Here is a well thought out and written piece that was covered at Jesse’s Café Américain. It really lifts the hood so we commoners can glimpse at the fraudulent abomination that pumps debt into the world’s arteries. Enjoy.
At the centre of all debates about the Banking crisis, the shadow Banking system and the bank bail-outs is Debt. For a long time I have been arguing that what this debt is, is in fact a new, bank created, bank issued and ultimately bank debased debt-backed currency. And the collapse in value of this unregulated currency IS the crisis. Its cause and its logic.
In order to explain why I think this and why I do not think ‘fixing’ the banking system back to any semblance of how it was, just prior to the crash, will be anything other than a disaster, I have to explain how debt is turned into money. And how, clever as this process is, it also contains within it the seeds of its own undoing.
To do so I have to take you into the undead heart of the machine – securitization. Securitization is what animates the global financial and shadow banking system in whose shadow we now live. It is how modern finance turns debt into money. It is the impious alchemical dream of turning lead to gold, water into wine.
When Securitization was invented it soon wrested control of the money supply away from nations and gave it to the banks. Nations still printed and controlled their currency. But securitization gave banks the ability to print their own currency. And this new securitized currency, based on debt, was theirs to print, control, spend, and ultimately to debase. In short, it gave banks a power to rival nations. It is worth, therefore, understanding its outlines at least. Please don’t panic. Like most financial stuff its not nearly as difficult as the priesthood would have you believe.
So here we go into the hocus-pocus world of debt finance.
The Banker’s problem.
We start with a debt. It could be a loan extended to a corporation or a mortgage. We’ll go with a mortgage. A mortgage is a debt and a promise to pay that debt. This was the bedrock of traditional banking. The bank lent out cash in return for a greater amount to be paid back, but in installments over 25-30 years. Of course over the years there were risks of inflation and default if the debtor lost their job or died. These are ‘credit risks’ that were the stuff of traditional banking.
Traditional ‘credit risk’ banking was a slow business – and that was the problem.
All debts were ‘held to maturity’ (to the end of the mortgage) by the bank. All the debts/mortgages were therefore dead end deals. In that they generally did not, could not, lead to anything else. Money went out. A debt was held in its place and the money slowly came back. The bank’s profit came from what was and is called, ‘the spread’ between the rate of interest the bank charges on the money it has lent out and the interest the bank pays on the money it borrows. The main places the banks ‘borrowed’ was from central banks, from investors – either share holders or bond holders and most importantly from their own depositors. You can see that the scope for banks to grow in size wealth and power, was constrained by the rate of flow of real money in to the bank and the turn over of loans.
For banking to really grow the amount of money to borrow and the turn-over of loans had to be increased. Securitization did both these things. It cut the umbilical to an older gentler age.
The last hold-out of the barter system.
In a funny way banking was the very last hold out of the barter system. The bank gave you money – very modern – but in return you gave the bank a lien/a claim on your property. You bartered your house and a promise to give a steady stream from your income as collateral for cash. You got cash from the deal which you could spend – and used it to buy the property. But the bank did not get cash. In fact it got something it could not spend. It got an agreement to pay. And you if the debt defaulted then the bank got a house. Now that is barter.
The genius of securitization finally did away with the barter element of banking. It did so by turning mortgages (debt agreement) into money. Nothing short of modern alchemy.
This is how it works.
The key difference between debt and money is that you can spend money. So what do you have to do to debt to be able to spend it?
Three things: Standardize it and Guarantee it and when you have done these two, the third, Liquefy it, will follow of its own accord.
So first –
Think of a pocket full of coins. What makes them work is that they are all the same. Same metal, same designs, same issuer, same bank behind them, same value. Everyone knows what they are getting when they accept a standard coin. So everyone is happy to accept them knowing that the next person will also be happy.
Now think of a mortgage. Now imagine you have a pocket full of these. Which banks do. Each one is unique. Unique amount, unique collateral (the house) and unique credit risks of the particular person paying back the loan. The skill of the banker was to assess all these variables. The short-coming was that the end product was a pocket full of different and unique debt agreements. Like having a pocket full of different coins in different currencies. Very difficult to get people to accept random coins as payment.
