Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Danger of Clinging to Myths of Security

In my fairly voracious reading on the current financial mess, I've yet to see anyone tackle in thematic fashion the idea of “myths of security.” I think this is a highly relevant subject (a tad philosophical, but not too much heavy lifting I promise), as it helps explain why an asset bubble can become grossly inflated. Security is, after all, the comforting touchstone to reality we seek when we’re faced with counterintuitive evidence, such as home prices surging 20 percent a year.

So what myths of security allowed the housing market to soar so high? By myths of security, I refer to a false sense of safety or comfort. These myths create what might be called a “security premium” in prices of assets, such as homes. In other words, investors are willing to shell out more money for assets perceived as safe and reliable.

A quick detour: Why is this last sentence true in general? 1. The pool of investors, and thus the overall demand, grows larger for safe investments. Example: pension funds were enticed to buy mortgage-backed securities because of the glowing credit ratings on the products. 2. Investors want compensation to assume risk. If you offer to sell an IOU for $1,000, payable in one year, you may get $995 if you're a moral, upstanding citizen with a good job. But if you're Sam Shady, an out-of-work transient, that IOU may fetch only $800, $700 or even less.

(There is an interesting corollary of all this that I'll skip over here, but it goes like this: if you appear to wave a magic wand and create a secure investment with a return of say 8% when other similar-yielding investments are much riskier, you start to suck money away from those others. This can further pump a bubble. In fact, the myths of security play into a vicious feedback loop: money is diverted to investments that, at a given yield, are seen as “safer”; these assets then spiral higher, drawing in more money.)

Here are four chief “myths of security” in the housing and financial mess:

Housing prices never fall.
This myth was fairly widespread. I remember hearing it from a good friend in late 2005, while living in South Florida. At the time, home prices inexorably climbed every month; flippers and speculators were running rampant, snatching up unbuilt condos and queuing up overnight to be first in line for sales in new developments. The reasons for the myth are easy to understand: houses are real, tangible, critical assets. Everyone needs shelter. But even the most indispensable assets can become significantly overvalued.

The Federal Reserve under Greenspan would intervene to prop up falling prices of major assets, such as homes.
This myth is key because it was on Greenspan's watch that home prices had such a huge run-up. That rise in value benefited from a phenomenon known as “the Greenspan put.” “Put” in this context is a high-finance term. It refers to a product that protects an investor from losing money on an asset. Believers in the Greenspan put thought that, should home prices start to fall, the Fed chairman would step in and pump money into the markets to support prices.

Good ratings from respected agencies such as S&P and Moody's made mortgage-backed securities safe to buy.
The market for bonds backed by shaky U.S. home loans could never have grown so huge had they not received such high safety ratings from S&P and Moody's and Fitch. Now we find that the raters were mostly trying to win customers and boost revenue. They weren't that careful or rigorous in their evaluations. The cynic’s view is that their ratings became the best that money could buy, so to speak.

Even if you weren't confident of the ratings on mortgage-backed securities, you could buy insurance on the investments to hedge against a drop in value.
Insurance-like products called credit default swaps were supposed to provide this extra layer of protection. The trouble is, the credit default swap market became huge and is opaque and unregulated. It's not clear how many “insurers” actually have enough money to make good on future losses on mortgage-backed securities. Many of the insurers were hedge funds, an industry on the ropes amid the current market turmoil.

What happens when you inflate a bubble on four big “myths of security”? Once these myths are exposed, the bubble deflates quickly and violently, it would seem from what we are now seeing.