In January 2007 the world looked almost riskless. At the beginning of that year I gathered my team for an off-site meeting to identify our top five risks for the coming 12 months. We were paid to think about the downsides but it was hard to see where the problems would come from. Four years of falling credit spreads, low interest rates, virtually no defaults in our loan portfolio and historically low volatility levels: it was the most benign risk environment we had seen in 20 years.
As risk managers we were responsible for approving credit requests and transactions submitted to us by the bankers and traders in the front-line. We also monitored and reported the level of risk across the bank’s portfolio and set limits for overall credit and market-risk positions.
The possibility that liquidity could suddenly dry up was always a topic high on our list but we could only see more liquidity coming into the market—not going out of it. Institutional investors, hedge funds, private-equity firms and sovereign-wealth funds were all looking to invest in assets. This was why credit spreads were narrowing, especially in emerging markets, and debt-to-earnings ratios on private-equity financings were increasing. “Where is the liquidity crisis supposed to come from?” somebody asked in the meeting. No one could give a good answer.
Looking back on it now we should of course have paid more attention to the first signs of trouble. No crisis comes completely out of the blue; there are always clues and advance warnings if you can only interpret them correctly. It was the hiccup in the structured-credit market in May 2005 which gave the strongest indication of what was to come. In that month bonds of General Motors were marked down by the rating agencies from investment grade to non-investment grade, or “junk”. Because the American carmaker’s bonds were widely held in structured-credit portfolios, the downgrades caused a big dislocation in the market.
Like most banks we owned a portfolio of different tranches of collateralised-debt obligations (CDOs), which are packages of asset-backed securities. Our business and risk strategy was to buy pools of assets, mainly bonds; warehouse them on our own balance-sheet and structure them into CDOs; and finally distribute them to end investors. We were most eager to sell the non-investment-grade tranches, and our risk approvals were conditional on reducing these to zero. We would allow positions of the top-rated AAA and super-senior (even better than AAA) tranches to be held on our own balance-sheet as the default risk was deemed to be well protected by all the lower tranches, which would have to absorb any prior losses.
In May 2005 we held AAA tranches, expecting them to rise in value, and sold non-investment-grade tranches, expecting them to go down. From a risk-management point of view, this was perfect: have a long position in the low-risk asset, and a short one in the higher-risk one. But the reverse happened of what we had expected: AAA tranches went down in price and non-investment-grade tranches went up, resulting in losses as we marked the positions to market.