What Caused the 2008 Crisis?: All the Devils are Here

Was it Fannie Mae? Was it the lack of regulatory oversight? Was it the rating agencies? Was it pure greed?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Plus, there were lots of other factors.

Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera put together an insightful look at the many factors that created the housing bubble and amplified the destruction when it popped in All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis. Pundits and purists have tried to pin the blame on a single element. It seems clear that many “devils” were at work. It’s not just institutions that failed in the crisis. The authors paint the pictures of key individuals who helped inadvertently build up the housing bubble or allowed for it cause mass destruction.

Certainly, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were part of the problem. It was their stranglehold on the securitization of conforming mortgages that lead Wall Street to look at non-conforming mortgages as a source of profits. Subprime mortgages, by definition, were outside the definition of “conforming” by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standards.

Wall Street’s thirst for product was an ample funding source for subprime lenders. They didn’t need the deposits of conventional banks for funding. They could just sell their loans to Wall Street for packaging into mortgage-backed securities. Wall Street would also provide the warehouse funding to help subprime lenders with capital to originate mortgage loans.

The federal government was pushing for increased home ownership. The Clinton administration announced its National Homeownership Strategy, with the goal of raising the number of homeowners by 8 million over the next 6 years. (Bush carried on a similar strategy.) The flaw is that to meet that goal, riskier borrowers would need be made homeowners.

JP Morgan developed Variance at Risk, an analytical method to analyze the risk in a bank’s portfolio. They understood that the mathematical models were merely an indicator risk. Although correct 95% of the time, they were also wrong 5% of the time. Other lenders adopted VaR, but failed to grasp its limitations.

AIG and its Financial Products division played a key role. They helped provide the back stop that helped the market accept the AAA rating of mortgage-backed securities. Eventually they also moved into credit default swaps. The authors paint a picture of AIG-FP as a collaborative workplace where employees could express their skepticism about deals. Then Hank Greenberg threw out the management and replaced them with Joe Cassano. He ran the shop in a more dictatorial manner and doled out information on a need-to-know basis.

Of course there were the rating agencies who gave the RMBS and CDOs undeserved AAA ratings. That was supposed to mean that the securities are just a little riskier than US Treasuries. It was Fitch that changed things. Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s had a business model based on subscribers. Fitch changed things by charging the issuers instead of the subscribers. That would eventually lead to the ratings shoppings that became part of the subprime bubble. Of the AAA rated subprime residential mortgage-backed securities from 2007, 91% were downgraded to junk status and 93% of those from 2006 were downgraded to junk status. That is a horrible track record.

I suppose that was a bit of a spoiler, but we all know that the financial markets came to a grinding halt in 2008, crushing big banks, speculative investors, small banks, and those just hoping for a small part of the American Dream.

There are a dozen other “devils” discussed in the book, but you should just read it yourself instead of reading my ramblings.

The worst part of the subprime crisis is that the bigger goal of increasing ownership was a failure. Between 1998 and 2006 only about 1.4 million first-time home buyers purchased their homes using subprime loans. That was only about 9% of all subprime lending. The remaining 91% of subprime lending was refinancings or second home purchases (or third or fourth …). “By the second quarter of 2010 the homeownership rate had fallen to 66.9% percent, right where it had been before the housing bubble.”

I found this book to be a great companion to The Big Short and In Fed We Trust. The Big Short does a great job of focusing on how the CMBS and CDO markets worked. In Fed We Trust focused on the events of 2008. All the Devils are Here focuses on the macro events that swarmed together into an apocalyptic mix of bad bad loans, bad underwriting, bad risk assessment, bad investing and bad goals.