Paddy Hirsch is a Senior Editor at Marketplace. He is the author of the book Man vs Markets, Economics Explained, Pure and Simple, and he is the creator and host of Marketplace Whiteboard, a video explainer of financial and economic terms.
Hirsch joined Marketplace in 2007, just as the credit crunch that preceded the 2008 financial crisis began to take hold. As editor of the New York Bureau and the entrepreneurship desk, he spearheaded Marketplace’s financial markets coverage throughout the crisis and as the economy fell into recession. He was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2010, and he returned to Marketplace in July of 2011, when he was appointed Senior Producer of Marketplace Money. He published his first book, Man vs Markets, in August 2012.
Hirsch got his start in journalism with an internship at the BBC in Glasgow, Scotland. He became a field producer for CNBC in Hong Kong and later was a consultant to the Open Broadcast Network in Bosnia. He has been an editor for Direct Capital Markets, Institutional Investor Newsletters, Standard & Poor’s, and the Vietnam Economic Times. Prior to becoming a journalist, he served as an officer in the Royal Marines.
Hirsch attended Campbell College in Belfast and received a bachelor’s degree in French and International Studies from the University of Warwick. He is a Knight Fellow and was a Webby honoree in 2009.
Features by Paddy Hirsch
Banks are bracing themselves. Next Tuesday we may finally witness the rollout of the completed Volcker Rule ... and so ...
Q. What’s the Volcker Rule, again?
Back in 2010, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker proposed curbing excessive risk-taking by banks by banning proprietary trading. Nice and simple, he thought: A policy that should be about four-pages long.
Q. 2010? That’s nearly four years ago! Why hasn't it happened yet?
Today, the Volcker Rule looks a bit like a neutered dog: It has swollen to a tremendous size – nearly 1,000 pages covering 400 regulations – and it has lost almost all its aggression against the banks. Almost everyone complains that the rule doesn’t define two key terms: Hedging or market-making. This effectively means that there is a giant loophole in the law, through which any half-decent banking lawyer will be able to drive a battle tank.
Q. Hedging and market-making? What are they? And why are they so important?
Hedging and market-making are two key functions performed by banks of all sizes all over the world.
A hedge is essentially an insurance contract: In the same way that I make an investment (paid monthly to an insurance company) to protect myself if something goes wrong with my car (like if it gets stolen); so too do banks insure themselves by making investments (say, buying gold) that they hope will do well in the event other investments do badly (like the stock market collapses).
Market-making is what the banks do to assist their clients who want to buy or sell stocks and bonds. The banks want to be sure that they can find the securities their clients want – or find a buyer for stuff clients want to sell – and at a reasonable price. To make that happen, banks sometimes "make the market," by buying those securities themselves, in order to ensure supply or demand.
Q. How are these different from proprietary trading?
Proprietary trading is different from both hedging and market-making (also known as principal trading), because it’s done purely to generate profits for the bank. Prop trading will look similar: The bank will make an investment, but the motive will differ. The motive for hedging is insurance; the motive for market-making is to better service clients; the motive for prop trading is purely to make a profit for the bank.
Q. So if they all look the same, how can you tell the difference?
By following the money. In this story about the JP Morgan London Whale scandal, professor Andrew Lo says by looking at how the people who make these investments are compensated, you can see what their motives were, and thus determine whether they’re hedgers, market-makers or proprietary traders.
There is one very simple question that you can ask — which has a definitive answer — about the small number of individuals who were responsible for managing this group at JP Morgan and putting on the specific trades that lost these large amounts of money. That question is: How were they compensated on an annual basis? Were they paid a salary and a bonus, and was the bonus a function of the profitability of the group, or was the bonus a function of the hedging ability of the group? If you can answer this question — and it definitely has an answer to it; it’s not a metaphysical question — you will have your answer as to whether it was proprietary trading or hedging. I don’t know the answer, but I know the answer exists, and I know that certainly the government can get that answer with a single phone call.
No, Crocs is not on crack: It needs money.
The PIPE is a way of raising cash, in what's called a private investment in public equity.
Q. Sounds complicated. What does it mean?
It means a private equity fund - Blackstone, in this case - buys shares in a public company - like Crocs.
Q. Where do those shares come from?
They're shares owned by the company. When a company "goes public" in an IPO, it doesn't put all its stock on the market. A big chunk of shares are held by the company's officers, and maybe by the company itself.
Q. So if the company needs money, why doesn't it sell its shares on the open market?
It could, but that would take a long time. If it dumped all the shares it wanted to sell on the market in one go, that could send the price sinking, which would kind-of defeat the point. It could also sell the block of shares in what’s called a secondary offering. But that takes a long time -- it’s a lot like an IPO, where you hire an investment bank, go on a roadshow and jump through all sorts of regulatory hoops.
Q. So a PIPE is quicker. But is it cheaper?
Probably not. In exchange for doing the deal quickly, the private equity company usually buys the shares at a discount to their trading price.
Q. But what about Crocs. I like my plastic shoes and know lots of folks do too. So why does Crocs need the money?
The company’s not saying, but word is they’re raising the cash to buy back a bunch of their own stock.
Q. Whoah, hold on! They’re selling stock to raise cash to buy stock? How does that make sense?
Companies buy back stock for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they want more control of the company; sometimes it’s because they want to be sure the value of the shares remains high. In Crocs case, there’s talk of a restructuring, which Blackstone would help with. The company could be aiming at holding as many shares as it can afford to buy, to make that restructuring as smooth as possible.
