The Roots of the Current Meltdown

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an excellent review of what led up the current meltdown. Unsaid in this review is the way that efforts to relieve one contradiction leads to more. Just as lowering interest rates will probably eventually reignite a new form of bubble, the article explains how efforts to deal with earlier crises set the stage to what we see today. According to the article, Greenspan seems to anticipated the problems he helped to create.

Ip, Greg and Jon E. Hilsenrath. 2007. “How Credit Got So Easy and Why It’s Tightening.” Wall Street Journal (7 August): p. A 1.

“The origins of the boom and this unfolding reversal … trace to changes in the banking system provoked by the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry in the 1980s, the reaction of governments to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the Federal Reserve’s response to the 2000-01 bursting of the tech-stock bubble.”

“When the Fed cut interest rates to the lowest level in a generation to avoid a severe downturn, then-Chairman Alan Greenspan anticipated that making short-term credit so cheap would have unintended consequences. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re doing some damage because this is not the way credit markets should operate,” he and a colleague recall him saying at the time.”

“Low interest rates engineered by central banks and reinforced by a tidal wave of overseas savings fueled home prices and leveraged buyouts. Pension funds and endowments, unhappy with skimpy returns, shoved cash at hedge funds and private-equity firms, which borrowed heavily to make big bets. The investments of choice were opaque financial instruments that shifted default risk from lenders to global investors.”

“A system designed to distribute and absorb risk might, instead, have bred it, by making it so easy for investors to buy complex securities they didn’t fully understand. And the interconnectedness of markets could mean that a sudden change in sentiment by investors in all sorts of markets could destabilize the financial system and hurt economic growth.”

“When a technology stock and investment plunge and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pushed the economy into recession in 2001, the Fed slashed interest rates. But even by mid-2003, job creation and business investment were still anemic, and the inflation rate was slipping toward 1%. The Fed began to study Japan’s unhappy bout with deflation — generally declining prices — which made it harder to repay debts and left the central bank seemingly powerless to stimulate growth.”

“”Even though we perceive the risks [of deflation] as minor, the potential consequences are very substantial and could be quite negative,” Mr. Greenspan said in May 2003. A month later, the Fed cut the target for its key federal-funds interest rate, a benchmark for all short-term rates, to 1%. It said the rate would stay there as long as necessary, figuring low rates would bolster housing and consumer spending until business investment and exports recovered. The rate stayed at 1% for a year.”

“Mr. Greenspan raised vague fears with colleagues over the possibility this policy could create distortions in the economy, but he says today that such risks were an acceptable price for insuring against deflation. “Central banks cannot avoid taking risks. Such trade-offs are an integral part of policy. We were always confronted with choices …. The economy has grown steadily, avoiding both deflation and serious inflation. Yet some say they may have planted seeds of excess in the housing and subprime-loan markets.”

“In June 2004, the Fed began to raise the short-term target rate, eventually taking it to 5.25%, where it has been for the past year. Such a boost usually leads to a rise, as well, in long-term rates, which are important to rates on 30-year conventional mortgages and corporate bonds. This time, it didn’t. Mr. Greenspan expressed concern that investors were willing to accept low returns for taking on risk. “What they perceive as newly abundant liquidity can readily disappear,” he said in August 2005, six months before retiring. “History has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums”.”

After 2002, “Bankers began marketing debt deals for companies that … didn’t have comfortable cash flow. There was Chrysler, burning cash rather than producing it. And there was First Data Corp., whose post-takeover cash flow would barely cover interest payments and capital spending, according to Standard & Poor’s LCD, a unit of S&P which tracks the high-yield market.”

“Now many banks find themselves having committed to lend about $200 billion that they had intended to turn over to investors, but can’t.”

“A few endowments, most notably at Yale and Harvard, had for years been spreading their investments more broadly, going into hedge funds, real estate, foreign stocks, even timberland. The goal was holdings that wouldn’t suffer in sync with stocks in a bear market. Sure enough, in 2000 and 2001, even as stocks tumbled, Harvard Management Co. earned returns of 32.2% and -2.7% respectively. Yale’s returns were 41% and 9.2%. Other institutions wanted their money managed the same way, seeding a flood of hedge funds that bought other untraditional investments such as credit derivatives. University endowments poured roughly $40 billion into hedge funds between 2000 and 2006, according to Hedge Fund Intelligence, a newsletter. “I call it the ‘Let’s all look like Yale effect,'” says Jeremy Grantham, chairman of Boston money manager GMO LLC.”

“Low interest rates made many investors willing to buy exotic securities in an effort to boost returns. Wall Street had just the vehicle: securitization, or turning loans that once sat quietly on banks’ books into securities that can be sold in global markets. Securitization, long common in conventional mortgages, had been supercharged in the early 1990s when the federal Resolution Trust Corp. took over S&Ls that held more than $400 billion of assets. Though some thought it would take the RTC a century to unload them, it took only a few years. The agency successfully securitized new classes of assets, such as delinquent home loans or commercial loans. In the late 1990s, Wall Street went a step further, packaging bigger pools of securities into collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, and carving them into “tranches,” each with a different level of risk and return. Riskier tranches suffered the first losses if some underlying loans defaulted. Other tranches offered lower returns because riskier tranches would take the first hits if the business went sour.”

“Because of the way they were structured, some CDO tranches got triple-A ratings from Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s even though they contained subprime loans. That lured traditionally conservative investors such as commercial banks, insurance companies and pension funds.”

“Final investors were so many steps removed from the original loans that it became hard for them to know the true value and risk of securities they bought. Some were satisfied with a triple-A rating on a CDO — seemingly as safe as a U.S. Treasury bond but with more yield. Yet as defaults ate through the cushion of lower-rated tranches with unexpected speed, rating agencies were forced to rethink their models — and lower the ratings on many of these investments. “Some structures were so opaque that markets couldn’t value them.”

Even Harvard has been hit. The university lost about $350 million through an investment in Sowood Capital Management, a hedge-fund firm founded by one of the university’s former in-house money managers. Recent events show that financial innovations meant to distribute risk can end up multiplying it instead, in ways neither regulators nor investors fully understand.”

1 comment so far

  1. Daniel on

    I lost some money in Sowood Capital Management too. It was ashame. I had really high hopes.


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