Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Banking Panic 2007-2009 (1)
Mankind hasn't learned how to control sudden wealth, whether in families, third-world countries, or the richest nation in history. The world banking crisis of 2007 is the biggest example yet.

What's a Derivative?

The intention of the next few sections is to sort out some of the confusing components of the credit crunch of 2007, in which novel financial instruments called derivatives played a central part. Before we get into that, let's try to answer the question just posed: why did the monetary authorities respond to a surplus of cheap credit by apparently making it worse, flooding the economy with still more cheap credit? The sudden return to normal interest levels, it would appear, posed a threat of recession so severe it seemed necessary to make inflation worse in order to combat the impending deflation. The Federal Reserve may, of course, be planning only a brief inflationary move, or a sharp inflationary move soon followed by a sharp deflationary reversal. Its purpose appears to be, to prevent an impending wave of mortgage foreclosures by holding interest rates down, disregarding the abnormally low long-term interest spreads which had recently seemed such a problem. Whatever it's tactical purposes, such bewildering reversals are a signal the Federal Reserve regards the present situation as dangerous. Some degree of inflation, possibly a large one, is going to be created but the Fed seems to think it has no choice. Before getting to that dilemma, let's sort out some of the ingredients of the credit crunch that seems to have triggered this mess.

A derivative is really pretty clever. It sorts out and monetizes any or all of the risks of a business. It frees up capital by putting a price on risks, just as insurance does, without requiring ownership of the whole company or industry. Flexibility is created, and in the case of real estate loans, surplus cash in one region can be redeployed in another region where the money is tight. Flexibility allows for an increased velocity of transactions, and increased velocity of turnover is equivalent to having more money to work with. It was not so long ago that mortgages were obtained from the local building and loan, and thus were constrained by the savings deposits of the local community. Far Eastern and Arab savings are now no longer held captive by primitive local banking systems.

There are worries about derivatives, however. For all their advantages, derivatives remain strange and mysterious, and thus, always a potential target for populist politicians. They are also a zero-sum game, which means that for everyone who makes money there must be someone else who loses exactly the same amount. That's, of course, true of debt in general; it's true of loans, and of bonds, but derivatives are new. Finally, derivatives were a quick success, which makes them dangerous competitors in the creative destruction game. It even makes them annoying to non-competitors, who get trampled by stampedes.

In the particular version of derivatives of concern in real estate, derivatives stripped away the risk that borrowers would default on their payments. That made mortgages available to more marginal borrowers, adding only a small cost for the insurance provided. It allowed more accurate, hence lower, pricing of mortgages by assessing the rate of default in a whole region rather than house by house. The theory was good and the savings to everyone were considerable. But success became a problem. No longer inhibited by a shortage of capital, mortgages and home ownership were greatly promoted. Unfortunately, the demand for mortgages in America had been artificially stimulated by implicit government protection against foreclosure, by government sponsored mortgage agencies with implicit government backup, and by the tax deductibility of mortgage interest which was denied to other forms of household borrowing. If a loan was needed, some way was sure to be devised to make it a mortgage loan.

Originally published: Thursday, February 14, 2008; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019