High Line Advisors LLC

management ideas for banks and broker-dealers

Learning From The Past

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“A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.” Edgar Watson Howe
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

At the end of another full year following the peak of the financial crisis in October of 2008, it may be time to review what should have been learned and to ask whether measures have been taken to improve broker-dealer risk management and operations.Five specific events culminating in the financial crisis contained valuable lessons for stand-alone broker-dealers as well as those at banks and bank holding companies:

  • The self-liquidation of Amaranth Advisors at the end of 2006 was the canary in the coal mine, exposing the difficulty of managing complex customer activity in multiple markets and asset classes, expressed through listed products and OTC contracts in multiple legal entities. Firms had an inadequate picture of aggregate client activity and were uncertain of their contractual rights across the different products. This confusion slowed the movement of cash, creating cracks in the client-broker relationship. Losses at banks were averted solely because of the high degree of liquidity in Amaranth’s portfolio. The crucial question that would haunt banks in the coming months was: what if Amaranth’s remaining positions could not have been sold to raise cash?
  • Several hedge funds, most notably those of Bear Stearns Asset Management, began to default on payments in 2007. Unable to raise cash from increasingly illiquid investments, both investors and banks lost money. The defaults drew attention to financing transactions in which the banks did not have sufficient collateral to cover loans they had extended. It is noteworthy that these trades were not governed by margin policy in prime brokerage, but were executed as repurchase agreements in fixed income, in some cases with no haircut or initial margin. Collateralized lending was practiced inconsistently by different divisions of the same firm, some ignoring collateral altogether and venturing into credit extension.
  • The collapse and sale of the remainder of Bear Stearns in early 2008 highlighted a different liquidity problem: a case in which customer cash held in prime brokerage accounts (“free credits”) significantly exceeded the firm’s own cash position. Because of this imbalance, Bear Stearns was essentially undermined by its own clients as hedge funds withdrew their cash. Once the customer cash was gone, the firm could not replace it fast enough from secured or unsecured sources of its own. Bear Stearns’ predicament forced the prime brokerage industry to confront some hard truths: Because firms had developed a dependency on customer cash and securities in the management of their own balance sheets, sources of cash and their stability were not fully understood even by corporate treasuries.
  • The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008 exposed the widespread practice of financing an illiquid balance sheet in a decentralized manner with short-term liabilities. Under the assumption that the world was awash in liquidity and ready cash, many firms had neither the systems to manage daily cash balances nor contingencies in the event that short-term funding sources became scarce. The problems of Lehman and its investors were compounded by intra-company transfers and cash trapped in various legal entities.
  • The Madoff scandal that broke the following December was in some ways the last straw for asset owners. Already concerned about the health of the banking system and the idiosyncratic risk of fund selection, they lost confidence in the industry’s infrastructure and controls. Banks now contend with demand for greater asset protection and transparency of information.

In summary, the actions suggested by these five events are as follows:

  1. Aggregate the activities of any one client across all products and legal entities of the bank or broker-dealer
  2. Establish consistent secured lending guidelines across similar products to ensure liquidity
  3. Develop transparency of all sources and uses of cash to minimize reliance on unsecured funding [see Collateral Management: Best Practices for Broker-Dealers]
  4. Match assets and liabilities to term
  5. Prepare for segregation of customer collateral with operations, reporting, and alternative funding sources
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