Lest We Forget: Why We Had A Financial Crisis
Forbes, 22 November 2011
When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this infallible sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
It is clear to anyone who has studied the financial crisis of 2008 that the private sector’s drive for short-term profit was behind it. More than 84 percent of the sub-prime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending. These private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year. Out of the top 25 subprime lenders in 2006, only one was subject to the usual mortgage laws and regulations. The nonbank underwriters made more than 12 million subprime mortgages with a value of nearly $2 trillion. The lenders who made these were exempt from federal regulations.
How then could the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg say the following at a business breakfast in mid-town Manhattan on November 1, 2011?
It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp. Now, I’m not saying I’m sure that was terrible policy, because a lot of those people who got homes still have them and they wouldn’t have gotten them without that. But they were the ones who pushed Fannie and Freddie to make a bunch of loans that were imprudent, if you will. They were the ones that pushed the banks to loan to everybody. And now we want to go vilify the banks because it’s one target, it’s easy to blame them and Congress certainly isn’t going to blame themselves.”
Barry Ritholtz in the Washington Post calls the notion that the US Congress was behind the financial crisis of 2008 “the Big Lie”. As we have seen in other contexts, if a lie is big enough, people begin to believe it.
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Even this morning, November 22, 2011, a seemingly smart guy like Joe Kernan was saying on CNBC’s Squawkbox, “When the losses at Fannie and Freddie reach $200 billion… how can the ‘deniers’ say that Fannie and Freddie were enablers for a lot of the housing crisis. When it gets up to that levels, how can they say that they were only into sub-prime late, and they were only in it a little bit?”
The reason that people can say that is because it is true. The $200 billion was a mere drop in the ocean of derivatives which in 2007 amounted to three times the size of the entire global economy.
When the country’s leaders start promulgating obvious nonsense as the truth, and the Big Lie starts to go viral, then we know that we are laying the groundwork for yet another, even-bigger financial crisis.
The story of the 2008 financial crisis
So let’s recap the basic facts: why did we have a financial crisis in 2008? Barry Ritholtz fills us in on the history with an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post:
- In 1998, banks got the green light to gamble: The Glass-Steagall legislation, which separated regular banks and investment banks was repealed in 1998. This allowed banks, whose deposits were guaranteed by the FDIC, i.e. the government, to engage in highly risky business.
- Low interest rates fueled an apparent boom: Following the dot-com bust in 2000, the Federal Reserve dropped rates to 1 percent and kept them there for an extended period. This caused a spiral in anything priced in dollars (i.e., oil, gold) or credit (i.e., housing) or liquidity driven (i.e., stocks).
- Asset managers sought new ways to make money: Low rates meant asset managers could no longer get decent yields from municipal bonds or Treasurys. Instead, they turned to high-yield mortgage-backed securities.
- The credit rating agencies gave their blessing: The credit ratings agencies — Moody’s, S&P and Fitch had placed an AAA rating on these junk securities, claiming they were as safe as U.S. Treasurys.
- Fund managers didn’t do their homework: Fund managers relied on the ratings of the credit rating agencies and failed to do adequate due diligence before buying them and did not understand these instruments or the risk involved.
- Derivatives were unregulated: Derivatives had become a uniquely unregulated financial instrument. They are exempt from all oversight, counter-party disclosure, exchange listing requirements, state insurance supervision and, most important, reserve requirements. This allowed AIG to write $3 trillion in derivatives while reserving precisely zero dollars against future claims.
- The SEC loosened capital requirements: In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the leverage rules for just five Wall Street banks. This exemption replaced the 1977 net capitalization rule’s 12-to-1 leverage limit. This allowed unlimited leverage for Goldman Sachs [GS], Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch (now part of Bank of America [BAC]), Lehman Brothers (now defunct) and Bear Stearns (now part of JPMorganChase–[JPM]). These banks ramped leverage to 20-, 30-, even 40-to-1. Extreme leverage left little room for error. By 2008, only two of the five banks had survived, and those two did so with the help of the bailout.
