The present global financial crisis is the worst financial crisis world has witnessed since the great depression of the 1930s. In this essay, I attempt to critically review the role played by capitalism in causing this crisis. I shall concentrate the causal events that happened in United States of America, though there were similar events to lesser extents that happened elsewhere in the world, especially in developed countries. Such related causal events in other countries are not unexpected, given the significance America has in the global economy, as well as the fact that comparable ideas were used by politicians and financial institutes across the globe. In the first part of the essay, a brief history of debt securitization is given, followed by various details on how the system of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) used to function. In the latter part, the effects it had on the whole financial system is analyzed as well as what went wrong and the reasons behind it. The essay concludes by critically reviewing the whole system and linking it to the principles of Capitalism, that was found to be the root cause of this systemic failure.
A brief history of debt securitization
The current system of securitisation of house mortgages started in the eighties. Though many have tried to present this system as an innovative technology initiated by private companies to spread their risk, the reality is different. It was a result of the US Federal reserve in 1979 controlling growth of money to reduce inflation. Hence financial companies were forced to chase risky high return mortgages. However, the aftermath of this was that these financial companies had to transfer these risky assets from their books. Thus the system of securitization was born. Many economists realized the high potential of this system. Mortgages and other assets were grouped into various risk classes, and the prices of each of these were varied depending on the risk covered. Buyers of these packaged assets could pick the ones that matched with their risk appetite. These financial companies charged fees for the originating these loans, as well as for evaluating the risk and further charges a service fees. The capital market would then sell these sliced and diced packages as CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) to fit the demands of the potential investors. This whole system was hailed as a major democratic movement because this helped many middle class people to get into home ownership. Initially, the banks and other financial institutions thought that they will not be affected by any interest rate risks. This also brought two additional possibilities. Firstly, CDOs and packaged debt assets could be easily traded anywhere in the world, and were free from any national borders. Post world wars, and the subsequent growth that happened across the developed countries (and most of developing countries), there was huge amount of investors with money, who were in search of high returns. Hence the risk appetite of these investors were high. Hence, these packaged assets were very sought after by these investors. It did not take much time before the value of these securitized debts overtook the value of US Federal debts market Minsky. Also was the advantage that these assets were denominated in dollars (1987). Secondly, the significance of banks declined in comparison to “capital markets”. So much that the share of banks trading financial assets declined from fifty percent to twenty five percent in the years from 1950 to 1990. There were experiments conducted by the policy makers favouring unregulated capital markets. For instance, for the banks to function profitably, they had to have a 450 points spread between the assets interest rate and liabilities interest rate. This was essential to profitably cover the profits including the return on capital, customer service costs as well as the costs to meet strict government regulations. In contrast, the capital markets operate under much relaxed rules such as exemptions from capital and reserve ratios, and hence could afford a lower spread. To overcome these tough regulations, banks started charging for the origination of these loans, but moved these loans outside their books so as to get away with the reserve requirements as well as capital requirements. Then it was the job of the investment banks to purchase these mortgages, package them based on the risk profile into various CDOs and sell them to the investors.
Various stakeholders responsible for the crisis
According to Minsky (1987), these large multinational investment banks will then pay credit ratings agencies and get good credit ratings. Economists were also hired by them, to show that the earnings will be much more than the risks associates. Hence these credit rating agencies and economists, effectively acted as if they were “credit enhancers”, helping these investment banks by certifying that the potential risk of default on these subprime mortgages were not too different from that of other traditional mortgages, thus helping these CDOs to get investment grade rating that are looked upon by pension and insurance fund managers. Also, other “enhancements” such as early repayment penalty and guaranteed buybacks in case of exceedingly large number of foreclosures and defaults, were added to these packages. The buybacks later became significant because when the financial crisis happened, these buyback guarantees came to haunt these backs, because the risk was transferred back to these banks. Also, these securities were insured by companies such as CFIG, AMBAC, MBIA, FGIC Corp etc. These investment banks would have found it extremely difficult to sell these securities had there been no good credit ratings and no affordable insurance (Gutscher and Richard 2007). When the financial crisis started, ratings for these very insurers got degraded, thereby affecting the securities they had insured. One of the root cause of the problem can be pinned down to the incentive structure that was in place. After the 2000 stock market crash, alternate profit avenues were in demand from the investors. Because the Fed followed a low interest rate regime, the conventional markets did not present them the required returns. They wanted to chase high return high risk investments. Also, the brokers got excellent incentives for persuading the mortgage borrowers to agree to extremely adverse terms and conditions, in the process increasing the securities’ value. Also, hybrid variety of ARMs were also promoted. These risky mortgages were even approved by Greenspan, the Fed Chairman. Some studies reveal that out of the total subprime loans of $2.5 trillion performed, most borrowers got a bad deal than they were eligible for.
