Wall Street Goes to Washington

A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:

J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.

Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.

And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?

How to Manage $3 Trillion

Shawn Tully at Fortune has a fun article recounting the rapid rise of Blackrock, which will soon be the largest asset manager in the world.

He contrasts the firm’s fixed-income investment strategy with other firms (e.g., Pimco) as follows:

BlackRock does not invest by forecasting which way interest rates are headed. Instead BlackRock wonkishly focuses on the other factors that drive bond values: prepayments and default risk. As a result, BlackRock was better equipped to analyze the complex mortgage securities that came to dominate the fixed-income markets and that caused so much havoc last year.

BlackRock’s approach works like this: Say mortgage bonds are selling at a big discount because rates recently rose. BlackRock’s models are expert at judging if those bonds are “rich” or “cheap” based on its technology for predicting prepayment trends and defaults. If the model predicts, for example, that prepayments will be higher than most investors expect, BlackRock can garner extra returns because homeowners will pay off their loans at full value, and the fund can reinvest the proceeds at higher rates.

The firm’s analytical modeling gets so granular that BlackRock found that people living near IBM offices prepay frequently because IBM executives are often dispatched to new cities.

I find that IBM tidbit very telling. It’s a great example of the information-processing that can, in principle, allow investors to earn super-normal returns (alpha, in the lingo). And if enough investors do it, market prices could approach the efficiency that finance theory often predicts. On the other hand, the need to get that “granular” suggests just how difficult it is for normal investors to value these kinds of securities. (Of course, experience has shown that many investors in mortgage-backed securities made much more basic errors — like trusting the ratings granted by the credit rating agencies — but that’s a topic for another day.)

P.S. For those too young to remember, the old joke is that IBM stands for “I’ve Been Moved.”