The WSJ has a new example of how stupid the big banks are. A Daring Trade Has Wall Street Seething — Texas Brokerage Firm Outwits the Big Banks in a Mortgage-Related Deal, and Now It’s War
By Gregory Zuckerman, Serena Ng and Liz Rappaport
11 June 2009.
A canny trade by a small brokerage firm in two markets at the heart of the financial crisis has left some of the biggest players on Wall Street crying foul.
The trade, by Amherst Holdings of Austin, Texas, was particularly galling to the big banks because it turned what they believed was a sure-fire profit into a loss.
The burned banks include J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and Bank of America Corp. Some banks have reached out to two industry trade groups about Amherst’s actions, and the groups are reviewing the transaction, according to people familiar with their thinking. “It’s all-out warfare” between the banks and Amherst, said a senior banker at one firm that lost money….
Here’s the scheme. Apparently the banks bought credit default swaps for X-C that would pay them X if the securities defaulted. The seller realized that he could pay off the securities, so they wouldn’t default, for less than X-C. So he did. The banks could have done that too, paying off the securities directly, but they were too greedy (possibly trying to take advantage of the cds seller, whom they thought wouldn’t think of the trick) or stupid.
The trade involved credit-default swaps and securities backed by subprime mortgages. The original securities had been sold by Lehman Brothers and were backed by $335 million of subprime mortgages mostly on homes in California made at the housing bubble’s peak in 2005, according to the prospectus.
Following a wave of refinancing and defaults, only $29 million of the loans were left outstanding by March 2009, half of which were delinquent or in default, according to a performance report by Moody’s Investors Service.
Believing the securities would become worthless, traders at J.P. Morgan bought credit-default swaps over the past year from Amherst, according to people familiar with the matter. Credit-default swaps act like insurance, paying off the buyer if securities are hit by losses. Other banks including RBS Securities, which is the U.S. investment-banking arm of Royal Bank of Scotland, and BofA also bought swaps on the securities from different trading partners.
The banks had to pay up for the protection, similar to a person buying insurance on a beach house just before a hurricane. They paid as much as 80 to 90 cents for every dollar of insurance, the going rate last fall according to dealer quotes, expecting to receive a dollar back when the securities became worthless over the coming months.
Traders can buy credit-default swaps on securities they don’t own. At one point, at least $130 million of bets had been made on the performance of around $27 million in securities, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In late April, traders at some banks were shocked to find out from monthly remittance reports that the bonds they had bet against had been paid off in full. Normally an investor can’t pay off loans like that but if the amount of outstanding loans falls to less than 10% of the original pool, the servicer — or company that collects mortgage payments from homeowners and forwards them to investors who own the securities — can buy them and make bondholders whole.
That’s what happened in this case. In April, a servicer called Aurora Loan Services at the behest of Amherst purchased the remaining loans and paid off the bonds.