Wrong incentives and “credit enhancers”
For instance, many borrowers with good credit scores who would have been eligible for traditional loans, were persuaded to take these high risk “sub-prime” mortgages. Most of them were at least eligible for better terms and conditions. The root cause of this problem was the incentive plans which rewarded these brokers immensely (in comparison to traditional loans) for promoting these high interest high risky loans (Simon and Brooks, 2007). Brokers and originators also were not persuaded to ensure proper documentation and the borrower’s capability to repay these mortgages, because they did not have to worry since the originators will not be holding on to these mortgages. This was like an assembly line in which the brokers and banks were profiting by the income they got from fees and service charges, and not from interest rate spread. Hence they were rewarded more by the quantity of mortgages they promoted. Thus in reality, most of these “affordable” mortgages weren’t what they promised, because when the borrower had to reset these loans, they had to pay service charges for various agents and “early repayment penalties”. The bankruptcy laws made it almost impossible for the borrowers to escape from the mortgage debt. These laws were passed by the US Congress, and it acted as another form of “credit enhancer” to these invest banks, who later sold these assets.
Comparison with conventional banking
Hence, the whole package of these CDOs with all these incentives and enhancements made it extremely easy for the investors to buy these very risky assets without much reluctance. While traditional banks stressed a lot on the features of the mortgage borrower (age, assets, income, profession, credit history etc), this new system meant that there was infinite amount of money available to invest in these extremely risky CDOs, with no incentive to assess the repayment ability of these borrowers. Thus extremely risky debts were grouped and divided into different groups again, and were sold to various investors, who bought them based on their risk appetite. As with any debt, the senior tranche will be the first priority for repayment, and the junior tranche only after the seniors are paid. However, it is almost astonishing to notice that some of these junior tranches were grouped again and again, thereby converting some of those extremely risky debts as highly rated investment-grade senior debt. All this made the whole system extremely fragile.
High leverage ratios
This new system of securitization into CDOs also increased the leverage ratios, and it was not uncommon to see leverage ratios as high as fifteen-to-one or even more. The hedge funds and other investors put only a small amount of their own capital into these securities. Thus the economic stability promoted creativity and innovations, however by stretching and increasing the leverage ratios and easy availability of credit, making the whole system inherently unstable and fragile. What encouraged the financial companies to increase leverage ratios is that for whatever expected losses, ROE (return on equity) is raised by higher and higher leverage ratios. This was fuelled by the fact that the house prices or real estate prices (the underlying assets in this case) kept on increasing because of demand fuelled by this easy availability of credit, thus the new loan amounts kept increasing and further encouraging financial companies to keep on increasing the leverage ratios (both “loan amount-to-borrower income” and “loan amount-to-loan value”. The logic (or assumption) used was that these houses can be either sold or refinanced later at a much higher value if at all any unexpected trouble occurred. Minsky stated that the capital markets and the whole system will undergo three stages: 1.) hedge stage 2.) speculative stage and finally 3.) Ponzi Stage. All these stages required the price of these underlying assets to appreciate in order to confirm it. Hence, owing to this virtuous cycle, it was very hard to prevent the Ponzi stage from happening.
