Monthly Archives: May 2009

GM Bankruptcy and Labor: From Sit Down Strikes to Credit Default Swaps

w-1937-overpassThe United Auto Workers gave organized labor a beachhead in the American economy with the great sit down strikes of 1937. Some seven decades later organized capital is looking to expel what remains of the UAW from GM and at the same time complete the isolation of the trade union to low wage immigrant labor based segments of the economy and the public sector. A labor movement that does not have leverage in the most productive center of an economy cannot hope to influence national social policy or progressive politics.

Unlike the bloody Battle of the Overpass pictured above, however, today’s attack on labor is being wielded with complex financial instruments, instruments of fictitious capital.  At GM, bond holders who hold credit default swaps have disrupted the ordinary incentive structure in a corporation entering the so-called “zone of bankruptcy”.

Traditionally, holders of bonds were deserving of protection as the company approached bankruptcy because insiders could be tempted to use their control over corporate resources to loot the firm and leave less for those who had a higher priority for repayment in bankruptcy.  Thus, courts have held recently that as a company like GM looked more likely to need the protection of bankruptcy its board of directors would have a legal obligation to shift its ordinary fiduciary duty to protect shareholders to the bond holders.

But the emergence of derivative instruments like credit default swaps (CDS) has twisted our ordinary understanding of incentives in corporate governance. Credit default swaps are speculative instruments created to offer a way for investors to bet on the value of bonds that ordinarily would not be open for speculation.  The purchaser of credit default swap “protection” pays an annual premium that amounts to several percentage points of the value of the underlying bond (perhaps 2% on a $10 million investment which translates into $200,000 in annual premiums to the “seller” of the protection).  If a “default” event were to occur on the bond – such as the failure by the issuer of the bond to make an interest payment or in extreme circumstances outright default on the bond – then the seller of the CDS protection must pay the buyer of the protection a certain amount (typically the difference between the par value and the current (depressed) market value of the bond). 

Hence, the term CDS: the credit is the original bond, the default is the event that triggers payoff, and the swap refers to the fact that by putting a CDS in place, the risk of owning the bond has shifted from the bondholder to the seller of protection.  One huge seller of protection on bonds was AIG and it sold a huge amount of CDS protection on sub prime mortgage bonds that have now turned out to be worthless. That has obligated AIG to make good on its promises – which they are doing with taxpayer money.

At GM, it turns out that one default event that will trigger repayment to bondholders is the filing of bankruptcy itself. So investors who bought GM bonds at par, e.g., valued at 100 cents on the dollar now hold bonds that are valued at far less, perhaps 20 cents on the dollar. If GM files for bankruptcy then the seller of CDS protection to a GM bondholder would owe the bondholder at least 80 cents on the dollar, if not more as the bond fell in price. So on $10 mn of GM bonds the payoff would be $8 mn plus the $2 mn that the bondholder could get by selling the bonds. If the bonds fell to zero in price, the holders could get the full $10 mn.

That is just a simple example and there are lots of complexities in this situation. In fact, for example, GM bonds are trading at a different price points – somewhere between 6 and 12 cents on the dollar. There is a net exposure for sellers of CDS protection of about 2.4 billion dollars on a total of 34 billion dollars of outstanding CDS positions (sellers of CDS protection sometimes buy CDS protection themselves to hedge against events such as this, but unlike regulated insurers they do not have to have any actual cash reserves to use to pay off in case of such a catastrophic event.) CDS protection also requires an upfront payment that increases as the bond falls in value, so at GM it costs $5 mn a year to protect $10 mn in bonds today (4.5 mn upfront and then a payment of 5% a year or $500,000).  Of course, that makes the bonds illiquid today or at least uninsurable.

But here is the key point: GM under US government pressure has offered current bond holders the “opportunity” to exchange their current bonds for common stock in a restructured GM. The bond holders would end up with 10 percent of the equity with the government owning 50% and the UAW’s VEBA owning 39%. Current shareholders would end up with one percent.  Apparently, though, bond holders with CDS protection believe that their CDS payoff if GM files for bankruptcy is worth more than the eventual value of the 10 percent common stock position. 

Now look at this deal from the viewpoint of current GM managers. If the bond holders turn down the exchange offer, GM files for bankruptcy which leaves the managers in control (they become in bankruptcy parlance a “debtor in possession”) and they get several months to put together a plan of reorganization. That may lead to the wipe out of the bond holders anyway but they won’t care because they will have received their CDS payout!  But here is the magic: the payout to bond holders is not made by GM or GM managers – it will be made by the sellers of the CDS protection, perhaps AIG or JPMorgan, and perhaps with taxpayer dollars! Thus, GM is freed of its bond obligations paid off with “other people’s money” and they remain in control of the company now free to use the power of a federal judge to tear up the UAW contract and their remaining obligations to pay billions into the healthcare VEBA.

