Review: The Trillion Dollar Meltdown

A question I have regarding the current financial/economic woes being attributed to the “credit crunch”, is this: Why did the money lenders give out loans on easy terms to people who were likely to default on them? The prime example of this is the so-called ninja loan.

Providing an answer to this question (in terms of the decision making of those managing the loans) is perhaps the most useful aspect of “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown”, by Charles R. Morris, a US centric examination of the credit crunch. By explaining complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps, Morris illustrates how several factors drove the accumulation of toxic debt:

  • The originators of loans would simply end up selling them on, thus weakening their dependence on the ability of the borrowers to pay the loans back.
  • The subsequent handling of the loans was then split up amongst many different parties, aggravating what Morris describes as the “Agency problem”, the problem of ensuring that an employee, contractor or other party performing a service for you does not act against your interests.
  • There was increasing reliance on complex, mathematical constructs to guide investment decisions. The models the constructs were based on only imperfectly modeled the real world and break down in times of economic stress.

On this basis, it seems to me that the use of difficult to understand models to package loans up into complex financial instruments along with the diffusion of responsibility for managing the loans amongst those trading such instruments may have enabled high levels of risky debt to accumulate.

The originators of loans were incentivised simply to sell as many loans as they could, since they were no longer dependent on the loans being paid off. They’d simply be paid for arranging the loans in the first place.

The people who were subsequently managing the loans, and thus had an interest in ensuring they didn’t buy too much risky debt, were those trading in the financial instruments. The complexity of the instruments (combined with optimistic ratings by the credit rating agencies) obscured the real risks from those people.

This is by no means the full story, since one also has to consider the legal/institutional framework within which this was taking place. For example, there is the role of financial regulators and other forms of government intervention in the financial system to consider as well. There is also the behaviour of the borrowers to consider too.

Morris does address the role of the financial regulators in the US. He blames Alan Greenspan for keeping interest rates low thus enabling a sustained period of cheap credit to develop, and he also blames “free market” ideology and financial deregulation. However here I find him less convincing. My main point is that in many significant respects, the financial system is not a “free market”. For example, the very fact that the Federal Reserve has a monopoly on printing money and sets interest rates shows we’re not talking about a “free market”.

Moreover, Morris himself argues that the financial services sector in the US enjoys “inordinate privileges”, pointing out for example that in a free market, a sector that takes high risks, like the financial sector does, would occasionally endure periods of big losses, as well as enjoying periods of high profits. But while the industry certainly enjoyed the high profits, its losses are often offset by government bailouts (NB: Morris was writing before the recent bailout programmes announced by Western governments).

Morris cites an example where Countrywide was paid $22 billion by the Atlanta Federal Home Loan Bank when they incurred losses that were likely to lead to insolvency. Providing bailouts to loss making companies is most definitely not a “free market” approach. Nor is it a “free market” when a privately run student loan organisation gets subsidies from the state (to take another example Morris criticised). The privileges enjoyed by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (the two big mortgage providers in the US) are also incongruous with a “free market” approach, and the role of these privileges in the credit crunch is not examined by Morris.

My point here is not to argue for the “free market” but to suggest that blaming “free market” ideology for failures in a system that enjoys considerable state intervention that goes beyond merely setting the rules of the game is perverse, especially when you simultaneously argue that some of the interventions directly contributed to the failures concerned!

Overall, the book may well prove useful to people wishing to understand the behaviour of the lenders in the credit crunch, but Morris’s attempt to blame it all on “deregulation” and the “free market” going too far is not convincing.

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