Sunday, November 30, 2008

A primer on subprime (5 of 5): Who’s to blame?

Culprits as I see it:

1) Greed by everyone in the chain: The people who took out loans they really shouldn’t have, the bank officers helping to falsify loan information to meet their performance targets, the CEOs out to make their big bonuses, shareholders hungry for profit growth, ratings agencies focused on fee income, investors looking for a free lunch ….

Borrowers were encouraged to over-state their income to qualify for bigger loans; or even to qualify for loans in the first place as banks rushed to hand out credit. A senior officer at Washington Mutual, one of the failed US banks said, "At WaMu it wasn't about the quality of the loans; it was about the numbers … They didn't care if we were giving loans to people that didn't qualify. Instead, it was how many loans did you guys fund."

They were facilitated by a false sense of security after years of benign economic conditions. Over-optimistic assumptions were built into financial models. Bankers and ratings agencies conveniently assumed recent low default rates were sustainable in the long-term. Those who argued against were told, “This time it’s different”.

Some senior bankers knew it was a house of cards – remember former Citigroup boss Chuck Prince saying, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance?” But bank bosses were under pressure to show profit growth. Banks competed fiercely to lend, and often dispensed with the usual covenants meant to secure such credits – ie the “cov-light” loan. Ratings agencies gave unwarranted AAA ratings.

2) The market failure was facilitated by regulatory failure. Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve refused to deflate the mortgage bubble. He argued that markets had efficiently found ways to diversify the risks. But regulators failed to look deeply enough into the institutions that had supposedly took on the risks. The risks appeared to have been off-loaded, but really weren’t as the insurers were not well capitalised. It turned out that even large AAA-rated firms like AIG were over-extended and could not pay up when defaults rose.

Quite frankly though, I don't think the soul-searching is worth much. History is useful if only we would learn from it. And yes, for a while, lending standards will be tighter, banks will focus on risks and regulators will be stricter.

But as the good times roll again, politicians and businessmen will push for relaxed standards. Risk managers don’t earn revenue. Loan salesmen do. We'll again hear “This time it's different. We've learnt our lessons.” We shall see.

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