Financial Innovation: Wall Street’s False Utopia


In the popular media much of the blame for the current crisis lies with sub-prime mortgages. Yet the main culprit was not the gullible homebuyer in Stockton or the seedy mortgage company. The real problem lay on Wall Street, and it’s addiction to ever more arcane financial innovation. As we try to understand the current crisis, and figure ways out of it, we need to understand precisely what, in the main, went wrong.

I have studied financial innovation for years and worked with some of the best minds in that business. In 2003, I wrote in Beyond Junk Bonds that financial innovation is the “engine driving the financial system toward improved performance in the real economy”. Innovative debt securities, like collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), I had hoped, would add value to the economy by reallocating risk, increasing liquidity, and reducing agency costs. Like the broken promises of communism, it turned out to be a utopia that was not achieved.

CMOs were designed to diversify risk by shifting risk to larger, better capitalized and diverse institutions. Traditionally, a bank in Riverside, California would write and hold the mortgages for homes in the area. Then, if some negative shock impacted jobs and income in the area, that bank would have to absorb all of the resulting defaults. This would put the local bank at an inordinate risk. With CMOs, the risk would be spread out across banks and investors in a broader geographic area. Since CMOs could be held internationally, even a nationwide economic downturn might have little impact on any single mortgage holder.

Unfortunately, the dealmakers sold the riskiest pieces to a few hedge funds, thereby consolidating the risk rather than allocating it broadly. The result was the spectacular crash of Bear Stearns and the incendiary damage done to a slew of US and international financial institutions.

CMOs were supposed to produce more money available for lending to homeowners than would otherwise have been the case. Instead it produced more paper, more heavily leveraged and less secure. Securitized mortgages were misused to the extent that $45 trillion in bonds were issued on $5 trillion in assets; it's as if someone bought insurance for 9 times the value of the house. By 2007, the market was over-sold: more bonds had been sold than could be delivered, possibly even more than had been issued. On average, nearly 20% of CMO trades have failed to settle since 2001, driving down the price of the bonds.

CMOs should have been used to protect against conflicts of interest between managers, stockholders and bond holders (agency costs). Instead, the same companies that issued the CMO were buying large positions in the securities. Most CMOs are typically initiated by banks seeking to remove credit risk from their balance sheets while keeping the assets themselves. Normally, these securities are issued from a specially created company so that the payments from the riskiest borrowers, i.e. the sub-prime mortgages, can be separated from the more credit-worthy payees. A trustee and a portfolio manager receive fees from the newly created company.

While CMOs reduced some of the risk to the local banks, it also led some of those banks to lend imprudently. With the cash flowing easily back to the banks after the CMOs were sold, some lenders became increasingly risk-seeking – the opposite of the intended purpose of CMOs. Companies like Bear Stearns, who acted as trustee and portfolio manager for the CMOs, also purchased the CMO securities (usually through a subsidiary hedge fund).

Critically missing from the market for CMOs was the lack of a standard for the issuance. In more than one case, when a CMO investor attempted to foreclose on a property for mortgage delinquency, courts found insufficient documentation to support the CMO’s lien on the property. Without legally binding “receipts” of ownership, CMOs
have had insufficient real backing --- producing results we are still trying to cope with.

Sure, sub-prime mortgage defaults were the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Bear Stearns was in financial difficulty three to six months before the sub-prime mortgage default rate spiked. The real fundamental problem lay in the multiple sales of mortgages through CMOs – the result of too much faith in financial innovation. Experts believe that, for every $1 of mortgage that defaulted, the investment banks fell behind as much as $15 in payments on the CMOs. These, not the actual mortgages of homeowners, represent the bulk of the securities that Treasury Secretary Paulson wants $700 billion to buy.

Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Dr. Trimbath’s credits include appearances on national television and radio programs. Dr. Trimbath is a Technical Advisor to the California Economic Strategy Panel and Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Dr. Trimbath was formerly Senior Research Economist at the Milken Institute and Senior Advisor on the Russian capital markets project for KPMG.

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