Subprime crisis: the overall picture

Subprime crisis : the overall picture

By Vincent Benard


In many aspects, the current financial meltdown that brought many banks and insurers to insolvency may be compared to the nuclear meltdown that affected the Chernobyl power plant. And whatever Big Government pundits may tell us endlessly – without real in-depth arguments – inappropriate state intrusions in the economy are as much responsible for the financial crisis as poor state management of nuclear facilities by USSR was for the Chernobyl disaster.

If the mechanisms of the so-called “Chinese syndrome” can be described as a process of ignition, amplification, and then propagation of atomic reactions, likewise, the current crisis is a story of state interventions in the economy, that ignited, amplified, and then propagated the meltdown from its original core to the whole financial system.


The main factor that ignited the current crisis is how politicians forced two state regulated enterprises, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, to refinance a growing part of unsecured loans to low and very low income families. In exchange, Fannie and Freddie were exempted from some accounting requirements generally expected from ordinary firms, allowing them to leverage too much credit compared to their equity, by an extensive use of off balance “special purpose vehicles.” All these operations were made under an implicit taxpayer provided safety net, as the statutory rules of the department of Housing and Urban Development made possible the nationalization of Fannie and Freddie in the case of bankruptcy.

These government provisions, coupled with a law mandating banks to find ways to originate loans to some high risk-profiled borrowers (the much discussed and controversial Community Reinvestment Act), reversed the usual prudential rules governing company CEOs: first, don’t fail, and then, make a profit. Due to their government backing, Fannie and Freddie only had to expand their volume of business, without too much consideration of the underlying risks. The purchase of so many bad loans by two state-backed giants encouraged reckless lending by banks and mortgage brokers to many risk-unaware families.

This behavior was greatly helped by Alan Greenspan’s decisions to lower and maintain very low interest rates in the early 2000s without consideration of the obvious asset bubble that was emerging in the housing sector. When credit is too cheap, borrowers tend to be less careful in their investments.


But these facts do not explain by themselves how big the housing bubble has become. The average Joe, in the mortgage broker’s office, was not as unsophisticated as generally described. He could lose his common sense and succumb to easy credit only because the brokers could show him impressive Case-Schiller index curves, which seemed to show that any housing investment could gain more and more value every year, making the purchaser richer even while he was sleeping. Without this apparent housing inflation, many people wouldn’t have jumped so recklessly onto the easy credit bandwagon.

But this housing inflation did not occur everywhere in the country. Some of the most dynamic metro areas, in terms of population growth, haven’t experienced any housing bubble. Recent Nobel Prize Paul Krugman, supported by several research papers, notably from academics like Ed Glaeser or Wendell Cox, explained it by land use regulations: when these regulations are flexible and tend to be respectful of the property rights of the land owner, housing bubbles cannot even get started. But when regulations allow the existing real estate owners to prevent farmland holders to build the houses required to satisfy all housing needs, housing prices start skyrocketing.

Housing mortgage debt owed by families grew from 4.8 to 10.5 trillion USD (from early 2000 to late 2007. But had every city in the USA had the same flexible land use regulations that they had in the fifties, and that still exist in fast growing areas like Houston or Atlanta, this exposure to risk would have been much lower, by 3 to 4 trillion. More borrowers would have qualified for the prime credit market and its less risky loans, since the lower price of the purchased homes would have resulted in better credit ratings. So, despite the bad lending practices mentioned above, the risk of a general collapse of the credit market would have been nearly equal to zero.


At this point, we just explained the roots of a mortgage crisis. What is still missing is the way it has spread throughout the financial system. Once again, bad laws are to blame.

First, this crisis shows how risky the bank’s business model, grounded on low equity and very high leveraging ratios, has become unsound in these time of high volatility of some assets. Some will blame banks for this, but you should be aware that before the creation of the FED in 1913, most banks’ business models were based on equity levels over 60%: the shift from a high equity to a low equity model comes first from tax policies which have, in nearly every country of the world, severely taxed capital gains, but encouraged debt by deducting the interest payment from the corporate tax base. The second reason is that central banks, as “last recourse lenders,” usually with a state’s warranty, have themselves favored this shift to a highly leveraged model: borrowing  money was de facto a cheaper resource than raising capital to finance operations.

