The New York Times has a story on “Paralysis in the Debt Markets” which says, basically, that credit has dried up because of lack of demand for asset-backed securities. In English, that means that since no one wants to invest in securities that are made out of home mortgages, the people who originate mortgages have no place to sell the mortgages to, so they don’t have any money to lend. And this is also true of commercial real estate, student loans, and so on. For example, “A once-thriving private market in securities backed by home mortgages has collapsed, from $744 billion in 2005, at the peak of the housing boom, to $8 billion during the first half of this year.”
The response of the Fed has been to prop up the securitization market by buying the stuff itself when no one else will buy it. But that program is reaching its provisional limit — according to the times, the Fed has bought $905 billion out of a budget $1.25 trillion in securities — and with the Fed hawks on the warpath, it is likely to be pulled before the private market recovers.
This is especially true since the private market may never recover. The boom in securitization was based on investors’ willingness to believe what investment banks and credit rating agencies said about these securities. Buying a mortgage-backed security is making a loan. Ordinarily you don’t loan money to someone without proving to yourself that he is going to pay you back (or that the interest rate you are getting will compensate you for the risk that he won’t pay you back). The securitization bubble happened because investors were willing to outsource that decision to other people — banks and credit rating agencies — who had different incentives from them.
Are investors going to go back to that mindset? Do we want them to? It seems to me the rational investor response is this: “I have no idea what is in those securitization trusts. I don’t trust the banks, since they are taking fees out of each deal. I don’t trust the credit rating agencies, since they are being paid by the banks, and don’t have enough staff and expertise to do the job properly. I don’t trust the models, because they’re wrong. There’s no way I can do the analysis myself. So I’m not buying.”
Maybe what’s happening is the only people buying asset-backed securities are (a) a few bold (or stupid) hedge funds who think they can do the valuation themselves and (b) recent immigrants from Mars who haven’t heard about the financial crisis. And maybe that’s where the securitization market will be for a long, long time. I agree that people have irrational optimism and are prone to bubbles, but it doesn’t have to be this bubble. People in Silicon Valley are waiting for the tech bubble to come back, but it may not happen — we got a housing bubble instead. Next time maybe it will be a buy-plots-of-land-in-the-rainforest-and-use-them-for-carbon-offsets bubble. There’s no reason it has to be a securitization bubble.
Besides, as Paul Krugman writes, why does it have to be securitization, anyway?
The banks don’t need to sell securitized debt to make loans — they could start lending out of all those excess reserves they currently hold. Or to put it differently, by the numbers there’s no obvious reason we shouldn’t be seeking a return to traditional banking, with banks making and holding loans, as the way to restart credit markets. Yet the assumption at the Fed seems to be that this isn’t an option — that the only way to go is back to the securitized debt market of the years just before the crisis.
By James Kwak