It’s still Sunday, but I’ve finished my morning projects so I thought I’d take a quick break and grace you with a second post today before diving back into the mounds of paper staring at me.
The WSJ recently reported that U.S. regulators are warning about a marked increase in volume of leveraged loans and especially the cov-lite variety. Their concern, to state it bluntly, is that banks are making increasinlgy higher volumes of (what the regulators consider to be) risky loans ($78b in Feb 2013 compared to the pre-crisis record of $71b in Feb 2007) and may not be prepared for the consequences in stress-case scenarios (especially since, in the case of cov-lite loans, convenants may not serve as early warnings of problems).
The WSJ quotes Jeremy Stein (Fed governor) as saying, “the Fed is ‘seeing a fairly significant pattern of reaching-for-yield behavior emerging in corporate credit.’” Is it me, or do regulators just not get it? After years of whining about not enough lending and frozen credit markets we’re seeing massive activitiy in this space. Why? Well, gee, shockingly enough it has to do with investors seeking yield and banks, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it….willing to extend credit in exchnage for being paid those higher yields…. Borrowers are willing to pay these rates becuase they need the money, lenders and their backers are willing to provide the money for those returns. Of course, the regulators are worried about the risk….and banks making bad decisions…
This part cracks me up. Lenders are in the business of making loans. They make judgments about the risk of default versus the return on the extension of credit. If the return justifies the risk in their view they make the loan. If not, then they do not. Same thing with the folks they sell portions of these assets to in the secondary market.
So, in one sense, there are no incorrect credit decisions, just poorly priced ones–at least from a free market perspective… Put on your regulator hat, however, and all of a sudden, a bank making loans at high interest rates in exchange for taking on high risks is all of a sudden a potential problem, especially when the banks hold portions of these things and then sell chunks into the secondary markets to, according to the WSJ, wait for it, “pension funds, asset managers and other financial firms . . . .”
So, here we have a traditional type of banking activity that poses all sorts of risks to banks as well as to the secondary markets and regulators somehow think, again per the WSJ, that all of those risks are addressed by expecting “banks to only make loans they would be willing to hold in their own portfolios.” Sort of like all the CDO paper the banks were willing to hold on their own books? Personally, I’ve got no problem with these activities except that any secondary market player buying this stuff deserves whatever they get if they didn’t learn their lesson over the past few years.
Ok, so why did I write all of this crap about leveraged loans on my derivatives blog…? Well, it’s because the example illustrates the fundamental misconception on which the Volcker Rule is founded (i.e., that somehow precluding banks from engaging in prop trading, but allowing them to engage in traditional lending will somehow make them safer). It further illustrates that in whatever activities banks are engaged in they are fundamentally making credit decisions resulting in their exposure (be it in the form of a derivative or a leveraged loan). As such, what it ultimately reflects is that the line the regulators and others would like to draw between traditional extensions of credit and derivatives and other structured products is a big honkin’ lie. A credit decsion is a credit decision and whether on or the other is fully funded or not does not change the fundamental nature of the decisions that must be made.