Thursday, October 02, 2008

How did we get in this financial disaster?

October 2008 - A number of you have asked me to opine on the pending financial disaster we're going through. So far my only response has been to not worry about it and just make sure you continue buying stocks. Today as I sit here writing this blog entry, I continue to feel that most of us should buy stock and continue on with our lives. We're in it for the long hall and eventually things will turn around.

I thought it would be good this month to take a look and try to explain, in simple terms, how we got in this mess. I won't try to explain it all as to be honest, I don't really understand all of it. However, I think I understand the basics. Here it goes.

Let's say both Person A and Person B take out $100 mortgages, respectively, to finance a new home. The bank's appraisal agrees that both homes are worth $100 and gives Person A and Person B each a loan. At this point the bank basically owns both houses and expects monthly payments.

The first year goes well for both the home owners and bank. After one year, Person A and Person B have paid off $5 and only owe the bank $95. However, the second year the real-estate market takes a turn for the worse, and both homes drop in value by 10%. That is, now both homes are worth only $90 each. Yet, Person A and Person B owe $95.

This creates a situation where the bank needs $95 in payments for an asset that is worth $90. To complicate matters, both Person A and Person B lose their jobs and are unable to pay their mortgage. Now the bank owns the assets. They paid $100, got $5 in payments, but own houses worth $90 each. Economically, this is considered bad. Unfortunately it only gets worse.

When a bank sells a mortgage (NOTE: I'm using the term bank as an all inclusive term for the mortgage industry) they toss them together and divide up trillions of dollars in mortgages and sell the pieces as securities to investors. Who buys these securities? Those of us looking for a "low risk" investment (e.g. money market funds).

What we have now is banks trying to sell a security, banked by bad mortgages, which nobody knows who much the security is worth. In the example above, is the security worth $200? No, the asset dropped by 10%. Is it worth $180 then? Who knows, the real-estate market could be down another 10% next year and %10 the year after. This uncertainty causes banks to seize up. Investors won't buy securities as they don't know what they're worth. Moreover, banks don't want to lend to other banks as they don't know what the other banks hold in assets. And vice versa.

The mortgage disaster has created fear and thus created a liquidity crisis. People are fearful and money exchange has come to a halt. And when people get fearful and money stops exchanging, bad, bad things happen.