November 8, 2007
-- by Dave Johnson
I'm not going to tell you again. (Maybe I will...) Get your money out of money market funds(and brokerages) and into federally insured accounts at banks.
Fast summary – as far as I can figure out what is going on: mortgages (and other debts) were grouped together and sold as investment “instruments.” These instruments were called “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) – or collections of obligations to pay back loans, backed by collateral. The grouping contained levels of good, medium and subprime mortgages and other debt. These levels of quality in each of the instruments are called “tranches.” So there is a good tranche, a medium tranche, etc. (Lots of tranches in a CDO)
The instruments were very complicated so buyers depended on rating agencies instead of looking into each loan (and the documentation backing up the loan) that was in them. The rating agencies rated them as high-grade. (Rating agencies made their money from the companies who were selling the instruments, and possibly rated them up for that reason.)
The investment value came from the idea that these CDOs would provide a regular cash income for a certain number of years as the debtors made their payments.
There were well over a trillion dollars worth of these sold. Maybe a few trillion. But they are very thinly “traded” so one knows what they are worth now. (Something that is traded can be “marked to market,” meaning you can find a mark or price by looking at what the last one sold for.) No one is sure what is in these, they are not sold after the initial sale, and as foreclosures rise they are looking worse and worse. But no one knows. And of course no one will buy one now. So no one knows, and no one is going to know until every single loan in each of these instruments is evaluated. (Does Tom Whitmore really make $90,000 a year? And was the appraiser accurate when he said the 2br 1ba was worth $860,000?)
So now the bigger problem is that with so many companies, etc. owning these CDOs, no one knows who will be able to pay their bills, and they certainly can’t use the CDOs as collateral now, so no one is willing to extend credit. Hence, the “credit crunch.” And hence all the uncertainty about who is solvent or not.
Finally, go read this entire post: The Agonist: The Wile E. Coyote Economy.
It all started coming apart with the subprime mortgage crisis. It should be emphasized that problems extend far, far beyond subprime, but it's there that they first showed up, where they first became undeniable. It's then that Wile, scanning the horizon, though to himself, “Gee, I don't see any ground. Maybe I should look down.” As people realized there was no "there," there; that many of these mortgage backed securities were worth cents on the dollar, they stopped being willing to buy them. The defaults started occurring and as people kept looking more and more they began to be forced to actually consider “How much is this worth?” And they didn't stop at subprime mortgages.
Now the reason this mattered is that most Wall Street firms (and many banks) have a ton of this paper, and they are also heavily leveraged with loans. Those loans are loaned against the value of their portfolios. So when other firms and various banks started realizing the paper was worthless they stopped wanting to continue to extend loans. When the loans came due (and most loans these days are short term, from days to months) they didn't just roll them over.
Without the loans firms began to face the possibility that to meet their obligations, to pay back the non-rolled-over loans, they might have to actually come up with cash. Which means they might actually have to sell some of this paper. And if they sold it, they'd know what it was worth. And if they knew what it was worth, they'd have to mark down all of it in their portfolio And if it's really worth cents on the dollar, well that could wipe out billions. In fact, it could wipe out the entire capital of firms.
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