Once again, the Progressive Book Club offers us a new perspective on a large, critical issue. This time, it’s the bank collapses, the prime lending scandal and the bailouts that followed, from It Takes a Pillage, by Nomi Prins.
The Second Great Bank Depression has spawned so many lies, it’s hard to keep track of which is the biggest. Possibly the most irksome class of lies, usually spouted by Wall Street hacks and conservative pundits, is that we’re all victims to a bunch of poor people who bought McMansions, or at least homes they had no business living in. If that was really what this crisis was all about, we could have solved it much more cheaply in a couple of days in late 2008, by simply providing borrowers with additional capital to reduce their loan principals. It would have cost about 3 percent of what the entire bailout wound up costing, with comparatively similar risk.
Just as great oaks from little acorns grow, so, too, can a Second Great Bank Depression from a tiny loan grow. But so you know, it wasn’t the tiny loan’s fault. It was everyone and everything that piled on top. That’s how a small loan in Stockton, California, can be linked to a worldwide economic collapse all the way to Iceland, through a plethora of shady financial techniques and overzealous sales pitches.
Here are some numbers for you. There were approximately $1.4 trillion worth of subprime loans outstanding in the United States by the end of 2007. By May 2009, there were foreclosure filings against approximately 5.1 million properties. If it was only the subprime market’s fault, 1.4 trillion would have covered the entire problem, right?
Yet the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the FDIC forked out more than $13 trillion to fix the “housing correction,” as Hank Paulson steadfastly referred to the Second Great Bank Depression as late as November 20, 2008, while he was treasury secretary. With that money, the government could have bought up every residential mortgage in the country—there were about $11.9 trillion worth at the end of December 2008—and still have had a trillion left over to buy homes for every single American who couldn’t afford them, and pay their health care to boot.
But there was much more to it than that: Wall Street was engaged in a very dangerous practice called leverage. Leverage is when you borrow a lot of money in order to place a big bet. It makes the payoff that much bigger. You may not be able to cover the bet if you’re wrong—you may even have to put down a bit of collateral in order to place that bet—but that doesn’t matter when you’re sure you’re going to win. It is a high-risk, high-reward way to make money, as long as you’re not wrong. Or as long as you make the rules. Or as long as the government has your back.
The Second Great Bank Depression wouldn’t have been as tragic without a thirty-to-one leverage ratio for investment banks, and, according to the New York Times, a ratio that ranged from eleven-to-one to fifteen-to-one for the major commercial banks. Actually, it’s unclear what kind of leverage the commercial banks really had, because so many of their products were off-book, or not evaluated according to what the market would pay for them. Banks would have taken a hit on their mortgage and consumer credit portfolios, but the systemic credit crisis and the bailout bonanza would have been avoided. Leverage included, we’re looking at a possible $140 trillion problem. That’s right—$140 trillion! Imagine if the financial firms all over the globe actually exposed their piece of that leverage.
But for $1.4 trillion in subprime loans to become $140 trillion in potential losses, you need two steps in between. The most significant is a healthy dose of leverage, but leverage would not have had a platform without the help of a wondrous financial feat called securitization. Financial firms run economic models that select and package loans into new securities according to criteria such as geographic diversity, the size of the loans, and the length of the mortgages. A bunch of loans are then repackaged into an asset-backed security (ABS). This new security is backed, or collateralized, by a small number of original home loans related to the size of the security. Some securities, for example, might be 10 percent real loans and 90 percent bonds backed by those loans. Some might be 5 percent real loans. Whatever the proportion, the money the mortgage holders pay to lenders on their loans is used to make payments on new assets or securities. Those securities, in turn, pay out to their investors.
During the lead-up to the Second Great Bank Depression, the securities themselves were a much bigger problem than the loans. Between 2002 and 2007, banks in the United States created nearly 80 percent of the approximately $14 trillion worth of total global ABSs, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and other alphabetic concoctions or “structured” assets. Structured assets were created at triple what the rate had been from 1998 to 2002. Bankers from the rest of the world created, or “issued,” the other 20 percent, around $3 trillion worth. Everyone was paid handsomely. In total, issuers raked in a combined $300 billion in fees. Fees can be made for all types of securitized assets, but the more convoluted they are, the riskier and more lucrative they become. Fees ranged from .1 percent to 0.5 percent on standard ABS deals and up to 0.3 percent for mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and whole business securitization (WBS) deals. Fees were better for CDOs—between 1.5 and 1.75 percent for each deal, and higher for the riskier slices. All told, the $2 trillion CDO market alone netted Wall Street around $30 billion before CDO values headed south. Because U.S. investment banks were making huge profits from packaging churning loans and leveraging them, mortgage- and asset-backed security volume skyrocketed.
Investment banks, hedge funds, and other financial firms could use the $14 trillion of new securities as collateral against which to borrow money and incur more debt (leverage them). There is no way of knowing exactly how much was leveraged, because the players operated in an opaque system—that is, a system without proper regulatory oversight or enforcement to detect or curtail leverage. But a conservative estimate of the average amount of leverage is about ten-to-one, considering the roughly eleven-to-one leverage of the major commercial banks and the thirty-to-one leverage of investment banks. So, we’re talking about a system that ultimately took on $140 trillion in debt on the back of $1.4 trillion of subprime loans. How insane is that? And, it happened so fast.
In 2005, the mortgage on some little home in Stockton provided the capital for two or three ill-advised loans that soon disappeared into an ABS. But it was the global banks, the insurance companies, and the pension funds—particularly in Europe—that purchased the related ABSs. Like their U.S. counterparts, European financiers bought boatloads of ABSs with borrowed money. They also shoved them off-book into structured investment vehicles (SIVs) that required no capital charge and little reporting.
By the fall of 2008 those ABSs, CDOs, and all their permutations would be known as “toxic assets.” They were considered by many to be the major cause of Big Finance’s failures and losses. The push for TARP centered on ridding banks of these poisonous creatures. But make no mistake: toxic assets are not the same as defaulted subprime mortgage loans; loans are merely one of the ingredients that make up the assets. All the subprime loans in existence could have defaulted and the homes attached to them could have been devalued to zero (which didn’t happen), but without the feat of securitization, the banks wouldn’t have become nearly insolvent. Toxic assets became devoid of value, not because all the subprime loans stuffed inside them tanked, but because there was no longer demand from investors. If no one wants your Aunt Mary’s antique gold-plated, diamond-encrusted starfish, for all intents and purposes, it has no monetary value at the moment. This basic supply-and-demand concept is something our government apparently didn’t understand when it offered to take the toxic assets off the banks’ books. And the Fed, as we’ll see, doesn’t seem to care that it took on trillions of dollars’ worth of these assets.
Copyright © 2009 by Nomi Prins. All rights reserved. From It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street by Nomi Prins.
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By Nomi Prins
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