White House Chief of Staff
Politician selected by Magnetar's CEO to be sole recipient of his political donations, 2006-2008
Strange as it may seem, nearly three years after the onset of the global financial crisis, its greatest, most destructive, and most profitable "it ought to have been a crime" has gone almost entirely unnoticed.
Most people believe that they understand the broad outlines of the financial crisis, and that a central element was an explosion in mortgages made to people who could not afford them.
But how did such destructive behavior occur on such a large scale? The conventional view is that the subprime mortgage blowup resulted from bank executives being shortsighted, greedy, or both.
But that simple story deters inquiry into how and why this disaster came to pass. Some recognize that the appetite for subprime mortgages seemed to come from investors. In fact, it resulted in a large degree from the way traders at certain large banks used subprime mortgages in a strategy to make their profits seem much larger than they actually were. The effect of this "negative basis trade" strategy was to overpay employees of those banks and consequently eviscerate the banks' abilities to withstand future economic uncertainty.
The appetite for subprime mortgages was also inflated by people who were betting that the housing market would fail.
Moreover, the devastation wrought by this strategy remains virtually a secret. The fact that it has been almost invisible and appears to have been entirely legal, demonstrates a set of vexing problems. First, that investigations of the crisis have not delved deeply enough, and second, that the deregulation so keenly sought by the financial services industry has made activities legal that by any common-sense standard should be criminal.
But the sponsors of this toxic trade did bother to make sure they had a powerful friend. The head of the firm in question gave substantial amounts of money by political contribution standards to Rahm Emanuel's PACs, and only his PACs, over the period when these transactions were in play.
The moving force behind a brilliant and devastating subprime short strategy was a heretofore unknown Chicago hedge fund, Magnetar, headed by Alec Litowitz, formerly of the hedge fund behemoth Citadel. Our studies indicate that Magnetar alone accounted for between 35% and 60% of demand for subprime mortgages in the year 2006.
This is how their strategy worked in detail.
The ruse at the heart of their transactions was creating subprime (so called "mezz" or mezzanine) collateralized debt obligations by investing in the riskiest layer, the so-called equity tranche. This kind of CDO consisted almost entirely of not just any subprime risk, but that of the dodgiest layer that could be sold short, the BBB tranches, via a combination of actual bonds and credit default swaps.
But Magnetar's true objective was not to invest in this toxic waste, which its role as funder of the CDO would lead most to believe. While Magnetar paid roughly 5% of the total deal value for its equity stake, it took a much bigger short position by acting as a protection buyer on some of the credit default swaps created by these same CDOs. This insurance in turn was artificially cheap because over 80% of the deal was rated AAA. Most investors did not understand what Magnetar recognized: this concentrated exposure to the very riskiest type of bond associated with risky mortgage borrowers, each of these CDOs was a binary bet. It would either work out (in which case Magnetar would still show a thin profit) or it would fail completely, giving Magnetar an enormous profit and wiping out even the AAA investors who mistakenly believed they were protected by having other investors sit below them and take losses first. Thus the AAA investors were only earning AAA returns for BBB risk.
As the equity investor, Magnetar could further stack the deck in its favor through the influence it gained over the deals' parameters. It was able to ensure that the CDOs held particularly dubious BBB exposures, and pushed for, and often got, "triggerless" structures, which stripped away another protection most deals had. When CDOs start to show significant losses, the payments to the lower-tier investors, including the equity tranche, are cut or halted to defend the AAA layer, much the way the human body, when exposed to severe cold, will restrict blood flow from the extremities to save the brain and organs. But triggerless deals, even as they started to fail, kept paying the lower tranche holders, including, in this case, Magnetar itself.
While these transactions may sound similar to the widely decried Goldman synthetic CDO program, Abacus, by which the firm went short various real estate exposures, effectively dumping the risk on customers, the Magnetar program was not only much larger, but also produced far more devastating systemic consequences, thanks to the distinctive structure of its CDOs.
As I explain at greater length in my book ECONNED: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism, the use of cash bonds turned mezz CDOs from a dumping ground for otherwise unsellable mortgage bond risk to a breeding ground for demand. Ex Magnetar-inspired appetite, it is hard to find an explanation for the widely-discussed phenomenon of 2006 and 2007, of the mortgage securitization pipeline screaming for more subprime product, precisely when Federal Reserve interest rate increases should have stanched demand for risky loans above all others.
Market participants have estimated that Magnetar's CDOs drove over 50% of demand for subprime bonds during the market's toxic phase, 2006 and 2007. With the input of a team including professionals who have worked on some of these trades, ECONNED, we've performed repeated, conservative analyses that indicate the true figure is probably at least 35% of demand, and perhaps as high as 60%. And that's before allowing for the fact that Magnetar's strategy was imitated by the proprietary trading desks of major dealers. And for good reason. Magnetar made billions, some observers contend as much as subprime kingpin John Paulson, whose fund earned over $20 billion on its short strategy.
And the hedge fund's cagey bet on Rahm? Litowitz and his wife had never before made significant political donations. In 2005, they started giving to Rahm and his PACs, and only PACs connected to Rahm, just before the Magnetar CDO program began, and continued through the first quarter of 2008, when the trade would have started to pay out handsomely. The Litowitzs gave a total of $8,000 to Emanuel and $10,000 to his Our Common Values PAC in May 2005. In 2006 and 2007, they contributed $51,700 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while Emanuel was chairman. We have been advised by individuals involved in political fundraising that the amounts given would be considered significant, and the way the payments were distributed across the PACs is sophisticated. Put it another way: this money was not given impersonally.
But this troubling connection should be no surprise. Rahm has long been a favorite of the hedge funds, having raised more money from them than any Senator not running for President. Not surprisingly, he has been a staunch supporter of the financial services industry, and is widely credited with playing a key role in securing passage of the TARP after its initial defeat.
As the Magnetar-Rahm connection highlights, Obama raised more money from financial services players than any previous presidential candidate, so it can hardly be a surprise that he and his minions are happy to give the industry a free pass. Key policy figures maintain that no one was at fault, that there was a pervasive lack of regulation, and there are therefore no bad actors. That party line also means that destructive behavior is and will remain unquestioned, unexamined, uncorrected, and unpunished. We are still paying for the costs of the financial train wreck of 2007 and 2008. We can no longer afford the costs of willful blindness.
Addendum: Hat tip to Corrente who posted on this relationship on April 11, and finally prodded us to post our writeup of this story. We worked closely with Moe Tkacik on the story she put up on DailyFinance and took down, and had held off publishing our version pending her releasing her final version.
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