Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Homes and Economic Vulnerability

Quote of the week:
'Only six months ago, politicians were counting on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country's mortgage giants, to bolster the housing market by buying more mortgages. Now the rescuers themselves have needed rescuing.' - The Economist.

Commentary of the week:

Homes & Economic Vulnerability:

By now only the most ardent of optimists are still hanging on to the view that the N. American economy (both financial and real) is on a solid footing and will come through this Credit Crisis relatively unscathed. Indeed, the entire financial sector is in the kind of upheaval that many of us are not fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to live through more than a few times in our lives. While there are many theories about how we got here and what must be done to get out of this tight space, there are few that connect where we find ourselves with the very structure of the economy. What I mean to say here is actually quite simple. The point here is that there is a very strong link between dependency and vulnerability, such that it is the very things that we depend on that make us vulnerable. This is true in our personal lives, in our professional lives (think Microsoft's various and crashes at work) and in the broader economy also.

Starting with the personal, imagine for a moment that you are planning in life to become the King of China. To do this, you have chosen the path of working in Islamic Finance until you are simply offered the throne by those who read your newsletter. You work hard, make things happen and when you get home, all you really want is one plate of steamed broccoli and for your better half to stay out of your way until you unwind from these lofty goals a bit. This continues for long enough that you forget to thank God for the broccoli and your wife for boiling it alive. One day though, you arrive and see raw broccoli on the table next to a folded note. Now you are afraid - you read the note and it confirms your fears. It says: 'I have had it - steam your own damn veggies'. This creates complications - your lofty plans are now toast. There will be no throne of China and there will be no more steamed broccoli. That which you depend on without thinking has made you intensely vulnerable.

The US economy is undergoing the pangs of something similar. The US economy is a pretty simple engine (at least for our purposes today). It depends on cheap goods for consumers, cheap investment from foreigners which helps keep consumer credit cheap at home and finally consumer spending for economic growth. This chain now seems to be broken. Furthermore, what is worse and really unnerving for people is that the chain has broken at a point where not many people (ahem) predicted that it would. Most people who did not believe the US growth model was sustainable thought that foreign parties would pull the plug on the party. In actuality, it has been the breakdown in esoteric real estate investments instead that has proved somewhat fatal (foreign funds and entities are inexplicably still buying up American Assets and Treasury Bills as quick as ever). Why this last part is so can be the topic for another day, but let me reiterate and clarify a bit.

One of the ways in which consumer credit has been kept cheap is through credit against the 'solid' and tangible asset that is the family home (ever heard the marketing about consolidating all your debt?). As people have asked to borrow for homes and then re-finance those homes, lenders have forwarded them funds but then sold these loans to others such as the semi-government agencies lovingly called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Once these loans are on Fannie and Freddie's books as assets, these organizations package the loans up as investments that pay out a stream of income (read interest) and sell them to the highest bidder. These investments, we now find, are in over-priced homes and have been made with the optimistic expectations that consumers will keep paying their interest payments forever.

For the longest time, this assumption has held up quite well - just like the plate of broccoli, you could depend on it. This financial engineering did very well for investors, the government and home-buyers in the past. It kept the cost of borrowing down and because the investments are almost guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie, & investors both foreign and local thought that they were solid. Of course, we realize now that almost half of Freddie and Fannie's present assets might be tainted because they are now non-performing (I don't mean to alarm you but we are talking $2Trillion+). The US govt. has been called in to guarantee up to $5Trillion of real estate assets. Even if my numbers are off by a bit because info is sketchy, this is the largest assumption of private debt that a government has probably ever taken up upon its books, or almost definitely ever. Now, not only do you owe taxes to the government, but in a roundabout way you owe it your mortgage payment as well. And since the government only gets its money to backstop all these bad loans from taxes anyway, guess who pays at the end? It is almost enough to make your mind spin, which is perhaps why reasonable people usually work outside finance.

I think we are witnessing the end of something that has almost been a fixture in world affairs for as long as I have been around (many, many decades). One of them was the robustness and dependability of the American Economy, another was the American Dream. There used to be this idea that it was best to be a Free - Market Democracy. This used to mean a Government of the People, by the People, for the People. Whether or not you agree with the idea, it had a certain panache and our neighbours sometimes pulled it off despite themselves. Now I am not so sure - they have developed a new definition of a Free Market Democracy. It now means Taxes from the People, Mortgages for the People, Profits to the Financial People. We have depended on US excess for our economic prosperity for so long that I wonder now if this makes us vulnerable as well.

Upcoming Events:



Finance News:

1. Asian Monetary Authorities speak openly about a crisis in the 'financial system' (their phrase not mine) as brought to light by the Freddie and Fannie Crisis ... read more here

2. Excellent column on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac situation ... read more here

3. IndyMac (one of the largest lenders in California) is collapsing ... read more here

4. A sobering, person-centric story on how debt and the marketing of debt solutions really works ... read more here

5. The FED protests at critics and insists that the banking system is 'sound' ... read more here

Economic News:

1. House Prices fall for first time in 9 years ... read more here

2. The Economist puts securitization and Home Finance in perspective ... read more here

Islamic / Middle East / Emerging Markets:

1. N / A

Interesting but not all Finance:

1. Funny and pithy column on Love and Economics (he must have stolen the topic from my short-list of future IWB titles) ... read more here

2. Saving Ontario's Boreal Forrest or setting off a mad rush to the North? ... read more here

3. Interesting column on gene sequencing / analysis and what it may mean for medical treatments in the future ... read more here

4. A special Report on the future of Energy ... read more here

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