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“All the News That’s Fit to Print” and More

Who doesn’t love a deal, especially in today’s economic environment?  This past Sunday’s NY Times, 23 October 2011, not only offered an update on global current events, but also serves as a virtual handbook for retirement plan fiduciaries.  [Go fish it out of the re-cycling bin ... yes, I still read the physical newspaper; one of life's daily pleasures.]

Starting with a bold graphic representation of the European credit crisis sprawling across two pages of the Sunday Review, Bill Miller’s,  It’s all Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis is clearly worth more than 1000 words.   At first blush, it seems too confusing … just too much to get one’s head around.  It’s much easier to turn the page.  Better yet, flip to the Travel or Arts & Leisure Section.

Retirement plan fiduciaries, however, don’t have that luxury.  Ignoring the financial issues brewing in Europe would be irresponsible and imprudent.

And yet, even for a responsible fiduciary, where does one begin?  If only there were a true sage, who had all the answers and could predict the outsome.

Fiduciaries don’t have to be sages.  They simply need to be prudent and responsible.  At the very least, every fiduciary committee, whether for state & local plans or for corporate plans, should be exploring the impact of the European issues on their plans and on their investment policies.

A daunting proposition, but plan fiduciaries don’t have to operate in a vacuum.  Instead, they should turn to each of their investment fiduciaries and pose the following questions:

  1. What is your analysis of the European debt crisis?
  2. Does this analysis have any impact on your investment strategy and our portfolio?
  3. What’s the weakest link in your analysis?
  4. Have you constructed contingency plans?

No doubt, every investment advisor will have a different answer, and fiduciaries will need to piece together conflicting data points.  But, in the end, plan fiduciaires must make sure that their investment fiduciaries are themselves being prudent.  Fiduciaries can’t predict investment results, but they can, and must, ensure prudent processes and decision making.

If the above advice seems too general, and therefore too simplistic, and maybe even worthless, then let’s turn to the front page.  Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story’s, Bank’s Collapse in Europe Points to Global Risks, examines the bailout of  Dexia Bank whose problems, in part, stem from gorging on too much sovereign debt.  Using Dexia as an example, Morgenson and Story extrapolate various scenarios, and related policy issues, raised by potential rounds of bailouts of banks and their trading counter-parties.

I’d supplement their analysis by drilling down to an equally ominous set of challenges to which they allude: repos, securities lending and short-term commercial paper.  Most all banks (domestic and foreign) fund their operations, in large part, through repos and other forms of commercial paper.  Remember what happend to Lehman when no one would fund their short term paper?  And, what about securities lending pools stuck with rapidly declining collateral?  Just ask plan fiduciaries who were unable to terminate investment managers becaus securities were tied up in frozen securities lending pools.

Need more questions to ask?

Let’s not forget about money market funds.  Gretchen Morgenson, in the Business Section,  How Mr. Volker Would Fix It, also wrote about Paul Volker’s blunt recommendations about reforming the financial system; starting with money market funds and the residential mortgage market. Money market funds are huge purchasers of sovereign and bank debt.  As has also been previously reported, many of these funds have been paring back their European exposure.  Plan fiduciaries overseeing 401(k) plans holding money market funds need to be questioning their managers about strategies for addressing these global banking issues.

Plan fiduciaries, however, also have to ask about STIF’s (short-term investment funds).   Every custodial bank runs $ Billions in STIF’s, unregulated funds which no doubt are also chock full of sovereign and bank debt. Fiduciaries, are you asking your custodian banks about their STIFs?

If Miller’s graphics and Morgenson”s and Story’s articles don’t arm fiduciaries with sufficient questions, then turn to The Little State With the Big Mess, an eye opening article about Rhode Island.  The tiniest state, but the biggest pension woes.  Hard to know where to begin asking questions about the Rhode Island mess, but how about starting with the newly revised investment return assumption of 7.5%, down from 8.25%?  Is that a prudent decision?  Where did that number come from?  An easy question to ask, but maybe the answer is not so simple.

Finally, turning from the newsprint to the magazine, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner in Economics, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence, writes about the behavioral phenomena that confidence in our own judgments creates a bias that can lead us to ignore hard facts which contradict our judgments.  Focusing on investment performance, Kahneman explains that notwithstanding quantitative proof that certain investment managers added zero value to the investment process, these managers were nonetheless awarded bonuses on the assumptions that they “added value.”  Assumptions die hard.

By the way, maybe someone should forward a copy of Kahneman’s article to the fiduciaries of the Rhode Island state and local pension plans.  I’m still struggling with 7.5%.

Fiduciaries beware.  Don’t be so confident.  Ask lots of questions and work hard not to be so confident in your assumptions.  You are not just investing your own assets … instead, you are investing on behalf of hard working plan participants and retirees.

And I thought that I’d relax with a cup of coffee and a leisurely read of the Sunday paper.