Step one in securitization is to deal with that problem. Basically by melting the mortgages down to their base metal and recasting them.
Suddenly there is no unknown. There is a mathematically expressible probability that the whole pool will lose one hundredth of its value. That is easy to calculate into the value/worth/price of the bundle. And one hundredth of that loss will turn up in each of the recast slices. Mortgages go in. Securities come out. Each made from the melted and recast value of all the mortgages in the pot. Each is stamped into the same form with the same worth. You have convert unique debt agreements into a standard coinage of known value. Suddenly you have a pocket full of money.
Standardizing is the first step towards inventing a new form of money. You have ceased bartering your cash in return for a dead end debt, and instead converted the debt back into money. And rather fabulously this money YOU control. The central bank doesn’t control how much gets printed. You do. All you have to do is print up debt agreements and securitize them. And you can potentially print as much as you like whenever you like. It really is a license to print money.
That is a security in its simplest possible form. But if you would like to be able to spend this money you have to now guarantee it. Step two.
All money that isn’t actually made of gold or silver is actually a promissory note or debt. It is debt issued by the central bank and backed by the CB’s and the Nation’s promise to honour that note. Weird isn’t it. Here we are talking about how to turn debt to money. When all along it’s actually how to turn one kind of debt into another one. The difference between the two debts is how spend-able it is. How spend-able it is, is sometimes called its fungability or liquidity. I only mention this so you know what is really meant when bankers use these terms.
Anyway back to the chase. Money is money because it is guaranteed by the central bank and the state, to be always, 100% of the time, worth what the coin or note says it is worth and therefore will always be accepted as payment. The question here, is how exactly does this promise work? What is it the CB is promising to do.
We often hear CB’s referred to as the lender of last resort. In many ways it is better to think of them as a buyer of last resort. In the final analysis the CB promise and guarantee ultimately means the CB will itself accept those coins from you. So YOU will never be left holding a worthless piece of paper or scrap of metal. You need never fear being left with worthless coins because the CB which issues the stuff guarantees to accept them, buy them back from you. As long as everyone knows this then no one is afraid to accept and hold the stuff. And this is the Liquidity of realm money.
What the CB will give you in return for the money you eventually tender back to them, is another knotty problem. At the least we, the CB would say, will accept our notes and coins as payment for any debts you have. (Now I know this doesn’t make the problem go away. But don’t blame me for the short-comings of money. They were problems before I came along!)
So for the purposes of our discussion here, when you tender a coin for payment, no one is going to say to you, “Oh, no thanks. I don’t trust those things. Haven’t you got something else?”
Except, of course, when the credibility of that CB guarantee itself is called into question – sovereign default. When that happens the spend-able value of those notes and coins evaporates like a kiss on the wind. Which is exactly the risk the Bank bail-outs are forcing on us all. Just ask the Greeks, Latvians and Icelanders.
This problem of a guarantee is a serious problem for securitization and for the shadow banking system. Because the shadow banking system and the system of securitization does not have access to the Central Banks and their ultimate promise ‘to accept as payment’. For the simple reason that the CB did not issue the securitized debt/money. So why should they promise? They do, of course, accept some of the securities as collateral for getting a loan of ‘real’ money. But the promise-to-buy is not without conditions and can be withdrawn. Securitized debt-money does not benefit from the guarantee that the CB will be the purchaser of last resort for their currency. Thus securities are NOT guaranteed the way the CB’s own money is.
So the question is, what promise or guarantee could the bankers come up with to take the place of the CB promise? Who or what could be the buyer of last resort to stand behind their securitized money?
The answer is ingenious and/or foolish depending on your temperament and the situation. In ‘good’ times the answer works. The problem is in bad times it doesn’t. AT ALL.
But in good times, the answer is that the ‘market’ promises to be the buyer of last resort. Now of course the market is also the issuer as well. Which makes it rather circular. But as long as everyone in the market – the banks, money market funds, pension funds, rating agencies will accept the securitized debt as money then there is your promise. There is no promise by one single all powerful God who will redeem all promises. In place there is a promise that in a vast market there will always be enough buyers to buy and redeem whatever the market needs to move. Redemption without God. Good trick.
