This Is Not A Normal Recession: Moving on to Plan B

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: Mortgage Fraud, Mortgage Law | Tags: |

The Winter of 2008-2009 will prove to be the winter of global economic discontent that marks the rejection of the flawed ideology that unregulated global financial markets promote financial innovation, market efficiency, unhampered growth and endless prosperity while mitigating risk by spreading it system wide.” Economists Paul Davidson and Henry C.K. Liu “Open Letter to World Leaders attending the November 15 White House Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy”

The global economy is being sucked into a black hole and most Americans have no idea why. The whole problem can be narrowed down to two words; “structured finance”.

Structured finance is a term that designates a sector of finance where risk is transferred via complex legal and corporate entities. It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Take a mortgage-backed security (MBS), for example. The mortgage is issued by a bank (the loan originator) which then sells the mortgage to a brokerage where it is chopped up into tranches (pieces of the loan) and sold in a pool of mortgages to investors that are looking for a rate that is greater than Treasurys or similar investments. The process of transforming debt (“the mortgage”) into a security is called securitization. At one time, the MBS was a reasonably safe investment because the housing market was stable and there were relatively few foreclosures. Thus, the chance of losing one’s investment was quite small.

In the early years of the Bush administration, Wall Street took advantage of the gigantic flow of capital coming into the country ($700 billion per year via the current account deficit) by creating more and more MBSs and selling them to foreign banks, hedge funds and insurance companies. It was real gold rush. Because the banks were merely the mortgage originators, they didn’t believe their own money was at risk, so they gradually lowered lending standards and issued millions of loans to unqualified applicants who had no job, no collateral and a bad credit history. Securitization was such a hit, that by 2005, nearly 80 percent of all mortgages were securitized and the traditional criteria for getting a mortgage was abandoned altogether. Subprimes, Alt-As and ARMs flourished, while the “30 year fixed” went the way of the Dodo. Lenders were no longer constrained by “creditworthiness”; anyone with a pulse and a pen could get approved. The mortgages were then shipped off to Wall Street where they were sold to credulous investors.

The disaggregation of risk–spreading the risk to many investors via securitization–was as much of a factor in the creation of “the largest equity bubble in history”, as the banks lax lending standards or Greenspan’s low interest rates. By spreading risk throughout the system, securitization keeps interest rates artificially low because the real risks are not properly priced. The low interest rates, in turn, stimulate speculation which results in equity bubbles. Eventually, credit expansion leads to crisis when borrowers can no longer make the interest payments on their loans and defaults spiral out of control. This forces massive deleveraging and the fire-sale of assets in illiquid markets. As assets lose value, prices fall and the economy enters a deflationary cycle.

More….

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