Looming Banking Troubles Like 2008 CDO’s now CLO’s 2020
“They’re at it again but this time it may really shut us down in complete collapse”
So what sort of debt do you find in a CLO? Fitch Ratings has estimated that as of April, more than 67 percent of the 1,745 borrowers in its leveraged-loan database had a B rating. That might not sound bad, but B-rated debt is lousy debt. According to the rating agencies’ definitions, a B-rated borrower’s ability to repay a loan is likely to be impaired in adverse business or economic conditions. In other words, two-thirds of those leveraged loans are likely to lose money in economic conditions like the ones we’re presently experiencing. According to Fitch, 15 percent of companies with leveraged loans are rated lower still, at CCC or below. These borrowers are on the cusp of default.
So while the banks restrict their CLO investments mostly to AAA‑rated layers, what they really own is exposure to tens of billions of dollars of high-risk debt. In those highly rated CLOs, you won’t find a single loan rated AAA, AA, or even A.
How can the credit-rating agencies get away with this? The answer is “default correlation,” a measure of the likelihood of loans defaulting at the same time. The main reason CLOs have been so safe is the same reason CDOs seemed safe before 2008. Back then, the underlying loans were risky too, and everyone knew that some of them would default. But it seemed unlikely that many of them would default at the same time. The loans were spread across the entire country and among many lenders. Real-estate markets were thought to be local, not national, and the factors that typically lead people to default on their home loans—job loss, divorce, poor health—don’t all move in the same direction at the same time. Then housing prices fell 30 percent across the board and defaults skyrocketed.
For CLOs, the rating agencies determine the grades of the various layers by assessing both the risks of the leveraged loans and their default correlation. Even during a recession, different sectors of the economy, such as entertainment, health care, and retail, don’t necessarily move in lockstep. In theory, CLOs are constructed in such a way as to minimize the chances that all of the loans will be affected by a single event or chain of events. The rating agencies award high ratings to those layers that seem sufficiently diversified across industry and geography.
Banks do not publicly report which CLOs they hold, so we can’t know precisely which leveraged loans a given institution might be exposed to. But all you have to do is look at a list of leveraged borrowers to see the potential for trouble. Among the dozens of companies Fitch added to its list of “loans of concern” in April were AMC Entertainment, Bob’s Discount Furniture, California Pizza Kitchen, the Container Store, Lands’ End, Men’s Wearhouse, and Party City. These are all companies hard hit by the sort of belt-tightening that accompanies a conventional downturn.
We are not in the midst of a conventional downturn. The two companies with the largest amount of outstanding debt on Fitch’s April list were Envision Healthcare, a medical-staffing company that, among other things, helps hospitals administer emergency-room care, and Intelsat, which provides satellite broadband access. Also added to the list was Hoffmaster, which makes products used by restaurants to package food for takeout. Companies you might have expected to weather the present economic storm are among those suffering most acutely as consumers not only tighten their belts, but also redefine what they consider necessary.
Even before the pandemic struck, the credit-rating agencies may have been underestimating how vulnerable unrelated industries could be to the same economic forces. A 2017 article by John Griffin, of the University of Texas, and Jordan Nickerson, of Boston College, demonstrated that the default-correlation assumptions used to create a group of 136 CLOs should have been three to four times higher than they were, and the miscalculations resulted in much higher ratings than were warranted. “I’ve been concerned about AAA CLOs failing in the next crisis for several years,” Griffin told me in May. “This crisis is more horrifying than I anticipated.”
Under current conditions, the outlook for leveraged loans in a range of industries is truly grim. Companies such as AMC (nearly $2 billion of debt spread across 224 CLOs) and Party City ($719 million of debt in 183 CLOs) were in dire straits before social distancing. Now moviegoing and party-throwing are paused indefinitely—and may never come back to their pre-pandemic levels.
The prices of AAA-rated CLO layers tumbled in March, before the Federal Reserve announced that its additional $2.3 trillion of lending would include loans to CLOs. (The program is controversial: Is the Fed really willing to prop up CLOs when so many previously healthy small businesses are struggling to pay their debts? As of mid-May, no such loans had been made.) Far from scaring off the big banks, the tumble inspired several of them to buy low: Citigroup acquired $2 billion of AAA CLOs during the dip, which it flipped for a $100 million profit when prices bounced back. Other banks, including Bank of America, reportedly bought lower layers of CLOs in May for about 20 cents on the dollar.
Meanwhile, loan defaults are already happening. There were more in April than ever before. Several experts told me they expect more record-breaking months this summer. It will only get worse from there.
If leveraged-loan defaults continue, how badly could they damage the larger economy? What, precisely, is the worst-case scenario?
For the moment, the financial system seems relatively stable. Banks can still pay their debts and pass their regulatory capital tests. But recall that the previous crash took more than a year to unfold. The present is analogous not to the fall of 2008, when the U.S. was in full-blown crisis, but to the summer of 2007, when some securities were going underwater but no one yet knew what the upshot would be.
What I’m about to describe is necessarily speculative, but it is rooted in the experience of the previous crash and in what we know about current bank holdings. The purpose of laying out this worst-case scenario isn’t to say that it will necessarily come to pass. The purpose is to show that it could. That alone should scare us all—and inform the way we think about the next year and beyond.
Source: Based on data from Fitch Ratings. The fourth CLO depicts an aggregate leveraged-loan default rate of 78 percent.
