The sub-prime mortgage crisis, and its ever increasing negative effects on the markets and the economy, makes me wonder how this could have possibly happened.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you give thousands of loans to people who do not qualify for them, and, especially, if you give them loans with adjustable interest rates that will increase a couple years later, rendering the people borrowers unable to make their mortgage payments, that you are going to have a lot of defaults.
But, not only did they give out such loans, but it seems they “securitized” them (or whatever the term is) and then sold them to lots of institutions who wanted to make high returns. Now of course, everyone is caught with their pants down, and we are facing a crisis, with banks having massive writedowns, on the order of billions of dollars per company ($11 billion for Citigroup and $8 billion for Merrill Lynch )
My question is, how could this have happened?
As I said above, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that you don’t give mortgages to people who can’t afford them. The heads of the leading financial institutions are supposedly very smart people with degrees from the top schools. How could they not see this coming?
Here are some hypotheses about how this could have happened.
- The heads of the financial system are stupid
- They are smart, but could not see this coming, because it was extremely unlikely/unexpected
- They are smart, and could see this coming, but don’t care about the resulting losses.
I don’t buy (1) or (2). It seems that (3) may be the likeliest explanation for now.
As far as I know, when a financial company does well, i.e. makes billions of dollars, people working there get huge bonuses, on the order of millions of dollars. But, when the same company loses billions of dollars a year later, these people don’t give back their bonuses.
At most, they may lose their job, which is not too likely, but even if they do, they have made so many millions of dollars during the boom times, that they can weather out the storm until brighter days are back, and they start the cycle again. For the top guys, like the CEOs, it’s even better, because even if you lose your job due to a bad year, you still get hundreds of millions of dollars in your “severance package”.
Basically, individual employees of a finance company have every incentive to engage in behavior that hugely inflates their company’s profits during some years (to get huge bonuses), while not caring at all whether the behavior that led to those huge profits will lead to huge losses a couple of years later.
So, we have an environment where such huge booms and busts will keep happening (the latest two are the internet boom and then bust in 2000 and the housing boom and then bust in 2007)
Does the above analysis make sense?
If yes, what can be done about the bad mix of finance company employees’ bonus-driven behavior combined with a lack of financial penalty during the bad years? (In an ideal world, there would be reverse-bonuses )
If not, how do you explain the current situation, given that, in retrospect, all the analyses of the situation make it seem like it was obvious and bound to happen?