Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Current Financial Mess - Simplified!

The whirlwind of news surrounding the current financial mess we’re in has my head spinning.

First it’s foreclosures, then it’s Fannie and Freddie and then it’s Merril Lynch and AIG - when will it stop?

But more importantly than that, this rapid destruction of the American financial system has many people wondering how it got started to begin with?

That’s why I decided to write this week’s article in response to this question on TickerHound:

How did this financial mess get started in the first place?

So let’s go through it step-by-step, from the beginning until this weekend when the Government announced a $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry. It’s our tax dollars that will be financing this bailout so I think it’s important that we all understand how and why it happened.I. It all started in the housing and mortgage market:

Basically, lenders were loaning money to whoever wanted to buy a home. Credit score, income and assets became irrelevant terms as brokers and local lenders rushed to issue new mortgages.

It seemed like a relatively “low risk” strategy at the time to many banks. Reason being, they figured that even if people stopped paying their mortgages, the housing market was doing so well that folks could just sell the house for a profit and pay back the remainder of the mortgage.

And that’s really where the trouble started.

II. Then the Investment Banks Got Involved:

Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) are nothing new on Wall Street. They’re sort of like bonds, meaning there’s a “principle amount” (the amount being loaned) and interest coupons (or payments) that would be paid monthly on the loan. However, MBS’s aren’t single loans.

Instead, these loans were really thousands of individual mortgages all pooled together to create a single, tradable security.

This is another reason why many lenders were happy to keep giving out mortgages to folks (even if they didn’t qualify). Local lenders knew that they’d be able to package up all those mortgages and just sell them right to the big investment banks and not have to worry.

The banks then turned around and would trade these Mortgage Backed Securities like they would a stock or a bond - trying to pocket profits in between each trade.

III. Bubbles

The basic assumption in this whole mess was that housing prices would continue to rise each year.

In fact, that assumption turned out to be pretty accurate. According to the S&P Case-Schiller Index, home prices nearly doubled across the country from 2001 - 2006.

S&P Case Schiller Home Price Index

That’s because it was so easy to get a mortgage, everybody wanted to buy a home. Thus spurring demand and in turn driving up prices further. It sort of became a self fulfilling prophecy, which in turn became a full-fledged housing bubble.

And just like any good bubble, it eventually had to pop!

IV. The “After-Pop”

So after the housing market finally started to tumble, the financial services industry went into a year-long death spiral. Here’s the basic sequence of events:

  1. People couldn’t afford their mortgages anymore.
  2. They couldn’t sell their homes for more than they paid due to falling prices
  3. So they defaulted on their loans - this happened to millions of people!
  4. The big investment banks which now owned all the mortgages suddenly realized that these “assets” were virtually becoming worthless in a very short period of time.
  5. So the banks had to take massive write-downs on these loans. The way this works is the banks were considering these baskets of mortgages as assets on their balance sheets. Once the assets went from being worth $100 to $1, the banks basically lost 99% of their value.
  6. When that happened it made it very difficult for the banks to get loans themselves (imagine applying for a loan when all you have is a pack of bubble gum and the clothes on your back - it’s not likely to happen).
  7. When the banks couldn’t get their own loans they were either going to be forced into bankruptcy (Lehman Brothers) or had to be swallowed up by healthier firms (Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, etc.)

V. How the Government Got Involved

Ever since Bear Stearns went under the government has played a fairly prominent role in this whole mess.

But it wasn’t until we almost saw the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the government really made its presence felt.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are sort of like “buyers of last resort” in the mortgage market. They were established to maintain liquidity in these markets in the event of the large banks being unable to trade their Mortgage Backed Securities.

So in the end, Freddie and Fannie were sitting on trillions of dollars in bad home loans.

And while these companies were private organizations they were however government sponsored organizations. So if the government had let either one of these companies fail then it might’ve made it very difficult for the United States to keep selling debt to big foreign buyers, like China. Remember, it’s our ability to sell our debt to other countries that has been funding our country’s operations (e.g. wars, etc.) for the last several years.

VI. How AIG and Insurance Fit In

AIG came into the picture when it began selling “insurance” to the big banks.

This technically wasn’t insurance, but that was mainly due to clever wording on the part of AIG management. Because for all intents and purposes, they were basically insuring the mortgages held by the banks - this type of insurance was called a “Credit Default Swap”, or a CDS.

Basically, the banks would pay AIG a monthly fee and in turn AIG would promise to make the bank whole on any mortgages that defaulted (sure sounds like insurance to me).

At the time I’m sure this sounded like a good idea because everybody assumed housing prices would continue to rise.

Well we all know how that turned out and that’s why in the end AIG was left holding the bag for billions of dollars in bad loans.

VII. The Bailout

So that brings us to where we are today: On the eve of the largest government bailout of the private sector in the history of this country.

The implications for these actions are vast and complex.

On the one hand, the government has to do this; the alternatives are too disastrous to even comprehend. On the other hand, what type of message does this send to the banks going forward? That it’s ok to engage in risky, reckless behavior and they’ll always get bailed out in the end?

I think I’ll save the rest of my commentary for another post.

I hope this gives you a clear picture of why and how we got into our current predicament.

If you have any other questions on this topic feel free to go to TickerHound for the answers!

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