The Medium Term Story
The medium term story of the evolving financial crisis begins at the end of the last century. With the bursting of the dot-com bubble at the end of the 1990s, possibilities of a long recession hovered on the horizon. The Federal Reserve, the Central Bank of the US, moved in with the tools of monetary policy to ease the slowdown. The target for the federal funds rate, the key short-term interest rate that the Fed monitors as part of it’s monetary policy tasks, was gradually lowered from over 6 percent per annum to a little below 2 percent within a span of about an year. Lowering interest rates to engineer a soft-landing for a slowing economy is a natural thing to do: reducing the cost of borrowing funds is a key way the Central Bank can affect the level of investment and consumption (especially of durable goods) expenditures and thereby boost the level of aggregate demand in a slowing capitalist economy. With finance in command, this normal and natural move had a perverse effect.
The effects of the falling federal funds rate gradually cascaded from the short-end to the longer end of the asset market, lowering interest rates on all kinds of contracts. One of the key long-term interest rates affected by this very sensible move of the Fed was the interest rate charged on various kinds of mortgage loans (loans to finance the purchase of homes). With mortgage interest rates falling, consumers not only started purchasing new homes with new mortgage loans but also refinancing their old mortgages. With the demand for mortgage loans increasing, and the increase sustained by a low-interest rate regime, house prices started picking up. Very soon, i.e., within a year or two, economists started noticing a bubble in house prices. There were several indicators of a house price bubble. For instance, the Case-Shiller house price index for 10 US cities – a commonly used price index for houses – increased rapidly since the early 2000s. Even more tellingly, the price-to-rental ratio of houses went through the roof. Between January 2000 and April 2006, the rental of an average house did not increase at all; during the same period, price of an average house increased by about 70 percent, sending the price-to-rental ratio on an upward spiral.
The fact that the price-to-rental ratio increased rapidly gave a clear indication that a house price bubble was building up. People were, in other words, purchasing houses not because of the service provided by a house but because of speculative motives. A rough proxy for the value attributed by consumers to the service provided by a house is the rental rate; since this was not increasing, it meant that people were not valuing the real service provided by the house. But prices of houses were shooting up giving an indication of an increasing demand for houses (relative to supply). Most of this demand was clearly arising from speculative motives; many of the house purchases were for the purpose of selling them off at a later date to reap capital gains (i.e., the profit derived from the difference between the selling and the buying price of the asset). Thus, the rise in prices was not driven by “fundamentals” (i.e., increase in the intrinsic value of the service provided by houses) but largely by speculative motives of capital gains; that is precisely what leads to an asset price bubble and that is what happened.
Sub-prime Mortgage Market
A run of a couple of quarters of rising house prices was very soon incorporated into the expectation formation mechanisms of financial markets. As has been observed over and over again in history, rising asset prices very soon creates irrational expectations that prices will keep rising, rising certainly in the foreseeable future if not forever. Such periods of rapidly rising expectations, feeding primarily on itself, have been labelled as “manias” by economists studying periods of asset price boom-and-bust. Prominent examples of such economists are Charles P. Kindleberger and Hyman P. Minsky, coming, as they are, from very different political traditions. In the context of the early twenty-first century US economy, the unprecedented house price bubble created grounds for the emergence of predatory lending and the sub-prime mortgage market. The sub-prime mortgage market was the market for mortgage loans to less-than-creditworthy borrowers at very high interest rates that often came with hidden but onerous terms. (Useful material on predatory lending and the subprime mortgage market can be found here)
A financial innovation that indirectly helped the emerging sub-prime mortgage market and the practice of predatory lending was “securitization”. Securitization, in the context of the mortgage market, meant pooling together hundreds and thousands of mortgage loans together and then selling bonds on that pool of mortgages. Investors buying those bonds – the mortgage backed bonds – received the income stream, both the principal and the interest, entailed by the mortgages as the mortgage borrowers serviced their debt. Securitization required that the entities, usually investment banks like Bear Stearns or Merril Lynch, that were issuing (i.e., selling) mortgage backed securities (the mortgage backed bonds or other kinds of assets backed by the mortgage pool) needed ownership of the pool of mortgages against which those mortgage backed securities were being issued. Thus, the entities that issued the mortgage backed securities went out and bought mortgage loans from the originators of the mortgages, i.e., those who sold the mortgage loan to the borrower, like Country Wide Financial (the largest mortgage seller in the US prior to the financial collapse).
The fact that mortgage loan originators had a market where they could sell off the mortgage loans they had originated created perverse incentives for the originators. Typically mortgage loan originators do a thorough screening to assess the financial background of applicants before making loans. With the emerging market for selling off mortgages, the effort at screening was reduced to zero. Things actually went even further. Since mortgages could be sold off at good prices to the investment banks, the mortgage loan originators had a incentive to start engaging in predatory lending, i.e., push mortgage loans on persons who they knew would not be able to sustain the payments entailed by the loan. Since the originator did not have to bear the risk of failure associated with non-payment of mortgage loans, they had no incentive to make prudent loans. All they had to do was to force some gullible working class person to agree to the sub-prime loan and then turn around and sell it off to some investment bank in Wall Street. Thus, the market for sub-prime mortgages proliferated, driven by rising demand coming from the Wall Street investment banks. And why were investment banks so eager to buy these sub-prime mortgages? To answer this question, let us look a little more closely at the process and results of “securitization”.
