Thursday, September 25, 2008

How We Got Here

Since many people are now asking what caused this financial crisis, I think it is worth reposting Charles Morris' 8 Steps to a Trillion-Dollar Meltdown:

1. The Fed spikes the punch bowl. In the wake of the dot-com bust and 9/11, the Fed lowers interest rates to 1 percent, the lowest since 1958. For more than 2½ years, long after the economy has resumed growing, the Fed funds rate remains lower than the rate of inflation. For banks, in effect, money is free.

2. Leverage soars. Financial sector debt, household debt, and home prices all double. Big banks shift their business models away from executing transactions for customers to “principal trading”—or gambling from their own accounts with borrowed money. In 2007, the principal-trading accounts at Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch balloon to $1.3 trillion.

3. Consumers throw a toga party. Soaring home prices convert houses into ATMs. In the 2000s, consumers extract more than $4 trillion from their homes in net free cash (excluding financing costs and housing investment). From 2004 through 2006, such extractions exceed 7 percent of disposable personal income. Personal consumption surges from its traditional 66 to 67 percent of GDP to 72 percent by 2007, the highest rate on record.

4. A dollar tsunami. The United States’ current-account deficits exceed $4.9 trillion from 2000 through 2007, almost all for oil or consumer goods. (The current account is the most complete measure of U.S. trade, as it encompasses goods, services, and capital and financial flows.) Economists, including one Ben S. Bernanke, argue that a “global savings glut” will force the world to absorb dollars for another 10 or 20 years. They’re wrong.

5. Yields plummet. The cash flood sweeps across all risky assets. With so many people taking advantage of cheap loans, the most risky mortgage-backed securities carry only slightly higher interest rates than ultra-safe government bonds. The leverage, or level of borrowing, on private-equity company buyout deals jumps by 50 percent. Takeover funds load even more debt onto their portfolio companies to finance big cash dividends for themselves.

6. Hedge funds peddle crystal meth. Aggressive investors pour money into hedge funds generating artificially high returns by betting with borrowed money. To maximize yields, hedge funds also gravitate to the riskiest mortgages, like subprime, and to the riskiest bonds, which absorb losses on complex pools of lower-quality mortgages known as collateralized debt obligations or CDOs. The profits from selling bonds based on very risky underlying securities override bankers’ traditional risk aversion. By 2006, high-risk lending becomes the norm in the home-mortgage industry.

7. A ratings antigravity machine. Pension funds cannot generally invest in very risky paper as a mainstream asset class. So, banks and investment banks, with the acquiescence of the ratings agencies, create “structured” bonds with an illusion of safety. Eighty million dollars of “senior” CDO bonds backed by a $100 million pool of subprime mortgages will not incur losses until the defaults in the pool exceed 20 percent. The ratings agencies confer triple-A ratings on such bonds; investors assume they are equivalent to default-proof U.S. Treasury bonds or blue-chip corporates. To their shock, investors around the world discover that as pool defaults start rising, their senior CDO bonds rapidly lose trading value long before they suffer actual defaults.

8. The Wile E. Coyote moment arrives. Suddenly last summer, all the pretenses start to come undone, and the market is caught frantically spinning its legs in vacant space. The federal government responds with more than $1 trillion in new mortgage lending and lending authorizations in multiple guises from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Finance Board, and the Federal Reserve. Home prices still drop relentlessly; signs of recession proliferate; risky assets plummet.

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