Later this summer, leveraged-loan defaults will increase significantly as the economic effects of the pandemic fully register. Bankruptcy courts will very likely buckle under the weight of new filings. (During a two-week period in May, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, and J. C. Penney all filed for bankruptcy.) We already know that a significant majority of the loans in CLOs have weak covenants that offer investors only minimal legal protection; in industry parlance, they are “cov lite.” The holders of leveraged loans will thus be fortunate to get pennies on the dollar as companies default—nothing close to the 70 cents that has been standard in the past.
As the banks begin to feel the pain of these defaults, the public will learn that they were hardly the only institutions to bet big on CLOs. The insurance giant AIG—which had massive investments in CDOs in 2008—is now exposed to more than $9 billion in CLOs. U.S. life-insurance companies as a group in 2018 had an estimated one-fifth of their capital tied up in these same instruments. Pension funds, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds (popular among retail investors) are also heavily invested in leveraged loans and CLOs.
The banks themselves may reveal that their CLO investments are larger than was previously understood. In fact, we’re already seeing this happen. On May 5, Wells Fargo disclosed $7.7 billion worth of CLOs in a different corner of its balance sheet than the $29.7 billion I’d found in its annual report. As defaults pile up, the Mnuchin-Powell view that leveraged loans can’t harm the financial system will be exposed as wishful thinking.
Thus far, I’ve focused on CLOs because they are the most troubling assets held by the banks. But they are also emblematic of other complex and artificial products that banks have stashed on—and off—their balance sheets. Later this year, banks may very well report quarterly losses that are much worse than anticipated. The details will include a dizzying array of transactions that will recall not only the housing crisis, but the Enron scandal of the early 2000s. Remember all those subsidiaries Enron created (many of them infamously named after Star Wars characters) to keep risky bets off the energy firm’s financial statements? The big banks use similar structures, called “variable interest entities”—companies established largely to hold off-the-books positions. Wells Fargo has more than $1 trillion of VIE assets, about which we currently know very little, because reporting requirements are opaque. But one popular investment held in VIEs is securities backed by commercial mortgages, such as loans to shopping malls and office parks—two categories of borrowers experiencing severe strain as a result of the pandemic.
The early losses from CLOs will not on their own erase the capital reserves required by Dodd-Frank. And some of the most irresponsible gambles from the last crisis—the speculative derivatives and credit-default swaps you may remember reading about in 2008—are less common today, experts told me. But the losses from CLOs, combined with losses from other troubled assets like those commercial-mortgage-backed securities, will lead to serious deficiencies in capital. Meanwhile, the same economic forces buffeting CLOs will hit other parts of the banks’ balance sheets hard; as the recession drags on, their traditional sources of revenue will also dry up. For some, the erosion of capital could approach the levels Lehman Brothers and Citigroup suffered in 2008. Banks with insufficient cash reserves will be forced to sell assets into a dour market, and the proceeds will be dismal. The prices of leveraged loans, and by extension CLOs, will spiral downward.
You can perhaps guess much of the rest: At some point, rumors will circulate that one major bank is near collapse. Overnight lending, which keeps the American economy running, will seize up. The Federal Reserve will try to arrange a bank bailout. All of that happened last time, too.
But this time, the bailout proposal will likely face stiffer opposition, from both parties. Since 2008, populists on the left and the right in American politics have grown suspicious of handouts to the big banks. Already irate that banks were inadequately punished for their malfeasance leading up to the last crash, critics will be outraged to learn that they so egregiously flouted the spirit of the post-2008 reforms. Some members of Congress will question whether the Federal Reserve has the authority to buy risky investments to prop up the financial sector, as it did in 2008. (Dodd-Frank limited the Fed’s ability to target specific companies, and precluded loans to failing or insolvent institutions.) Government officials will hold frantic meetings, but to no avail. The faltering bank will fail, with others lined up behind it.
And then, sometime in the next year, we will all stare into the financial abyss. At that point, we will be well beyond the scope of the previous recession, and we will have either exhausted the remedies that spared the system last time or found that they won’t work this time around. What then?
Until recently, at least, the U.S. was rightly focused on finding ways to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic that prioritize the health of American citizens. And economic health cannot be restored until people feel safe going about their daily business. But health risks and economic risks must be considered together. In calculating the risks of reopening the economy, we must understand the true costs of remaining closed. At some point, they will become more than the country can bear.
The financial sector isn’t like other sectors. If it fails, fundamental aspects of modern life could fail with it. We could lose the ability to get loans to buy a house or a car, or to pay for college. Without reliable credit, many Americans might struggle to pay for their daily needs. This is why, in 2008, then–Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson went so far as to get down on one knee to beg Nancy Pelosi for her help sparing the system. He understood the alternative.
It is a distasteful fact that the present situation is so dire in part because the banks fell right back into bad behavior after the last crash—taking too many risks, hiding debt in complex instruments and off-balance-sheet entities, and generally exploiting loopholes in laws intended to rein in their greed. Sparing them for a second time this century will be that much harder.
If we muster the political will to do so—or if we avert the worst possible outcomes in this precarious time—it will be imperative for the U.S. government to impose reforms stringent enough to head off the next crisis. We’ve seen how banks respond to stern reprimands and modest reform. This time, regulators might need to dismantle the system as we know it. Banks should play a much simpler role in the new economy, making lending decisions themselves instead of farming them out to credit-rating agencies. They should steer clear of whatever newfangled security might replace the CLO. To prevent another crisis, we also need far more transparency, so we can see when banks give in to temptation. A bank shouldn’t be able to keep $1 trillion worth of assets off its books.
If we do manage to make it through the next year without waking up to a collapse, we must find ways to prevent the big banks from going all in on bets they can’t afford to lose. Their luck—and ours—will at some point run out.