26 April 2010

Toxic Assets Revisited

I just attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Hal Heaton who was my MBA Business Finance teacher 16 years ago. He outlined what he called the "Perfect Storm" of events that lead to our current financial crisis. Much of what he had to say is summarized in this business case though his live presentation included some nice graphs illustrating many of the financial trends.

Following the lecture I asked him about my theory that the markets could self-correct the problem of toxic assets (outlined in my previous blog post on this subject). It turns out that he has been serving as an expert witness in several lawsuits related to the meltdown and has direct experience in this area. He assured me that, indeed, the derivatives market has mostly shut down and that the remaining derivative instruments are treated as the risky instruments they really are.

According to Dr. Heaton, one lingering problem is that the Community Reinvestment Act that I talked about in my history of the banking crisis remains in place along with enhancements that were passed in 1999 and 2005. Presently the provisions aren't being enforced but if they are, banks will be required to continue to issue the kind of high-risk loans that helped create this problem in the first place.

From his primary lecture I learned that Dr. Heaton views the sub-prime lending and the associated financial derivatives as only two components in a six-part "perfect storm." Here's the full list.

  • High-risk mortgages spurred on by the Community Reinvestment Act and it's more recent kickers. (The requirements remain in place though they aren't currently being enforced).
  • Enormous increase in the money supply with interest rates reduced to nearly zero. (Rates are still there.)
  • Hybrid mortgages that had a two-year low introductory rate. Homeowners expected to be able to refinance after two years because "home prices always go up as they had done almost continuously for the 40 years preceding 2008. (Many of these have already been foreclosed upon but there remain several waves of ARMs yet to create problems.)
  • Asset Securitization -- the financial derivatives used to finance high-risk mortgages and an enormous variety of other investments. (Mostly out of favor.)
  • The transfer of manufacturing to China and other emerging markets. This results in an enormous trade deficit. Under normal circumstances, such a deficit would strengthen the yuan and weaken the dollar thereby bringing things into balance. But the Chinese government, not wanting to slow the growth, purchases dollars from manufacturers in exchange for Yuan and then invests those dollars in US Treasuries. (The recession has reduced the trade deficit by half but it remains tremendously high by historic standards.)
  • The complicity of Moody's and Standard and Poor's in giving excessively high ratings to mortgage-derived securities based on the incorrect assumption that housing prices would not decline. (This has been corrected.)
Possibly even more concerning is Dr. Heaton's Assertion that many of the "rules of economics" he taught me those years ago have been violated in ways he would never have foreseen. Examples: The money supply has been tripled but interest rates and inflation remain extremely low. We've been able to sustain an enormous trade deficit without currency corrections. The Fed has been purchasing treasuries and yet the sky hasn't fallen.

We are in unprecedented territory. What happens next is anybody's guess.

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