You standardize the debts, you guarantee someone will always accept them as payment and you automatically get the last ingredient for free – liquidity. And with liquidity the whole thing runs like a mighty river.
The point is that unlike the original debt we now have a tradable asset that is a kind of currency. The more readily it can be sold the more ‘liquid’ it is as an asset and the more it is like money/cash. Which is a good trick. Because debt is a dead end. Whereas cash is the open road.
So in place of a single God-like promise, there is a market of groomed and powdered god-lets who collectively have pretensions to being a god – and this ‘market god’ ‘guarantees’ that there will always be some god-let who wants to buy securitized debt. Now you can see where all the talk of ‘frozen credit markets’ comes from. What they are really saying is that the ‘market’s’, the god-let’s, promise, turned out to be good only as long as it wasn’t really needed, when times were good, but was worthless as soon as it was needed. That detail was presumably somewhere in the very small print.
And indeed down in the small print you find out that the undeclared complication running through all is RISK. It was there when I said ‘one in a hundred mortgages will default’. Seemed so reasonable when I said it, didn’t it? That was where the devil crept in. Who says it is always one in a hundred?
This is where we get to all the AAA rating stuff. This is where the dark side of securitization lurks.
Risk – the devil inside
Whenever someone buys a security they do so because they want the promised return on their money. What they don’t want is the Risk that goes with it. Risk and return are the light and shade of finance. You can’t get one without the other. But the promise that you somehow can, is what the Shadow banking system is all about. They dazzle you with fantastic returns and promise that somehow the risk has stayed in the shadows.
To recap, Securitization takes the risk of default and quantifies it. Once the risk is quantified, away goes the vagaries of a life and in comes a statistical probability. You then spread that probability out so that no one investor/buyer will suffer the whole loss. But – the risk has not gone. At most it has been diluted into a large pool. Namely the market.
Now when securitization started there was the pretense that all the mortgages being securitized were ‘conforming’ mortgages. That is, they were the kind bank managers used to authorize. Solid ones. Ones that WOULD be paid. The kind only famine, war or being run over would interfere with. AAA rated, mate!
In this sepia toned, one-in-a-hundred world, risk was factored in right at the start. Although the risk hadn’t really gone away, it had only been absorbed into the market, that was OK. Like pollutants into a river, the amount was known and the flow of the market as a whole would always, it was thought, be enough to flush it away.
But there are only so many truly AAA mortgages to be had. At some time in the 80’s the God-lets chaffed at this restraint to their power and ambition. They wanted more. They had the clever water to wine trick and wanted to see how far it could be pushed.
Why not take on a riskier loans? There was an untapped pool of debtors just waiting to be told ‘Yes, you can afford it’. At this point sober old-school bank managers saw their stock plummet. What the financial world wanted in their place were oh-so-smart young things who could square the circle of lower quality, higher risk debts, but still, somehow, AAA rated. There were two ends to be met now.
The market still had to be convinced that every securitized debt was still guaranteed by the market’s promise to buy. And for that to be true, they all had to be AAA rated. And yet at the same time they had to be based on debts that were lower than AAA quality.
Nothing that a business school MA couldn’t solve.
AAA – but not quite
The answer was of course simple – insurance. Get someone to wrap your bundle of somewhat-less-than AAA quality debts, in a gold foil promise to pay-out, up to the full face value of the bundle should it ever happen that the debts themselves didn’t quite meet expectations. The insurer, for their part, would get a small premium to cover the risk. In market parlance the insurer bought the little bit of ‘risk’ for a fee. Add this simple and clear step into the process and suddenly less than solid gold debts could be securitized. Tinnier debts could be thrown into the smelter to mix with the gold. And the impurity would be covered by a wrap of 24 carat insurance.
This innovation opened quite a few doors. It let a whole class of new players into the shadow system who ‘wanted’ to siphon off a little bit of the securitization elixir for themselves. Insurers, CDS issuers and speculators of every stripe. The latter were attracted by another aspect of the less-than-gold nature of the debts now being securitized.
