Friday, August 24, 2007

A Failure of Markets?

As everyone learns halfway through their first principles of economics course, sometimes markets "fail." Many economists argue, however, that the so-called failure of markets is just the reverse: it's the fact that there aren't enough active markets to reach an efficient outcome.

But can there be too many markets? Consider the latest problem with the housing market. In the good old days, when you took out a loan to buy a house, you had to convince the lender that you were creditworthy. After all, if you defaulted on your loan, they would be the one holding the bag. So they had a strong incentive to make sure that you could make your monthly payments.

This isn't the way loans work anymore, thanks to a financial innovation called mortgage-backed securities. What happens is this: when a homebuyer takes out a loan from a bank, the bank bundles that loan with many other loans to create a kind of mutual fund—except that instead of containing stock from hundreds of companies, this fund includes the debts (mortgages) of thousands of homeowners. The idea is simple: as with any mutual fund, even if a single homeowner defaults, it has a negligible effect on the value of the overall fund. The fund's price should reflect the overall risk of all the homeowners rather than the particular risk of any one homeowner.

This notion illustrates the concept of diversification—the fact that although one borrower may have considerable risk, much of that risk is unique, or diversifiable. A well-diversified portfolio of mortgages is only subject to systematic, or non-diversifiable, risk, and its value should reflect that. In other words, with a new kind of security and a market for it, the capitalist system becomes more efficient, because it spreads borrowers' risk across a wide class of investors rather than concentrating it on single lenders (banks, in this case).

So what's wrong with this picture? Think back to the initial lender. They know that they're not making a long-term loan—all they're doing is making a loan that they're then going to sell in this new market. Once they've sold the loan, their exposure to the loan's risk is over. Therefore, they have little incentive to see whether a homeowner can actually afford the payments, because they no longer bear responsibility for the credit decision. Quite the reverse, in fact: they have an incentive to sell the mortgage even if the homeowner cannot afford the payments—for example, by setting a low teaser rate that starts out fixed, but then balloons into a drastically higher variable rate. This has been one root cause of the various scandals about predatory lending practices that have been in the news in the last few months.

In the meantime, those looking to buy a home with no money down might take some advice from Saturday Night Live:

Discussion Questions

1. The crisis in the financial markets has caused some people to lose their jobs and made it harder to apply for a home loan, causing home sales to decline, both of which are very upsetting to Jim Cramer. Indeed, whenever a bubble bursts, lots of people get hurt, or at least find themselves considerably worse off than they were in the artificially inflated world of the bubble. Suppose you were a policymaker overseeing a market in which people were prospering in a way that was unsustainable. What would you do?

2. Cramer practically begged the Federal Reserve to intervene, which it did by lowering the discount rate (though not, presumably, because Jim Cramer asked it to). Does this get at the root cause of the problem? If not, what would?

3. How should society decide who gets to own a home and who does not? What would be the ideal set of institutions that could help achieve the optimal solution to such a problem? Could mortgage-backed securities play an important role in your solution?

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