Securitization is the division, repackaging and dispersal of debt, earning huge fee income for the entity (usually an investment bank) that is undertaking this process. The process starts with some commercial or investment bank buying a swathe of mortgages, some prime, some sub-prime, from smaller financial institutions and pooling them together. Each mortgage, recall, entails a stream of future payments; so the pool of mortgages, entails some specific stream of future payments. Various categories or “tranches” of bonds, arranged according to their risk characteristics, are then issued against the pool of underlying mortgages, i.e., against the stream of future payments entailed by the pool of mortgages. Investors who buy these bonds (mortgage backed securities) then have the claims on the mortgage payments coming through month after month after month; if some mortgage fails i.e., payments stop the lowest category (i.e., most risky) bondholder loses first, the losses travelling up the tier of the bonds.
Let us look at a specific example: Bear Stearns Alt-A Mortgage Pass-Through Certificate. This is how this mortgage backed security worked. Bear Stearns bought 2871 mortgages from different mortgage originators for a total of $1.3 billion; this mortgage pool had mortgages that had been originated in different parts of the US, each worth on average for $ 450,000. Bear Stearns then pooled these diverse mortgages and issued 37 different bonds against that pool of mortgages; these bonds were called the Alt-A Mortgage Pass-Through Certificates. Alt-A stands for a very specific kind of mortgage: a mortgage where the originator does not ask any questions about the financial situation of the borrower before making the loan. It is not even ascertained whether the person taking the loan has a stable employment or not! Two additional players come into the picture: credit rating agencies and insurance companies.
Since many investors had an idea that the mortgage backed bonds were risky investments, they required some “independent” rating agency like Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s to ascertain the riskiness associated with investing in those bonds. This is one of the typical functions of credit rating agencies: to ascertain the riskiness (i.e., risk of default) of bonds and assign a credit rating to it; credit ratings run from AAA/Aaa (least risky) to C/D (in default). There were two problems with the involvement of credit rating agencies in the whole securitization process. First, there was an acute shortage of reliable information about the mortgages in the underlying pool; recall how the mortgages in the pool had originated in very different geographical locations, had been offered to very different income categories of people. Most importantly, very little information was collected about the financial standing of the borrowers (especially in Alt-A mortgages). So, despite their best efforts, the credit rating agencies could not come up with realistic risk assessment of the bonds issued against the pool of mortgages. The second problem was even more serious: a conflict of interest. Who paid the fees to the credit rating agencies? The same investment banks that issued the mortgage backed bonds; thus, there was a real incentive for the rating agencies to underplay the risk and certify most of the bonds as “investment grade”. That is more or less what happened, as we now know.
The other player in the securitization process was an insurance provider; since investment in mortgage backed securities (and other related assets) carried some risk investors wanted insurance against default. The instrument that was used to provide insurance for such transactions was the credit default swap (CDS), a derivative financial instrument. Suppose an investor bought bonds worth $1 million; then, to insure herself against the possibility of default she could buy CDS from some financial firm like AIG on those bonds. The insurance premium that she had to pay, called the CDS rate or spread, was typically in the range of 1-2 percent of the value of the bonds, $1 million in this case. She would thus pay $ 20,000 (if the CDS rate was 2 percent) and the CDS contract would protect her against default for the period of the validity of the contract (typically a few years). In the bonds were to go into default the firm that had issued the CDS would have to pay her the amount of her losses.
There were several problems with the CDS market. First, it was an over-the-counter (OTC) market and did not operate through an exchange; hence the possibility of monitoring or regulating this market were negligible. All the contracts were bilateral contracts and no one other than the two parties to the exchange could, in principle know the details of the contract. Second, unlike traditional insurance contracts, there were no reserve requirements. Thus, the financial entity selling the CDS was not required, by law, to hold any reserves against the CDS issued, unlike traditional insurance. So, if the CDS were to actually come due there was no guarantee that the firm that had issued the CDS would be in a situation to make good it’s side of the contract. Third, the most bizarre aspect of the CDS market was that the investor buying the CDS was not required to hold the underlying assets.
This third aspect is truly incredible and led to a veritable explosion of speculation. Let us think about this for a minute. It meant that if I believed GM would fail three years down the line, an investor could buy $10 million worth of CDS on GM bonds by paying a fee of $200,000 (assuming a CDS rate of 2 percent); and this the investor could do even though she did not hold any GM bonds. If GM actually failed and her bet was correct she could make $10 million on an investment of $200,000, a phenomenal 49 fold return! One could never expect to make such return by actually holding the bonds, and so investors started making huge bets using the credit default swaps instead of investing in bonds and stocks. By the end of 2007, the CDS market had grown to about $ 55 trillion (about 4 times US gross domestic product).