According to Chancellor (2007), the risk management methodologies used in modern times makes use of data on historical volatility, as a substitute or alternative to risk. If volatility declines, subsequently the risk is also supposed to decline, thus encouraging financial companies to enhance the leverage ratios. Bernanke in 2004 described the period as “great moderation”, which basically suggested that since volatility is permanently less, it was encouraged to have higher leverage ratios. Thus, Chancellor states that a fund (eg: hedge fund) with just £1 million of its own funds was allowed to have a leverage of as high as £85 million of CDOs, an astonishing 85 to 1 leverage ratio!
Problems with the system
The newly formulated system of debt securitization was very little regulated by policy, and was not flexible enough to change as things went bad. Rather than being a highly controlled industry, housing finance was very much a highly unsupervised, speculative and highly leveraged industry. The whole Ponzi scheme will stop only when asset prices declined or stopped rising, or if interest rates rose. Both of these scenarios were almost impossible to avoid, because they were both correlated dynamically since Federal rate increases will result in a decline in speculation, and will ease the increasing housing prices and will result in a rising risk spreads.
What happened after the start of this crisis were completely unexpected. The losses on these highly risky highly leveraged “sub-prime” surpassed expectations which were all based on historical data. This resulted in the prices of asset prices to decline drastically, creating a panic across the markets. Problems in one market spread rapidly and increasingly to other markets, which includes the commercial paper, mutual funds and money markets. The commercial banks were now extremely risk averse, and did not even lend for small time periods. Because of the very high leverage ratios, extremely huge losses were suffered by money managers, many times much more than their capital. They had to quickly respond to this crisis, and they did it by deleveraging by selling the assets on their books, which inevitably put a lot of negative pressure on those assets’ prices.
The rippling effect
Following the subprime mortgage market collapse, the panic and qualms broadened to similar and dissimilar asset-collateral security markets, which included municipal bond and real estate bond markets. Markets realized the extent and significance of the systemic faults with the system, particularly that of the credit rating companies’ credit ratings. The markets also understood, though very late, that insurers would have tremendous losses, if all these “asset-backed” securities were riskier than understood earlier. This resulted in the severe downgrading of these insurer’s credit ratings. Since the financial position of these insurers became extremely bad, the assets those insurers had insured became valueless – thus the security and bond ratings were severely downgraded. In a lot of instances, to make things even worse and regrettably, the worst securities were also held by these investment banks, and had either held positions in some of these insurers, or had guaranteed taking back these mortgages. To improve the terrible condition the capital markets and the global financial markets were in, the United States government had to come out with massive bail outs of its various bank and insurance companies. Some of them went bankrupt, but some of them were too big for them to be allowed to fall. Till Jan 2009, almost one trillion dollars of bad debt was completely written off by those financial institutions combined, assisted mostly by those government bailouts.
Till 2009 January, the US Treasury had provided almost four hundred billion dollars of assistance, mostly by purchasing the assets, and in certain cases taking equity positions. The actual cost of supporting the financial system is expected to be much more, at least some trillions of dollars. It is worth noting that the whole securitized debt market was only around ten trillion, and the share of the sub-prime mortgages were more than 2.5 trillion dollars. From all these facts explained above, one thing is evident and clear. The series of events that caused this financial crisis would not have happened had the markets been more regulated, and most importantly, had the policy makers not believed and followed the tenets of capitalism so blindly. The extremely heavy losses and bankruptcies that have happened, and those that are yet to happen are not just the case of bad housing loans offered to poor home loan borrowers for them to purchase luxury manors which they did not have the capacity to repay. But instead, this is clearly a case of failure of the so called neo-liberal capitalism, which believed in unregulated markets, “markets will decide for itself what is good for it”, “regulation means bad for businesses and economy”, “It’s all about creating shareholder value” etc. There has been a systemic failure, and sadly those people who were responsible for the whole sequence of events have gone scot-free, and the millions who are terribly affected are the very same low-income or middle class people (including pension funds and other social security funds), who were deceived by those responsible for it all. It is high time that governments who come to power repossess finance from the completely unregulated capital markets, and bring in necessary regulations to make the system more equitable and stable. This will also help bring some order back to the system, and regain some control from the Wall Street.