But of course, this doesn’t explain how a 10% default risk on a credit niche market (the subprimes), totaling less than 10% of the total housing debt (12 trillion at the end of 2007), itself less than one fifth of the total assets being exchanged on American financial markets, generated such turmoil.

The culprits must be sought within a set of rules named “Basel II,” and their declinations in local laws in most countries, aimed at regulating the activities of banks or insurance companies. In some cases, poorly designed accounting rules may have contributed, too.

Basel II rules — and the like — mandate banks and insurers to hold a diversified portfolio of assets aimed at providing them the liquidities they need to face hard times: for a bank, a major loss of customers; for insurers, a series of major disasters. These rules were supposed to “protect” investors from reckless diversification policies. So institutional investors were mandated to own only high quality bonds, or to value some kinds of assets, like stocks, with a weighting that de facto prevented their securities from handling such assets directly.  

But banks and insurers needed the yields of “lower quality” bonds, or even stocks, to remain attractive to private investors. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to beat the performance of state labeled bonds, and thus wouldn’t bring any added value to their customers, forcing them out of the market.

So the late 80’s and the 90’s saw the onset of a huge market of “derivatives,” all based on the following principle: lower quality assets (like subprime based securities bonds) are put together in another security, which itself sells new bonds sliced into several “tranches.” The first slice, the “z-tranch,” is a very risky one, which is aimed at bringing a higher yield to unregulated investors as hedge funds but must absorb primarily the first percentages of any losses of the security. Other tranches bear a lower risk but serve a lower yield. The “cushion effect” of the high risk tranch allows the lower tranch bonds to receive an AAA rating from rating agencies, particularly if they are covered against credit default by a special derivative called a “credit default swap,” allowing lender and borrowers to reinsure themselves against defaults on their bonds. And there can be other “derivatives of derivatives” involved in these designs. In many cases, institutions issuing AAA tranches guaranteed the payment of the corresponding bonds.

So the current situation is that many institutional investors do not hold many real stocks or bonds in their portfolios. They mostly hold a majority of derivatives.

But all this incredibly complex financial engineering not only is extremely costly, but has one perverse effect: while reducing the probability of AAA tranches to default, it actually makes the amount of the risk higher in the event that losses are high enough to impact the AAA tranches. And all these complex designs of derivatives make it increasingly difficult to understand where the risks are located in complex securities mixing prime mortgages, subprime mortgages, and other kinds of credits. So when an AAA tranch is impacted by higher than forecast losses, nobody really knows what is the resulting worth of the best tranch if it has to be sold. Is it 95% of the nominal? 60%? Nobody seems able to value these bonds reliably.

So when the mortgage debtors began to be insolvent in a higher proportion than usual, the losses on subprimes derivatives began to exceed the “cushion” effect of Z-tranches. AAA bonds were impacted. Some holders of these bonds, forced to sell off in panic in order to get cash, couldn’t find purchasers, except some highly speculative funds that toughly negotiated the price.

But then, because of inflexible accounting laws, all institutions holding the same kind of toxic assets had to write down the values of these assets in their balance sheets, even if their treasury level didn’t force them to proceed to a fire sale of these assets. So they might have been declared virtually insolvent even if actually they were not. This affected their ability to borrow on short term liquidities markets, and thus led some of them ultimately to file for bankruptcy.

If no regulatory limitations had been placed on the assets that banks and insurers could hold, it is likely that they would not have found the use of exotic derivatives so attractive, and that early difficulties in subprime credits would have resulted in clear signals prompting securities managers to recompose their portfolios. Some investors’ failures could have occurred earlier, but would not have reached such proportions. 

Big Government is the culprit

So, at the root of every mechanism identified as a catalyst of the current crisis, we can find a bad federal or local regulation.

Does this mean that private institutions have no moral and technical responsibility in the current mess? Certainly not. They’ve deliberately chosen to take advantage of these poisonous regulations instead of fighting them, even though some of the underlying risks were clearly identified. Many of them ifnored warnings issued by economists like Nouriel Roubini, or atypical politicians like Ron Paul, and preferred to listen to reassuring assessments of the soundness of the system written by star economists like Joseph Stiglitz. People don’t like dream breakers.