But who bought the asset backed securities? Who bought the CDS? International investors of all kinds. Around the late 1990s, there was an enormous pool of footloose, speculative capital in the global financial arena. The East Asian crisis, the Russian crisis and several other developing country crises freed up finance for investment in the US; and these investors wanted high returns even if that meant holding risky assets. That is precisely what the Wall Street investment banks were busy churning out: highly risky but high-return investments in the form of the asset backed securities and other more exotic assets. Hedge funds, pension funds, sovereign country funds and other large institutional investors lapped up the exotic assets which promised high returns.
But the whole edifice was built on very shaky foundations. This highly-leveraged investment game could remain profitable if either of two conditions were met: (a) mortgage payments kept coming in, and (b) house prices kept moving up. If mortgage payments stopped coming in, the property could be taken over and sold; hence sub-prime mortgages remained profitable investments even when the borrower was almost certain to default as long as house prices kept moving up. In the middle of 2006 house prices stopped rising and foreclosures started piling up; and then the whole process, the whole speculative game, started unravelling.
To the Short-term once again
With the medium term story more or less under our belts, let us return once more to the short term story and ask: why did Bear Stearns fail? Why did Lehman Brothers fail? Why was Fannie and and Freddie nationalized? What caused the near-collapse of AIG? Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers went under for very similar reasons: they could not keep borrowing to finance their positions. Towards the end of it’s life, Lehman was rolling over close to $ 100 billion a month to finance it’s investments in real estate, stocks, asset-backed securities, bonds and other financial assets. When news of foreclosures started pouring in, investors became convinced that Lehman had big holes in it’s balance sheet because of it’s exposure to the sub-prime mortgage market. They refused to lend it money; thus it’s cost of borrowing went up, it’s stock prices plummeted and it’s credit rating was dropped. With no other option left, it had to file for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were government supported entities (GSEs) that were created to help low-income homeowners get easy access to the mortgage market. They were meant to guarantee mortgages and was supposed to finance this operation by issuing it’s own bonds which were implicitly backed by the US government. It is now clear that they did not stick to this mandate of theirs. Instead, they used the subsidized loans that they could get from the market (due to the implicit government guarantee) to invest in mortgage backed securities which were backed by pools of sub-prime mortgages. When the sub-prime mortgages started failing, these institutions started losing asset values and it became clear by mid-2007 that they could not sustain the mounting losses. At that point the government stepped in to explicitly guarantee their debt (because it was spread far and wide in the global financial system) which finally culminated in their nationalization.
AIG, the largest insurance company in the US, got into serious trouble because of the credit default swaps that it had written. Around mid-September, about $ 57 billion of insurance contracts that it had written, in the form of CDS, required it to raise serious money. The CDS were all written on bonds linked to pools of sub-prime mortgages and as the sub-prime market worsened, the possibilities of the CDS payouts coming due increased. Because of the possible losses that it could incur, credit rating agencies downgraded AIG. The way the CDS contracts were written, a credit downgrade required AIG to demonstrate that it was capable of making good on it’s contracts; this required it to immediately “post collateral” to the tune of $ 15 billion; if it failed to post collateral, it would be considered bankrupt. Since it did not have that amount of reserves and could not borrow from a tightening credit market, it had to approach the Fed for funds.
Bubble bursts: Delevarging and Deflation
An aspect of the whole build-up that made the unravelling especially painful was the stupendous amount of leverage in the financial system. When the bubble was inflating every investment was so hugely profitable that investors borrowed heavily for investing. This was especially true of the investment banks whose leverage (i.e., ratio of debt to equity) was about 30:1 by 2007; thus, for every dollar of equity these institutions had borrowed 30 dollars. And a large part of the borrowing was at the shortest end of the market. This meant that the investment banks had to continuously borrow from the market (usually roll over their debt) in order to keep financing their assets and investments. This made the system extremely fragile because any serious problem would lead to painful deleveraging (i.e., forcibly reducing debt by various means often involving serious financial loss) and possibly even asset price deflation.
As foreclosures picked up speed, house prices started moving down. Defaults on mortgage payments and falling house prices meant that the mortgage backed securities started losing value. Often this meant that when lenders came knocking on the doors for their funds, assets had to be sold at short notice and at low prices to cover debt payments coming due. A rush to sell assets often led to a further fall in the value of assets, even those not linked to mortgage backed securities, leading to worsening balance sheets in wider and wider circles. With bonds losing value and even facing default, the CDS contracts suddenly started coming into effect. Since CDS issuers like AIG had not held any reserves for such contingencies, they got into greater and greater difficulties as bonds insured by CDS contracts started failing.
Falling assets values meant that financial firms faced greater difficulty in borrowing from the market, partly because the value of assets that they could offer as collateral had already fallen. Falling collateral value often lead to increasing costs of borrowing in terms of higher interest rates. Difficulty is accessing funds gives another push to sell off assets to cover debt payments, taking the spiral one step down. Deleveraging and an asset price deflation and a string of failures and rescues really led the financial system, in mid-September 2008, to completely lose faith in itself; it is this severe loss of confidence that manifested itself in the credit freeze, the center piece of the short-term story.
(To be continued.)