"So, we've gone from too much credit to too little. Contrary to popular wisdom, banks -- institutions that take deposits -- aren't the main problem. In December, total U.S. bank credit stood at $9.95 trillion, up 8 percent from a year earlier, reports the Federal Reserve. Business, consumer and real estate loans all increased. True, lending was down 4.7 percent from the monthly peak in October. But considering there's a recession, when people borrow less and banks toughen lending standards, the drop hasn't been disastrous.
The real collapse has occurred in securities markets. Since the 1980s, many debts (mortgages, credit card debts) have been "securitized" into bonds and sold to investors -- pension funds, mutual funds, banks and others. Here, credit flows have vaporized, reports Thomson Financial. In 2007, securitized auto loans totaled $73 billion; in 2008, they were $36 billion. In 2007, securitized commercial mortgages for office buildings and other projects totaled $246 billion; in 2008, $16 billion. These declines were typical.
Given the previous lax mortgage lending, some retrenchment was inevitable. But what started as a reasonable reaction to the housing bubble has become a broad rejection of securitized lending. Terrified creditors prefer to buy "safe" U.S. Treasury securities. The low rates on Treasuries (0.5 percent on one-year bills) measure this risk aversion.
Somehow, the void left by shrinking securitization must be filled. There are three possibilities: (a) securitization revives spontaneously -- investors again buy bonds backed by mortgages and other loans; (b) commercial banks or other financial institutions replace securitization by expanding their lending; or (c) the government substitutes its lending for private lending. Until now, it's been mostly (c). "
So, nobody is buying securitized assets anymore. Which is hardly surprising for two reasons:
1. American needs to pay off some debts, so we're buying fewer cars, etc.
2. The mortgage-backed securities fiasco shows that securitization too often equals secretization.
As the malaprop-prone brother-in-law (or, perhaps, the unnamed narrator) in my recent short story about the Housing Bubble in Southern California pointed out:
"In fact, I think I'm going to pick up one of these babies, too, and sell it in six months. We'll be neighbors! Sort of. The mortgage company get a little snottier about down payments and interest rates when you tell them it's an investment, so I'll just check the "owner occupied" box. The broker doesn't care. He gets his commission, then Countrywise bundles it up with a thousand other mortgages and sells it to Lemon Brothers. The Wall Street rocket scientists call this "secretization" because nobody can figure out what anything’s worth. It's a secret.
"Lemon sells shares in the package all around the world. The Sultan of Brunhilde ends up owning a tenth of your mortgage. Do you think the Sultan's going to drive around Antelope Valley knocking on doors to see if you're really living there?"
The geniuses on Wall Street have finally figured out that they can't use the Laws of Probability to convert a big pile of absurd IOUs into AAA securities. Worse, securitization means they can't figure out how bad it is.
So, the question is whether the entire process of securitization is salvageable? Would increased transparency help? Wired has an article by Daniel Roth called "Road Map for Financial Recovery Radical Transparency Now!" about XBRL, a standardized set of tags to make financial documents easily comparable. I don't know if this particular idea would work for securitized assets, but it doesn't sound impossible to develop standards that would get the job done.
I worked for many years for marketing research firms that used the huge amount of data from scanned bar codes on supermarket products. The UPC code was developed by a private industry cooperative initiative in the 1970s and has proved such a huge success that it long ago became a seamless part of life.