The Richmond Federal Reserve had some good news for us today: Its survey of industrial activity in November registered a 13. Now most folks might consider 13 to be an unlucky number, but in a month when most economists had expected the survey to score four, up from a score of one in October, 13 looks pretty good. So when you hear the news that the Richmond Federal Reserve rated the economy a 13, you probably have a couple of questions:
1. What? There’s a Federal Reserve bank in Richmond?
To most of us, the Federal Reserve is the nation’s central bank, and we really only pay attention to it when it’s pumping oodles of cash into our banking system, or fiddling with interest rates. But the Fed is more than just the house of Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen. It's a network of 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks, located around the country, each of which has its own chair, its own area of responsibility, and tracks economic progress in its region. So while the quarterly announcements from the big ol' Fed give us a view on how the entire U.S. economy is doing, data from the regional Feds, of which Richmond is one, give us a much more focused view of how the economy is doing in certain areas.
2. So what does 13 mean?
Every month, the Richmond Fed surveys industry in Virginia, the Carolinas, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and West Virginia. It plugs all of that data into its abacus and comes up with an index. It’s a lot like the Dow Jones Industrial Average – a weighted average of data. So when you hear the Richmond Fed’s survey increased to 13, that’s a bit like hearing the Dow reached 16,000.
And given where we are in our economic recovery right now, 13 is a great number. So let’s consider ourselves lucky.
If you've ever taken out a loan, whether to buy a car or a house or a new PlayStation, you've probably heard the term lien. "I'm putting a lien on your house," for instance.
That’s pretty standard: The bank who lends you the money puts a lien on your property. Fail to make those payments, and the bank gets the house or the car, or whatever.
But what about a second lien? It's pretty apparent, right? A second loan on the same property.
The rules for a second lien are similar to the first, and the net effect is the same: Fail to make a payment on the loan, and the lender can legally force the sale of the house, to get their money back. The only difference is that the second-lien lender has to wait in line: The main mortgage lender gets paid in full first, and only then will the second-lien lender get refunded.
In the U.S., second-lien loans on homes usually come in the form of a home equity line of credit, or HELOCs. If you recall, the HELOC was a key player in the financial crisis.
As home prices kept increasing, many Americans borrowed against their homes. But when the value of the property fell, they found themselves underwater on their mortgages: Owing more than the house was worth.
Small wonder that HELOCs fell out of favor over the last five years: Homeowners were scared of them, and lenders didn’t like that they risked not getting the full amount of their loans back as property values fell.
But now, it seems, the HELOC is back. Bloomberg News reports that HELOC originations could rise 16 percent this year and reach another five-year high in 2014.
Home prices are rising, and real estate watchers like Zillow reckon the number of underwater homeowners is falling sharply. Americans are once again taking advantage of rising real estate prices to pull money out of their homes.
We can hope that this time they’re doing it to renovate (as opposed to buying a jet ski), but the risks remain the same.
That HELOC may not seem like a lot of money compared the main mortgage, but fall behind on payments, and you’re in danger of losing the whole enchilada.
Time Warner Cable looks like the tastiest cake on the plate in cable land right now. Both Comcast and Charter Communications are salivating at the prospect of gobbling up their rival, and investors reckon a merger could happen sooner rather than later.
This wouldn’t be a problem for Comcast. The company is valued at roughly $130 billion, while Time Warner is valued at just $37 billion. So Time Warner will look like a petit four in a fat man’s fist if Comcast picks it up.
From Charter Communication’s point of view, however, Time Warner looks like a four-tier wedding cake. Charter is valued at just $14 billion. How is it going to swallow a company double its size? And how is it going to pay for it?
Using private equity, that’s how.
Private equity used to be known as the leveraged buyout business. That is, using huge amounts of leverage, or borrowed money, to buy companies far bigger than you. And Charter is no stranger to leverage or private equity. In 2009 the company went bankrupt with $20 billion in debt, after using borrowed money to finance a stream of acquisitions.
So you could argue that Charter knows exactly what it’s doing, and that it fully understands the risks of borrowing billions to chase down a much bigger competitor. And that just might make its bid to swallow Time Warner a success.
Three numbers out today are fodder for fiscal doves to argue that the economy is giving a green light to the Fed to keep buying bonds and pumping money into the economy:
Retail sales: Rose more than forecast in October. Translation: Low borrowing costs and rising home and stock values are juicing the economy. Keep pumping!
Existing home sales: Fell in October to the lowest level in four months as rising interest rates and limited supply crimped the market. Translation: The Fed needs to keep hammering at interest rates, to keep them low so that Americans can afford to buy homes. Keep pumping!
And the kicker, inflation: The Consumer Price Index fell for the first time in six months. Translation: The cost of living is falling, and inflation is still barely moving the needle. Keep pumping!
Add that to Ben Bernanke’s statement last night that the Fed will likely hold down its target interest rate after it stops its quantitative easing program, and possibly after unemployment falls below 6.5 percent, and you have a low interest rate environment that could last until next summer, at least.
You see those beads of sweat on the brow of your financial adviser? She’s rushing to get you to sign on the dotted line before the SEC creates a uniform fiduciary rule for brokers and advisers.
This could be a very big deal for the personal finance industry, but when I mentioned it to Kai Ryssdal, he said, “Sorry man, you lost me at uniform fiduciary rule.”
So if you’re confused about anything involving the word fiduciary consider yourself in good company. And consider yourself in need of this here explainer video:
So why is it a big deal? Because if the rule is written right, brokers and financial advisers will have to act as a fiduciary, which means they’ll have to act in the client’s best interest. That’s your best interest, not theirs. That means they won’t be allowed to sell you some dodgy mutual fund or insurance product that pays them a fat commission.
Hats off to the Consumer Federation of America, which drafted the proposal. The SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee is expected to vote on it Friday.
Here’s the nub, according to the subcommittee: That any fiduciary duty imposed by the SEC should provide "an enforceable, principles-based obligation to act in the best interest of the customer.”