The Financial Crisis in Six Easy Pieces

The financial crisis, in six easy pieces: 1. Good Intentions. During the second Clinton term there was considerable political pressure to loosen the spigot of home lending, driven in part by a series of Justice Department investigations that revealed widespread … Read More

By / November 11, 2008

The financial crisis, in six easy pieces:

1. Good Intentions.

During the second Clinton term there was considerable political pressure to loosen the spigot of home lending, driven in part by a series of Justice Department investigations that revealed widespread racial bias and “redlining” in the existing system. Part of that pressure resulted in relaxations of lending and guarantee guidelines for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. When the Bush administration took office, the pressure continued. The Clintonies had pushed home ownership as a measure of equality; the Bushies pushed the same goal as part of their ideal of an“ownership society,” based on the (correct) sociological observation that people who feel an ownership stake in a neighborhood make better local citizens and that ownership leads to empowerment. The result was that during the Bush administration whenever critics complained about a long-term trend of stagnating wages for the middle and working classes, Bush could respond by pointing to the highest levels of home ownership in our history. The downside, of course, was that some of those loans were “sub-prime”; approximately $1.7 trillion out of a total $40 trillion in outstanding mortgages. And some of that lending was predatory, producing mortgages with impossible terms. This was around the time Alan Greenspan famously declared "fixed-rate mortgages are a sucker’s bet." Mr. Greenspan will spend time in Hell for that statement.

2. Investments Safe as Houses.

It didn’t take long for investment banks to get into the picture. They started creating bundles of mortgages and then selling shares in those bundles. So you would put 5,000 mortgages together and then sell shares in the resulting “trust.” The shares you sold were called “asset backed securities.” Now, technically SEC regulations enacted in 2003-2004 (called “A” and “B” – seriously) required full disclosure of the underlying valuation data for each mortgage contained in the trust, and that data had to be available to purchasers, sellers and ratings agencies evaluating the ABS’s. But! It takes a really, really long time to go through 5,000 or 10,000 or a million mortgage valuation files, and moving slowly means that competitors got there first. So everyone involved relied on historical trends to project failure rates and went merrily on their way. The problem, of course, was that historical trends are meaningless in an historically unprecedented situation. That’s pretty much what we mean by “historically unprecedented.”

3. The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Selling ABS’s was only the beginning. The real fun began when the hedge funds moved in and started buying and selling derivatives. “Derivatives” is a word that makes eyes glaze over, but in this case the particular form of investment we care about is simple. Investment banks started selling insurance policies that said to banks and holders of ABS’s “pay us a monthly fee, and if your investment tanks we’ll cover your losses.” These insurance policies are called “Credit Default Swaps.” Here’s where the deregulation comes in. A law passed in December 2000, sponsored and energetically promoted by Phil Gramm (R-Tex, McCain’s senior economic advisor up until the late summer) specifically exempted CDS’s from SEC regulation. And a brisk market developed in buying and selling CDS’s, and in what might be called “reinsurance” – the issuer of a CDS to cover someone’s losses would get a CDS of their own to cover their losses in case they had to pay out. And in this market there was absolutely no information at all as to the underlying value of the papers being traded.

Now, $1.7 trillion in questionable mortgages was a lot . . . but the market in related derivates came to close to $70 trilion, of which $40 trillion comprised CDS’s alone. But no reason to worry! With all this risk-spreading there was no way to fail; everyone had everyone else covered. (What could possibly go wrong?)

4. The Wheels Fall Off.

When unprecedented numbers of mortgages started to go bad, issuers of CDS’s started having to pay out unsustainable amounts on those policies. At which point everyone, all over the world, suddenly realized that the risk-proof system of everyone insuring everyone else’s investments was also a risk magnifying device; when large numbers of mortgages failed they produced ripple effects as the values of the paper being held by everyone along the chain fell all at once. The bad mortgages were the rocks in the pond; the ripples flowed out through the derivatives markets. And once those failures started happening, the value of all the other ABS’s and CDS’s fell just because people suddenly realized that their actual values were impossible to determine and were therefore no longer willing to buy them.