You see in the simple version of securitization every security is the same as any other. Which is boring. But once not all AAA securities are as equal as others then power-dressing shirt-sleeves can be rolled up and serious barrow-boy-age can ensue.
Two things make securities not all equal. First there is the business of cutting the securities up vertically so to speak: into Senior, Mezzanine and Junior. The idea was to create differing levels of risk and return. Senior has lowest risk and lowest return. Junior the highest. All within the AAA rated security, of course. When you created the security out of your pool of mortgages you spread the risk out evenly. All you are doing now is reversing that a little.
The way you do it is if you imagine three buckets arranged so that as the top, senior one, is filled it spills over into the Mezzanine below it, which when it fills over-flows into the Junior one at the bottom. As the income from the whole security flows in, it fills the top bucket first. You can see that the top bucket will always fill and any short-fall will effect the bottom bucket first. Of course it’s not really quite that simple, you can get more involved structures of percentage flows going to all three etc.
The point is that you can now create differing levels of risk and return and cater for different appetites. But all, you understand, within the safe confines of the AAA rated, securitized world of high finance. Risk – but without any. Like diet drinks or heroine without the diseases – otherwise known as Coke. Armed with these possibilities you can open up a whole market in risks and bets (CDS) on those risks.
The world of securities and now derivatives, grew.
Then multiply this by the advent of those securities, which weren’t AAA to start with. CDS bets on what will happen to certain tranches of securities without even buying them. It might even be worth making such ‘risky’ tranches for someone, just to allow someone else to make CDS bets on them, don’t you think?
Of course while all these innovations were expanding what could be included in securities and what could be done with them, risk had been there all along; The quiet shadow cast by all this dazzling innovation. Getting deeper as the innovations got more dazzling.
Remember at the start, the idea was that the risk was always marginal relative to the whole market. A little pollution dripping into the river never hurt anyone. But even though each security adds only a small risk of its own, everyone is doing it. Is there a point when the absolute level of pollution begins to poison the stream? No one asked.
Is the risk really mixing in to the whole flow and being diluted everywhere equally? Perhaps not if people are now specifically buying the tranches in which the risk and return has been concentrated. But no one worried.
While the river kept growing and a flood of new securities added to the flow, who could take time out from making money to worry about such hypotheticals? The bankers became lulled by their own terminology and hype. They’re called Securities for Christ sake! They were ‘managing’ the risk. They were trading it and making money from it. They were even buying it themselves. Like people who can play with fire and not get burned. So clever.
But the amount of risk was growing. And like all pollutants that flow out of sight and are allowed to slip out of mind, they accumulate somewhere unseen. And the risk did. The fact was, the risk was being ‘bought’ by, and was accumulating in, the accounts and balance sheets of people and players IN the financial system, in the market. Which meant the risk was accumulating with the very people who WERE also the market’s promise to buy.
It’s not as if there were two different groups of people. Over here, the people accumulating the risk. Over there, the people whose willingness and ability to buy WAS the market’s promise and guarantee of liquidity. They were the same people. The Market’s promise to pay was being poisoned. But no one was noticing.
Remember the market’s promise of liquidity – that the ‘currency’, the securities – will always be exchangeable, depends on there always being someone willing to buy. But an increasing number of those people were also starting to accumulate the risk that had been ‘taken away’. Would they really be willing or able, even to buy when other people wanted to sell, if it came to a moment of panic and doubt?
Well now we know the answer. When it came to a moment of crisis everyone suddenly saw the risk was all around. No one wanted to buy because everyone knew that everyone else was as poisoned as they were. And no one wanted to buy a bit of someone else’s poison to add to their own. Liquidity didn’t peter-out. It froze in a day, an hour, moment. It only takes a second for a promise to break. And without the market promise there was no market.
The market had poisoned its own promise. Without it, there was no worth behind the currency. It was all just empty promises and printed paper.
But this is not actually the worst of it. The devil is more subtle than that.
