Mnuchin: Good Pick Or Bad Actor?


January 19, 2017, 4:15pm EST

The Treasury Secretary nominee was being “grilled” by Congress today. I want to talk a bit about this hearing because it brings up the subject of the housing crisis.  The who and the whys.

First, Mnuchin is a Wall Street guy. Even worse, he’s a hedge fund and Goldman Sachs guy. That’s like blood in the water for the sharks in Congress.  They get to put on a show with live TV cameras in the room, publicly showing disgust for Mnuchin (and those like him), to cozy up the less informed segment of the country.  And they get to project the blame for many things in life on the rich and their “bottom-line” business world.

This is a stark contrast to a decade ago. The media, especially, was in the business of making guys like this out to be super heroes. They wrote about them as mythical creatures – the world’s gene pool winners: the best and the brightest.

But times have changed.

In the hearing today, Mnuchin was accused of everything from tax evasion to unfairly kicking an 80-year old woman out of her house in Florida.  Sounds like a really bad guy.

Though it appears that he had IRS compliant offshore accounts (not tax evasion, but tax compliant). And his company had purchased defaulted mortgages, claimed the collateral (the house) and sold the collateral for a profit.

So, just as you and me may take a tax deduction for our children, and just as an individual may sell his/her house for a profit, perhaps Mnuchin made rational financial decisions and followed the laws that were created by Congress.

So if we can’t blame Mnuchin and Goldman Sachs for nearly blowing up the global economy, who can we blame.

With all of the complexities of the housing bubble and the subsequent global financial crisis, it can seem like a web of deceit.  But it all boils down to one simple actor.  It wasn’t Wall Street.  It wasn’t hedge funds.  It wasn’t mortgage brokers.  These entities were operating, in large part, from the natural force of economics: incentives.

It wasn’t even the government’s initiative to promote home ownership that led to the proliferation of mortgages being given to those that couldn’t afford them.

So who was the culprit?

It was the ratings agencies.

Housing prices were driven sky high by the availability of mortgages. Mortgages were made easily available because the demand to invest in mortgages, to fund those mortgages, was sky high.

But what drove that demand to such high levels?

When the mortgages were combined together in a package (securitized as a mix of good mortgages, and a lot of bad/higher yielding mortgages), they were bought, hand over fist, by the massive multi-trillion dollar pension industry, banks and insurance companies.  Yes, the guys that are managing your pension funds, deposit accounts and insurance policies were gobbling up these mortgage securities as fast as they could, but ONLY because the ratings agencies were stamping them all with a top AAA rating.  Who would encourage such a thing?  Congress.  In 1984 they passed a law making it okay for banks, pension funds and insurance companies to buy/treat high rated secondary mortgages like they would U.S. Treasuries.

So as investment managers, in the business of building the best performing risk-adjusted portfolio possible, and in direct competition with their peers, they couldn’t afford NOT to buy these securities.  They came with the safest ratings, and with juicy returns. If you don’t buy these, you’re fired.

To put it all very simply, if these securities were not AAA rated, the pension funds would not have touched them (certainly not to the extent).

With that, if the there’s no appetite to fund the mortgages, the ultra-easy lending practices never happen, and housing prices never skyrocket on unwarranted and unsustainable demand. The housing bubble doesn’t build, doesn’t bust, and the financial crisis doesn’t happen.

That begs the question: Why did the ratings agencies give a top rating to a security that should have received a lower rating, if not much lower?

First, it’s important to understand that the ratings agencies get paid on the products they rate BY the institutions that create them.  That’s right. That’s their revenue model.  And only a group of these agencies are endorsed by the government, so that, in many cases, regulatory compliance on a financial product requires a rating from one of these endorsed agencies.

So as I watched the grilling session of Mnuchin today by Congress, these are the things that crossed my mind.

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