Everything you ever wanted to know about the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression but were afraid to ask.
By Arun Gupta. Illustrations By Frank Reynoso
Max Fraad Wolff consulted on and Michelle Fawcett contributed to this article. Design By Anna Gold. Color By Irina Ivanova. This article relied on many sources, including “The Subprime Debacle” by Karl Beitel. Monthly Review, May 2008.
From 1982 to 2000, the U.S. stock market went on the longest bull run ever, as share prices rose to dizzying heights. In the late 1990s, a combination of factors, which included the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates, created a huge price bubble in Internet stocks. A speculative bubble occurs when price far outstrips the fundamental worth of the asset. Bubbles have occurred in everything from real estate, stocks and railroads to tulips, beanie babies and comic books. As with all bubbles, it took more and more money to make a return*. This led to the Internet bubble popping in March 2000.
*For instance, if you purchased 100 shares of Apple at $10 a share and it rose to $20, it cost $1,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 100 percent return), but if the shares were $100 each and rose to $110, it would cost $10,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 10 percent return — and the loss potential would be much greater, too.
Many Americans joined the stock mania literally in the last days and lost considerable wealth, and some, such as Enron employees, lost their life savings. When the stock market bubble erupted, turbulence rippled through the larger economy, causing investment and corporate spending to sink and unemployment to rise. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, generating a shock wave of fear and a drop in consumer spending. Burned by the stock market, many people shifted to home purchases as a more secure way to build wealth.
By 2002, with the economy already limping along, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Fed slashed interest rates to historic lows of near 1 percent to avoid a severe economic downturn. Low interest rates make borrowed money cheap for everyone from homebuyers to banks. This ocean of credit was one factor that led to a major shift in the home-lending industry — from originate to own to originate to distribute. Low interest rates also meant that homebuyers could take on larger mortgages, which supported rising prices.
In the originate-to-own model, the mortgage lender — which can be a private mortgage company, bank, thrift or credit union — holds the mortgage for its term, usually 30 years. Every month the bank* originating the mortgage receives a payment made of principal and interest from the homeowner. If the buyer defaults on the mortgage, that is, stops making monthly payments, then the bank can seize and sell a valuable asset: the house. Given strict borrowing standards and the long life of the loan, it’s like the homebuyer is getting married to the bank.
*Shorthand for any mortgage originator.
In the originate-to-distribute model, the banks sell the mortgage to third parties, turning the loans into a commodity like widgets on a conveyor belt. By selling the loan, the bank frees up its capital so it can turn around and finance a new mortgage. Thus, the banks have an incentive to sell (or distribute) mortgages fast so they can recoup the funds to sell more mortgages. By selling the loan, the bank also distributes the risk of default to others.
The banks made money off mortgage fees, perhaps only a few thousand dollars per loan. Because they sold the loan, sometimes in just a few days, they had no concern that the homebuyer might default. Banks began using call centers and high-pressure tactics to mass-produce mortgages because the profit was in volume—how many loans could be approved how fast. This was complemented by fraud throughout the realestate industry, in which appraisers over-valued homes and mortgage brokers approved anyone with a pulse, not verifying assets, job status or income. And the mushrooming housing industry distorted the whole economy. Of all net job growth from 2002 to 2007, up to 40 percent was housing-sector related: mortgage brokers, appraisers, real-estate agents, call-center employees, loan officers, construction and home-improvement store workers, etc.
To make the loans easier to sell, the banks go to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac and get assurance for conforming (or prime mortgages*). Assurance means one of the agencies certifies that the loans are creditworthy; they also insure part of the loan in case the homeowner defaults. Before their recent nationalization, Fannie and Freddie were government-sponsored entities (GSEs). While anyone could buy shares in the two companies, they were also subject to federal regulation and congressional oversight. This federal role was seen as an implicit guarantee: While there was no explicit guarantee, all parties believed loans backed by Fannie and Freddie were absolutely safe because the government would not let the two agencies fail. This allowed them to borrow huge sums of money at extremely low rates.
*Prime refers to the credit score of the borrower.
Banks then sold their newly acquired assured prime mortgage loans to bundlers, ranging from Fannie and Freddie to private labels, such as investment banks, hedge funds and money banks (ones that hold deposits like savings and checking accounts. Bundlers pooled many mortgages with the intention of selling the payment rights to others, that is, someone else pays to receive your monthly mortgage payments.
The next step was to securitize the bundle (a security is a tradable asset. Much of the financial wizardry of Wall Street involves turning debts into assets. Say you’re Bank of America and you sell 200 mortgages in a day. Lehman Brothers buys the loans after they are assured and bundles them by depositing the mortgages in a bank account — that’s where the monthly payments from the 200 homeowners go. Then, a mortgage-backed security (MBS) is created from this bundle. An MBS is a financial product that pays a yield to the purchaser, such as a hedge fund, pension fund, investment bank, money bank, central bank and especially Fannie and Freddie. The yield, essentially an interest payment, comes from the mortgage payments.
