November 23, 2008

Wall Street's Doomsday Machine

Michael Lewis' The End of Wall Street's Boom traces the root of the crisis to the go-go 80's when two substantial changes occurred: 1) hedge funds managing derivatives resulting in significantly more opaque transactions and 2) making investment banks publicly traded companies resulting in moving risk from the lender to a third party. He noted that when he left Wall Street and wrote his book Liar's Poker, he was sure the scaffolding holding up the economic system would collapse soon. But year after year, Wall Street just kept accruing more wealth. Now that it's clear the system has collapsed, he went to find out whether there was anyone who also knew how flawed the system was and decided to bet against it. That's when he found Steve Eisman who "knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine." Eisman also came to realize that his company had a key part in keeping the doomsday machine working.

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

...By now, Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn’t fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.

...[Eisman] actually wanted to believe in the system. As quick as he was to cry bullshit when he saw it, he was still shocked by bad behavior. That night in Vegas, he was seated at dinner beside a really nice guy who invested in mortgage C.D.O.’s—collateralized debt obligations. By then, Eisman thought he knew what he needed to know about C.D.O.’s. He didn’t, it turned out.

Later, when I sit down with Eisman, the very first thing he wants to explain is the importance of the mezzanine C.D.O. ... “You have to understand this,” he says. “This was the engine of doom.” Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. “I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years,” Eisman says.

...That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

...Eisman was appalled. “Look,” he said. “I’m short. I don’t want the country to go into a depression. I just want it to fucking deleverage.” He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. “That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice,” he says. “They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.”

Truth to tell, there wasn’t a whole lot of hand-wringing inside FrontPoint either. The only one among them who wrestled a bit with his conscience was Daniel. “Vinny, being from Queens, needs to see the dark side of everything,” Eisman says. To which Daniel replies, “The way we thought about it was, ‘By shorting this market we’re creating the liquidity to keep the market going.’ ”

“It was like feeding the monster,” Eisman says of the market for subprime bonds. “We fed the monster until it blew up.”

Fantasy money. Wall Street made out like bandits and the world is paying for their party.

Posted by Mary at November 23, 2008 04:22 PM | Economy | Technorati links |

Well, at least now we know where all the missing WMD has been hidden all this time...Wall Street.

Of course, the WMD I'm referring to stands for Weapons of Market Destruction or maybe Weapons of Mortgage Destruction...with the sub-primes providing the dirty-bomb materials.

Posted by: The Oracle at November 26, 2008 03:31 PM