"Rules have consequences. And sometimes they have unintended consequences. If I told you that the US government was going to give multiple tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to hedge funds and private investors, you would justifiably not be happy. I think the word angry would come to mind. But that is exactly what is happening, as a result of rules that were written for a time and place seemingly long ago and far, far away. Further, we are looking at potentially much larger sums being lost in the bank bailout (can we say hundreds of billions?), a reduced lending capacity at banks and, in general, a worsening of the very problems at the core of the crisis.
The good news is that it can be fixed, but the authorities need to get a sense of urgency. As Steve Forbes writes today in the Wall Street Journal, Obama is continuing with the worst of Bush’s policies, making the crisis far worse than it should be. It is as if we are giving all 13-year-old kids a "F" in math because one kid failed.
Let me note that while I am talking about rules that do not make sense, this in no way should be seen as a criticism of the regulators. It is their job to enforce the rules, not make them. The authorities at the top (including Congress and the administration) should be taking action.
In the beginning there were ratings agencies, and they rated corporate bonds from the very highest of credit quality (AAA) down to junk (CCC).
Now AAA means that the chances of losing money are very, very low. With each level of increased incremental risk comes a lower rating. If a corporate bond was at risk for losing just one dollar, it was rated all the way down to junk. And that was fine. Everybody knew the rules of the game.
But then investment banks asked the agencies to rate a large group of home mortgages in a pool known as a Residential Mortgage Backed Security (RMBS). The investment bank would divide the pool (the RMBS) into various tranches. The highest-rated tranche would be given a rating of AAA. Let’s say that the AAA tranche was 92% of the loan pool. The AAA tranche would get the first 92% of all monies coming into the pool before the other investors were paid (again, really oversimplified, but that is the net effect). That would mean that the pool could have 16% of the home loans default and lose 50% of their value before the AAA tranche would lose even one dollar.
We all know now, though, that some of those AAA-rated tranches are in fact going to lose money. And the rating agencies are now writing down the ratings on the former AAA tranches.
I am not talking about the exotic CDOs and CDO squareds, or some of the truly toxic securitized assets which are going to zero. What I am writing about today are plain vanilla mortgages grouped together in securitized pools.
So, why wouldn’t there be a lot of institutions standing in line to buy such a dream investment? Because banks fear the danger that the security will get downgraded, just like the thousands of such instruments that have already been downgraded, and then their regulatory capital will be impaired. The technical banking term is that you would be screwed. So you don’t buy what would be a very good performing asset, because of the rules.
So, who can (and does!) buy? Hedge funds and private investors with liquidity. But these "vulture capitalists" (among whom are many of my friends) know that the sellers are operating from a position of weakness. And because there are not enough of them to buy the bonds on offer, the prices of these bonds are very low. Smart money managers are raising money to exploit these distressed sellers.
So, in effect, we are giving banks taxpayer money while forcing them to sell assets that might be worth $.95 cents on the dollar in a less-stressed world. We are shoveling money in the front door while it is being pushed out the back door to my friends at the hedge funds."
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