Competition to overturn bad regulations doesn’t exonerate financial private institutions from having failed to do so properly. Whatever conditions are created by the states, firms must act wisely. Many of them obviously did not. But in the ranking of responsibilities, states’ inaccurate and inordinate regulations obviously rank highest. Had its diverse regulations and interventions focused on principles (honesty in contracts, no concealment of malpractice, full disclosure of operations, respect of property rights) and court litigation; had they let private individuals or enterprises decide what was good for them without trying to curb their behaviors in particular directions, none of the elements that allowed this crisis would have been in place.

Government’s economic interventions in human interactions once again have proved counterproductive and finally wrought havoc. This should make people very careful about government claims that new interventions are necessary to solve the crisis and avoid the next one!


Vincent BENARD is the president of the Hayek Institute, a French speaking think tank based in France and Belgium – . The institute has published several tribunes advocating the free-market point of view on the current crisis. His personal blog is

A modern-day Lafayette rallies the troops

A modern-day Lafayette rallies the troops

Fellow Conservatives, forget everything you “know” about the French right now.

Yes, it is true that they have long dabbled in socialism and big government (statism), and their country’s economic policies show it. But likewise, our country’s economic policies show our own flirtation with these disastrous policies. In fact, since the big bailout scam, we are far more socialist than any European country had been heretofore! (Unfortunately, EU countries are catching up quickly, implementing their own bailout schemes).

That is why it is so absolutely refreshing, in fact, invigorating, to read a French author like the Hayek Institute’s Vincent Benard commenting so accurately on the causes of the bank crisis. Mr. Benard “gets it” better than many American conservatives.

In a German-language article dedicated to our German friends, I invited precisely this kind of criticism of American socialist policies from right-thinking Europeans, because, as I and others have pointed out at Laigle’s Forum, it is American socialism that has driven the bank crisis that threatens the very existence of our friends and allies abroad, and voices of protest from European conservatives (BTW, they call themselves “liberals” but the meaning is the opposite of the accepted meaning here) are just as welcome now in this war of ideas as was Lafayette’s valuable support of George Washington’s war efforts.

After all, the enemy is the same:  a government that does not represent the people. And a few good Europeans are volunteering their assistance again.

The article, which follows, is not a translation. Mr. Benard writes in his own words in English this time.

This is the second of his commentaries to appear at Laigle’s Forum. I look forward to reading and posting more of his work and hope that America will soon take note of this gifted writer and thinker.

Donald Hank

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French mainstream press confirms our assessment of the financial crisis

French mainstream press confirms our assessment of the financial crisis


Some American news consumers insist that anything not based on mainstream reports is not worth their while reading. In fact, I just heard Alan Colmes attacking Jerome Corsi on his book The Obama Nation and one of his chief criticisms was that Corsi uses conservative media as factual support.

Now, I have previously refuted at this site the leftist view that our current financial crisis is due to rampant laissez-faire free-market finance. I have shown, based on various sources, that in fact, the blame lies squarely with the government, and particularly with the CRA and its beefed up enforcement under Clinton, and unfortunately, under second-term George W. Bush as well. Certainly, some readers who think like Alan Colmes were skeptical and dismissive of my facts, even though most come from neutral sources.

That is why I was delighted when a French colleague recently sent me an article from the online version of the daily newspaper Figaro confirming my assessment of the financial crisis and its origins.

Now, while the Left in France does classify Figaro as right of center, you need to understand that this is a highly respected century-old publication that enjoys a very large hardcopy readership, with over 400,000 copies distributed and with an amazing 4.224 million unique on-line visitors, making it the number one news site in France today.

By contrast, the newspaper at the other end of the political spectrum, Libération, has a hardcopy readership of only 160,000 and claims only 150,000 visitors to its web site.

Clearly, French readers on both the Left and Right trust and prefer Le Figaro.

 This is why I took the pains to translate Figaro’s recent article “Subprime accused, State guilty” by Vincent Bénard.

This translation is one item you can safely forward to your most skeptical friends.

