What is this sub-prime mortgage crisis about and why has it happened?

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What is this sub-prime mortgage crisis about and why has it happened?

Here is a really good summery of the sub prime mortgage crisis and its effect on the rest of the world. Its a little preachy, but certainly shows the steps involved. From 2007.

In 2000, America faced a recession. But rather than letting the economy rebalance, the Federal Reserve decided to slash interest rates to artificially stimulate the economy—even though it knew that doing so would probably create even bigger problems later.

Consequently, mortgage rates in America plummeted and, suddenly, millions more Americans could buy homes. House prices skyrocketed: tripling and quadrupling in many areas. The bubble fed on itself as prospective homeowners, often acting more like speculators, rushed to buy homes as quickly as possible to capitalize on further price appreciation.

As home values rose, fewer people could afford traditional loans. To keep their profits growing, banks and lenders began offering easy-to-get subprime mortgages—mortgages to borrowers normally considered too risky due to credit history, income status and other factors.

Oftentimes these loans were adjustable-rate, or had initial teaser rates that would ratchet up later. Often the loans were given without any applicant background checks at all. As long as a borrower could write his own name and yearly income (regardless of whether or not it was true), he could get a loan.

And everyone was happy. Record house prices fueled a building boom and jobs were created. Borrowers were glad because they got huge loans and could purchase homes that were rising in value. Real-estate agents were pleased because the bigger the house sold, the bigger their profit. Lenders and loan brokers were cheerful too because they each got their cut of the action.

But there was just one problem: The whole boom was based on artificially low interest rates. What would happen when interest rates rose, homes stopped appreciating and borrowers had more difficulty making payments?

American banks, understanding the risk involved in holding so many chancy (and possibly largely overvalued) subprime mortgages on their own books, decided to get rid of them. But who would want to buy all the risky mortgages? Certainly not Americans who were already maxed out on subprime debt. The answer was foreigners.

But here was the catch. To make the sales profitable, the risky mortgages had to be marketed as a “safe” investment.

So American banks sliced and bundled their subprime mortgages together into packages. Using complex computer models, and by geographically and otherwise diversifying the bundled mortgages, American banks convinced world-renowned and trusted American investment-rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to give the mortgage securities higher valuations than regular subprimes would typically rate.

Later it became public knowledge that these same ratings agencies, which foreign investors were relying on for impartial advice, were being paid by the very banks and lenders that were bundling and selling the subprime mortgages—a huge conflict of interest that produced some terribly misleading data for foreign investors.

It has also emerged, at least in Moody’s case, that the agency knew for years that the mortgages securities they rated as safe were more than 10 times as risky as other similarly rated bonds (Daily Reckoning, September 3).

But at the time, even the banks were happy. They could merrily issue subprime mortgages (and still collect all their fees) because they were able to both quickly remove the mortgages from their books and get top dollar for them, thanks to the high ratings. And foreign investors (as well as domestic investors) confidently purchased these supposedly safe mortgage investments.

That is, until interest rates started to rise—and subprime borrowers began defaulting in droves.

As with all parties, the fun and games eventually end. Suddenly the world woke up to the fact that subprime mortgages were just that—subprime—regardless of what American ratings agencies and banks pretended. As the U.S. housing market slumped, suddenly nobody wanted any American mortgage securities anymore, let alone subprime ones.

Investors around the world tried to sell American mortgage securities, but by this time, the shoddy credit ratings had become public knowledge. American credit-rating agencies embarrassingly began to issue massive ratings downgrades, and foreign investors found that to even get any bidders on their American mortgage portfolios, they had to accept steeply marked-down prices.

Hedge funds and other investment vehicles began to seize up as people tried to pull their money out of any and all businesses associated with U.S. mortgages. Panic ensued.

As the credit crunch spread, it became evident that the “made in America” economic crisis was not contained. America’s trade partners would also take the hit for the breakdown in America.

Banks and mortgage lenders across Europe and America began to fail.

German, French and British banks, as well as stock market investors around the world, got hit especially hard as the credit crunch and fears of new restrictive lending practices shook international bourses. Investors lost billions.

Things got so bad in Germany that the government had to step in to save two banks from failing. In France, bnp Paribas, one of the nation’s largest banks, had to suspend redemptions from three investment funds it managed.

In Britain, Northern Rock Plc., the nation’s fifth-largest lender, experienced an unprecedented bank run as customers lined up for hours to clamor for their money when it was revealed that it was having trouble accessing enough credit to continue normal operations. The Telegraph compared the scene to something out of Zimbabwe.

And the few big-name collapses experienced so far may be just the beginning.

You can be sure that billions in losses—all as a result of what amounts to a con—will not pass without a response. International backlash is growing.

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By netchicken: posted on 4-10-2007

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