Friday, November 28, 2008

How We Got Here

Understanding how our economy got where it is today can be analyzed in many different ways, spreading blame and pointing fingers at many different people. But I think the overall analysis, the simplistic themes that resonate whenever anything is written to this analysis, comes back to two factors: Greed & Risk. You can take greed and you can take risk, you can break them down and apply them to the different financial instruments that were created that in the end have proved to be at the crux of the collapse - subprime loans, credit default swaps, Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, etc.  These instruments were created 20 years ago and exploited throughout the system throughout the years; they are the cliches of blame. 

Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker  nearly 20 years ago as a guidebook to understanding how Wall Street was exploiting these themes and how it would set it up for an epic collapse, what he didn't envision was it taking another 18 years to happen. Most recently he wrote the lead story for the December 2008 edition of Conde Nast titled 'The End'.  It is the best written narrative on the perils of our current economic condition, the story behind it. Its not an outline of events and statistics that brought down the boom of Wall Street; its the human story of the people involved, how they saw it coming and reflections to it all in hindsight. 

A snippet:

What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA. But he couldn't figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. "I didn't understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold," he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. "We always asked the same question," says Eisman. "Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I'd always get the same reaction. It was a smirk." 

"You have to understand this," he says. "This was the engine of doom." Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a "particularly egregious" C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. 

The cause of the financial crisis was "simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers." …Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed. 
Michael Lewis was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal recently.

Money Quote:

We have entered a period of risk aversion unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. Investors will be too wary for a while. You'll read stories about people who got rich betting against subprime mortgages and then about people who combed through the wreckage and found bargains. The next rich wave will be those who figure out where the value is. As for the average American investor, he'll be a deer in the headlights for years. It will be a while until greed gets comfortable again.