Saturday, August 25, 2007

Will US go into a recession? - Part 1

The last few weeks of credit crunch has made people to start thinking about a recession. If you go by the historical periodicity of economic cycles, a recession is a long overdue in the US. The last one in 2001-02 was not a big one, and a lot of believers have come to predict that next year might be a recession year. The biggest factor this time seems to be the mortgage crisis, in particular, the subprime mortgage crisis where lenders were very lax in providing loans to people with spotty credit history. So, this part would focus on that.

A background on Subprime crisis:
In US, home loans, like those in most other countries, used to be a direct relation between a lender and the borrower. The borrower puts up some money and approaches a bank and if he has good financial track record and has the means to pay the loan, the bank gives a loan for the rest; and this is given from the deposits made by its customers. The borrower puts atleast 20% of the amount and has about 30 years to repay the remaining 80%. Usually, home prices doesn't go down more than 20% in normal circumstances and hence the bank always have the option of pulling the loan from the borrower and selling it in the market, if the borrower ever defaults. Since, the borrower puts 20% and takes a risk of losing the entire investment in case of crisis, looks carefully before buying and make sure he could pay the loan for atleast 2-3 years down the road. And normally, the rental cost is not too much more than the interest paid on the loan and so there is always an option of renting the home and pay the lender from the rental returns. So far, so good.

Now, the lenders wanted to expand their businesses and bring more liquidity. After all, if they just lend with the savings deposits they get from retail investors, they would still be a small business. And its risky too. What if all the customers want the deposits immediately (savings deposits are for shorter term) while the bank cannot get loans in a split second from the borrowers who have a period of 30 years to pay. This situation is called the "run-on-the-bank" and during the 1929-33 depression, a lot of banks failed because the depositors wanted money too quickly sensing a panic. So, to reduce the risk and save their asses, banks wanted to marriage the borrowers with those who could invest for pretty long and who might not want the money immediately in case of a crisis. Enter bond markets and institutional investors.

Now, the bank makes ten loans for say $1 million and then packages them into a bond. This bond would yield at a rate slightly less than the rate charged by the bank to the borrower and the bond is secured by the ten homes for which the loan was given. This bond would be bough by big brokerae firms and other big institutions who might slice them into say 1000 pieces of $1000 each and so on. At some point retail investors who plan for retirement or want to invest for their kids education would buy these bonds and they look long term. In the long term, houses always appreciate usually with the rate of inflation. So, even if the borrower's default, the house could be sold and the bond repaid. And the chances of borrower default is very low given that it is given to only good people and the borrower has significant equity that he doesn't want to lose on foreclosure. Given that less than 5% of borrowers would ever foreclose and the individual piece you buy is so spread-out (your $1000 bond piece might contain $1 pieces of 1000 loans) that the risk is not too much. The lender is now just a conduit who needs to lend to good borrowers and package the loans to long-term investors and so has very little no-risk. For the borrower, the loan interest rate goes lower as he could choose from the huge pool of liquid options. So, its a win-win for everybody.

But, human greed sometimes can blind objectivity and when the risk is not directly visible the greed directly takes over sanity. This win-win equation seems to suit everybody and it looks like irrespective of who the loan goes to, the final investor gets his return. To make matters worse, at each level, the reputation of previous level adds up thereby reducing the risk (apparently). So, John Doe goes for $1 million loan. This is a bit risky, so the lender charges slightly higher. The lender, a small and reputable bank can get a much better rate for its Mortgage backed security and sells it to say, Fidelity*. Now, when the final investor buys from Fidelity he thinks of all the great corporations involved in the chain and agrees for a much lesser interest rate for his bond, than what he would give it to John Doe directly. Since, he agrees for much lesser interest rate, Fidelity can give the next loans to the local lender at a much lower rate and the lender hence gives the borrower a lower rate. This chain of lowering interests come to point where the interest rate between what you get in super-safe Government bonds and treasuries and what you give it to a spotty borrower like John Doe is infinitesimally small. And the investor keeps full faith on housing market that always seems to go up and thus the spottiness of John Does doesn't matter. You can always get the house from him and sell it in the market.

Now, the lender doesnt need to ask for any income proof or repay ability from the borrower. The average investor Jane Smith doesn't plan to ask that and if the final investor is not asking, why bother. The lender and broker could happily loan to any shabby, shady little person with just a couple of document signatures and pass the securities to final investor. How better you business could get? Every body is happy in this land of paradize. To make it worse, the Fed (American central bank) reduced interest rates so low that now its barely above zero. So, anybody could be given a loan with almost no interst rates and since house prices *always* go up (short or long term doesn't matter), every Tom, Dick and Harry jumped into the game. They didnt have to put 20% from their pockets, didnt have to worry about planning for payments 2 years down the line or even worry abount Rental incomes. HOUSE PRICES ALWAYS GO UP YOU MORON. And the lower interest rates are taken for granted and people went for Adjustable rate mortgages where interest rates go with the market rates, rather than one fixed rate for entire duration of the loan.

So, what if the housing markets start going down, interest rates start going up and the poor investors like Jane Smith start using their brain? You will get the current crisis. Those who got million dollar loans with no income, start suddenly thinking that they cannot repay. So, they go to the market and sell the home and pocket gains after repaying the lender. It turns out that every other moron tries to do the same, and just as in the "Emperor without any clothes" fable, suddenly people start realizing they are all naked. The house prices start falling down. Now the big brokerage houses start waking up (aroused by Jane Smiths) and they start asking the lender to give back teh bond amount or foreclose those houses that are not paying interest. When they try to foreclose they realize that the house is worth just 75% of what the loan is and everybody start scrambling. The investors threaten the brokerages and big banks and they inturn put their hands in the lender's throats. Result: Lenders start closing down, and brokerages are hit big and have to take some of the losses and pass the rest to its investors, starting a chain. Now, many people who thought they were loaning Fidelity* or Bank of America*, realize they were in fact loaning the shady loan applications of Joe Does who wont repay. Thus, this whole mess.

This subprime market is more than $2 trillion and no one is sure how many of their famed institutions are involved in what amounts. As uncertainity is the mother of bears, we are feeling this great pinch and the dormat investors are now suddenly running helter-skelter to get their investments back.

Next: Would it really cause a recession?

* This is taken just as an example. It is not to be taken literally to mean that Fidelity has very high mortgage exposure.