The Real Causes of the Financial Crisis

(The following is an excerpt from the most recent letter to the partners of Braewick Holdings LP. I’ll be posting a presentation that goes along with this commentary shortly.)

There have been many explanations thrown around of how we got ourselves into this mess. However, I have a slightly different take on what really caused the problem—and what hasn’t been fixed yet.

The public always enjoys finding someone to burn at the stake. Who is to blame for the current mess? Many culprits have been named: greedy executives, The Fed, short sellers, Democrats, Republicans, CDO’s, CDS’s, real estate speculators, and so on. However, the real issues are more systemic. Derivatives and bad mortgages may be where the problem started, but in and of themselves, did not cause this mess.

In my view, there were three problems that led to the collapse of financial markets: misaligned incentives, poor risk management, and needless complexity. All three problems are not specific to the current crisis, but are widespread and must be addressed to avoid future dilemmas.

If You Give A Mouse a Cookie…

He’s going to want some milk. And if you give a Wall Street executive a $30 million bonus, he’s going to want a bigger one (and he’ll use the same methods to get it—after all, it worked the first time, didn’t it?).

Misaligned incentives were pervasive. And because incentives drive behavior, things are eventually not going to turn out as desired.

This occurred on almost every level. Executives were being rewarded for taking risks with only short-term payoffs. Mortgage originators made money based on the volume of mortgages given, not on their quality. Rating agencies getting paid by the companies they have to subjectively rate (causing a huge conflict of interest). Home buyers were incentivized to buy a house they couldn’t afford with low down payments, teaser rates, no-documentation Adjustable Rate Mortgages, and 0% interest.

Many of the asset managers (including banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies) were given incentives to take huge risks with the firm’s capital only because they produced outsized short-term gains. They were given very large bonuses or a cut of the profits with no downside risk (other than a pink slip and severance payment). There was no link between immediate actions and their future consequences.

Business managers and decision makers need to constantly look at how their incentives are structured. People will naturally do things in their own self-interest, and managers need to react accordingly. Some incentives aren’t so obvious—giving a trader a cut of the profits may not sound bad at all. But even if it’s not their intent, people usually end up gaming the incentive in their favor. If traders aren’t punished for taking long-term risks in pursuit of profit, then guess what—that’s what they’ll do. Continue reading “The Real Causes of the Financial Crisis”

On Financial Stocks and Portfolio Risk

Tom Brown recently posted a rebuttal to Jason Zweig’s Wall Street Journal column. Geoff Gannon also wrote a great follow-up article with more on Benjamin Graham. I suggest reading all three articles.

In this post, I wanted to comment on a few aspects of Tom Brown’s argument, some of which I have been thinking about lately. The following is a quote from Tom’s post:

True value investors, by contrast, tend not to worry what might happen in the interim. Instead, they come up with their best estimate of a financial company’s intrinsic value by estimating the magnitude of likely losses along with its “normalized” earnings level two or three years out. They then compare that estimate of intrinsic value with the stock’s price today. Zweig says such estimates are impossible. I disagree.

I have always enjoyed Tom’s posts, but I can see a few problems with the above statement. (As a disclaimer, I know relatively little about financial companies, as they are out of my circle of competence. I hold no interest in any financial beside Berkshire Hathaway.)

First observation:
With highly leveraged financial companies, what happens in the “interim” can not only hurt you, it can kill you. Compare a bank to a retailer. Let’s say that you find a cheap retailer, where you estimate normalized earnings a few years out to derive its value. Assuming your estimate is correct, you should be able to ride out any short-term volatility to obtain the long-term value of the company. Like Tom says, that is the foundation of value investing. Continue reading “On Financial Stocks and Portfolio Risk”