US Sub-prime Crisis

The US sub-prime mortgage lending crisis or simply sub-prime crisis has been the catchphrase in various media over the last few weeks. In this entire hullabaloo, one may want to know what this episode is all about and how it will affect the Indian economy or rather the world economy as a whole. Let’s have a look.

Sub-prime borrower
In US almost everything, right from getting a credit card to receiving various banking services, is dependent on the credit history of a person. A good credit history can be directly attributed to making payments on time, less revolving credit on credit cards, fewer payment defaults and check bounces etc. and is denoted by the FICO score or credit score of a person set by few credit rating agencies. It is easy for a person with a good credit history to get loans and other services while it’s exceedingly difficult for a person with a not so good credit history or low FICO score to avail banks’ services, let alone loans. Such poor credit history borrowers are called sub-prime borrowers. Since there is a risk of default on loans to sub-prime borrowers, US banks usually charge a higher rate of interest to them for the risk they are taking. From the bank’s side, a higher interest means a higher return, well with a risk. As a result, some banks had seen lending money to sub-prime borrowers as an opportunity.

Sub-prime boom
For a crisis to happen, first there has to be a boom. There were a few things that led to the sub-prime boom. I better quote Christian Stracke of Financial Times who had explained the situation quite nicely. “It all originated with a global imbalance between the supply of credit and the demand for credit. Global Central Bank let monetary policy move to a nearly unprecedented accommodative stance, pumping money into the system. At the same time, corporate, the traditional mainstays in terms of borrowing funds to invest moved to a defensive stance, having grown much more conservative in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom fiascos. Finally, the major developed countries began to gain a measure of fiscal discipline, with budget deficits shrinking, which further reduced the demand for credit on a global basis. That imbalance between investors flush with cash and the traditional borrowers not really needing or wanting that cash meant that investors had to look for new markets to invest in. As the Asset Backed Securities (ABS) market had been taking off and coming into the mainstream, a natural target was the sub-prime borrower – borrowers who in the past had wanted to borrow but who had been locked out of credit markets. Eager lenders met eager borrowers, with the mortgage originators, ABS underwriters, and credit ratings agencies playing the role of matchmaker, and the sub-prime boom was born.” Now, let’s see what the banks or mortgage originators did to target the sub-prime borrowers’ market.

Role of Banks and Hedge Funds
So there was an opportunity among sub-prime borrowers and there has to be someone who could take the money from investors and give it to the borrowers. Who could do this better than the banks? Banks gave money to sub-prime borrowers and then they bundle the loans to a package and sold securities whose value was linked to the performance of the package of mortgage loans. Investors bought these securities and thus indirectly provided the money required for sub-prime lending. These derivative instruments are called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), which is one form of Asset Backed Securities. Thus, banks did away with the role of playing a financial intermediary. The total volume of CDOs in the US market is around $900 billion and only 17% of the CDOs were created out of sub-prime mortgages. Hedge Funds hold majority of these sub-prime related securities due to the inherent nature of their business making them extremely vulnerable to sub-prime related issues. So everything was set and now let’s find out what triggered the crisis.

Sub-prime crisis
Quite obviously the sub-prime crisis occurred when the sub-prime borrowers defaulted in their mortgage loans, which affected the returns of CDOs. The main reason was the inability of sub-prime borrowers to pay back the money. Another catalyst was the rising segment of credits like Home Equity Loans through which the borrowers could take a second credit on the same mortgage. These added to their inability to payback the money. As a result, some defaulted. Some started force selling their houses due to which property prices came down, which made it more difficult for other sub-prime borrowers to refinance their mortgages into loans with lower rates. The result, more and more defaults!

Now at the securities side, the highly leveraged hedge funds, found themselves in distress due to the rising defaults by sub-prime borrowers. Investors who had put their money in these funds wanted their money back which forced these funds to liquidate their assets. And thus started a vicious spiral of forced selling of sub-prime securities! This reduced the price of these securities in the market and thus the crisis grew new bounds. Since hedge funds are highly leveraged, a small decrease in their asset values is enough to make them bankrupt. As a result several funds filed for bankruptcy. Thus the sub-prime crisis showed its red face!

Effect on global and Indian economies
Few companies in the US filed for bankruptcy which led to the loss of thousands of jobs. People who invested through hedge funds lost their money. UK and Japanese economies were affected a lot as there were a lot of money from investors belonging to these geographies that had been put into sub-prime securities through the hedge funds.

In other economies, hedge funds faced selling pressure to meet margin calls which led to the fall of various non-US stock indices, Sensex, Nifty being few of them!

Though not severe, Indian economy got affected by this in the following ways. A reduction in the investments in Indian securities/major selling of Indian stocks by foreign investors (foreign funds having CDOs created out of sub-prime loans and had selling pressure) and a subsequent melt down of Indian stock markets, IT companies losing few of their clients belonging to US mortgage industry & Hedge Funds due to cost cutting or bankruptcy are some of these.

Analysts say that the US sub-prime crisis is not over yet. Let’s see what more this disaster has in its store in the days to come. In the hindsight, one might think, had the banks been not greedy enough to put their money in riskier sub-prime borrowers and made securities out of it!

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