- The federal government overrode anti-predatory state laws. In 2004, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency federally preempted state laws regulating mortgage credit and national banks, including anti-predatory lending laws on their books (along with lower defaults and foreclosure rates). Following this change, national lenders sold increasingly risky loan products in those states. Shortly after, their default and foreclosure rates increased markedly.
- Compensation schemes encouraged gambling: Wall Street’s compensation system was—and still is—based on short-term performance, all upside and no downside. This creates incentives to take excessive risks. The bonuses are extraordinarily large and they continue–$135 billion in 2010 for the 25 largest institutions and that is after the meltdown.
- Wall Street became “creative”: The demand for higher-yielding paper led Wall Street to begin bundling mortgages. The highest yielding were subprime mortgages. This market was dominated by non-bank originators exempt from most regulations.
- Private sector lenders fed the demand: These mortgage originators’ lend-to-sell-to-securitizers model had them holding mortgages for a very short period. This allowed them to relax underwriting standards, abdicating traditional lending metrics such as income, credit rating, debt-service history and loan-to-value.
- Financial gadgets milked the market: “Innovative” mortgage products were developed to reach more subprime borrowers. These include 2/28 adjustable-rate mortgages, interest-only loans, piggy-bank mortgages (simultaneous underlying mortgage and home-equity lines) and the notorious negative amortization loans (borrower’s indebtedness goes up each month). These mortgages defaulted in vastly disproportionate numbers to traditional 30-year fixed mortgages.
- Commercial banks jumped in: To keep up with these newfangled originators, traditional banks jumped into the game. Employees were compensated on the basis loan volume, not quality.
- Derivatives exploded uncontrollably: CDOs provided the first “infinite market”; at height of crash, derivatives accounted for 3 times global economy.
- The boom and bust went global. Proponents of the Big Lie ignore the worldwide nature of the housing boom and bust. A McKinsey Global Institute report noted “from 2000 through 2007, a remarkable run-up in global home prices occurred.”
- Fannie and Freddie jumped in the game late to protect their profits: Nonbank mortgage underwriting exploded from 2001 to 2007, along with the private label securitization market, which eclipsed Fannie and Freddie during the boom. The vast majority of subprime mortgages — the loans at the heart of the global crisis — were underwritten by unregulated private firms. These were lenders who sold the bulk of their mortgages to Wall Street, not to Fannie or Freddie. Indeed, these firms had no deposits, so they were not under the jurisdiction of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp or the Office of Thrift Supervision.
- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac market share declined. The relative market share of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dropped from a high of 57 percent of all new mortgage originations in 2003, down to 37 percent as the bubble was developing in 2005-06. More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions. The government-sponsored enterprises were concerned with the loss of market share to these private lenders — Fannie and Freddie were chasing profits, not trying to meet low-income lending goals.
- It was primarily private lenders who relaxed standards: Private lenders not subject to congressional regulations collapsed lending standards. the GSEs. Conforming mortgages had rules that were less profitable than the newfangled loans. Private securitizers — competitors of Fannie and Freddie — grew from 10 percent of the market in 2002 to nearly 40 percent in 2006. As a percentage of all mortgage-backed securities, private securitization grew from 23 percent in 2003 to 56 percent in 2006.
The driving force behind the crisis was the private sector
Looking at these events it is absurd to suggest, as Bloomberg did, that “Congress forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”
Many actors obviously played a role in this story. Some of the actors were in the public sector and some of them were in the private sector. But the public sector agencies were acting at behest of the private sector. It’s not as though Congress woke up one morning and thought to itself, “Let’s abolish the Glass-Steagall Act!” Or the SEC spontaneously happened to have the bright idea of relaxing capital requirements on the investment banks. Or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency of its own accord abruptly had the idea of preempting state laws protecting borrowers. These agencies of government were being strenuously lobbied to do the very things that would benefit the financial sector and their managers and traders. And behind it all, was the drive for short-term profits.
Why didn’t anyone say anything?
As one surveys the events in this sorry tale, it is tempting to consider it like a Shakespearean tragedy, and wonder: what if things had happened differently? What would have occurred if someone in the central bank or the supervisory agencies had blown the whistle on the emerging disaster?
