Other posts in this occasional series.
Six months ago, this post would have been unnecessary. Back then, for most people, the crisis was the “subprime crisis:” subprime lending had become too aggressive, many subprime mortgages were going to go into default, and as a result securities backed by subprime mortgages were falling in value. Hedge funds, investment banks, and commercial banks were in danger insofar as they had unhedged exposure to subprime mortgages or subprime mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Still, if you were to stop the average reader of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal on the street and ask what caused the current financial and economic crisis, there is a good chance he or she would start with subprime lending.
Asking whether subprime lending caused the crisis raises all the questions about agency and causality that I’ve raised before. On the agency question, insofar as there was a problem in the subprime lending sector – and few would deny that there was – does the fault lie with borrowers who took on loans they had no chance of repaying, perhaps sometimes without understanding the terms; with the mortgage lenders who lent them the money without doing any due diligence to determine if they could pay them back; with the investment bankers who told the mortgage lenders what kinds of loans they needed to package into securities; with the bond rating agencies who blessed those securities while taking fees from the investment banks; with the investors who bought those securities without analyzing the risk involved; or with the regulators who sat on their hands through the entire process? Note in passing that it may have been perfectly rational, as well as legal, for an investor to by an MBS even knowing that the loans backing it were going to default, but making a bet that he could resell the MBS before the price fell, under the “greater fool” theory of investing. (It may have been rational for an investment bank to do the same, but not necessarily legal, given the disclosure requirements relating to securities. Goldman Sachs is being sued over precisely this question.) Readers of this blog know that my opinion is that, although there is blame to be shared along the chain, the greatest fault lies with the regulators, for a few reasons. First, although the desire to make money may cause problems, it can be no more be said to be a cause of anything than gravity can be said to be the cause of a landslide; second, bubbles are inevitable, at least in an unregulated market; and third, there is a difference in kind between the mistake made by an investor, who is foolish and loses some money, and the mistake made by a regulator (or a legislator who votes to reduce funding for regulators), whose job is to serve the public interest.
But that was all the preamble, because today I want to talk about the question of causality.
Continue reading “Causes: Subprime Lending”