And once they have cleared their books of the bonds, the VEBA and the UAW, they are free to ramp up offshore production to India and China, as they have been planning for several years.

By the way, GM bondholders were warned of bankruptcy risk at GM when they bought their bonds. They got the benefits of mandatory disclosure of risk factors affecting GM when the bonds were first issued. But the rank and file members of the UAW who “bought” the proposed multi-billion dollar VEBA to manage their health care plan were told by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger that their health care would be safe from GM bankuptcy “for 80 years.” So no CDS protection was purchased by the UAW to protect its payment obligations from GM.

The Financial Times has more on this issue here.  There is some interesting discussion of the issue on the blog Naked Capitalism here. And here is a video of an investor explaining how CDS protection is wreaking havoc in another bankrupt company.

Valley a-twitter about Hulu v. YouTube Grudge Match

The Valley is finally taking the competition between Hulu and YouTube seriously. Our home town rag, the San Jose Mercury News ran a pretty decent story the other day summarizing the key developments.  

In a nutshell: YouTube has the page hits but Hulu has the professional content and content is king, right?

As the Merc puts it:

Hulu has shown that users will tolerate video ads — at least if they are paired with the right content — and are interested in watching longer-form videos on the Web, said Graham Bennett, YouTube’s strategic partner manager.

But YouTube has a small fraction of the full-length, professionally produced content that consumers can find on Hulu. Even if YouTube can broaden its selection, it may have trouble luring consumers because many now think of the site as the place to get user-produced videos, noted Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consulting firm. For Hollywood-produced ones, they’re turning to Hulu.

“When your brand is so deeply entrenched in that kind of milieu, it’s real hard to turn around,” Passikoff said.

That doesn’t mean the fight’s over. The online video market is still a nascent one, and neither YouTube nor Hulu has everything viewers or advertisers want.

This makes the recently concluded negotiations between Hollywood and the major entertainment conglomerates so important. The new contracts establish union jurisdiction for the online world for the first time. Hulu isn’t making much money yet but it likely will as time goes on and that will money in the pockets of actors, writers, directors and crew who make the content possible.

Who Will Really Own Chrysler? (Hint: Initials are “U.A.W.”)

Despite widespread reports that the United Auto Workers union will emerge as the controlling shareholder of a restructured Chrysler, that is not formally true. But a closer look suggests that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s recent comments that the UAW will not own a majority stake in Chrysler are not exactly right either.

The 55% stake that current Chrysler owners propose to issue will go to the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA, set up as a result of collective bargaining negotiations between the UAW and the Big Three in late 2007 and early 2008. To secure ratification of those dramatically concessionary deals, the UAW and Big Three promised auto workers their health care plans would be secure for “80 years” under the new off balance sheet VEBA. 

It turns out that may not be the case. Originally, the Big Three promised to put sufficient assets into the VEBA to pay health care obligations and to secure those assets from any risk of bankruptcy. But over the last year the companies got into further trouble and have now sought agreement with the union and its retired members to substitute equity for cash payments. Of course, that means the VEBA is directly linked to the financial health, or rather lack thereof, of the Big Three.

(By the way, to be clear, there is only one VEBA, for all three auto companies but it manages three separate health care plans with separate asset contributions owed in different amounts and structures from each of the auto companies.)

So who will be calling the shots at Chrysler with that huge 55% share – assuming a federal bankruptcy judge confirms the proposed deal (and that is far from certain)?

In theory it will be the board of trustees of the VEBA, also known as “the Committee” in public filings of the agreements behind the new structure. It is supposed to consist of 5 UAW representatives and 6 independent members.

But very little has been heard from this group. Despite their fiduciary obligation to protect retirees they do not seem to have objected to the very risky exchange of cash payments for equity in Chrysler. And the terms of the new Chrysler deal do not bode well either: despite owning more than half the company, apparently the VEBA will only get the right to appoint one board member out of nine.

In fact, it is a little unclear who really is on the VEBA board but one reliable source (Pension and Investments online magazine) lists the following individuals (since there are 6 listed here and none are UAW members this is likely the list of the so-called “independent” members):

Robert Naftaly, a former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan executive, who will serve as the VEBA’s chairman.

