Why I had to stop reading Michael Lewis’ The Big Short

I’m a fan of writer Michael Lewis. Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Sandra Bullock Wins An Oscar, are all good books. As is The Big Short, his latest. I started reading it yesterday and by bedtime I was half-way through (it’s a short book and I’m a fast reader). When I got up this morning Mrs. CollateralDamage said I was making very unhappy noises in my sleep and I’ve felt on edge all day. I read some more of the book, realized I was getting increasingly agitated and finally put it down. This book is a non-fiction horror story, and one whose end we don’t yet know.

Daily Show gets it right again. The Big Short is about four people who guessed (and bet) right about mortgage-related ponzi scheme which has led to our current economic “downturn”. What is probably upsetting me about the book is that it confirms my most cynical beliefs about the world. Several of the people in the book repeatedly ask questions of bankers, bond raters, bond salesmen and anyone else they can find in hopes that someone can prove to them that all this buying and selling of sub-prime mortgage securities isn’t just a house of cards. They want to know because they are betting that it is and want to find out if they’ve just blown their money. That, my friends, is a motivated investigator. They are either told they don’t understand how this all works (which we quickly realize means the person who should understand doesn’t) or they are met with blank stares. They try to tell regulators, they try to tell other investors, they even try telling the investment bankers who created this train wreck what is about to happen. AND NO ONE WILL LISTEN. They are Cassandra’s writ huge – except that they make a crap load of money, whereas Cassie just had to suffer.

The other terrifying thing about Big Short, is that it confirms my greatest cynical fears: That most of the people in places of power are either corrupt or fools. Now you’d think that after eight years of George W. I would already have had these fears confirmed but there’s something about Lewis stories of smug, arrogant idiots/crooks gaming the system that scared the feces out of me. It doesn’t help that I really don’t see any reason for the economy to improve. The head of our bankrupt government wants to spend more money. His opposition thinks the best way to deal with the government’s being bankrupt is to keep in place a tax cut for the richest people in the nation. The banks are pretending they’re solvent. People keep saying it’s up to consumers to spend our way out of this mess but it’s overspending that got us into the mess in the first place.  And no one but no one is talking about what happened to all the debt created by the mortgage fiasco. Wall St. and the financial press seem to think that as long as the Dow is over 10K all is right in the world – EVEN THOUGH NONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT GOT US INTO THIS HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED. Meanwhile no one who was responsible for any of this is going to jail and the nation continues to bleed money and people in two wars everyone knows we have no business fighting.

Sorry, Mr. Lewis, I can’t take anymore. I’m going to go read something much more soothing, like World War Z or John Dies At The End. As my old drinking buddy John Milton once told me, “Stare into the abyss long enough and it starts to stare back.” Well, at least St. Peter told me I was the nicest of the damned…

 

HOORAY? Sub-prime mortgages “back to pre-crisis levels”

The Fed says sub-prime mortgages again make up more than 20% of the nation’s outstanding mortgages.

After plummeting in early 2008, the share of borrowers with FICO credit scores lower than 660 has returned to just higher than 20 percent, the same share as when subprime securitization peaked in 2006.

Once upon a time this number was a bad thing because all those loans were held by private institutions many of which basically collapsed when it turned out people couldn’t pay them off.

Today it is a good thing because Government-backed agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae "are providing unprecedented support to the housing market — owning or guaranteeing almost 95% of the new residential mortgage lending." So all is jake now that you, me and every other US citizen are guaranteeing these turkeys.

The reason for this rebound is not that due to any increase in the financial stability of people with lousy credit scores. No, it’s because the Federal Housing Authority seems determined to recreate the housing bubble “by providing vital insurance that enables borrowers to qualify for loans with as little as 3.5% down.

The FHA is, of course, a picture of fiscal health. The agency recently admitted that “a soon-to-be-released audit will show that its reserve fund has fallen below the level required by law, meaning it will not be enough to cover 2% of all outstanding FHA mortgages.

One solution proposed to get the agency’s reserves back up to what the law requires:  Raise the minimum down payment on FHA loans to 5%.

But – reports the LA Times — “new FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said such a move could threaten the nascent housing recovery. A person looking to buy a $300,000 house, for instance, would have to raise an additional $4,500 for the down payment.”