All of that would have been a sad story, but no one would have shed a lot of tears about losses to hedge funds and investment houses. Except that when everyone suddenly decided that $70 trillion of assets had no determinable value, something else happened: banks stopped being willing to lend each other money. The measure of banks’ willingness to lend one another money is the spread between the interest rates they charge one another and what they could get by parking their money in a Treasury bond. To personalize, again: if I have money, I can park it risk free in a T-bill. If you want me to take the risk of lending it to you, you have to pay me interest to justify the risk. The less I trust you to be able to pay me back, the greater will be the spread between that interest rate and what I could get risk free.

The rate banks charge each other is called the London Interbank Operating Rate (“Libor”). Historically, the highest Libor-Treasury spread ever recorded was around 250 points, or 2.5%. At the height of the crisis, the week before last, that number had gone into the 400s. Even more ominous, the amount of interest banks were willing to take in order to buy T-bills fell lower and lower . . . until for one brief moment banks were buying 3-month T-bills that paid negative interest rates; they were willing to lose money in order to be assured they would not lose all of it. Today the Libor-Treasure spread is still above 300 and the interest rate on T-bills is still way under 1%. Banks, in other words, remain scared. Which matters because of something called “commercial paper.”

5. The Big Freeze

“Commercial paper” refers to short-borrowing. This is the form of credit that American businesses rely on. It goes like this: at the end of a business day, my car dealership may not have taken in as much money as I expected. It’s not a big deal – we may make more than expected next week – but I have to pay for new inventory, rent, salaries, etc. right now. So I call up an investment bank – call it “Lehman Brothers”– that specializes in short-term lending, and I say “send me $1 million, and I’ll pay you $1 million plus $1,000 tomorrow.” The interest rate isn’t really interest so much as what gamblers call viggorish, paying the house a taste for the use of their cash to cover a debt.

When banks stopped lending each other money, that short-term credit for businesses dried up. Which was bad. Banks that has issued a lot of those short-term loans couldn’t borrow money to cover their own margin calls and costs at the same time that the flow of money coming in stopped because the loans going out stopped. Which was a problem, since these banks had laid off a lot of debt – just like reinsurance description of the CDS market. In other words, Lehman Brothers borrowed from other banks to get the money to loan to businesses. One day those banks said “we are not going to lend you any more, and pay us back everything outstanding.” And Lehman Brothers collapsed. Suddenly no one was writing commercial paper – issuing short term loans to businesses – and credit-intensive businesses have begun to shut down. More than 700 car dealerships have closed in the U.S. already. Meanwhile, potential consequences of a credit freeze are so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. This was the point at which Paulson came to Congress and people started talking about depressions.

6. Global Meltdown, Forced Selling, and the Long Cold Winter of 2008-2009

There is still more to the story. Around the world, banks and investment houses holding derivatives saw those holdings abruptly lose value. Which was bad, but was made even worse by the fact that these banks and firms were holding unprecedently high amounts of debt relative to their assets. Which had seemed fine as long as they could keep creating more profit by passing derivatives back and forth, but was suddenly a huge problem. Credit flows froze up all over the world, and banks and investmentfirms began to “deleverage” – get rid of their debts by paying them off. Deleverageing requires selling assets, starting with stocks. As financial institutions sell assets, the prices of those assets are pushed down, requiring further sales of assets and making everyone’s balance sheet look worse . . .which requires more selling. That “forced selling” is responsible for the fact that stock markets all over the world have crashed in the past week. Recent bounces back upward (as buyers seek bargains) suggest that the process may be reaching its end, but don’t count on it.

Various governments have stepped in to attempt various fixes. In the U.S., we have thus far focused on giving money to banks, having authorized $850 billion (of which $150 billion was pork spending needed to secure passage of the bill) for the purpose. The U.S. government has also started intervening in mortgages directly. Basically, our hope has been that banks will feel less insecure, and resume lending to one another. Unfortunately, so far the banks have primarily been simply stashing the money and sitting on it. (This is what can happen when you rely on indirect market-based incentives.) In fact, throughout the system, one of the remarkable things is that at the same time that credit is unavailable, banks and businesses are sitting on absolutely enormous pools of cash. They just don’t see that this is the time to lend or invest that money. The British government, by contrast, is providing money to banks but only to be used for extending credit. Some countries are guaranteeing interbank loans, others are guaranteeing all bank deposits, and so on.

Regardless,the massive losses of value from the falling stock markets, the slowdown of credit, and the huge contraction of the financial sector point to somethingthat looks a whole lot like a global recession. It’s going to be a long, cold winter.

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