Monday, September 22, 2008

They were a nice middle class couple, just buying a house

They keep saying it, and it's true: an era is ending on Wall Street. In fact, "Wall Street" as defined for the last 30 years, centered on independent investment banks seeking large returns by taking large risks, will be only a memory in a few months. Wall Street's two remaining large investment houses (Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs) are seeking to become much more like commercial banks. They will still do investing, but it won't be their sole business any longer. Diversified commercial banking is apparently the future of finance. Investment banking as an independent activity is about to disappear, at least as an institutional phenomenon.

The origins of this almost-gone era lie in the Great Inflation of the 70s and the reaction of investors desperately seeking higher returns to compensate. One asset bubble after another followed: commodities, such as gold; loans to developing countries, leading to an early 80s bust; the savings & loans (S&L) bubble and crack-up in the late 80s; the stock bubble of the mid- to late 90s; and lastly and most grandly, the 30-year-long housing boom that culminated in a bubble (2002-2007) and bust (2007-?). The housing boom lasted as long as it did because of the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomers, who entered their prime house-buying years in the mid-70s and exited just a few years ago.

The whole investment landscape is rapidly changing. Expect thinking and practice to become much more traditional, "square," and 9-to-5-ish. The era of the frantic, 14-hour investment banking workday is surely finished.

The new government intervention in financial markets is evolving in strange and not necessarily good directions. The danger is that the Treasury Department and Fed have developed a premature, pre-emptive, and open-ended intervention -- the risk and cost to taxpayers are vague and potentially large.

Unlike previous government bailouts, there's no clear criterion of which actors really are in distress and which are just having a bad day. The supposed model of the current intervention, the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) of the late 80s, resold assets from savings and loan institutions that were already bankrupt and, in the end, didn't cost taxpayers that much. The present crisis hasn't progressed far enough to make such judgments. Treasury's seizure of Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FHLMC) drew its authority from the nature of their charters: their assets were essentially collateral pledged to the government anyway.

Ensuring liquidity and promoting greater transparency in the murky interconnections of bonds and the institutions that own and trade them are good things for Treasury and the Fed to be doing now. But much of more of a shake out is needed. The epicenter of the crisis is the subprime mortgage collapse. But in line with its major role in creating this particular crisis, the federal government is on the road to sorting out the resulting mess.

The larger question has no answer yet: where is the bottom of the housing market? Prices have been falling for about a year and a half. But there is still a large glut of houses in many parts of the country. The national average market time for selling houses is around 10 months; in some areas, it's much longer. Economists estimate that the housing market was about 20-30% overvalued in late 2006. Prices have fallen roughly 15 to 20% since then. The bottom might be near, or it might be another year or more away.

The lending markets are scared of this situation because, while not non-performing, many house mortgages are now collateralized by assets (houses) worth significantly less than the face value of the mortgages. Even a modest default rate on such mortgages puts many lending institutions at risk.

It's hard to see why the Treasury or Fed should be entering with a bailout in such an unripened situation. They have no knowledge, superior to the knowledge of private actors, of when and where the housing market will bottom. While the Fed did enhance the housing boom into a bubble with cheap credit over the last decade, the federal government has no particular legal obligation here. Better to catalyze private buyouts and rescues while waiting until the most serious systemic dangers have been isolated.

The current problems are concentrated in the bond and money markets, not the stock market. Why the media and others are obsessed with stocks is therefore a mystery. That crisis is having impact elsewhere -- insurance, the money market, and short-term credit -- but it's far from the end of the world.

Other undying myths keep popping up in the media and the blogosphere, and I suppose I should do my part to debunk them. I'm not sure how much good it'll do, but I'll try.

A popular one is that the financial sector's problems were made possible by the "repeal" of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment and commercial banking. The latter continues to be more regulated and conservative in its practices and carries some level of government insurance for individual depositors; the former does not. The 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act didn't abolish this distinction, although it did make it possible for commercial banks to get indirectly involved in investment markets.