How does it work? The homeowner keeps making monthly mortgage payments to Bank of America, which makes money from the fees from the original mortgage and gets a cut for servicing the mortgage payments, passing them on to Lehman Brothers. Lehman makes money as a bundler of the mortgages and underwriter of the mortgage-backed security. The purchaser of the mortgage-backed security, say, Fannie Mae, then gets paid from the bank account holding the mortgage payments.
At first, this process covered only prime mortgages because Fannie and Freddie could not assure subprime loans. To address low rates of home ownership among low-income populations and communities of color, around 2004 Congress began encouraging Fannie and Freddie to start assuring subprime mortgages on a wide scale. And easy credit fed investors’ appetite for more and more mortgage-backed securities, which provided funding for new mortgages.
One definition of subprime loans is any loan at an interest rate that is at least 3 percentage points more than a prime loan. Many of these loans were adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) with teaser rates. The rate was low for the first few years, but then it would reset, causing monthly payments to leap dramatically, sometimes to two or three times the original amount. Subprime borrowers are considered riskier to lend to because of low credit scores. Subprime borrowers are concentrated among people of color and immigrant and low-income communities, partly because racial and class disparities result in less access to banking services such as credit cards, online billing and checking and saving accounts. Bill paying becomes a labor-intensive process, making it much more likely that payments will be late or missed, driving down credit scores. With mortgage brokers and lenders pushing loans on anyone and everyone, those with less financial acumen — disproportionately low-income people, immigrants, the elderly and communities of color — often found themselves with mortgages that became unaffordable.
With the surge in mortgage loans, around 2004, banks started extensively using financial products called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The banks would either combine mortgage-backed securities they already owned or bundle large pools of high-interest subprime mortgages. CDOs were sliced into tranches — think of them as cuts of meat — that paid a yield according to risk of default: The best cuts, the filet mignon, had the lowest risk and hence paid the lowest yield. The riskiest tranches, the mystery-meat hotdogs that paid the highest yield, would default first if homebuyers stopped making payments. This was seen as a way to distribute risk across the markets. The notion of distributing risk means all the market players take a little risk, so if something goes bad, everyone suffers but no one dies.
Tranches were given ratings by services like Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch. The highest rating, AAA, meant there was virtually no risk of default. The perceived safety of AAA meant a broad variety of financial institutions could buy them. And because tranches were marketed as a tool to fine-tune risk and return, this spurred a big demand. There was a conflict of interest, however, because the rating services earned huge fees from the investment banks. Moody’s earned nearly $850 million from such structured finance products in 2006 alone. The investment bank also bundled lower-rated mortgage backed securities, like BBB -rated ones, and then sliced them to create new tranches rated from AAA to junk. This was like turning the hotdogs into steaks.
Furthermore, the banks would hedge the tranches, another way of distributing risk, by purchasing credit default swaps (CDSs) sold by companies like AIG and MBIA. The swaps were a form of insurance. This was seen as a way to make tranches more secure and hence higher rated. For instance, say you’re Goldman Sachs and you have $10 million in AAA tranches. You go to AIG to insure it, and the company determines that the risk of default is extremely low so the premium is 1 percent. So you pay AIG $100,000 a year and if the tranche defaults, the company pays you $10 million. But CDSs started getting brought and sold all over the world based on perceived risk. The market grew so large that the underlying debt being insured was $45 trillion — nearly the same size as the annual global economy!
Also around 2004, things began to get even trickier when investment banks set up entities known as structured investment vehicles (SIVs). The SIVs would purchase subprime MBSs from their sponsoring banks. But to purchase these MBSs, the structured investment vehicles needed funds of their own. So the SIVs created products called asset-backed commercial paper (short-term debt of 1 to 90 days). Asset-backed means it is backed by credit from the sponsoring bank. The SIVs then sold the paper, mainly to money market funds. In this way, the SIVs generated money to purchase the mortgage-backed securities from their bank. The SIVs made money by getting high yields from the subprime MBSs they brought, while paying out low yields to the money markets that purchased the commercial paper (profiting from a spread like this is known as arbitrage).
Wall Street’s goal was to conjure up ways to make money while not encountering any liability. It was moving everything off-book to the SIVs to get around rules about leveraging. Banks, hedge funds and others leverage by taking their capital reserves — actual cash or assets that can be easily turned into cash — and borrowing many times against it. For instance, Merrill Lynch had a leverage ratio of 45.8 on Sept. 26. That means that if Merrill had $10 billion in the bank, it was playing around with $458 billion. The Federal Reserve is supposed to regulate reserves to limit the growth of credit, but the SIVs were one method to get around this rule. More leverage also meant more risk for the bank, however, because funds could disappear quickly if a few bets went bad. This is all part of what’s called the Shadow Banking System, meaning it gets around existing regulations.