What I have argued so far tries to describe how the system was poisoned and why it ‘froze’ as suddenly as it did. What I want to argue now is far more important. I want to show how Securitization and the Shadow Banking System, will, by necessity of their design, always accelerate towards the point of their own poisoning, crash and wreak. The devastation this rains down on our lives and societies, is, I want to show, inevitable and built in. If I am in any way correct, then the conclusion is, that attempting to ‘fix’ the system with regulatory tinkerings, back to any semblance of how it was, will put us back on the same path again. We will start towards a next crash: one even bigger than the present one. I believe our leaders and their financial masters are already pushing us on to that path.
Addiction – the need of greed
Financial experts love to talk about managing risk. They will often say that is what finance and banking is all about. It is buying and selling risk. Handling it, taming it, mastering it. But while that may indeed be what bankers do they are all too often driven by greed. And greed often overwhelms them and their cleverness.
The desire to create more securities, to buy and sell and bet on them, grew. The drug took hold. Sub-prime became a legal high. So did Alt-A and Option ARM’s and exotic, synthetic combinations and derivatives of them all. All delivering a jolt of risk and a legal high.
But like most synthetic drugs the process of making them can be long and delicate. A recent Fed paper on the Securitization and the Shadow Banking System found that
“Typically, the poorer an underlying loan pool’s quality at the beginning of the chain (for example a pool of sub prime mortgages originated in California in 2006), the longer the credit intermediation chain that would be required to “polish” the quality of the underlying loans to the standards of money market mutual funds and similar funds.” (P. 14)
The authors found six or seven levels of “polishing” might be required to turn sub-prime to AAA rated security. And remember these are now securities with the extra zing of contained risk added in. Risk you could get very, very high on.
Now I want to take a step back. It all sounds so good, so plausible, so ‘manageable’ that you just know that something is too good to be true.
Let’s return to reality shall we. All of this, no matter how clever or polished, ultimately rests on and derives its worth from, a pool of mortgages, which, if all the borrowers pay up, can still only give the known and finite return. Money lent out, money paid back with interest. The interest is the profit. And NOTHING, but nothing, you do will increase this amount. Sure, you might make more money betting on them with CDS contracts, but you can’t bet on them unless someone buys them in the first place. And if you are the one buying the actual securities – and someone has to – then at every step in this ‘polishing’ process some one has to be paid to polish, and each time a little piece of the total possible profit is spent.
Normally when you buy something, if you then have to do something to it, you expect to be able to sell it for more. Like you spend money doing up the kitchen so you can sell the house for more. But here you are having to spend money from your profit just to make them pass as AAA rated.
The worse the mortgages the more you will have to spend. And at the end of it you have a security, which is insured up the wazonga and is still dodgy. Why go to such expense and such lengths to make things so mediocre, unless you had some other very good reason for doing so? Why do it? Why would anyone buy them?
It’s no good saying, because its risky you’ll get a better return. Remember that return can still only come out of the profit from the interest on the underlying loans and some of that has been spent already for “polishing”.
In short, these dodgy securities don’t make a great deal of sense if you are buying them as an investment in order to get profit from the regular payments. Too much has been eaten away, what’s left is still risky over the life of the mortgage and you are reliant on the insurers to pay up if it all goes pear shaped. But they do make sense if you think of them as money.
First, as money, no one intends to hold these risky things for long. Everyone intends to get them to spend them. In which case going for risky ones that offer a higher return seems quite attractive. Neither you nor the person who accepts them from you as payment intends holding them. This works fine in a bubble market where everything is very liquid and deals are being done every day. And in the bubble years we did all hear of the ‘appetite for risk’.
Those creating the sub-prime based securities could justifiably say people wanted them. There was an appetite.
The second point is more important. These may have always been poor earners as long term investments but as long as they were polished, rated and accepted by all as AAA then they were as good as any other as a piece of cash.
You use the debt-turned-to-money to take on more debt. You then put your new debt to work in some new money making venture.
Welcome into the warm, hydraulic embrace of leverage.
You pay to have some new cash printed and polished. You use it to take out a large loan. You invest the loan. And it is the profit from this new investment that pays for and makes sense of the costs of all that polishing. This new investment, far removed from the original mortgages is what it has all been building towards. What it has all been about.