If you can’t afford another $4.5K for the down payment, you probably can’t afford $300K either.

Says who?

The FHA itself. That’s because – just like in the last housing bubble – the lenders don’t really have a clue as to how much the borrowers can repay. We know this because the FHA has admitted it really hasn’t done much to screen the lenders for things like basic competence.

According to a report by the FHA inspector general: “The agency approved nearly 3,300 lender applications in fiscal 2008, more than triple the year before. But the number of workers evaluating applications remained the same. In a review of 22 approved applications, the audit found that only one contained all the necessary documents.

History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, someone once said. Unfortunately the farce doesn’t leave you any better off than the tragedy.

By the time this is all done the economy will look like it’s been hit by a typhoon of monkeys.

BON TON ROULEZ!!!

Treasury thinks maybe foreclosures actually are a problem

My latest from over at BlownMortgage.com:

Latest news has it that the Treasury Dept. is thinking really, really hard about maybe using some of the $700 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to do something about home foreclosures.

Neel Kashkari, who has to administer the Troubled Assets Relief Program, told Senators, “We continue to aggressively examine strategies to mitigate foreclosures and maximize loan modifications.” It is well worth noting Kashkari offered no actual details as to what this might mean.

This doesn’t seem to indicate any change in Henry Paulson’s willingness to consider an FDIC plan to help homeowners. “Under the FDIC proposal, the government would seek to encourage lenders to modify loans by offering to share the cost of any defaults. The FDIC has said its proposal could prevent about 1.5 million foreclosures.” Paulson has said that use of TARP money for this would be a misuse of the funds. This is odd given his willingness to spend the money on just about anything except homeowners.

On the bright side: He’s only got 47 more days on the job.

There’s more (including a long quote from CollateralDamage Sr.) here.

Alan Greenspan, ingenue

Another one from BlownMortgage:

Alan Greenspan attempted to mimic Michael “Heckuva Job, Brownie” Brown during his testimony before congress yesterday. Mr. Greenspan attempted to place blame squarely on anyone except himself. Mr. Brown’s performance in the same role was slightly more credible because he was utterly unqualified for the job he held, a claim Mr. Greenspan cannot make.

Mr. Greenspan claims to have been overtaken by events so rare that no one could have seen them coming. He called it a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami” and that it was impossible for anyone to have been prepared for it. Mr. Brown made the same claims about hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans with every bit as little justification. The record of warnings about both disasters is substantial and undeniable.

And there’s more where that came from…

Would you buy a used economic commentary from this man?

My latest over at BlownMortgage:

The Fed has announced it will now buy commercial paper from money market mutual funds and endorsed the idea of another economic stimulus package. Far be it from me to turn up my nose at free money. I could use a handout … I mean stimulus check as much if not more than most of Wall Street. But I am disturbed that these efforts continue are in keeping with previous Bush Administration policy to never have a clue how something – like a war or a however many bailouts there will be – will be paid for.

Click for more of this and my paen to William Proxmire.

Going out of business doesn’t slow WaMu marketing

This showed up in the mail this weekend:

Actually, the offer expired before then.

Actually, the offer expired before then.

Can I get that 0% APR on transfers if I put $700 billion on my card?

What happens if I fill out the application? Might be worth it as an experiment.

Speaking of unintentionally ironic marketing … BusinessPundit has a great post about a Treasury Dept. campaign that launched earlier this month that encourages young adults aged 18 to 24 to make responsible choices re: debt and finances.

Key to the campaign is the concept of to think twice before spontaneously spending. This, says the Treasury is key to building a solid financial future.

I love the tagline: “Don’t let your credit put you in a bad place.”

File under “Do As I Say, Not As I Do.”

Here are the key housing bailout questions no one is asking

Another one from BlownMortgage.com:

Here’s a heretical notion: How much CEOs get from the bailout doesn’t matter. It’s a smokescreen, red meat being tossed to the public to make it seem as though the bad guys won’t get away scott-free.

While limits on pay packages for executives whose firms seek assistance from the government will be part of the whatever settlement gets reached, it will have no real impact on the bailout. But it will give the politicians something to beat their chests about and say that they have stood up to Big Business.

Click on the link to read the rest.