Holman Jenkins Explodes Key Financial Crisis Myths


We already mentioned one myth that Holman Jenkins exploded in his magnum opus at Hoover.org on the origins of the crisis.

But the fact that a couple superstar hedgies actually didn’t see the crisis coming is just a small part of it.

Here’s a few more.

The Wall Street securitization mill wasn’t just about dumping trash bonds to suckers:

It isn’t true that Wall Street made these mortgage securities just to dump them on them the proverbial greater fool, or that the disaster was wrought by Wall Street firms irresponsibly selling investment products they knew or should have known were destined to blow up. On the contrary, Merrill Lynch retained a great portion of the subprime mortgage securities for its own portfolio (it ended up selling some to a hedge fund for 22 cents on the dollar). Citigroup retained vast holdings in its so-called structured investment vehicles. Holdings of these securities, in funds in which their own employees personally participated, brought down Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. aig, once one of the world’s most admired corporations, made perhaps the biggest bet of all, writing insurance contracts against the potential default of these products.

So Wall Street can hardly be accused of failing to eat its own dog food. It did not peddle to others an investment product that it was unwilling to consume in vast quantities itself.

And compensation structure wasn’t totally out of whack:

Nor is it true that Wall Street executives and ceos had insufficient “skin in the game,” so that “perverse” compensation incentives created the mess. That story also does not pan out. Individuals, it’s true, were paid sizeable bonuses in the years in which the securities were created and sold. But most also had considerable wealth in the form of stock and stock options in their firms, which bet their own capital on these securities. Many also appear to have invested directly in funds to hold the subprime securities.

They had skin in the game. Personal losses to top executives in banks that failed or whose share prices collapsed were in the millions, hundreds of millions, and in some cases billions of dollars.

And the whole game wasn’t based on a belief that housing only goes up:

The securitizations had been explicitly designed with the prospect of large numbers of defaults in mind — hence the engineering of subordinate tranches designed to protect the senior tranches from those defaults that occurred.

The designers of these securities, moreover, knew exactly where a disproportionate share of the underlying mortgages were coming from: a handful of counties in southern California, Arizona, and the environs of Las Vegas as well as Florida, where home prices had been rising vertiginously. Far from swallowing the supposed inviolability of the housing-only-goes-up rule, middle-aged mortgage securitization bankers knew that house prices can correct sharply, having lived through regional housing busts in the southwest in the late 1980s, and in New England and California in the early 1990s. Anyone who works in the business knows that the experience of the past half century has been increasing volatility in home prices and a steady rise in the foreclosure rate — a nine-fold increase that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the prosperous 1980s and 1990s.

What’s more, the crisis doesn’t prove that there’s really a national housing market:

Ah, you say, but their risk models and assumptions never allowed for a national drop in home prices. Yes, for good reason — there’s no such thing as a national market for houses. Even well into the subprime implosion, as recently as the middle of 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s House Price Index was continuing to report stable or rising prices in about half of the 292 metropolitan areas it tracks. Half a million new houses are still going up a year — because people want houses where they want houses.

And he goes on.

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