What Went Wrong
Back when Americans listened to music recorded on vinyl and cars had tail fins, buying a house was straightforward -- if not always easy. First you saved for a down payment, then went to a local bank or savings and loan to apply for a mortgage. The bank checked your income and credit records, verified that the down payment was ample to protect its investment in the unlikely event of a foreclosure, and provided the necessary cash from the savings deposits entrusted to it by your neighbors. What you saw was what you got: a mortgage with a fixed monthly payment that would be paid off twenty years down the road.
But big changes were coming -- most of them built around the entry of Wall Street into the home mortgage market. Actually, the seeds of these changes had been planted decades earlier. The Federal National Mortgage Association (later to be dubbed Fannie Mae) had been created during the Depression to increase the availability of home loans for middle-income Americans. One way it did that was to create a "secondary" market for mortgages, based in New York and Washington.
Why, you ask, would investors in some distant city be willing to buy mortgages on houses they had never seen that were owned by people whose names they didn't know? Fannie Mae set broad minimum standards for mortgages based on the assessed value of the house, the size of the down payment, the credit rating of the borrowers -- you get the idea. Then they bought thousands of mortgages that met their credit-quality standard and sold securities that represented claims on the interest and principle for tiny slices of each mortgage in the big pool. That made it possible for an insurance company in Omaha or a pension fund in Dallas to invest with confidence in, say, $10 million in ten thousand mortgages from California. Some of the mortgages might default, but the risk was predictable -- and shared with others who had invested in the same pool.
This secondary market for mortgage-backed securities got a huge boost in 1968 when Fannie Mae was privatized -- that is, sold to private investors -- and it adopted policies designed to increase its profitability. The pace of expansion further accelerated when Congress created a second private "government-sponsored organization," the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), with the goal of giving Fannie Mae some competition.
Banks discovered they could make more money in originating mortgages than by owning them. They began to sell most of their newly minted mortgages to Fannie, Freddie, and other investment firms for a profit, then use the capital they got back to do it all over again.
If "securitization" transformed high-quality mortgages into a standardized investment that could be sold and resold like stocks and bonds, why stop there? Why not create packages of riskier mortgages from loans with lower down payments and less creditworthy owners, then sell the resulting "mortgage-backed securities" to investors willing to bear more risk in exchange for more interest? And why should banks, which had largely switched from investing in mortgages to creating them, get all the action? Why not let specialized mortgage brokers find the home buyers, create the mortgages, and sell them to Fannie or Freddie or a private investment firm that would repackage them as mortgage-backed securities?
Why not, indeed. And for a long time, it looked like a good deal all around. Home buyers, especially those with modest incomes and less than perfect credit, now had a choice of lenders and lending terms. Institutional investors -- pension funds, bank trust departments, insurance companies, mutual funds, even foreign governments -- got to quench their voracious appetites for what seemed to be relatively safe investments that paid more interest than, say, a bond issued by Shell Oil or the U.S. Treasury. In 2001, new issues of mortgage-backed securities reached an astounding $1 trillion.
Wait, it gets better. Mortgage-backed securities created other new opportunities to make big bucks. Uncle Sam had been insuring the timely payment of home mortgages for middle-income families since the Great Depression of the 1930s, charging lenders a small premium for the guarantee. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continued the practice of insuring the mortgages behind the mortgage-backed securities they created and sold.
The credit insurance side of the business proved lucrative. With house prices rising by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005, homeowners who couldn't afford their monthly payments usually had the option of refinancing their mortgages instead of defaulting. The prospect of easy profits in guaranteeing mortgage repayments lured other investment firms into the act. Giant insurance companies such as AIG dived into the mortgage insurance business. While they were at it, these firms couldn't resist extending similar "credit enhancement" services in any direction the market pointed.
You want to guarantee the repayment of your $5 million loan to Company X five years from now? Just write a check to the Acme Insurance and Storm Door Company today for $100,000. The game was so lucrative that it was extended far beyond the sales of credit enhancements to the actual creditors. You haven't loaned any money to Company Y, but would still like to place a bet that it will default on its bond obligations in ten years? Write us a check now, and we'll pay you $1 million if Company Y does indeed go belly-up.
Once liberated from the necessity of selling services to real creditors and debtors, the credit enhancement business took off like a jackrabbit at a greyhound convention. At its peak in 2007, some $62 trillion worth of guarantees were outstanding -- a figure that is much larger than all the debt of all the debtors in the world.
Meanwhile, the big investment firms were hiring mathematicians (the insider's term: quants) to tailor esoteric new securities from the mortgage-backed securities as well as from other sorts of assets -- for example, securitized credit-card debt and securitized car loans. The advantage of these collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, was that they could be sliced and diced in a zillion ways according to when the investors wanted their money back and how much risk they were willing to bear. A CDO might, for example, give the owner a claim on the first 80 percent of the interest on a specific pool of mortgages -- a pretty safe bet in most cases. That would leave the claim on the last 20 percent to an investor willing to take much bigger chances.
Of course, the more complicated these securities got, the harder they were for the mere mortals who bought them on behalf of pensioners, life insurance policyholders, etc., to understand. A problem, you say? Yet another opportunity, Wall Street replied.
A handful of companies had long been in the business of assigning credit ratings to newly issued bonds. They made their money by charging the bond issuers for the service. The debt of, say, General Electric might be rated AAA, the highest rating. A successful midsize auto parts manufacturer might only earn a BBB rating ("satisfactory credit at the moment") because it faced growing competition from China and its financial health was linked so closely to the auto-sales roller coaster.
It didn't take a lot of imagination to extend the ratings concept to all manner of newfangled securities -- including, of course, the ones backed by home mortgages. This effectively transformed metaphoric black boxes stuffed with only the quants knew what into assets any institutional fund manager thought he/she could understand. So now the Central Bank of China or the pension plan for municipal employees in six small towns in Norway (both real examples) could invest in impossibly complex securities backed some way, somehow, by loans made to, say, homeowners in Riverside, California.
Good Times Must End...
As the economist Herb Stein once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." The long boom in housing prices came to a shuddering halt in 2006 and began a steep decline that is apparently not over. Not surprisingly, housing developers and real estate brokers have been badly hurt, as have their employees and the myriad industries supplying everything from lumber to appliances to the bloated housing sector.
But this had all happened before -- in fact, it seems to happen every fifteen to twenty years. And while in the past the deflation of housing bubbles had led to real hardship for lots of people, housing busts didn't bring the mighty American financial industry to its knees. What was different this time around?
The bubble did inflate faster this time and affected housing prices in more regional markets. But the mega-shock was largely a consequence of changes in Wall Street that left all the big players (not to mention the rest of us) far more vulnerable to surprises.
Bankers Don't Act like Bankers Anymore
When banks retained the mortgages they originated, they had a strong interest in making sure that borrowers kept up their payments -- or at least invested large enough down payments to protect the creditors in the event of foreclosure. During this last housing boom, however, most mortgages were quickly sold to investment firms to be repackaged as securities. As long as somebody would buy them, bankers weren't too picky about to whom they extended the credit.
That explains why banks were happy to make even "liar's loans" -- mortgages in which the applicants were required to declare their income, but the banks promised not to check whether they were fibbing. Still, why didn't the investment firms that bought the mortgages pay more attention to the risk they would never be repaid? Because these firms didn't have much incentive to care either, as long as somebody would buy the mortgage-backed securities from them.
This goes on and on. Why were the pension funds, mutual funds, insurance c...
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