Thursday, September 25, 2008

One More Question

Mr. President, there's one more question that's been bothering me. In a free market, I would expect assets to move to the entity best equipped to extract the most value from them. For instance, I would expect banks to hang onto their mortgages, because banks are in the best position to make sure that the mortgage holder makes payments on time. If the bank sells the right to receive mortgage payments to someone else, and the mortgage holder defaults, won't that someone else have to go back to the bank to harass the mortgage holder into paying up, or to seize and sell the house? It seems to me that having to go back to the bank would increase transaction costs, making the right to payment worth less to that someone else than it is to the bank. So the bank shouldn't normally be willing to sell that right in the first place.

Yet, according to your speech, mortgage securitization, selling that right to get payments, is a big part of the mess we're in. A really big, $700 billion size, part. That means a lot of banks have been selling mortgages that basic economic theory says they shouldn't be able to sell. And it wasn't a fire sale, because they were doing it in a period of rapid economic growth. What's going on?

The only thing I can think of is that someone was either fibbing or asleep at the switch. Maybe the people buying the securitized mortgage debt didn't know how to value it properly, either because they had bad information from the sellers or because they simply weren't financially sophisticated enough to value it, despite the accredited investor safeguards we have in place. Or maybe that debt was being repackaged into securities designed to skirt around laws and regulations that would normally prevent purchasers from buying that kind of debt.

In any case, I'd really like to know. Preferably before we commit to giving these people $700 billion of our tax money. After all, if they're not savvy enough to value the mortgage debt properly, are we confident they'll use the money wisely? And if they were fibbing, then we'll want to keep an extra close eye on them, maybe closer than what a few members of a bipartisan panel can keep.

Follow-up: if you're not sure what I'm talking about, you can find a readable summary of mortgage securitization, complete with "chicken parts" analogy, here.

No comments: