Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Commercial Credit Sinks Globalization

Lehman Brothers

In August, 2007, the world sort of woke up to the housing bubble in California and Florida, along with the ingenuity of securitized mortgages. About $100 billion was involved, and credit markets froze up as the risk premium of low quality loans (relative to U.S. Treasury bonds) gyrated furiously, almost always in the direction of down. There was a staggering amount of credit default swapping, some $60 trillion, but it did not seem to be unraveling. Why in the world did a problem of that magnitude, while admittedly large, lead to continuing panic which was widely believed to require $4 trillion in rescue funds eighteen months later? There were obviously some big missing pieces of this puzzle. Worse than a money panic itself, was the realization that we only understood about 5% of the problem after a year of investigation.

The case in point is that in the fall of 2008, world trade almost came to a total stop. How does $100 billion of dud mortgages in California, discovered a year earlier, do that? It would appear that Lehman Brothers was one of four or five large banks who were so overstretched in securitized mortgage debt that it looked as though they would collapse without huge infusions of government money. The government rescue team knew they could not rescue every bank that looked shaky, and they knew that rescuing anybody carried the risk that this kind of episode would be repeated in the future, as a result of knowing that any sort of risky behavior would be protected by the government treating big banks as "too big to fail". To bring the collapsing markets to their senses, some relatively big bank had to be allowed to fail, and it turned out to be Lehman. The CEO of Lehman afterwards expressed public bitterness that Lehman suffered while others were saved, but it was clear that there were too many people in the lifeboat, so someone had to go overboard or they would all sink. Lehman went bankrupt.

What had not been considered in the choice of Lehman, was its heavy involvement in commercial credit, short-term loans, sometimes only overnight, with inventories as collateral. Because of the huge volume of commercial credit, with extremely fast turnover, the conventional payment mechanism was a repurchase agreement. In a repo, the loan takes the form of a sale with a guaranteed agreement to repurchase in a short time. The mechanics of lending are greatly simplified by actually selling the inventory of, say computer chips, for enough more to pay the interest cost, associated with an agreement that the lender owns the security outright if there is a default by a date certain. The arrangement is very clever and efficient, but it has one flaw: the bank really has no use for a boatload of computer chips. Commercial credit repos had grown to immense size. When the banks encountered a credit freeze, the collateral simply could not be transformed into anything useful to the banks, even though industries throughout the world were on the edge of collapse for lack of components to assemble. It was a dangerous mess, all right.

Underlying all of these moving parts was globalization of the industrial process. It was not very long ago when automobile manufacturers like Ford would own the majority of the steps in the process, down to growing trees to provide wood for the floor-boards. Or IBM would make substantially all of the parts of a computer and assemble them as a a final product. But, in order to take advantage of cheap labor or available resources of other types, pieces of components of cars and computers started being fashioned together in several foreign countries and shipped to another foreign country for assembly. In the most extreme case, only the design and marketing of a product might take place in America, while everything else was assembled in many places. Almost every step of a complex manufacture involved paying the subcontractor for his piece, using the pieces as collateral for a loan to pay for itself. Because a tangible price was being charged for delays in the process, "Just in time" assembly was absolutely essential.Everything had to work like gigantic clockwork, but if it did, it considerably reduced the price and increased the sales of the final product.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers (ultimately triggered by real estate mortgage securities), caused the whole world's manufacturing to come to a halt in just a few days. When the nature of the problem became apparent, it was comparatively easy to patch up, at least by a government savior who had unlimited amounts of money available, and was willing to spend "whatever it takes".

What's left to do, now, is to figure out a system that will prevent international trade paralysis without slowing down or eating up the profitability of globalization. A great deal is at stake in repairing a problem we didn't even recognize as a possibility. And probably similar things remain to be discovered.

Originally published: Monday, September 28, 2009; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019