths left at 8.87 and 8.07 on the XLF.

Don't bet the farm until there's some resolution to this trading range.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Without a doubt we make more money in bull markets. And we wish every day that we could start another bull market. However, reality sets in like a knife through the abdomen upon looking at the financials. For you tech lovers, yes, things are looking better. But tech won't make it out alive without the banks.

This is looking better:

But don't forget about this:

They both can't be right. One has to give. Either financials are going to reverse on support and rally up like tech, or the general market is going to cave soon to catch up with the financials.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reality Check

Here's an economist who gets it (our favorite parts in bold)

Published: January 31, 2009
In its own unpredictable way, the Davos World Economic Forum usually serves as a crude barometer of the latest mood or mania on the world stage. This year did not disappoint. What has struck me is the quiet urgency that infused so many panel discussions and private conversations here between investors, politicians and social activists. To put it crudely: everyone is looking for the guy — the guy who can tell you exactly what ails the world’s financial system, exactly how we get out of this mess and exactly what you should be doing to protect your savings.
But here’s what’s really scary: the guy isn’t here. He’s left the building. Elvis has left the mountain. Get used to it.
What do I mean? First, if it is not apparent to you yet, it will be soon: there is no magic bullet for this economic crisis, no magic bailout package, no magic stimulus. We have woven such a tangled financial mess with subprime mortgages wrapped in complex bonds and derivatives, pumped up with leverage, and then globalized to the far corners of the earth that, much as we want to think this will soon be over, that is highly unlikely.
We are going to have to learn to live with a lot more uncertainty for a lot longer than our generation has ever experienced. We keep pouring money into the dark banking hole of this crisis, desperately hoping that we will hear it hit bottom and start to pile up. But so far, as hard as we listen, we can’t hear a thing. And so we keep pouring ...
A broker friend told me it reminded him of when he was a teenager and his doctor first diagnosed him as unable to digest wheat products. He said to the doctor, “Well, just give me a pill.” And the doctor told him: there is no pill. “You mean I’m just going to have to live with this?” he asked. That’s us. There is no pill — not for this mess.
The fact that there is no single pill doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. We need a stimulus big enough to create more jobs. We need to remove toxic assets from bank balance sheets. We need the Treasury to close the insolvent banks, merge the weak ones and strengthen the healthy few. And we need to do each one right. But even then, the turnaround will be neither quick nor painless. Indeed, the whispers here were that what has been an exclusively economic crisis up to now may soon morph into a domino of political crises — as happened in Iceland, where the bankruptcy of the banks toppled the government on Monday.
(Davos humor: What is the capital of Iceland? Answer: $25.)
Second, we’re going to have to get used to a loss of trust. All those rock-solid people and institutions that we trusted with our money, our pensions and our kids’ piggybank savings — like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America — do not seem trustworthy anymore. Never before in my adult life have I looked around at every bank in my town and said, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to put my paycheck in a mattress.”
The Bernard Madoff scandal, of course, has only reinforced that loss of trust. His degree of betrayal — his alleged willingness to embezzle the life savings of people whom he had known his whole life — is so coldhearted that it charts new territory in human behavior. He’s on his way to becoming an adjective. Money managers are already being asked prove to prospective new clients that their internal safeguards are “Madoff proof.”
I’ve written a lot about the Indian outsourcing community, so I knew B. Ramalinga Raju, the Satyam chairman accused of embezzling $1 billion from his own company. What’s really sad is that I didn’t get to know him through his business but through an interest in his family’s charitable work. They created India’s first 911 emergency system in their home state and call centers in Indian villages, so young people there could get service jobs. Was all that a fake, too? Or was he just an embezzler with a good heart? Don’t know. When you can’t even trust a person’s charitable work, you’ve hit a new low.
“We’re all going to have to learn to live with a lower level of trust in our lives,” an African banker friend said to me here. But the mind recoils at that, which may explain why so many people I talked to here are hoping that President Obama will turn out to be the guy.
Like Harry Truman, Obama is definitely present at the creation of something. He is arriving on the scene “not after a war but after the same kind of shattering of institutions that a war does,” said Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network. “His job is to restore confidence to these institutions that have been at the foundation of our economy.”
That may be President Obama’s most important bailout task: to educate the country that there is no easy escape here, except taking our medicine, getting our fundamentals right again and working our way out of this, brick by brick, by getting back to making money — what was that old Smith Barney ad? — “the old-fashioned way” — by earning it.

Check out Meridian for more information about a high interest saving account.   

The Origins of the Financial Crisis

An excellent summary by The Brookings Institution. Read this short introduction, and then hit the pdf link at the end to the full 47 page discussion.

The financial crisis that has been wreaking havoc in markets in the U.S. and across the world since August 2007 had its origins in an asset price bubble that interacted with new kinds of financial innovations that masked risk; with companies that failed to follow their own risk management procedures; and with regulators and supervisors that failed to restrain excessive risk taking.

A bubble formed in the housing markets as home prices across the country increased each year from the mid 1990s to 2006, moving out of line with fundamentals like household income. Like traditional asset price bubbles, expectations of future price increases developed and were a significant factor in inflating house prices. As individuals witnessed rising prices in their neighborhood and across the country, they began to expect those prices to continue to rise, even in the late years of the bubble when it had nearly peaked.

The rapid rise of lending to subprime borrowers helped inflate the housing price bubble. Before 2000, subprime lending was virtually non-existent, but thereafter it took off exponentially. The sustained rise in house prices, along with new financial innovations, suddenly made subprime borrowers — previously shut out of the mortgage markets — attractive customers for mortgage lenders. Lenders devised innovative Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) — with low "teaser rates," no down-payments, and some even allowing the borrower to postpone some of the interest due each month and add it to the principal of the loan — which were predicated on the expectation that home prices would continue to rise.

