Sunday, October 05, 2008

How American greed collapsed the financial system

In the USA in 1998, many people decided that real estate was very cheap. At the same time, Wall Street was making it easier for buyers to get loans.

Since most of these loans go to people wanting to buy a house, they come with higher interest rates — even if they’re disguised by low initial rates — and thus higher returns. These mortgages packaged together and bundled into investments, often known as collateralized debt obligations(CDO).

Investors then boosted their returns through leverage. For example they made a $100 million bet with only $1 million of their own money and $99 million in debt(backed by a CDO). If the value of the investment rose to just $101 million, the investors would double their money.

Similarly the American home buyer did the same thing, by putting little money down on new houses. The Fed helped make it all possible, sharply reducing interest rates, to prevent a double-dip recession after the technology bust of 2000, and then keeping them low for several years

All these investments, of course, were highly risky. Higher returns always come with greater risk. People assumed that that the usual rules didn’t apply because home prices nationwide had never fallen before. Based on that idea, prices rose ever higher — so high, that they appeared riduclous when compared with real wages.

Then what happened....

The American home seemed so lucrative and easy money that all the banks in the global financial system ended up owning a piece of it. In a strategy to distribute risk many banks sold complex insurance policies on the mortgage debt. That meant that they would now have to pay up in case the mortgage owner defaults

If that $100 million investment I described above were to lose just $1 million of its value, the investor who put up only $1 million would lose everything.

This is the fear that is crippling the financial market these days. Banks dont seem to think they can lend to each other because no one knows how much a bank is leveraged. Uncertainity is the worst thing for markets so investors are losing confidence. This is bringing down the market.

With so many small investors invested in the market through retirement funds, brokerage accounts this is bound to effect the common man on the street. With a declining net worth and lack of credit it is difficult for the American consumer to purchase products leading to low earnings for non-financial companies.

American markets are caught in this vicious circle and rather than only blaming folks on wall street people must also realize that spending beyond your means always leads to financial trouble.