I am fascinated by the current meltdown in the credit industry, which is currently smashing a hole in WestLB’s bottom line (G) and will hit other German financial institutions before it’s over.
The cause of the crisis is hard for outsiders to understand, but don’t feel stupid. The crisis itself was caused, as far as I can tell, by the fact that the financial instruments now going bust were hard even for insiders to understand. Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post does a good job here of initiating us into the mysteries and explaining why the current crisis is "way more serious than the junk bond crisis of 1987, the S&L crisis of 1990 or the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001." Fasten your seat belts and read on:
By now, almost everyone knows that most mortgages are no longer held by banks until they are paid off: They are packaged with other mortgages and sold to investors much like a bond.
In the simple version, each investor owned a small percentage of the entire package and got the same yield as all the other investors. Then someone figured out that you could do a bigger business by selling them off in tranches corresponding to different levels of credit risk. Under this arrangement, if any of the mortgages in the pool defaulted, the riskiest tranche would absorb all the losses until its entire investment was wiped out, followed by the next riskiest and the next.
With these tranches, mortgage debt could be divided among classes of investors. The riskiest tranches — those with the lowest credit ratings — were sold to hedge funds and junk bond funds whose investors wanted the higher yields that went with the higher risk. The safest ones, offering lower yields and Treasury-like AAA ratings, were snapped up by risk-averse pension funds and money market funds. The least sought-after tranches were those in the middle, the "mezzanine" tranches, which offered middling yields for supposedly moderate risks.
Stick with me now, because this is where it gets interesting. For it is at this point that the banks got the bright idea of buying up a bunch of mezzanine tranches from various pools. Then, using fancy computer models, they convinced themselves and the rating agencies that by repeating the same "tranching" process, they could use these mezzanine-rated assets to create a new set of securities — some of them junk, some mezzanine, but the bulk of them with the AAA ratings more investors desired.
It was a marvelous piece of financial alchemy, one that made Wall Street banks and the ratings agencies billions of dollars in fees. And because so much borrowed money was used — in buying the original mortgages, buying the tranches for the CDOs [collateralized debt obligations] and then in buying the tranches of the CDOs — the whole thing was so highly leveraged that the returns, at least on paper, were very attractive. No wonder they were snatched up by British hedge funds, German savings banks, oil-rich Norwegian villages and Florida pension funds.