Monday, November 24, 2008

My Short Explanation of the Financial Crisis

Over the last several decades the finance industry has grown to be the largest contributor to GDP. Yet it's difficult to discern what they have been producing, other than bubbles and crises. In the process they have internationalized capitalism. During the same time corporations and the people who own and run them have prospered handsomely while the average workers situation has deteriorated.

This has resulted in huge capital accumulation around the world, way more that can be productively put to use funding real opportunities. With the help of the Fed and the government, providing easy money and reduced regulation, asset values continued to rise, seemingly in perpetuity. This was an opportune situation for the application of leverage to magnify profits. Profits were rolling in at unforeseen rates. With too much capital, and to few places to apply it, banks found it necessary to fund poorer and poorer investments, lest their huge profits be truncated. But, poorer investments necessarily implied higher risk so a method had to be found to hide risk. Into the breach jumped the investment banks, rating agencies, and insurance companies. Securitizing debt obligations was the answer. Pool the risky assets, slice and dice them into tranches of various levels of risk and sell them to all those investors looking for a place to put their unused capital. But, how to rate such assets, no one knew. Rating companies, also wallowing in huge profits and fearing loss of them, threw up their hands. They had no models to do it. So what to do? Rate them highly and continue to make huge profits or rate them realistically and let their competitors reap the huge profits. The decision was easy.

But, buyers of the new assets were asking questions. How risky were they, really. They found it hard to believe that slicing and dicing bad assets could end up with a highly rated asset. Into the breach jumped the wiz kids at the investment banks and insurance companies once again. Guarantee them! Write some insurance guaranteeing the asset. Viola! Credit default swaps. Not only were these magic instruments not covered by insurance regulations, but they could be traded on their own, opening up more opportunities for profit. The investors bought the swaps to guarantee the overrated assets and the profit bonanza continued on.

With all these new assets and guarantees all that was needed was more risky assets to finance. Ah, alas the government had sanctioned expanding home ownership, the new ownership society. Just get rid of all the rules for qualifying home buyers, the problem would be solved and the profits would continue to roll in. No one dared question the infinite wisdom of the finance industry. After all, the industry had soaked up most of the talent from Ivy League schools in the last several decades. And the real estate and construction industries were more than willing to accommodate the new bonanza.

But, ooops! The payments came due, the ARMs (Adjustable rate mortgages) were no longer hugging home buyers, they were strangling them. And securitizing debt had been expanded to auto loans, credit card debt and almost any other kind of debt. The jig was up. Time to pay the piper. The asset value climb was over. Time to get real. The banks found themselves having to come up with additional reserves to cover the falling value of the assets on their books. And they had to pay off the leverage loans. And their investments in swaps were tanking. The couldn't refinance their commercial paper. What would they do? Other banks wouldn't lend to them. After all, they were having their own problems.

Time to play the trump card. Who's running Treasury, one of our own, Henry Paulson, he'll save us. Sure enough, he seems to be doing just that, using the well worn Bush technique of scaring the hell out of Congress to get them to write a blank check, as was done in the Iraq war. Alas, they fell for it again, and here we are, once again, kneeling at the feet of the money changers that couldn't find anywhere to invest their heaps of cash skimmed off the top of every transaction that makes up that holy of holies, the GDP.