Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club
Raise your hand if you don’t quite understand this whole financial crisis.
I’m here to urge you not to feel sheepish. This may not be entirely comforting, but your confusion is shared by many people who are in the middle of the crisis.
“We’re exposing parts of the capital markets that most of us had never heard of,” Ethan Harris, a top Lehman Brothers economist, said last week. Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary and current Citigroup executive, has said that he hadn’t heard of “liquidity puts,” an obscure kind of financial contract, until they started causing big problems for Citigroup.
I spent a good part of the last few days calling people on Wall Street and in the government to ask one question, “Can you try to explain this to me?” When they finished, I often had a highly sophisticated follow-up question: “Can you try again?”
It really started in 1998, when large numbers of people decided that real estate, which still hadn’t recovered from the early 1990s slump, had become a bargain. At the same time, Wall Street was making it easier for buyers to get loans. It was transforming the mortgage business from a local one, centered around banks, to a global one, in which investors from almost anywhere could pool money to lend.
The new competition brought down mortgage fees and spurred some useful innovation. Why, after all, should someone who knows that she’s going to move after just a few years have no choice but to take out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage?
As is often the case with innovations, though, there was soon too much of a good thing. Those same global investors, flush with cash from Asia’s boom or rising oil prices, demanded good returns. Wall Street had an answer: subprime mortgages.
Because these loans go to people stretching to afford a house, they come with higher interest rates — even if they’re disguised by low initial rates — and thus higher returns. The mortgages were then sliced into pieces and bundled into investments, often known as collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s (a term that appeared in this newspaper only three times before 2005, but almost every week since last summer). Once bundled, different types of mortgages could be sold to different groups of investors.
Investors then goosed their returns through leverage, the oldest strategy around. They made $100 million bets with only $1 million of their own money and $99 million in debt. If the value of the investment rose to just $101 million, the investors would double their money. Home buyers did the same thing, by putting little money down on new houses, notes Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com. The Fed under Alan Greenspan helped make it all possible, sharply reducing interest rates, to prevent a double-dip recession after the technology bust of 2000, and then keeping them low for several years.
All these investments, of course, were highly risky. Higher returns almost always come with greater risk. But people — by “people,” I’m referring here to Mr. Greenspan, Mr. Bernanke, the top executives of almost every Wall Street firm and a majority of American homeowners — decided that the usual rules didn’t apply because home prices nationwide had never fallen before. Based on that idea, prices rose ever higher — so high, says Robert Barbera of ITG, an investment firm, that they were destined to fall. It was a self-defeating prophecy.
Bubbles lead to busts. Busts lead to panics. And panics can lead to long, deep economic downturns, which is why the Fed has been taking unprecedented actions to restore confidence.
Comment: I'm in that club (of not fully understanding the credit crisis)! What I am doing is avoiding my own personal credit crisis. I have seriously cut back on the use of my credit cards and I pay them off every month. I'm not sure where all of this will shake out (at the National and global level) but I'm trying to keep my own house in order.