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The Catastrophist View

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THREAT NO. 2
The Derivatives-Related Meltdown, Part II

Anybody who glances occasionally at the financial pages these days knows that mortgages issued to home buyers are packaged together (in a process called securitization) into a collateralized-debt obligation, or CDO. That’s what’s known as a derivative, a security whose value depends on the value of other securities. The price of the CDO, you see, is “derived” from the prices of the underlying mortgages. (It works with credit cards, too, or bank loans—any kind of debt will do.)

In principle, the idea of a CDO makes perfect sense. In buying $5 million worth of a CDO, an investor has essentially lent money to an entire portfolio of homeowners, instead of placing all his eggs in one basket, say, by funding a single $5 million mortgage. In the real-estate-crazy environment of the past decade, the CDO market took off like a rocket. But the buyers of these derivatives made a critical error—they confused the spreading of risk with the elimination of risk. A booming economy made this confusion not just possible but irresistible. With relatively few defaults in the first half of the decade, investment firms, including many hedge funds, came to see CDO returns as a sure thing and loaded up on them, often borrowing money to do so, taking on debt to buy debt and thereby setting up a potentially deadly chain reaction. The readiness of the secondary market to buy all these mortgages encouraged the lenders to run wild and lend to anyone who walked through the door, leading—inevitably, in retrospect—to a decline in loan quality. Analyst Christopher Wood of Asia-Pacific investment house CLSA succinctly defines the problem in his highly readable newsletter Greed & Fear: “[Securitization] has one fatal flaw, which will ultimately prove to be its undoing … it removes the incentive of those making the loan to worry about whether the loan is a good credit.”

Still, it all held together until mortgage defaults began to cut into the yields of these CDOs and holders looked to sell them, only to realize their value had slipped. Forced liquidations as a result of that “price discovery” were a primary factor in Bear Stearns’ hedge-fund calamity in August. And it’s not over yet: The aftershocks of the mortgage meltdown are still being felt, as banks such as Citigroup and Deutsche Bank announce multibillion-dollar write-downs.

Each time one of these write-downs has been announced, the market has had a curiously positive response, taking the news as a sign that the worst was over and the banks were cleaning up their books. But because these derivatives are linked to other debt, there’s no reason to be certain that trouble won’t bleed into other markets. Among other things, the liquidity crisis froze the market in structured investment vehicles (SIVs), a nifty bit of financial engineering that banks use to profit from the spread between short-term debt and long-term debt. No one yet knows how nasty these losses could turn out to be because SIVs are stashed, Enron style, off the books.

THREAT NO. 3
Consumers Run Out of Steam (and Take the Economy Down With Them)

The U.S. economy, for all its worldly sophistication, is driven by mall shoppers and late-night Amazon addicts—70 percent of the gross domestic product is accounted for by consumer spending, which is buttressed by debt. According to the Federal Reserve, total U.S. household debt was, as of August, $2.5 trillion—a 24 percent increase in the past five years. Total credit-card debt, including gas cards and the like, was $915 billion.

The willingness of consumers to keep spending and piling on debt in the midst of a slowing real-estate market is hailed on Wall Street as an act of patriotism, which Schiff considers perverse. Imagine, he suggests, that you ran into a good friend and asked him how he was doing. His reply: “I took out a third mortgage, maxed out my credit cards, and emptied out my kids’ college savings account so I could buy a bigger TV and a new car, and we’re going to Greece on vacation over the holidays. Things are great!” Schiff lets the idea sink in and then finishes the thought: “And we’re celebrating the fact that we’re doing this as a nation?”


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