Olena Berg-Lacey, a former assistant secretary of labor;

Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Quality and Transformation, Ann Arbor, Mich.;

Teresa Ghilarducci, a retirement policy guru at the New School for Social Research, New York;

David Baker Lewis, founder of Detroit-based law firm Lewis & Munday; and

Ed Welch, director of the Workers’ Compensation Center at Michigan State University’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations in East Lansing, Mich.

Of course, “independent” is a relative term. All six were presumably appointed with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s approval. They know that, he knows that. And the UAW controls the remaining five seats. In other words, the UAW only needs one vote from this group of six to completely control the VEBA itself and, in turn, Chrysler!

Now, how the supposedly independent Committee of 11 is supposed to defend the fiduciary interests of now and future auto worker retirees under such pressure is anybody’s guess.

Auto workers – meet the new boss, same as the old boss? We’ll see.

(You can read more here and here about the VEBA structure and the risks the UAW took with their retiree benefits.)

Fictitious Capital Update: Super Seniors and the Credit Crisis

A very nicely written excerpt from FT writer Gillian Tett’s new book Fool’s Gold on the origins of the credit crisis appears in the weekend edition of the FT. You can access it online here.

This excerpt shines a light on the original synthetic CDO structure, the so-called BISTRO, set up by JP Morgan in the late 90s. Morgan originally ran 9.7 billion dollars worth of loans through their first BISTRO. This became the model for hundreds of billions of loans in the new synthetic market.

The key to understanding the power of the synthetic CDO is the so-called “Super Senior” tranche. How do these work?

As a simple model, consider Shady Bank A that has made a billion dollars worth of loans to sub prime borrowers. The Federal Reserve Bank requires the Bank to keep a certain amount of capital as a cushion against losses on that portfolio of loans. Ten percent is the usual standard. So if Bank A has 100 mn in equity (it’s more complicated but let’s just assume a simple balance sheet with equity and debt) it must raise more equity if it wants to make new loans.

Or it can use a synthetic CDO to make people believe it has moved the risk associated with those loans off its balance sheet. To do that it sets up a separate entity known as a Special Purpose Vehicle or SPV. The SPV raises money from third party investors like hedge funds and pension funds. The secret, though, of a synthetic CDO with a Super Senior tranche is that it does not have to raise a billion dollars in order to transfer a billion dollars of risk off its balance sheet.

Instead it might raise $150 million. That $150 million is used by the SPV to buy, for example, U.S. Treasury bonds which then sit in a trust fund to be used only if there is an impairment to the value of the first $150 million of the $1 billion of loans. The SPV sells equity, mezzanine, and senior pieces of the SPV to raise that $150 million.  The equity tranche has the highest risk because it will be wiped out first if the original loans run into trouble. Thus, equity investors in the SPV will get the highest interest rate. 

To make sure that Shady Bank A no longer has the risk associated with the billion dollars of loans, the SPV sells the Bank protection in the form of a Credit Default Swap (or CDS: a swap (the “S” in CDS) of the risk of default (“D”) on the loans (“C” for credit).

But it turns out that the SPV investors only have $150 million in collateral raised to actually pay off on the risk of default. So that 150 million slice is considered “funded.” The CDS protection on the other $850 is “unfunded” and CDS protection on that larger piece is provided by a separate group, often AIG’s Financial Products unit, as in the case of the original BISTRO.

And therein lies the magic. Because AIG’s FP unit was not regulated by insurance regulators it had NO obligation to set aside any cash reserves to back up its promise to pay off if any of the $850 million went bad. Back in 1998 default rates rarely would eat through the first 15% so the risk on these pieces of the SPV/CDO were considered “super seniors” – safer than even the AAA rated senior tranches of the funded (i.e. collateralized) $150 million piece.

On the other hand, if default rates did hit the 850 mn piece then AIG would be in real trouble and sure enough they are and had to come running to us, the US taxpayers to be bailed out to pay off on their super senior obligations!

Meanwhile, of course, Shady Bank A has allegedly “moved” a billion dollars of risk off its balance sheet by raising only $150 million! That frees it up to make new loans without raising any more capital for its own balance sheet (well, not quite, the Fed just reduced the reserve requirement for the super senior tranche to a fraction of its older requirements). And it is free to repeat this exercise dozens of times and many banks did. To the point when, in essence, our carefully crafted reserve requirements were essentially obliterated by financial and regulatory arbitrage.

As Tett writes: “The implications were huge. Banks had typically been forced to hold $800m reserves for every $10bn of corporate loans on their books. Now that sum could fall to just $160m. The Bistro concept had pulled off a dance around the international banking rules.”