Thursday, April 10, 2008

SUBPRIME THINKING

JEFF FAUX, NATION In a typical deal, subprime mortgages were sold to investment companies, where they were commingled with prime mortgages to back up new securities that could be touted as both safe and high-yielding. This new debt paper was then peddled to investors, who used it as collateral for "margin" loans to buy yet more stocks and bonds. At each change of hands, fees and underwriting charges added to the total claims on the original shaky mortgages. The result was a frenzied bidding up of prices for a bewildering maze of arcane securities that neither buyers nor sellers could accurately value.

Giant Ponzi scheme? Not to worry, responded the Wall Street geniuses. By spreading risks among more people, the miracle of "diversity" was actually turning bad loans into good ones. Anyway, banks were buying insurance policies against default, which in turn were transformed into a set of even murkier securities called "credit default swaps" and marketed to hedge funds, pension managers and in some cases back to the banks that were being insured in the first place. At the end of 2007 the market for these swaps was estimated at $45.5 trillion--roughly twice as large as all US stock markets combined.

This huge pyramid of debt was made possible by thirty years of relentless deregulation of financial markets, culminating in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited banks from dealing in high-risk securities. In effect, Washington regulators became passive enablers to Wall Street's financial binge drinkers. When they crashed--for example, in the savings-and-loan and junk-bond debacles of the 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management collapse of 1998 and the Enron and dot-com crashes of the early 2000s--the government cleaned up the mess with taxpayers' money and let them go back to the bar.

So here we go again. . . Otto von Bismarck once remarked, "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America." Let's hope it's still true.

1 Comments:

At April 10, 2008 7:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

God doesn't protect the United States of America, he protects the assholes who are raping her.

 

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