It is the profit you will make from the investment, made with the loan, given to you on the basis of the securities, made from the underlying mortgages. This is the real logic of the whole system. NOT getting a feeble return from a few poxy mortgages.
Mortgages were merely the feed-stock for a system (called Securitization) whose purpose was to create new money in order to feed into, in turn, another machine called Leverage.
Securitization plus leverage, lubricated by an unlimited new source of money. That was the machine. It’s what they are trying so hard to kick start again.
The thing to note is that the Securitization of sub-par mortgages does NOT make sense unless you have leveraged loans to bring in the profit. Is it any wonder that Henry Paulson while at Goldman from around 2000 onwards lobbied relentlessly for limits on leverage to be relaxed or lifted. And is it coincidence that when leverage was lifted in 2004 when Mr Paulson was now US Secretary of the Treasury that sub-prime took off?
I am not saying leverage was the cause of sub-prime. I am saying it was the other necessary part which had to be married to securitization for the bubble to inflate as it did. Securitization required leverage. Leverage enabled it. Together they brought the debt-to-money machine to life.
You started with a debt/mortgage. Turned it into currency. Used that to get another loan, i.e. turned it back into debt which you then invested it in another enterprise hoping to bring in more cash. And along the way that new loan you took on, using ‘money’ made from the earlier debt – will probably be securitized and entered into the same process. Confused? Don’t worry. So were half the people in the market, but it didn’t matter to them. They were turning water into wine and getting drunk on it.
Because from that one loan/mortgage has sprung another debt. Both now need to perform. If they do, the bubble grows and you will get twice as rich, twice as fast.
The securitization machine provided an endless supply of new money. It made sense to acquire the stuff because with it you could expand your own loan book. This is why the German Landesbanks bought so much of it. It was, to them, capital, which allowed them to go on a borrowing and lending spree of their own.
Anyone who wanted to grow aggressively and lend massively became the purchasers of as much of this stuff as they could get hold of. RBS was one. Buy it. Sell it on, use it as collateral. It was all good, as long as the bubble grew and leverage allowed returns to cover the costs.
But for the bubble to keep growing and the profits continue to pay for the costs and risks of the sub-prime securities leverage had to get higher and higher. The rate of acceleration of growth of the whole market had to increase. The graph had not just to climb but steepen. The problem is a line can’t get steeper for ever. Eventually it goes vertical and then there is no more. Markets call this a parabolic blow-off. After which because there is no more acceleration, the whole thing collapses back under its own weight.
That was the moment when everyone suddenly recognized the risk in every account and when Lehman could not repo any of its ‘assets’. The promise was revealed as a lie and everything stopped – dead.
The point after all this, is that the securitization system requires this leveraged acceleration of greater and greater risk and return. It will always be drawn to it, as a function is drawn to its underlying attractor. It is written in.
The most common argument heard about the ‘crisis’, is that something simply broke down/went wrong/ran amok. The break down caused a systemic malfunction of an otherwise fine system. Thus what we need to do is ‘fix’ whatever caused the breakage in the first place and adjust things so the same thing can’t happen again. Fixing it will require a few trillion of cash injections. And then a combination of better ‘regulation’ and a few technical adjustments such as a bit more capital here and a bit better ratings there.
The argument I have offered you is totally different. It says that we have NOT, will not, CANNOT and SHOULD NOT fix the present financial system back to its former state.
For the simple reason that the present catastrophic situation we find ourselves in, was not due to a break down in the system, but is an inevitable consequence of how that system works in the first place.
Financial crashes and systemic insolvencies are built-in to the securitization/leverage system. So if we restore it to how it was – ‘fix ‘ it – we will have keep having these deflationary crashes.
The Savings and Loan crisis cost about $350 Billion to bail out, or 6% of US GDP at the time. This crisis so far, has cost about $2.35 Trillion or 16% of US GDP. Anyone remember all the pious, mea culpa, ‘lessons have been learned’ after the S&L crisis? Yeah sure!
According to Fed itself, what the Securitization of the Shadow Banking System does is,
“…converting opaque, risky, long-term assets into money-like and seemingly risk less short-term liabilities.” (Introduction)
“seemingly risk less”.
Let’s not get fooled again.