Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The bailouts continue

In a previous post I asked if Citigroup could be next and thought they were safe (at the time). Well, it looks like not. Mark Thoma summarizes some thoughts on the Citi bailout - no one likes it.

Fortune ran an article on whether GE Capital and hence GE was safe:

Says Tom Priore, who runs the credit hedge fund ICP Structured Investments: "If you thought AIG was important, GE is many times a multiple of AIG." And now GE's future, like the economy's, looks as if it could tip either way.

... GE is known for seeing changes ahead of time - recognizing early, for example, that it had to go "green" - and responding to them faster and more creatively than the competition. Last year, however, signs began turning up that this admirable pattern wasn't holding at GE Capital. For example, the company had left the home mortgage business in 2000 but reentered it in 2004 when it was flying high, buying a subprime lender called WMC Mortgage from a private equity firm (the price was never announced). Home prices peaked in June 2006, yet it wasn't until a year later, with the subprime crisis on the front page of every newspaper, that GE Capital finally decided to bail out. WMC lost almost $1 billion in 2007 before GE dumped it in December. A Japanese consumer-lending company called Lake was another lousy business, but GE Capital again didn't face the music until it was too late. GE took a $1.2 billion loss on it last year after deciding in September to sell it - but by then consumer credit was deteriorating so fast that unloading it (to Shinsei Bank) took another year.

... Managers thought they were being bold in stress-testing their model against a percentage-point jump in rates, but didn't conceive of a sudden and nearly complete stop to interbank lending, a total absence of buyers for some securitized debt, and investors so panicked they're willing to accept negative interest rates to gain the safety of T-bills.

Last year it bought about $14 billion of them and this year over $1 billion, all at prices in the 30s. Now, just six days after suspending the repurchase program, it was selling $12 billion of shares to the public at about $22. That is, it was buying high and selling low.

Why was it so desperate for cash? The company offers only the blandest reasons for its move, but investors were clearly worried that commercial paper was an important factor. Commercial paper is how corporations borrow for short periods, typically just a few days, for immediate purposes; it's attractive because companies borrow only what they need, and interest rates are low. Lots of firms use commercial paper, frequently just for paying day-to-day bills, but no company uses it anything like GE. GE Capital alone has about $74 billion of commercial paper outstanding; the next largest player, J.P. Morgan, has about $47 billion. GE understood there was risk in relying so heavily on this source of funding but believed it was well prepared for any disruption through access to other sources, such as bank lines of credit.

On the morning of Oct. 1, the markets swirled with rumors that GE couldn't roll over its commercial paper coming due. Like so much else that has happened in recent weeks, this possibility would have seemed outlandish just a month before; a spokesman insists the company has experienced no such problems. But in light of GE's huge commercial paper obligations and the disruption of global credit markets, the rumors became just barely plausible. That's when the stock suddenly dropped 10%, and the price of GE credit default swaps jumped. Regardless of how realistic the market's fears were, the episode puts the Fed's decision five days later to backstop the commercial paper market in a new light, as a signal of support for the commercial paper market's biggest player.

... the company holds some $53 billion of off-balance-sheet assets that are pieces of securitized debt, some of which are hooked to interest rate swaps with counterparties that are now troubled, such as ABN Amro, owned by Fortis and RBS Group. Individually, none of those is enough to cause a major problem. But investors are justifiably spooked by the poorly understood web of connections interlocking global financial firms, which have caused such havoc over the past month, and they're unsure how GE might ultimately be affected.

Another example: GE Capital says that some of the debt it holds is extra-safe because it's covered by credit insurance. But in today's environment, how reliable are the credit insurers?
Investors worry also because GE Capital oversees one of the world's largest commercial real estate portfolios. Tom Shapiro of GoldenTree InSite Partners, a real estate investment firm, says commercial property values have declined 10% to 20% in some regions and are still falling. In addition, GE's portfolio includes residential-mortgage-backed securities, some with subprime exposure, for which there's virtually no market now. More uncertainty for investors.

Another concern is that the leverage in GE could be much higher than stated. Egan-Jones, an independent rating agency, calculates that GE is levered ten-to-one, a more conservative and higher number than the company's eight-to-one figure. Cofounder Sean Egan believes that, depending on the off-balance-sheet holdings, actual leverage could be still higher. His firm rates the company single-A.

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