Citi: In Defense of Gary Crittenden

Brad DeLong

takes a cheap shot at Citigroup’s CFO, Gary Crittenden, who on the Citigroup

conference call tried to explain where all those extra write-downs were coming

from. Crittenden explained that much of Citi’s subprime exposure was in so-called

super-senior tranches, which were designed to have no default risk. But in October,

suddenly the cost of insuring AAA-rated MBS tranches against default started

spiking upwards – which means that the implied markt value of those tranches

went down, even if Citi still has every confidence that they won’t default.

Here’s how Brad sees it:

When Crittendon says that "if you look at what the ABX would imply in

terms of real estate price reduction, it starts to imply very, very high numbers…

it’s unlikely that those… will take place" the sentence should

not come to an end. There should be a comma, and after the comma the sentence

should continue "therefore Citigroup is sponsoring and investing in a

new hedge fund to take advantage of the undervaluation of the ABX and similar

market opportunities, and we are now raising capital." If you say:

  • We’re taking a markdown based on the ABX.
  • But we believe the ABX is underpriced.

Shouldn’t the very next sentence be:

  • We are moving to profit from this mispricing?

In fact, it’s not nearly as simple or as easy as that.

The problem is that the

ABX is a very bad indicator of what CDOs might be worth. What happened was

that Citi and other banks issued many billions of dollars’ worth of structured

securities which were rated AAA by the ratings agencies and which were then

sold to highly risk-averse investors, who placed great store in that AAA credit

rating. Of late, the ratings agencies have been going on something of a downgrading

spree, and few if any investors place much faith in a AAA rating on a structured

product any more. Remember, these investors are very risk-averse. But they’re

also holding a large amount of highly illiquid paper, which they can’t sell

easily if at all. So the one option open to them, if they’re worried about credit

risk on that paper, is to buy credit protection on it.

As a result, the cost of insuring AAA-rated paper against default spiked up

– and it’s that insurance cost which is measured by the ABX indices. The

paper itself still doesn’t really trade at all. But here’s the problem: since

the paper isn’t trading, the ABX indices give the closest thing that there is

to a market price for the underlying paper. If Citi wants to mark to market,

then, it has to mark to the ABX market. Crittenden’s point is that those marks

don’t make a lot of sense when it comes to the actual value of the underlying

securities, in terms of the net present value of the cashflows associated with

them. If you wanted to construct a model which would spit out the ABX-implied

valuations, you’d have to assume nationwide housing-price falls which were really

enormous. (It would have been nice for Crittenden to quantify those falls, I

must admit.)

So what’s Citi to do? It constructed these CDOs, and has faith in the cashflows

going to the super-senior tranches which it owns a lot of. It’ll mark those

tranches down, but it’s not going to sell them, partly because it can’t

sell them (there’s no market for them right now), and partly because, pace

DeLong, it thinks that the (implied) market is mispricing them.

But precisely because there is no market in these things, one can’t simply

set up a hedge fund to arbitrage the mispricing, since the mispricing is more

theoretical than actual. You could try going long the ABX, but the ABX doesn’t

have anything to do with cashflows: it has everything to do with the cost of

insuring against default. And it’s entirely possible that a jittery world will

pay more for default protection for some time, even if the cashflows themselves

are rock-solid.

In fact, the only way you can really benefit from the (implied) mispricing

is to mark your assets down today, in line with what the ABX is implying, and

then collect your cashflows as per schedule. And that, it turns out, is exactly

what Citigroup is doing.

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