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The Ecomomic Crisis: Passing the Hot Potato

The game is set in motion by a junior loan officer at a small mortgage company who makes a pitch to a recently married couple with a baby on the way.

The young couple is just starting their life together. They tell the officer they saw an ad on television that claimed they could buy a home with no money down.

The loan officer confirms the claim and assures them that despite their lack of means, they could have their little dream home: not in ten years, not in five years, but today! Not only that, but they can be in their new home for a full six months without paying a single cent!

The wife is a little hesitant, but her husband assures her that lots of their friends have done it, so why be left behind? Let’s go for it, he says to his wife and she finally gives in.

Meanwhile, all the other salesmen at the company are diligently signing up new customers and, in short order, all their funds are fully committed. That’s great but what do they do now?

Bob then approaches his boss, Jim, and says, “Well I just heard of this new product, called a mortgage backed security, which allows investment dealers to use mortgages as collateral for securities. Why don’t we pool our mortgages and sell them as one package to one of these companies? Then we can go back to doing what we do best: sell mortgages.”

Jim thinks it’s a capital idea and soon an investment house buys the mortgage company’s portfolio. They in turn use it to secure shares in the mutual fund they are offering to investors. Shares are sold to investors as well as institutions.

One of these institutions is a much larger investment fund based in New York. They bundle the investment with other similar securities and create a new fund which is once again sold to investors. A fund in Singapore likes the investment house’s balance sheet and purchases their firm along with its entire portfolio. And so it goes.

Eventually, these securities are floating in the system long enough that they are randomly and evenly spread throughout the world’s financial system. At that point the product has been diluted and blended so many times it would be near impossible to determine who is actually holding the paper on our young couple’s mortgage.

Then the bubble is stretched too far.

The housing bubble bursts and the mortgages securing the securities are worth next to nothing. The mortgage company is no longer on the hook as they sold the mortgage to the first investment house. They in turn passed off their securities to their clients, taking commission on the sales.

All the insiders were smart enough to keep passing it on. Each time the debt was passed, it was re-bundled, artfully packaged and profit was taken. Like a huge game of hot potato, they pass the security as fast as they can. Everybody is doing just fine as long as they are not caught holding the potato when the game ends.

The securities are, for the most part, held by mutual funds, banks and insurance companies spread over the globe. The managers of these funds have been well compensated for their returns over the last decade.

So who is caught holding the hot potato?

The investors who are holding shares in these funds will take the hit: pensioners, professionals, teachers; in other words, you and me. To make things worse, when the investment houses, insurance companies and banks are bailed out, it is the taxpayers – you and me – who are on the hook once again.

Our young couple has lost their home and declared personal bankruptcy. The pensioner holding the mutual fund units has lost a good part of his nest egg. The taxpayers are saddled with a debt which might take a generation or two to pay off.

Who is to blame? Who do we hold accountable, the loan officer? He was just doing his job – meeting his quota trying to sell as much product as he can. Do we blame the mortgage company? Their mandate was to place their funds with homeowners and manage the risk and that’s what they did. They signed up the homeowners and then sold the debt. What more could they do in fulfilling their responsibility to their shareholders?

Should we blame the management of the investment houses? They were acting on the professional advice of their qualified experts in the research department. How about the experts they relied upon? They were only following the advice of what all the economists were saying. The only one left to blame is the economist, the man behind it all. He will tell us that based on the model it should have worked; however, certain unanticipated events (such as the extent of human greed) were not fully taken into account.

So in the end, who truly is to blame?

Nobody, they tell us! Instead, they feed us lines: ‘it’s an economic anomaly, the exception that makes the rule;’ or, ‘It is like an ‘Act of God,’ something which simply defies prediction;’ or, ‘One just has to accept that these things will happen from time to time;’ and, ‘It’s part of the self-correcting mechanism that makes capitalism so great.’

The thing that they are likely to take away from the conversation is the impression of how well informed you are.

What is behind our love affair with facts? By referring to facts we don’t have to think for ourselves. We can rely upon this or that authority to do the thinking for us. We believe what we believe, not because it makes sense, but because it is supported by the authority of “hard facts”.

Any muscle, if it is not used regularly, begins to atrophy. The brain is no exception. Even before the time most of us leave school, it seems that we have simply stopped thinking. As they find themselves deluged by the inexhaustible minutia of adult life- job, kids, vacation plans, mortgage payments, in-laws- data processing replaces thinking. We become very efficient at assembling the mountains of factual data, but we somehow seemed to lose the capacity to actually ask ourselves the simple question: does this make sense?

Thinking requires energy. We only invest energy and something where there is some likely pay off down the line. What is the payoff for thinking? If in a world such as ours all thinking is likely to do is make you question the box you occupy. If you then proceed to the next step and begin to make some casual observations about your world, you are beginning to venture out on thin ice. For one day you might slip up and share these casual observations in public. No sooner will the words leave your lips that you will know you are in trouble. Your companions will smile triumphantly and ask you that dreaded question: “and what are your facts?”

Check and checkmate!

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2 thoughts on “The Ecomomic Crisis: Passing the Hot Potato

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