The present crisis has nothing to do with the commercial-investment distinction. As many of my more sensible journalist and blogger confrères and consoeurs have pointed out, the trouble is in the housing and debt markets. Banks, brokerages, and investors heavily in the mortgage market are the ones in trouble. Like the stock market, diversified commercial banks are not in trouble; in fact, what's striking is how well they're weathering the crisis. They're doing well, in part, because they're diversified and not especially exposed to the mortgage mess. Allowing commercial banks to diversify has built a large additional quantum of safety into the system, not made it more fragile.

Another pseudohistorical absurdity making the rounds is that the "securitization" of mortgages in recent decades is to blame; that is, the packaging, sale, and resale of mortgage debt as bonds. Actually, this has been going on since the 1970s and poses no problems as long as accurate credit information is available. Mortgage bond buyers scrutinize such numbers carefully. There is a certain amount of unnerving ignorance in the bond and money markets right now about who's financially sound and who isn't. But that is driven by the two factors already mentioned: the subprime sector of the mortgage market not having accurate credit information, with the distortion of governments guarantees for non-creditworthy borrowers; and the more general problem of no one knowing exactly where the housing market bottom is. Whether the mortgage creditor is a bank or a bond owner is irrelevant.

Ditto for the attacks on "short-selling." Short-selling can't drive down the price of a sound security, at least not for long. Short-selling only works on securities that are weak to begin with. The public service that short-sellers do is to expose weak securities; that way, people will not waste their money buying more of them.

Finally, certain commentators and the media generally have tried to deflect criticism away from the political figures, mainly Democrats, who played such a large role in setting up the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac failure. The larger housing market woes are indeed shaped by many decades of government policy promoting the overbuilding and overbuying of houses, stretching back to the 1940s.

But the narrower crisis of subprime mortgages -- the epicenter -- is of more recent origin, specifically in the Clinton years, when a strong push was made to make owning a house a government-backed entitlement. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's profits were partly funneled back into
a patronage pot called the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. And, yes, politicians, mostly Democrats, were up to their ears in it, doling out this fund to friends and supporters.* Certain others, like Joe Biden and Barney Frank, played a pivotal role in setting up the disaster. Biden helped to push the states into getting rid of lending standards. Frank is a one-man wrecking crew, being the main Congressional protector of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's special status and pushing to virtually eliminate regulatory oversight of both corporations. In 2005, the New York Stock Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission were bullied into continuing to list Fannie Mae as active, even though it had stopped reporting on its financial condition, and its bonds could no longer be accurately rated as to their quality. That year, the first signs of trouble were already apparent (rising defaults and foreclosures). From then until now, an important part of the mortgage debt market has been flying blind, in a cloud of ignorance about its true situation.

The main fault of the Republicans? Not putting up strong and consistent opposition to these schemes. Occasional fits of opposition, an episode of hard questions from the Bush Treasury in 2004 -- that was about it. Rubin and Summers, both Treasury Secretaries under Clinton, did raise questions about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the late 90s. But such questions were not part of the Democrats' political agenda and were ignored.

POSTSCRIPT: Another half-baked theory has been floated by New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman, that the financial sector's problems are due to not having enough capital. In fact, the problem is the (too-low) ratio of good assets to total assets. More capital might help and is generally a good idea. But shedding bad assets is a more certain way to reduce the financial sector's immediate agony. Hence, the attempts to create a public RTC-style clean-up/rescue company, to collect and resell bad assets. The problem with the proposed bailout is that no one yet knows the full identity and scope of these bad assets and which institutions are in the deepest trouble. In fact, until the housing market hits bottom, we can't know -- at least, not fully.

Krugman's overrated lucubrations are a sad spectacle of outstanding technical economics talent wasted on dumb politics. Krugman's political obsessions, over and over again, get him into trouble with his economic reasoning. If you want a serious journalistic treatment of economic and financial matters, read the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson instead.
* Obama's friend, Tony Rezko, is merely the best known of these characters.

There is also the long list of former Congressmen and Senators, former staffers, and relatives who became FNMA and FHLMC employees and part of the army of lobbyists working on Congress to maintain their special status.

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