The whole process worked as long as everyone believed housing prices would go up endlessly. This is a form of perceptual economics, one principle of which is that any widely held belief in the market tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the case of housing, homeowners took on ever-larger mortgages in the belief that prices would keep rising rapidly. Mortgage lenders believed the loans were safe because even if the homeowner defaulted, the mortgage holder would be left with a house that was increasing in price. Confidence in rising prices led the creators and purchasers of mortgage-backed securities to think these investments were virtually risk-free. This also applied to over-leveraging — as long as there was easy credit and quick returns to be made, investors clamored for more mortgage-backed securities. And this applied to the money market funds that brought the paper from structured investment vehicles. As long as the money market funds had confidence in the system, they didn’t cash out the commercial paper when it came due, but rolled it over at the same interest rates. This allowed the SIVs to mint money without posing any liabilities for their sponsoring banks.
This system kept the U.S. economy chugging along for years. For some 35 years, real wages have been stagnant for most Americans, but as house values skyrocketed over the last decade, many homeowners refinanced and cashed out the equity — turning their homes into ATMs. For example, if you owed $200,000 on a mortgage but the house value rose to $300,000, you could potentially turn the $100,000 difference into cash by refinancing. By 2004, Americans were using home equity to finance as much $310 billion a year in personal consumption. This debt-driven consumption was the engine of growth.
U.S. over-consumption was balanced by over-production in many Asian countries. Countries like China, India, Taiwan and South Korea run large trade surpluses with the United States, which speeds their economic development. They invest excess cash in U.S. credit instruments ranging from corporate debt and MBSs to government bonds and bills. It’s what economists call a virtuous cycle: we buy their goods, helping them develop, while they use the profits to buy our credit, allowing us to purchase more of their goods. But it’s also unsustainable. A country cannot over-consume forever.
In the final stage of the housing bubble, fewer first-time buyers could afford traditional mortgages. Rising house prices required ever-larger down payments so subprime mortgages multiplied, as they often required little or no money down. From 2004 to 2006, nearly 20 percent of all mortgage loans were subprime loans. As the vast majority were adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), this created a time bomb. The minute interest rates went up, the rates reset, and homeowners with ARMs were saddled with larger monthly payments.
Various factors combined to slow real-estate prices and deflate the bubble. Rising prices led to a building boom and oversupply of houses, everaccelerating prices meant more money brought smaller returns and, once again, the Fed played a role by raising interest rates. It was trying to stave off inflation, but given the proliferation of adjustablerate mortgages, it led to higher mortgage payments, pushing hundreds of thousands of homeowners into foreclosure.
Once the bubble started to leak, the process accelerated, turning the mania into a panic. First, the default spread to the structured debt instruments like collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities. The system of distributing risk failed. Securitization had spread across the entire financial system — investment and money banks, pension funds, central banks, insurance companies — putting everyone at risk. Because the finance sector had lobbied aggressively for decades to slash regulation, the lack of oversight amplified risk. As mortgage holders defaulted, mortgage-backed securities also began to default. The subprime funding conduit from Wall Street froze up, which led big mortgage lenders like Countrywide, New Century Financial and American Home Mortgage to go belly-up.
As panic set in, money market funds began to stop rolling over the commercial paper — they wanted to cash it out. So SIVs now had to either call on their credit line from their sponsoring banks or sell assets such as the mortgage-backed securities to raise money. Mortgage defaults and forced sales of the MBSs began to push prices down even further. This forced banks to book losses, requiring some to sell more assets to cover the losses, further lowering prices, forcing them to book more losses, creating a vicious cycle. This is known as a liquidation trap. Since no one was sure about the size of the losses, banks began to hoard funds, which caused the credit markets to dry up.
Over the last year, the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury have taken increasingly drastic measures — lowering interest rates, pumping cash into the banking sector, allowing investment banks to borrow funds while putting up low-valued securities as collateral. This then proceeded to financing takeovers, such as the Fed providing a $29 billion credit line for JP Morgan to take over Bear Stearns in March. Then it nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; this was followed by the federal takeover of AIG, which was done in by its gambling with credit default swaps. In the end, the legendary Wall Street banks disappeared in a fortnight — bankrupt, acquired or converted into bank holding companies like Citigroup.
But the contagion has not been contained. Whether the bailout plan can succeed is highly questionable. Many are skeptical as to whether the bailout will even restore confidence — and credit — to the banking system. As Reuters stated recently, “Doubts remain as to how it [the bailout plan] could immediately thaw the frozen money and credit market.” Even if the bailout revives the banking sector, few economists think it will jumpstart the consumer credit machine. For one, over-leveraged, money-strapped banks will eagerly dump nearworthless securities on taxpayers in exchange for cash to bulk up their reserves. Plus, with working hours and wages declining and unemployment, home foreclosures and inflation surging, banks are in no mood to give consumers more credit, so consumption — and hence the economy — will continue to contract.
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