Thursday, June 11, 2009

The End of Wall Street (By Michael Lewis) 5/7

[In the next 7 postings I'm going to publish an article from Michael Lewis in Nov 11, 2008 in]

In retrospect, pretty much all of the riskiest subprime-backed bonds were worth betting against; they would all one day be worth zero. But at the time Eisman began to do it, in the fall of 2006, that wasn’t clear. He and his team set out to find the smelliest pile of loans they could so that they could make side bets against them with Goldman Sachs or Deutsche Bank. What they were doing, oddly enough, was the analysis of subprime lending that should have been done before the loans were made: Which poor Americans were likely to jump which way with their finances? How much did home prices need to fall for these loans to blow up? (It turned out they didn’t have to fall; they merely needed to stay flat.) The default rate in Georgia was five times higher than that in Florida even though the two states had the same unemployment rate. Why? Indiana had a 25 percent default rate; California’s was only 5 percent. Why?

Moses actually flew down to Miami and wandered around neighborhoods built with subprime loans to see how bad things were. “He’d call me and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a calamity here,’ ” recalls Eisman. All that was required for the BBB bonds to go to zero was for the default rate on the underlying loans to reach 14 percent. Eisman thought that, in certain sections of the country, it would go far, far higher.

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

[Editor's Note: After this story was published, Vickie A. Tillman, Standard & Poor's executive vice president, responded with a letter to Portfolio. "Lewis quotes short-seller Steve Eisman, who asserts that in rating residential mortgage-backed securities, Standard & Poor's assumed that 'home prices would keep going up' and that our models 'had no ability to accept a negative number.' Both assertions are false. Our model has always incorporated the assumption that home prices will decline. Our market-value-decline assumptions are disclosed in our published criteria. When new information is available, Standard & Poor's incorporates the information into its analysis, and we may decide it is appropriate to change the rating or the rating outlook."]

As an investor, Eisman was allowed on the quarterly conference calls held by Moody’s but not allowed to ask questions. The people at Moody’s were polite about their brush-off, however. The C.E.O. even invited Eisman and his team to his office for a visit in June 2007. By then, Eisman was so certain that the world had been turned upside down that he just assumed this guy must know it too. “But we’re sitting there,” Daniel recalls, “and he says to us, like he actually means it, ‘I truly believe that our rating will prove accurate.’ And Steve shoots up in his chair and asks, ‘What did you just say?’ as if the guy had just uttered the most preposterous statement in the history of finance. He repeated it. And Eisman just laughed at him.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Daniel told the C.E.O. deferentially as they left the meeting, “you’re delusional.”

This wasn’t Fitch or even S&P. This was Moody’s, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett. And the company’s C.E.O. was being told he was either a fool or a crook by one Vincent Daniel, from Queens.

A full nine months earlier, Daniel and ­Moses had flown to Orlando for an industry conference. It had a grand title—the American Securitization Forum—but it was essentially a trade show for the ­subprime-mortgage business: the people who originated subprime mortgages, the Wall Street firms that packaged and sold subprime mortgages, the fund managers who invested in nothing but subprime-mortgage-backed bonds, the agencies that rated subprime-­mortgage bonds, the lawyers who did whatever the lawyers did. Daniel and Moses thought they were paying a courtesy call on a cottage industry, but the cottage had become a castle. “There were like 6,000 people there,” Daniel says. “There were so many people being fed by this industry. The entire fixed-income department of each brokerage firm is built on this. Everyone there was the long side of the trade. The wrong side of the trade. And then there was us. That’s when the picture really started to become clearer, and we started to get more cynical, if that was possible. We went back home and said to Steve, ‘You gotta see this.’ ”