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Is Anyone Paying Attention?

The debt-ceiling crisis has been momentarily addressed and the financial markets are continuing to tremble.  In my past few blogs, I’ve raised topics which Plan Sponsors should address with their various plan fiduciaries.   It’s all about being prudent.  Today, the focus is on Securities Lending.

In the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Securities Lending programs froze.  Collateral pools experienced huge liquidity issues and loans could not be unwound.  Pension plan portfolios suffered significant loses.

The last time around the culprits were mortgaged-backed securities and all the various related derivatives.  This time, it could be sovereign debt.  Today, the NYT reports Large Banks in Europe Struggle with Weak Bonds.  The main thrust of the article is that sovereign prices for certain European countries are weakening dramatically thereby affecting the capitalization of some large European banks.

However, tucked deep in the article are references to repo transactions and the posting of collateral.  Sovereign debt is often used in these trascations.   This is where Securities Lending (the “reverse” side of a repo transaction) comes into play, and where Plan Sponsors should be focusing their questions.

Plan Sponsors should examine two separate, but very closely related, potential risk related to European debt and the European banks:

Short-Term Bank Paper Held by Collateral Pools — Remember Lehman Bros?  It’s paper was held by many investors, including pension funds.  As the paper became worthless, securities lending collateral pools lost values.  Plan Sponsors are on the hook for the investment losses related to collateral pools.  Many plan sponsors were not happy.

Collateral Posted by Broker/Dealers — When broker/dealers borrow securities to facilitate short sales by their clients, the broker/dealer must post collateral.  Often, Sovereign Debt offered as collateral qualifies for better terms than other forms of collateral.  Therefore, there is a huge incentive for broker/dealers to offer Sovereign Debt for these purposes.  However, to the extent that debt from any of the troubled European countries was used as collateral, and as prices continue to deteriorate, the broker/dealers will have to post more collateral as the value of this debt deteriorates.  Watch the capitalizations of the broker/dealers.

Don’t dismiss the role of broker/dealers in the stability of our financial system.  As Lehman as entered in bankruptcy, all the others teetered on the edge of the abyss.

Few areas are more technical, “nichey”, or esoteric than Securities Lending.  If Plan Sponsors want to partake of the benefits of Securities Lending, then they must really understand the risk.  They must dive into the details which I outlined above.

If these questions are too “geeky” for Plan Sponsors to develop in-house expertise, then they should delegate oversight to true experts.  Ignoring complicated issues can never be prudent.

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Let me see if I get this.

Lehman takes the position that the repo transactions it entered into in order to reduce the size of its balance sheet, constituted a sale transaction rather than a loan.  (See, Floyd Norris, NY Times, April 2, 2010, Demystify the Lehman Shell Game). The argument is that since the value of the securities exchanged by Lehman were greater than the amount of cash it received in the transaction, it would never purchase these securities for the same price.  In other words, it would never “overpay” for these assets, therefore, the transaction had to be a sale.

But wait a second, forget for a moment about the repurchase part of the transaction, doesn’t that mean that Lehman “sold” the securities for less than adequate consideration?  If I’m understanding this correctly, the logic is that it is OK to sell an asset for less than its value, but not OK to overpay for an asset.

This feels like Alice in Wonderland.

If I were a Lehman shareholder or a board member, I’d be very happy that my smart, hard-charging Wall Street financiers were not willing to overpay for assets. But, I’d be distressed that these same investment professionals were willing to sell corporate assets for less than fair value.  Great business franchises are not built upon selling assets for less than fair value.

The convoluted logic put forth by Lehman is likely supported by well articulated legal and accounting documentation.  The problem is that we have a generation of talented, lawyers, accountants and investment professionals who are adroit at mastering complicated concepts and principles for the purposes of erecting extraordinarily complicated and sophisticated legal structures.  All too often, however, these professionals get lost in the brilliance of their creativity and problem solving capability.

This is the proverbial forest and trees issue.  Everyone gets so caught up in the composition and structure of the trees, that they lose sight of the forrest.

How could it ever be acceptable to assume less than adequate consideration upon the sale of an asset and yet refuse to pay more than fair value upon buying the exact same asset.  Lehman is asking us to accept that 1+1=3.

As fiduciaries, it is our responsibility not to loose sight of the forest.  We need to be able to both assess complicated products and structures, but we also to be able to step back and ask a simple question: Does this make sense?  Or, more specifically, using the language of fiduciaries:  Is this prudent?

Ostensible a simple question:  Is this prudent?   However, when certain practices and assumptions become common place throughout an industry and culture, it can be a very difficult question to ask.  However the importance of asking the question, is directly related to the difficulty in raising it.

Our entire retirement industry, and even the global financial markets, require fiduciaries to raise their hands and say, “No, 1+1, does not equal 3.”

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