Yesterday, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced fraud charges against collateral manager Of CDO (better late than never, right?). I re-read the sections in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine , dedicated to Harding Advisory and Wing Chau. I’ve included the relevant sections (I’ve bolded a few lines for emphasis). Enjoy:
Eisman took his assigned seat between Greg Lippmann and a fellow who introduced himself as Wing Chau and said that he ran an investment firm called Harding Advisory. When Eisman asked exactly what Harding Advisory advised, Wing Chau explained that he was a CDO manager. “I had no idea there was such a thing as a CDO manager,” said Eisman. “I didn’t know there was anything to manage.”
Later Eisman would fail to recall what Wing Chau looked like, what he wore, where he’d come from, or what he ate and drank–everything but the financial idea he represented. But from his seat across the hibachi, Danny Moses watched and wondered about the man Lippmann had so carefully seated next to Eisman. He was short, with a Wall Street belly–not the bleacher bum’s boiler but the discreet, necessary pouch of a squirrel just before winter. He’d graduated from the University of Rhode Island, earned a business degree at Babson College, and spent most of his career working sleepy jobs at sleepy life insurance companies–but all that was in the past. He was newly, obviously rich. “He had this smirk, like, I know better,” said Danny. Danny didn’t know Wing Chau, but when he heard that he was the end buyer of subprime CDOs, he knew exactly who he was: the sucker. “The truth is that I didn’t really want to talk to him,” said Danny, “because I didn’t want to scare him.”
When they saw that Lippmann had seated Eisman right next to the sucker, both Danny and Vinny had the same thought: Oh no. This isn’t going to end well. Eisman couldn’t contain himself. He’d figure out the guy was a fool, and let him know it, and then where would they be? They needed fools; only fools would take the other side of their trades. And they wanted to do more trades. “We didn’t want people to know what we were doing,” said Vinny. “We were spies, on a fact-finding mission.” They watched Eisman double-dip his edamame in the communal soy sauce–dip, suck, redip, resuck–and waited for the room to explode. There was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the show. Eisman had a curious way of listening; he didn’t so much listen to what you were saying as subcontract to some remote region of his brain the task of deciding whether whatever you were saying was worth listening to, while his mind went off to play on its own. As a result, he never actually heard what you said to him the first time you said it. if his mental subcontractor detected a level of interest in what you had just said, it radioed a signal to the mother ship, which then wheeled around with the most intense focus. “Say that again,” he’d say. And you would! Because now Eisman was so obviously listening to you, and, as he listened so selectively, you felt flattered. “I keep looking over at them,” said Danny. “And I see Steve saying over and over, Say that again. Say that again.”
Later, whenever Eisman set out to explain to others the origins of the financial crisis, he’d start with his dinner with Wing Chau. Only now did he fully appreciate the central importance of the so-called mezzanine CDO–the CDO composed mainly of triple-B-rated subprime mortgage bonds–and its synthetic counterpart: the CDO composed entirely of credit default swaps on triple-B-rated subprime mortgage bonds. “You have to understand this,” he’d say. “This was the engine of doom.” He’d draw a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower was the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower was the triple-A tranche, just below it the double-A tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, triple-B tranche–the bonds Eisman had bet against. The Wall Street firms had taken these triple-B tranches–the worst of the worst–to build yet another tower of bonds: a CDO. A collateralized debt obligation. The reason they’d done this is that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce 80 percent of the bonds in it triple-A. These bonds could then be sold to investors–pension funds, insurance companies–which were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities.
It came as news to Eisman that this ship of doom was piloted by Wing Chau and people like him. The guy controlled roughly $15 billion, invested in nothing but CDOs backed by the triple-B tranche of a mortgage bond or, as Eisman put it, “the equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds.” A year ago, the main buyer of the triple-A-rated tranche of subprime CDOs–which is to say the vast majority of CDOs–had been AIG. Now that AIG had exited the market, the main buyers were CDO managers like Wing Chau. All by himself, Chau generated vast demand for the riskiest slices of subprime mortgage bonds, for which there had previously been essentially no demand.
This demand led inexorably to the supply of new home loans, as material for the bonds. The soy sauce in which Eisman double-dipped his edamame was shared by a man who had made it possible for tens of thousands of actual human beings to be handed money they could never afford to repay.
As it happened, FrontPoint Partners had spent a lot of time digging around in those loans, and knew that the default rates were already sufficient to wipe out Wing Chau’s entire portfolio. “God,” Eisman said to him. “You must be having a hard time.” ”No,” Wing Chau said. “I’ve sold everything out.” Say that again. It made no sense. The CDO manager’s job was to select the Wall Street firm to supply him with subprime bonds that served as the collateral for CDO investors, and then to vet the bonds themselves. The CDO manager was further charged with monitoring the hundred or so individual subprime bonds inside each CDO, and replacing the bad ones, before they went bad, with better ones. That, however, was mere theory; in practice, the sorts of investors who handed their money to Wing Chau, and thus bought the triple-A-rated tranche of CDOs–German banks, Taiwanese insurance companies, Japanese farmers’ unions, European pension funds, and, in general, entities more or less required to invest in triple-A-rated bonds–did so precisely because they were meant to be foolproof, impervious to losses, and unnecessary to monitor or even think about very much.
The CDO manager, in practice, didn’t do much of anything, which is why all sorts of unlikely people suddenly hoped to become one. “Two guys and a Bloomberg terminal in New Jersey” was Wall Street shorthand for the typical CDO manager.The less mentally alert the two guys, and the fewer the questions they asked about the triple-B-rated subprime bonds they were absorbing into their CDOs, the more likely they were to be patronized by the big Wall Street firms. The whole point of the CDO