Two Economists From The University Of Chicago Explain What The Hell Just Happened

It’s one thing to understand what just happened to the financial markets, and yet another to actually be able to explain what just happened. Thankfully, Steven Levitt from Freakonomics walked down the hall and found two economists from the University of Chicago (Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap,) who gave him the best explanation I’ve been able to find about what the hell just happened.

From A.I.G. and credit default swaps to why Bear Stearns got a bailout but Lehman Brothers did not, this Q&A sheds some much appreciated light on the most nagging puzzles presented to us in the past week.

Here’s a taste:

The Fannie and Freddie situation was a result of their unique roles in the economy. They had been set up to support the housing market. They helped guarantee mortgages (provided they met certain standards), and were able to fund these guarantees by issuing their own debt, which was in turn tacitly backed by the government. The government guarantees allowed Fannie and Freddie to take on far more debt than a normal company. In principle, they were also supposed to use the government guarantee to reduce the mortgage cost to the homeowners, but the Fed and others have argued that this hardly occurred. Instead, they appear to have used the funding advantage to rack up huge profits and squeeze the private sector out of the “conforming” mortgage market. Regardless, many firms and foreign governments considered the debt of Fannie and Freddie as a substitute for U.S. Treasury securities and snapped it up eagerly.

Fannie and Freddie were weakly supervised and strayed from the core mission. They began using their subsidized financing to buy mortgage-backed securities which were backed by pools of mortgages that did not meet their usual standards. Over the last year, it became clear that their thin capital was not enough to cover the losses on these subprime mortgages. The massive amount of diffusely held debt would have caused collapses everywhere if it was defaulted upon; so the Treasury announced that it would explicitly guarantee the debt.

But once the debt was guaranteed to be secure (and the government would wipe out shareholders if it carried through with the guarantee), no self-interested investor was willing to supply more equity to help buffer the losses. Hence, the Treasury ended up taking them over.

Diamond and Kashyap on the Recent Financial Upheavals [Freakonomics]
(Photo: shadowmancer76 )