The answer is clear: nothing. Nothing would have been different. This is not a speculation. We know it because an interesting new book describes what did happen to the people who did speak out and try to blow the whistle on what was going on. They were ignored or sidelined in the rush for the money.
The book is Masters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature by Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi (published in 2011 in the UK by Biteback Publishing and available on pre-order in the US).
In 2004, the book explains, the deputy governor of the Bank of England (the UK central bank), Sir Andrew Large, gave a powerful and eloquent warning about the coming crash at the London School of Economics. The speech was published on the bank’s website but it received no notice. There were no seminars called. No research was commissioned. No newspaper referred to the speech. Sir Andrew continued to make similar speeches and argue for another two years that the system was unsustainable. His speeches infuriated the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, because they warned of the dangers of excessive borrowing. In January 2006, Sir Andrew gave up: he quietly retired before his term was up.
In 2005, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, made a speech at Jackson Hole Wyoming in front of the world’s most important bankers and financiers, including Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers. He argued that technical change, institutional moves and deregulation had made the financial system unstable. Incentives to make short-term profits were encouraging the taking of risks, which if they materialized would have catastrophic consequences. The speech did not go down well. Among the first to speak was Larry Summers who said the speech was “largely misguided”.
In 2006, Nouriel Roubini issued a similar warning at an IMF gathering of financiers in New York. The audience reaction? Dismissive. Roubini was “non-rigorous” in his arguments. The central bankers “knew what they were doing.”
The drive for short-term profit crushed all opposition in its path, until the inevitable meltdown in 2008.
Why didn’t anyone listen?
On his blog, Barry Ritholtz puts the truth-deniers into three groups:
1) Those suffering from Cognitive Dissonance — the intellectual crisis that occurs when a failed belief system or philosophy is confronted with proof of its implausibility.
2) The Innumerates, the people who truly disrespect a legitimate process of looking at the data and making intelligent assessments. They are mathematical illiterates who embarrassingly revel in their own ignorance.
3) The Political Manipulators, who cynically know what they peddle is nonsense, but nonetheless push the stuff because it is effective. These folks are more committed to their ideology and bonuses than the good of the nation.
He is too polite to mention:
4) The Paid Hacks, who are being paid to hold a certain view. As Upton Sinclair has noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Barry Ritholtz concludes: “The denying of reality has been an issue, from Galileo to Columbus to modern times. Reality always triumphs eventually, but there are very real costs to it occurring later versus sooner .”
The social utility of the financial sector
Behind all this is the reality that the massive expansion of the financial sector is not contributing to growing the real economic pie. As Gerald Epstein, an economist at the University of Massachusetts has said: “These types of things don’t add to the pie. They redistribute it—often from taxpayers to banks and other financial institutions.” Yet in the expansion of the GDP, the expansion of the financial sector counts as increase in output. As Tom Friedman writes in the New York Times:
Wall Street, which was originally designed to finance “creative destruction” (the creation of new industries and products to replace old ones), fell into the habit in the last decade of financing too much “destructive creation” (inventing leveraged financial products with no more societal value than betting on whether Lindy’s sold more cheesecake than strudel). When those products blew up, they almost took the whole economy with them.
Do we want another financial crisis?
The current period of artificially low interest rates mirrors eerily the period ten years ago when Alan Greenspan held down interest rates at very low levels for an extended period of time. It was this that set off the creative juices of the financial sector to find “creative” new ways of getting higher returns. Why should we not expect the financial sector to be dreaming up the successor to sub-prime mortgages and credit-default swaps? What is to stop them? The regulations of the Dodd-Frank are still being written. Efforts to undermine the Volcker Rule are well advanced. Even its original author, Paul Volcker, says it has become unworkable. And now front men like Bloomberg are busily rewriting history to enable the bonuses to continue.
The question is very simple. Do we want to deny reality and go down the same path as we went down in 2008, pursuing short-term profits until we encounter yet another, even-worse financial disaster? Or are we prepared to face up to reality and undergo the phase change involved in refocusing the private sector in general, and the financial sector in particular, on providing genuine value to the economy ahead of short-term profit?
And see also: The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value