A few links today, which will be well worth your time to read:
- Michael Lewis's long excerpt in Vanity Fair, "Betting on the Blind Side," about Scion Capital's Michael Burry. It's funny what kind of results you can get if you actually do the work, isn't it? The information was there, people - for those willing to read and understand it.
"On May 19, 2005, Mike Burry did his first subprime-mortgage deals. He bought $60 million of credit-default swaps from Deutsche Bank—$10 million each on six different bonds. “The reference securities,” these were called. You didn’t buy insurance on the entire subprime-mortgage-bond market but on a particular bond, and Burry had devoted himself to finding exactly the right ones to bet against. He likely became the only investor to do the sort of old-fashioned bank credit analysis on the home loans that should have been done before they were made. He was the opposite of an old-fashioned banker, however. He was looking not for the best loans to make but the worst loans—so that he could bet against them. He analyzed the relative importance of the loan-to-value ratios of the home loans, of second liens on the homes, of the location of the homes, of the absence of loan documentation and proof of income of the borrower, and a dozen or so other factors to determine the likelihood that a home loan made in America circa 2005 would go bad. Then he went looking for the bonds backed by the worst of the loans.
It surprised him that Deutsche Bank didn’t seem to care which bonds he picked to bet against. From their point of view, so far as he could tell, all subprime-mortgage bonds were the same. The price of insurance was driven not by any independent analysis but by the ratings placed on the bond by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. If he wanted to buy insurance on the supposedly riskless triple-A-rated tranche, he might pay 20 basis points (0.20 percent); on the riskier, A-rated tranches, he might pay 50 basis points (0.50 percent); and on the even less safe, triple-B-rated tranches, 200 basis points—that is, 2 percent. (A basis point is one-hundredth of one percentage point.) The triple-B-rated tranches—the ones that would be worth zero if the underlying mortgage pool experienced a loss of just 7 percent—were what he was after. He felt this to be a very conservative bet, which he was able, through analysis, to turn into even more of a sure thing. Anyone who even glanced at the prospectuses could see that there were many critical differences between one triple-B bond and the next—the percentage of interest-only loans contained in their underlying pool of mortgages, for example. He set out to cherry-pick the absolute worst ones and was a bit worried that the investment banks would catch on to just how much he knew about specific mortgage bonds, and adjust their prices."
- Robert Schiller in the NY Times, "Mom, Apple Pie, and Mortgages." Schiller writes about our (America's) culture of home ownership.
"What is specifically American here — though it’s increasingly seen in other countries, too — may be the modern sense of equal citizenship, engendered by the illusion that we can sustain conspicuous housing consumption even among a majority of the people.
In short, this all has a great deal to do with culture, and little to do with financial wisdom. After all, financial theory suggests that people should not own their own homes, at least not in the way that many do today. A cardinal tenet is that people should diversify — meaning they shouldn’t put nearly all of their financial eggs in one basket, which is what homeownership now means for so many people.
American mortgage institutions encourage people to take a leveraged position in the real estate market, which is quite risky because home prices can and do decline, as we have learned so painfully. Leverage a risky investment 10 to 1 and you can expect trouble — and we have plenty of it today. More than 16 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to Mark Zandi of Economy.com."
-David Merkel's "The Rules, Part I"
"Here is today’s rule: There is no net hedging in the market. At the end of the day, the world is 100% net long with itself. Every asset is owned by someone, regardless of the synthetic exposures that are overlaid on the system."