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Crisis on Wall Street

September 18, 2008

This week’s financial developments have unfolded in the ways that keep people up at night and spark panic in even seasoned investors. And it’s not over yet — we’re perhaps midway through the financial crisis (which actually could get much worse), and headed fast into a serious and disturbing recession.

It’s as if the economy entered a time warp and we found our way into a 19th century boom and bust cycle — and the bust phase is never pleasant. It started, as everyone can now understand, when the bubble in the housing market opened up a new flank in subprime borrowers, Wall Street hotshots packaged those subprime mortgages into securities, bought by the tens of billions with tens of billions in borrowed money; and then even hotter shots created trillions in “credit default swaps” that guaranteed those securities against default. Once the housing market swooned, the rest was dominos, from mortgages to mortgage-backed securities to credit default swaps to the institutions that provided all the borrowed money for both.

You know the rest as the financial system began to crack under the monumental weight of defaulting securities — the denizens of free-market capitalism in the Bush administration bailed out Bear Stearns, then took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and then threw $85 billion in loans at AIG, with all of its assets as the collateral. Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch are gone, and in another month, so a number of other major financial institutions will join them.

The time to tackle these problems was during the boom, not during the bust, in extremis. That’s especially true with a boom where the risks are as graphic and obvious as they were this time. Instead, the potential costs were consistently denied, set aside, or ignored, and the biggest responsibility lies with those who should have made the long-term health of their companies and our economy their top priority. The titans of Wall Street and senior officials at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and the White House economic council all understood the nature and extent of the risks. They are the “Michael Brownies” of the current financial crisis. (And lest we forget — as if anyone could — most of the Wall Street titans are walking away with tens of millions of dollars, because their compensation agreements reward them for high profits based on speculative risks and impose no penalty when it all collapses.)

This is a bust that was inevitable. With the enormous expansion in the global capital pool and the stream of hundreds of billions of dollars a year of that capital into the United States, financial institutions found increasingly risky ways to earn fees and other income from all that capital. Our government sat by as largely unregulated funds and investment banks create new securities and then sold them to investors leveraged up to 95 or 97 percent — including new funds they created themselves to buy the securities they issued themselves. Where was the Fed, the Treasury and the White House — or John McCain — when these instruments proliferated into the trillions with little collateral behind them. Ironically, many of these new instruments were intended to diversify risk, such as the credit default swaps. With those, the owner of assets like mortgages, auto loans or credit card debt exchanges a piece of the income stream from those assets for a guarantee that he’d be covered if the debtors defaulted. It works only if the incidence of default is very low — and those issuing the guarantees can make good when defaults happen. Indeed, a good of the colossal failure of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and the administration involves their negligence in insuring that such defaults would remain rare and that those providing the guarantees when did happen could make good on them. Even as the defaults began to rise and the guarantees began to fail, they remain aloof, and their oversight and regulation virtually non-existent. The market became an inverted pyramid that inevitably would topple.

We’re in the middle of a slow-motion, cascading systemic crisis, and it’s not over yet. In fact, it probably won’t end until the housing market stabilizes and begins to recover. Meanwhile, it will continue to slowly grind down the economy for everyone. As the institutions that remain absorb more losses, they will have to sell more assets to restore their balance sheets, driving down asset prices, and limit their new lending to businesses. To get some sense of the dimensions, consider that the global market in credit default swaps is an estimated $60 trillion — that’s equal to the estimated value of all assets in the U.S. economy. If five percent of those swaps go bad, that’s $3 trillion, or six times the size of the Savings & Loan crisis and a nearly one-quarter the size of U.S. GDP. That’s another measure of the dimension of the criminal negligence committed by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the managements of Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — and while we’re at it, thousands of smaller hedge funds.

Now we’re headed for recession. The economy has taken three massive hits — first housing, then energy, and now finance — and the inevitable result will be real cutbacks in both consumer spending and investment, and with them, growth and employment. The government is spending trillions of dollars to prop up failing institutions, but it has probably reached the limit of its capacity for bail outs, or will soon. That’s why, for the first time, the market is pricing the possibility of a U.S. government default.

For now, the best steps we could take would be measures to stop foreclosures and stabilize the housing market. Instead of just lending AIG, which speculated in mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps on them, $85 billion, we should make a comparable sum available as special loans to homeowners facing the possibility for personal default and foreclosure. Americans periodically go through phases where they believe that markets can do no harm. But markets fail as well, and this time, the lesson is an especially painful one. Hopefully we’ll learn, and begin at least to regulate financial transactions, wherever they occur, to ensure their basic transparency and a reasonable measure of probity.



Understanding the Mortgage Crisis

September 11, 2008

It’s a truism of this time, though one often doubted, that globalization is fundamentally good for healthy, successful economies. But unchecked and unscrutinized, globalization also can impose terrible costs, as we see clearly in this week’s U.S. government bail-out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Globalization set much of the stage for the meltdown, as our government’s systematic failure to regulate excesses in the financial system raised the curtain. Globalization produces enormous benefits — cheaper prices for electronics, garments, autos, and IT, to name but a few standard goods now produced through global networks. It also accelerates medical advances by increasing the demand for treatments. It promotes higher incomes and standards of living across much of developing world. And it also generates enormous new pools of saving and capital that have left the world awash in liquidity. All that capital creates inflationary pressures that found their way into asset markets, producing price bubbles in housing markets around the world. All that capital also seeks as high returns as possible, so that much of it found its way to our capital markets, where billions went into subprime mortgages and many tens of billions more into the leverage for financial institutions to buy the securities based on those mortgages and the derivatives based on those securities.

The sub-prime collapse was utterly predictable and could have been avoided entirely. Instead, the thoughtless, deregulatory prejudices of the Bush Administration allowed the excesses and distortions to grow until there was way no choice but to take over the two giants of the mortgage market, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Bush White House’s reckless approach to regulation is only part of the story. At any point, the Treasury or the Federal Reserve Bank could have stepped in or at least urged the Congress to do its duty. But we live in an era in which conservatives and some liberals live in exaggerated awe of unregulated markets. It’s been part of this cultural moment, and one aggressively supported by the economy’s most powerful and influential financial institutions.

Finally, the government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which originate or buy 80 percent of mid-level mortgages in this country, became unavoidable. Their complete collapse would have stalled out the national mortgage market and sent housing prices falling further. In addition, foreign central banks hold tens of billions of dollars in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities, creating a new and serious foreign policy dilemma for the Bush Administration. While the White House has remained steadfastly unmoved by the difficulties and interests of American homeowners, it could no longer stand by unconcerned about the difficulties and interests of our economy’s central financial institutions and those facing allied governments. Yet the takeover will do little about the declining value of securities held by them, unless taxpayers pick up the tab.

Make no mistake. This is the most serious financial problem U.S. markets have faced since the Great Depression. It requires responses comparable to those undertaken in the 1930s, namely to fashion new regulatory standards and rules to protect the economy from distortions and excesses in financial markets, made more serious and more likely by the globalization of capital. Our government should have no interest in protecting financial institutions from their own bad decisions. If they choose to invest 30 percent of their capital in risky markets, they can do so. But they cannot be permitted to do so with 90 percent leverage, because if and when those loans default, they create enormous losses for other institutions, producing a cascading effect that squeezes the normal flow of credit that our businesses and credit depend upon. We will need a new regulatory system to protect our economy from those cascading losses.

The Bush Administration is not up to this task, so if will have to come from the next president and his administration. They’ll need the support and backing of Wall Street as well as the American people, which will require difficult political work and unusual political leadership. That’s part of the challenge that President Obama — or perhaps president McCain — will face next January.