Monday, 16 March 2009

Mark to market madness

by Duncan Lindo

The news last week that only 2% of GE’s assets are market-to-market will have shocked some investors. What murky mischievous mark-to-model is being used to mask the mess that is the remaining 98% of assets (98% by what measure we might ask…). The stock has plummeted and now they’ve lost their 50year old AAA rating.

But wait..! GE doesn’t intend to sell these assets (not at these prices anyway the cynic might add) – so of what relevance is their mark-to-market (MTM). Whilst we’re right to worry about how they are valued why on earth should mark-to-market be better?

Firstly what happens when there is no market? As noted in a House Committee on Thursday: “Illiquid markets have resulted in great difficulty in valuing sizable assets”. The assumption of ever increasing markets for assets implicit in the spread of MTM across balance sheets is looking a little bogus. Most famously the secondary markets for mortgage assets have disappeared… albeit from a low base.

Blessed are the financial intermediaries
Perhaps given a bit more time it was hoped that MTM would become self fulfilling. As more of balance sheet value becomes subject to market valuation more opportunities have arisen for the derivative traders to sell hedging instruments to mute the volatility of market valuation. Thus markets for the assets appear. This is less chicken-and-egg than golden goose eggs for financial intermediaries inserted into yet another area of the economy. The alternative is the constant surveillance of the balance sheet for restructuring possibilities – selling businesses with high hedging costs. There are always investment bankers ready to advise you on that too. Everything market to market means everything for sale.

Market to market accounting is also pro-cyclical – even Hank Paulson admits it. The classic mechanism of bubbles through collateralised lending against rising market value of assets fuelled by leveraged buying and the deleveraging spiral that follows the burst. As soon as you admit herd behaviour, euphoria, bubbles then accounts based on market price look non-sensical. For the time being though it doesn’t look like the law-makers are ready to make the U-turn on the law. It’s pro-cyclical but… err… we don’t want to change it.

Symmetry and the Farce of Own Credit
“Fair Value” was also partly born of a desire for symmetry between buyers and sellers of instruments – an idea at odds with neoclassical theory which requires differing utilities in order for trade to occur! One consequence was billions of dollars of profit for banks during the crisis in the form of “Own Credit”. Holders of bank debt have marked down their assets as bank default probabilities rise (as measured by CDS spreads) taking losses; conversely arguments of symmetry under “fair value” accounting regulations have required banks to reduce the value of the equal and opposite liability resulting in a “profit” for the bank! The more the market writes down their debt the bigger the profits banks can book! The more debt they have the bigger this profit is! The incentives created are clearly crazy. Furthermore the balance sheet as a description of reality further distorted – e.g the distance between “retained earnings” and bank’s ability to pay dividend clearly increases. At least here it might be argued that MTM is anti-cyclical!

Yeah and –what you gonna do about it?
You’ll notice that I’ve spent 500+ words knocking MTM accounting with not one constructive suggestion.. well… as Hank P agrees.. it’s tricky. Any ideas out there???

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