But innovation in mortgage design alone would not have enabled so many subprime borrowers to access credit without other innovations in the so-called process of "securitizing" mortgages — or the pooling of mortgages into packages and then selling securities backed by those packages to investors who receive pro rata payments of principal and interest by the borrowers. The two main government-sponsored enterprises devoted to mortgage lending, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, developed this financing technique in the 1970s, adding their guarantees to these "mortgage-backed securities" (MBS) to ensure their marketability. For roughly three decades, Fannie and Freddie confined their guarantees to "prime" borrowers who took out "conforming" loans, or loans with a principal below a certain dollar threshold and to borrowers with a credit score above a certain limit. Along the way, the private sector developed MBS backed by non-conforming loans that had other means of "credit enhancement," but this market stayed relatively small until the late 1990s. In this fashion, Wall Street investors effectively financed homebuyers on Main Street. Banks, thrifts, and a new industry of mortgage brokers originated the loans but did not keep them, which was the "old" way of financing home ownership.

Over the past decade, private sector commercial and investment banks developed new ways of securitizing subprime mortgages: by packaging them into "Collateralized Debt Obligations" (sometimes with other asset-backed securities), and then dividing the cash flows into different "tranches" to appeal to different classes of investors with different tolerances for risk. By ordering the rights to the cash flows, the developers of CDOs (and subsequently other securities built on this model), were able to convince the credit rating agencies to assign their highest ratings to the securities in the highest tranche, or risk class. In some cases, so-called "monoline" bond insurers (which had previously concentrated on insuring municipal bonds) sold protection insurance to CDO investors that would pay off in the event that loans went into default. In other cases, especially more recently, insurance companies, investment banks and other parties did the near equivalent by selling "credit default swaps" (CDS), which were similar to monocline insurance in principle but different in risk, as CDS sellers put up very little capital to back their transactions.

These new innovations enabled Wall Street to do for subprime mortgages what it had already done for conforming mortgages, and they facilitated the boom in subprime lending that occurred after 2000. By channeling funds of institutional investors to support the origination of subprime mortgages, many households previously unable to qualify for mortgage credit became eligible for loans. This new group of eligible borrowers increased housing demand and helped inflate home prices.

These new financial innovations thrived in an environment of easy monetary policy by the Federal Reserve and poor regulatory oversight. With interest rates so low and with regulators turning a blind eye, financial institutions borrowed more and more money (i.e. increased their leverage) to finance their purchases of mortgage-related securities. Banks created off-balance sheet affiliated entities such as Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs) to purchase mortgage-related assets that were not subject to regulatory capital requirements Financial institutions also turned to short-term "collateralized borrowing" like repurchase agreements, so much so that by 2006 investment banks were on average rolling over a quarter of their balance sheet every night. During the years of rising asset prices, this short-term debt could be rolled over like clockwork. This tenuous situation shut down once panic hit in 2007, however, as sudden uncertainty over asset prices caused lenders to abruptly refuse to rollover their debts, and over-leveraged banks found themselves exposed to falling asset prices with very little capital.

While ex post we can certainly say that the system-wide increase in borrowed money was irresponsible and bound for catastrophe, it is not shocking that consumers, would-be homeowners, and profit-maximizing banks will borrow more money when asset prices are rising; indeed, it is quite intuitive. What is especially shocking, though, is how institutions along each link of the securitization chain failed so grossly to perform adequate risk assessment on the mortgage-related assets they held and traded. From the mortgage originator, to the loan servicer, to the mortgage-backed security issuer, to the CDO issuer, to the CDS protection seller, to the credit rating agencies, and to the holders of all those securities, at no point did any institution stop the party or question the little-understood computer risk models, or the blatantly unsustainable deterioration of the loan terms of the underlying mortgages.

A key point in understanding this system-wide failure of risk assessment is that each link of the securitization chain is plagued by asymmetric information – that is, one party has better information than the other. In such cases, one side is usually careful in doing business with the other and makes every effort to accurately assess the risk of the other side with the information it is given. However, this sort of due diligence that is to be expected from markets with asymmetric information was essentially absent in recent years of mortgage securitization. Computer models took the place of human judgment, as originators did not adequately assess the risk of borrowers, mortgage services did not adequately assess the risk of the terms of mortgage loans they serviced, MBS issuers did not adequately assess the risk of the securities they sold, and so on.

The lack of due diligence on all fronts was partly due to the incentives in the securitization model itself. With the ability to immediately pass off the risk of an asset to someone else, institutions had little financial incentive to worry about the actual risk of the assets in question. But what about the MBS, CDO, and CDS holders who did ultimately hold the risk? The buyers of these instruments had every incentive to understand the risk of the underlying assets. What explains their failure to do so?

One part of the reason is that these investors — like everyone else — were caught up in a bubble mentality that enveloped the entire system. Others saw the large profits from subprime-mortgage related assets and wanted to get in on the action. In addition, the sheer complexity and opacity of the securitized financial system meant that many people simply did not have the information or capacity to make their own judgment on the securities they held, instead relying on rating agencies and complex but flawed computer models. In other words, poor incentives, the bubble in home prices, and lack of transparency erased the frictions inherent in markets with asymmetric information (and since the crisis hit in 2007, the extreme opposite has been the case, with asymmetric information problems having effectively frozen credit markets). In the pages that follow, we tell this story more fully.

Read the full discussion here