Non-business press readers are probably asking themselves whether they should be worried about the ongoing crises in the housing and financial markets.
The answer is: Yes, more than you think.
The talk these days is of a financial superfund, a plan backed by the Treasury Department that would enlist major banks to contribute $80 billion or more to buy good securities from investment vehicles that invested unwisely in subprime and other debt.
The major dailies are doing well on this story, especially on Tuesday, making clear that the fund, known as the Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (pronounced “EmLickEyCon” around The Audit) will not be used to buy bad or subprime loans from the hedge funds that bought them. Rather it would buy only good-quality instruments. What’s the point?
Floyd Norris of The New York Times explains that defaults on overrated bonds, and the uncertainty of the credit quality of everything else, scared the market away from buying anything. So, he writes,
The conduit could work brilliantly if it turns out that the collapse in the market value of the securities represents market panic rather than an accurate assessment of the likelihood of eventual default. If this is the case, then prices will eventually return to normal and this new creation will have bought time for that to happen.
If it’s not the case, and the collapsing prices reflect real collapsing values, then the problem is deeper than we thought and the new entity will not help, Norris explains, with this helpful quote:
“I don’t really see that this is going to make a significant difference,” said Jan Hatzius, chief United States economist at Goldman Sachs. “It seems a little more like a P.R. move, frankly.”
Remember, the problem here, as the papers explain, is that banks did a poor job of underwriting the loans (or in some untold number of cases, foisted them on unqualified borrowers using high-pressure sales tactics), then packaged and sold them to investment funds, which did an equally poor job of examining what they were buying.
For some plain talk, tune into an excellent video interview with Dick Bove, of the New York investment bank Punk, Ziegel & Co. on The Wall Street Journal’s website.
I like Bove’s incredulous tone:
The problem on the banking industry’s part is that they may not have underwritten them that well. The problem on the investors’ part is that they didn’t look at what they bought. (Smile). In other words, if it was twenty years ago, and someone wants to buy $100 million worth of mortgages, they would go through mortgage by mortgage and they would eliminate those mortgages that were questionable in nature. This time, the buyers… simply went in and bought them. They didn’t look at what they they bought. They didn’t underwrite what they bought. They just bought them.
Here’s an old investor talking: They just bought them! And now they want help! Forget it, Bove says, basically.
He also colorfully rejects the idea that banks should be made to buy back bad loans: “On a scale of one to ten, if we have a dumb meter, this is about an eight-and-a-half.”
But he makes the case that the fact that Treasury is involved at all here is not a good sign:
What it’s telling the market; there’s a real problem out here. There’s a problem of sizable magnitude. Because I cannot remember, going back at least the forty years that I’ve been doing this, that the Treasury Department has ever gotten involved ever in anything of this nature.
So, if you’re keeping score, that’s two evers and one anything of this nature. Yikes.
What’s the takeaway?
What the Treasury Department is signaling, in my view, is that you better be afraid because there’s a big problem and we can’t figure out how to solve that problem. But we’re working on it.
Announcer Kelsey Hubbard: “OK, well, thank you so much for joining me.”
Bove: “Thank you.”
The Audit: No, thank you. (Note to self: Sell everything. Today.)
The Journal also provides a useful interactive scorecard to keep track of the worst actors in the subprime debacle (and other companies affected by it) and the effect their substandard underwriting is having on earnings, reputations, etc. The interactive chart allows readers to rank the companies by name, date of announcement of the bad news. I would have liked to be able to rank the companies by size of the problem, but you can’t have everything.