Thursday, March 31, 2011

Central Pricing Solution

It continues to worry us that asset prices can be, or are, subject to conflicts of interests and inflationary pressures.

As an independent valuation consultancy we’re naturally disagreeable about market participants seeking valuations from biased counterparties like asset managers or even the broker dealers who sold them the bonds or are funding their holding of the bond. Scion Capital’s Michael Burry explained in The Big Short: “Whatever the banks’ net position was would determine the mark.”

But even aside from potentially conflicted external parties, we’re acutely aware of the inflationary pressures independent parties such as ourselves may face when evaluating a security. Similar to “ratings shopping” opportunistic market participants often seek out the provider willing to give the highest prices.

The incentive is clear: higher asset prices translate into stronger performance. Stronger performance may directly benefit an executive or employee (to the extent performance fees or bonuses are based on returns) or even indirectly improve a fund’s prospects (heightened ability to raise capital or negotiate decreased margin requirements on the back of strong performance).

While prices have been regularly contested problems are starting to crop up more and more regularly, with questions about mutual funds’ municipal bond pricings and Berkshire Hathaway’s pricing and writedown practices finding their way into the news in the last two months.

There’s no easy solution, but one we feel strongly about is the creation of a centralized analytical (read pricing) solution.

The cost of creating such a system could be shared among its users. The advantages are numerous. Here are a few:

  • If all holders were required to hold the same security at the same price, the result would be greater balance sheet consistency (across funds, companies)

  • Regulators, auditors and examiners would have an easier time analyzing their constituents’ books: they would be able to rely on a single, consistent model that is widely used. (The prevailing, seemingly inefficient alternative is to have each regulator/ auditor/examiner familiarize herself with the methodologies employed by each and every pricing provider used by each company scrutinized. This is no mean feat, especially across different asset classes, and so naturally a lot will slip through the cracks.)

  • Pricing consistency helps reduce portfolio-level variability and also helps the market overcome some of the uncertainties that come with informational asymmetries and modeling complexities in today’s market. Consistency and confidence together help promote market liquidity.

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