Friday, September 26, 2008

What is the bailout really about?

Something that's been noticeably absent from all of the fear-inducing rants about the absolute need to ram through Congress a bill to throw $700,000,000,000 at Wall Street to save them from themselves is any substantive discussion of why that specific amount of money? What will it be used for? What will we, the taxpayers, get in return for mortgaging our grandchildrens' futures? Treasury has already told us that that number was "not based on any particular data point" and that they "just wanted to choose a really large number" (how very like the Bush administration to use their "gut" in place of real analysis), which should be enough to set the "terrist threat level" to "severe with sprinkles on top".

Devilstower and Hunter over at DailyKos have been asking these questions and the conclusions they reached are very disturbing. Here's Devilstower's take:

"This crisis was brought to you by subprime mortgages. We know that because we're told it many, many times each day. So how big is the problem?

The total value of all home mortgages has risen steeply over the last few years as the housing bubble drove home prices up and lax lending rules roped more people into the pool. Home mortgages were valued at $7 trillion in 2003 but were up to $11.1 trillion by last year.

How many of those were "subprime?" It depends on how you define it. Funny thing: the initial definition was loans that didn't meet Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac qualifications, meaning that those institutions shouldn't be holding any subprime loans. But as a term, subprime is now more often applied to any loan where either the applicant's credit fell below the mid-range of "good" or where the lender did an abbreviated credit check. That kind of loan really came and went rather quickly. They were 8% of loans in 2003, topped out at 20% of loans in 2005 and 2006, and were back to 3% of loans in 2007. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, $139 billion of subprime loans were handed out in the last quarter of 2006, but this was down to $14 billion in the matching quarter of 2007

Now the real question: how many of those loans are in trouble?

Foreclosures were up a steep 79% in 2007, reaching just over 1% of mortgages. The numbers are up again so far in 2008 (though not as steeply). We could top 2% in default this year or next. There are some expectations that foreclosures could triple from today's historically high levels, meaning ultimately 3% of mortgages could be in trouble.

And that's where we get that math problem. 1% of all mortgages -- the amount now in default -- comes out to $111 billion. Triple that, and you've got $333 billion. Let's round that up to $350 billion. So even if we reach the point where three percent of all mortgages are in foreclosure, the total dollars to flat out buy all those mortgages would be half of what the Bush-Paulson-McCain plan calls for.

Then we need to factor in that a purchased mortgage isn't worth zero. After all, these documents come with property attached. Even with home prices falling and some of the homes lying around unsold, it's safe to assume that some portion of these values could be recovered. In the S&L crisis, about 70% of asset value was recovered, but let's say we don't do that well. Let's say we hit 50%. Then the real outlay for taxpayers would be around $175 billion.

Which, frankly, is a number that Wall Street should be able to handle without our help. After all, the top firms on Wall Steet payed out $120 billion in bonuses alone between 2000 and 2006. If they've got that kind of mad money, why do they need us to step in now? And why do they need twice as much as all the mortgages that are even likely to implode?"

So there's a little problem with the math. Would that mean that this really isn't about the subprime collapse? Hunter explains.
"...despite what we've been told, then, we can only presume that the problem is in fact not all the bad, scary subprime mortgages. And it's not. Yes, a lot of people are finding themselves upside-down on their houses right now, but Paulson isn't proposing we do squat to solve that -- and even the "controversial" Democratic counterproposal, that we actually do at least a little something to help those people, after they've already gone bankrupt, is pathetically weak.

Instead, we're getting a Wall Street bailout not of the mortgages, but of the absurd, speculative, economy-wrecking derivatives based on those mortgages, derivatives that investors and banks ravenously sold each other at unsupportable and quite-probably-crooked prices. Those derivatives, generally speaking, are "bets" on the state of the underlying mortgages. And they didn't just bet wrong -- they bet irrationally, based on presumptions of near-zero risks to those underlying mortgages. And worse, the big banks even -- bafflingly -- got special permission to overleverage themselves 40 to 1, all but assuring collapse if those derivatives went south. Which they did.

Fine, then, but how is that self-induced bubble an unweatherable economic crisis for the rest of us? Yes, those banks may fail -- as they should. It'd be a crime if they didn't, given their mismanagement of their accounts. But the real problem is that those banks are, literally, too big to be allowed to fail. Their failure would present a liquidity problem for the rest of the market. They can do anything -- they could even burn money on the street -- and the strong preference of government would be to bail them out for it, because the alternative is financial chaos.

The subprime mortgages aren't the problem. And the overleveraged firms shouldn't be a problem. The problem is keeping the rest of the economy afloat no matter what happens to the firms in trouble."

So we're being lied to. This bailout has nothing to do with the subprime market as we're being led to believe. This is about the smoke-and-mirrors derivatives market. It was an elaborate Ponzi scheme that allowed the same assets to be used as collateral for different investments many times over. So where do we go from here?

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