Saturday, September 17, 2016

If ever allowed, the following would be my brief testimony about what caused the 2008 bank crisis

The following, if I am ever allowed to give it, as so many would not like to hear it, would be my brief testimony on what caused the 2008 bank crisis 

Sir, as I have learned to understand it, the 2008 crisis resulted from a combination of 3 factors.

The first were some very minimal capital requirements for some assets that had been approved, starting in 1988 with Basel I, for sovereigns and the financing of residential housing; and made extensive in Basel II of 2004 to private sectors assets with good credit ratings.

These allowed banks then to earn much higher expected risk adjusted returns on equity on some assets than on other, which introduced a serious distortion. After Basel II the allowed bank equity leverages were almost limitless when lending to “sound” (or friendly) sovereigns; 36 times to 1 when financing residential housing; and over 60 to 1 with private sector assets rated AAA to AA. Just the signature, on some type of guarantee by an AAA rated, like AIG, also allowed an operation to become leveraged over 60 times to 1. 

The second was Basel II’ extensive conditioning of the capital requirements for banks to the decisions of some very few (3) human fallible credit rating agencies. As I so many times warned about (in a letter published in FT January 2003 and even clearer in a written statement at the World Bank) this introduced a very serious systemic risk.

The third factor is a malignant element present in the otherwise beneficial process of securitization. The profits of that process are a function of how much implied and perceived risk-reduction takes place. To securitize something safe to something safer does not yield great returns for the securitization process. Neither does to securitize something risky into something less risky. 

What produces BIG profits is to securitize something really risky, and sell it off as something really safe. Like awarding really lousy subprime mortgages and packaging them in securities that could achieve an AAA rating. A 11%, 30 years, $300.000 mortgage, packaged into a security rated AAA and sold at a 6 percent yield, can be sold for $510.000, and provide those involved in the process an instantaneous profit of $210.000

With those facts it should be easy to understand the explosiveness of mixing the temptations of limitless, 36, and more than 60 to 1 allowed bank equity leverages providing huge expected risk adjusted ROEs; with subjecting the risk-assesment too much to the criteria of too few; with the huge profit margins when securitizing something very risky into something “very safe”. Here follows some indicative consequences:

As far as I have been able to gather, over a period of about 2 years, over a trillion dollars of the much larger production of subprime mortgages dressed up in AAA-AA ratings, ended up only in Europe. Add to that all the American investment banks’ holdings of this shady product.

To that we should also add Europe’s own problems with mortgages, like those in Spain derived in much by an excessive use of “teaser interest rates”, low the first years and then shooting up with vengeance.

And sovereigns like Greece, would never have been able to take on so much debt if banks (especially those in the Eurozone) would not have been able to leverage their equity so much with these loans.

Without those consequences there would have been no 2008 crisis, and that is an absolute fact.

The problem though with this explanation is that many, especially bank regulators, especially bank bashers, especially equity minimizing bankers, especially inattentive finance academicians, especially faulty besserwissers (those who love the sophisticated taste of words like "derivatives"), they all do not like this explanation, so it is not even discussed.

The real question though is: Who is the guiltiest party, those who fell for the temptations, or those who allowed the creation of the temptations?

I mean how far can you go blaming the children from eating some of that deliciously looking chocolate cake you left on the table, at their reach?