Donald Hank



Translation  of :

Subprime: market accused, State Guilty

09/09/2008 | Updated : 10:43 |


Vincent Bénard, President of the Hayek Institute of Brussels, author of “Le Logement, crise publique, remèdes privés” (Romillat), reviews the subprime lending crisis and takes the side of the free economy when Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, two mortgage refinancing agencies, are placed under the conservatorship of the United States government.

The cause is understood by many observers: the subprime financial crisis is due to the madness of the markets and shows the limits of unbridled finance.  And they urge more public regulation of financial institutions.

Free enterprise is the whipping boy again, because there is no market more perverted by the intervention of the federal government than that of mortgage credit in the United States.

The two institutions with the cute nicknames Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FHLMC) bear a heavy weight of responsibility in the financial unmooring of the American banking system.  The former was initially a government agency created in 1938 by the FDR administration to issue low interest mortgages thanks to federal guarantees, which supplied liquidity to a home loan market at low rates accessible to lower-income families.

In 1968, the Johnson Administration, realizing that the State-guaranteed commitments of Fannie Mae were becoming broader and would be subject to the lending capacity of a treasury department mired in financing the Vietnam War, arranged for it to be privatized.  Then in 1970, the Nixon administration created Freddie Mac to provide a semblance of competitiveness in this mortgage credit refinancing market.

This background provided Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with a hybrid status of Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE).  Thus, they were private but legally bound to deal exclusively in home loan refinancing under federal control in exchange for tax breaks.  Worse yet, while being officially private, the two agencies have always been considered – thanks to their public sponsorship and their social role, to benefit from an implicit guarantee on the part of the American Treasury!

Privatized benefits, collectivized losses: such a cocktail was bound to prompt the executives of the GSEs to take excessive risks if the state sponsorship came up short.  This is exactly what happened in the 1990s.  It was reminiscent of a famous French scandal…[The author is referring to the Credit Lyonnais scandal in which the French government bailed out that bank]

The sponsorship of these two enterprises was transferred to the US Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) in 1992, because that agency wanted to influence GSE-financed loans to satisfy a major objective of any self-respecting politician in America, namely, increasing the home ownership rate among low-income populations, notably minorities.

Thus, the HUD forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase both the volume and the proportion of refinanced subprime credits (up to 56% in 2004).  To make matters worse, one of the HUD bosses, fearing that the declaration of risks taken by the two GSEs in order to satisfy these rules, would cause the markets to lose confidence in them, solved the problem by making it perfectly legal for them not to disclose too many details about their exposures.

Thus, using increasingly complex mortgage products, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac refinanced more than five trillion dollars in credits, or 40% of American homes, including more than half of subprime credits even though they did not have enough of their own funds to commit to such amounts.  As a result, the banks issuing these credits could afford not to be too particular about the loans they authorized, because there were two refinancers on the stock market to back them up.  Countrywide, the bank whose lending policies to lower-income families is now vilified, was incensed only three years ago by the executives of Fannie Mae for their brash subprime lending policies.

But the downturn in the economic boom multiplied borrower defaults, and the two GSEs are threatened with not being able to meet their obligations, which could spread to all institutional investors.  Now the State is urgently calling for their rescue, which will cost the taxpayer several hundred billion dollars.

A second public intervention expanded bank excesses in granting credits to insolvent families.  In the 1990s, studies showed that members of black and Hispanic communities had loan applications turned down somewhat more than whites or Asians, although these refusals only amounted to one application out of four.  Certain lobbies saw in this not a logical reflection of less wealth in these communities but rather proof of purported racism in the financial world.   

An antidiscrimination law of 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), was thus strengthened in 1995 to crack down on banks refusing credit to minorities under penalty of greater sanctions.  The banks were thus obliged to partially relinquish the precautionary role they normally play when refusing a loan to a person who is objectively less solvent.  No big deal: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were there to refinance these shaky loans!

Today, many experts believe that, without the CRA, and without the GSEs, minorities would have more access to property than they now do, less quickly but more soundly.  By trying to artificially accelerate what the free economy accomplished at its own rate, it was the State that, through both regulations and legislation, led the actors in the credit chain to behave irresponsibly, causing a serious financial crisis and resulting in the failure of many families it purported to help.

Translated by Donald Hank