Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Real Toxic Assets - Derivatives (whatever they are)

This posting will begin a 3 part series, to be finished by week's end, where we try to make understandable the un-understandable. Obviously the topic continues to be the "Stimulus Package", TARP, TALF, and the latest entry into the lexicon of acronyms, the PPIFs. PPIF stands for "Public Private Investment Funds". These are going to be the repository of those evil and lurking "Toxic Assets".

(cartoon from The New York Times)

A short recap: - mortgages were sold that had the interest rate adjust ("ARMs"), on both prime and sub-prime borrowers, to the point that some homeowners could not pay the monthly payment. These, along with perfectly fine loans were then bundled together in $500,000,000 or larger pools, and sold to Wall Street firms which made them into saleable securities akin to a bond. They were then resold as investment quality bonds, in smaller pieces, to investors all over the Country and the world. After all, what could be safer than an investment, paying interest, that was backed by Home Mortgages. Everything was fine until the adjustments started to occur and delinquencies looked as if they would be greater than expected. The investments, Mortgage Backed Securities, "MBS", were no longer worth as much as everyone thought they were because of the fear of more defaults and foreclosures, so panic selling began, until no one would buy any of these MBSs. Because no one knew the exact value, IT WAS DECIDED, that the value would be ZERO, or something close to it and they became "Toxic Assets". (RECAP OVER)

The assets were no more toxic then than they were at the start. In reality, the true asset was the underlying collateral - home mortgages. How many would go to foreclosure and how much would be recovered was unknown, but there are a lot of percentages between 0% and 100% - none were used!! There were 2 hidden issues: 1. With the mortgages being bundled as MBSs and sold as bonds to investors (earlier posts please) no bank or lender or any one who sold them was at risk. The investors might lose some money, like they might on any corporate bond or a mutual fund, but the lenders were home free. 2. A little understood evil was waiting to steal the souls of all who succumbed to good interest rates - DERIVATIVES.

What is a "Derivative"? Simply put - a BET, a gamble that something will happen based on something else; like during the World Series, betting not on which team will win or lose but whether the score of both teams will be higher or lower than the number of strokes Tiger Woods takes in the first 3 holes of his current tournament. THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS!!! Here, it was a bet that mortgages would default in record numbers. It seemed like a safe bet to take, and had been for the past 50 years; mortgages had a more or less constant and predictable default/foreclosure rate.

Let's get an example that most of us understand more easily - LIFE INSURANCE. When you buy a life insurance policy, you are betting an insurance company that you will die before you have paid more in premiums than the policy will pay to your beneficiaries. The Insurance Company takes the BET, because they know that on average, very few policy holders dies before either paying in more than the death benefit, or simply let the policy lapse after many years of paying. The insurance company, having hundreds of thousands,or millions of other people buying and dying, have sophisticated mathematicians (actuaries they are called) who prepare statistics on the probability of someone dying.

For example, if you are healthy and 30 years old, and do not race cars, and want to buy a $25,000 policy, the company will say "fine" and charge you a modest monthly premium. They can do this because they have statistical proof that very few 30 year old healthy people die. If you are 70, the chances of death before paying a lot of premiums is far greater, so the payments are much higher.

REGARDLESS OF THE SITUATION, YOU ARE BETTING THE COMPANY YOU WILL DIE WHILE YOU ARE INSURED AND BEFORE YOU HAVE PAID A FORTUNE, AND THEY ARE BETTING THAT YOU WON'T. That is gambling/betting/buying chances... The company can do this because they sell hundreds of thousands of policies and the statistics prove them right enough of the time. Basically, you and hundreds of thousands of others pay premiums, and the Insurance Company pays relatively few claims. They get to keep the profit!

To be certain that the Company has guessed correctly, it will bet another and bigger insurance company to bet that the insurer might be wrong. The bigger company which has even more statistics takes the bet and collects easy money. It has bought a derivative - a bet not on the life of the insured, but a side bet on whether the first company will have to pay the claim. This second bet is DERIVED from the first bet -the insurance policy itself. It is equivalent to the bet on Tiger's golf game.

What would happen if a disease struck all of the 30-40 year olds and they died, leaving the older people only - the people who have less time to live (and pay premiums according to the math guys)? Easy - the company would not be able to pay all of the claims. The bigger company which had to pay the smaller company who issued the insurance policies might default. Both companies might go bankrupt. So, the bigger company bets with even bigger company etc. What happens is that there might be 7 bets that the 30-40 year olds will live long. If they don't, 7 companies have to pay and 7 companies might file bankruptcy.

Were any of the assumptions wrong? Yes and no. It was a first time event, all those young premium payers dying, but they did die. Would that make all policies bad no. It does point out that betting that a mortgage will go bad (OKAY CALL IT INSURING AGAINST IT GOING BAD) or any other such bet is fraught with potential disastrous problems. The biggest of these is the fact that there could be 5,6,7 or 100 bets on that 30 year old's life.

These DERIVATIVES, these side bets, are some of the main issues that "broke" A.I.G.

What happened in the financial markets that have left us with trillions in debt is next in this 3 part series.

Author's Copyright by Richard I. Isacoff, Esq., March 2009

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