History, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page. – Lord Byron
“The Big Short” is a must-see movie. Adapted from the Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” it brings to life Walls Street’s fraud-infused world of credit default swaps (CDS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs, which were at the center of the collapse of the housing market and the financial system in 2008.
Now that Ben Bernanke has “successfully” saved our system from its demise (sarcasm intended), it’s easy to bury the past and disremember the degree of fraudulence and criminality that had engulfed mortgage and housing markets. It still blows my mind and angers me to think that people like Angelo Mozilo not only never went to jail, but they were never properly investigated for their role in fomenting the biggest fraud – up to that point in time – in history.
The movie brought back a lot memories for me. I used to pour through the financials and the footnotes to the financials of several of the mortgage companies and banks that underwrote the bulk of the fraudulent mortgage securities. I had concluded that all of the big banks plus Countrywide, if forced to mark their mortgage holdings to market or sell them at market, were technically insolvent. They were all sitting on the ticking time bombs of home equity loans, CDO inventories and the wrong side of credit default swaps (in the movie we meet the people who bet against the mortgage and housing markets by taking the other side of the credit default swaps sold to them by Wall Street).
I remember sending my analysis of JP Morgan, Bank of America and Washington Mutual to several business publication editors and journalists, including Al Lewis (one-time editor of the Denver Post business section, nationally syndicated journalist and multiple appearances on cable financial news networks), the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and many other publications. My work, which proved to be correct, was completely ignored.
Ironically, the big housing bubble was not the first appearance of massive mortgage fraud in this country. When I was a junk bond trader in the 1990’s, there was a mortgage company called Cityscape. The company had a 12 3/4% coupon junk bond outstanding and I just so happened to be the housing sector trader. I started examining Cityscape’s financials and business model when the bonds began trading at a discount to par (it’s usually a sign something is wrong when a high coupon, senior secured bond begins to trade at a high double-digit yield to maturity). I remember uncovering the same type of fraud with Cityscape that became accepted standard business practice with Countrywide, Wash Mutual, Merrill, Lehman, etc.
Unfortunately, underpinning what has been craftily marketed to the public as a housing “recovery” is nothing more than an “echo” housing bubble inflated by an “echo” mortgage bubble. The blatant disregard for the assessment of credit worthiness, and the financial fraud embedded in the mortgage underwriting process, that occurred during the big bubble years was never fully cleaned up – it was merely covered up.
The term “subprime” has been erased from the mortgage credit assessment lexicon and, instead, replaced with terms like “3% down payment borrower.” The U.S. Government, via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA is now guaranteeing mortgages with effective negative equity in them at closing. Buyers can use borrowed cash and/or seller non-cash “give-backs” in lieu of a bona fide down payment. There are now private funds which underwrite even riskier mortgages, which now include interest-only and adjustable rate options.
Just like the first time around, many of these mortgages end up in “collateralized” investment trusts. Now they are called “bespoke opportunity tranches” instead of CDO’s. Not only that, several big brokerage firms, like Merrill Lynch, underwrite mortgages which use the margin equity in the homebuyer’s stock account as the down payment. Imagine what will happen to these mortgages when the stock market finally cracks.
The homebuilders themselves are offering 0% down payment financing as part of the incentive package being used to entice buyers. Many of these mortgages will be sold off to Wall Street, which will repackage them into higher yielding investment trusts and derivatives cesspools. The criminal banks will re-market them with fat commissions to yield-starved pension funds and high net worth stool pigeons.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Just like the big housing/mortgage bubble, the current echo bubble is sitting on top of a foundation of financial dynamite. The fuses have been lit. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when” the bombs will detonate.
Perhaps one of the finest directorial features of “The Big Short” was watching the players who made huge bets against Wall Street as they waited in a state of torture for the mortgage market to collapse while Wall Street’s web of fraud, market manipulation and propaganda was used to hold up the mortgage market. Sound familiar? The movie skillfully weaves in the fact that Wall Street fraudulently mis-marks the securities it creates in order to fleece investors on both sides of a trade AND to keep its own balance sheets fraudulently marked too high.
I witnessed this dynamic first-hand in 1990’s. If you think Congressional reform “fixed” this problem, you better review what is happening currently in the junk bond market. Bonds marked in the 90’s are all of a sudden trading in the 20’s. This occurrence will not be confined to the triple-C and single-B segments of the corporate bond market. At some point in the near future this will be a standard feature in the mortgage bond market – just like in 2008. And as the rug is pulled out from under the mortgage market…