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Commentary

Burry: Why didn’t the Fed see the crisis coming?

A phenomenal Op-Ed by Michael Burry, “I Saw the Crisis Coming. Why Didn’t the Fed?

I have often wondered why nobody in Washington showed any interest in hearing exactly how I arrived at my conclusions that the housing bubble would burst when it did and that it could cripple the big financial institutions. A week ago I learned the answer when Al Hunt of Bloomberg Television, who had read Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short,” which includes the story of my predictions, asked Mr. Greenspan directly. The former Fed chairman responded that my insights had been a “statistical illusion.” Perhaps, he suggested, I was just a supremely lucky flipper of coins.

Mr. Greenspan said that he sat through innumerable meetings at the Fed with crack economists, and not one of them warned of the problems that were to come. By Mr. Greenspan’s logic, anyone who might have foreseen the housing bubble would have been invited into the ivory tower, so if all those who were there did not hear it, then no one could have said it.

As a nation, we cannot afford to live with Mr. Greenspan’s way of thinking. The truth is, he should have seen what was coming and offered a sober, apolitical warning. Everyone would have listened; when he talked about the economy, the world hung on every single word.

Unfortunately, he did not give good advice. In February 2004, a few months before the Fed formally ended a remarkable streak of interest-rate cuts, Mr. Greenspan told Americans that they would be missing out if they failed to take advantage of cost-saving adjustable-rate mortgages. And he suggested to the banks that “American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage.”

Within a year lenders made interest-only adjustable-rate mortgages readily available to subprime borrowers. And within 18 months lenders offered subprime borrowers so-called pay-option adjustable-rate mortgages, which allowed borrowers to make partial monthly payments and have the remainder added to the loan balance (much like payments on a credit card).

Observing these trends in April 2005, Mr. Greenspan trumpeted the expansion of the subprime mortgage market. “Where once more-marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit,” he said, “lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately.”

Yet the tide was about to turn. By December 2005, subprime mortgages that had been issued just six months earlier were already showing atypically high delinquency rates. (It’s worth noting that even though most of these mortgages had a low two-year teaser rate, the borrowers still had early difficulty making payments.)

The market for subprime mortgages and the derivatives thereof would not begin its spectacular collapse until roughly two years after Mr. Greenspan’s speech. But the signs were all there in 2005, when a bursting of the bubble would have had far less dire consequences, and when the government could have acted to minimize the fallout.

I have to agree. Greenspan had to have known something was amiss. But remember – a significant part of US GDP Growth since 2001 came from Mortgage Equity Withdrawals (or MEWs) which is a game that works as long as housing prices kept going up. To keep them going up, you need a lot of demand. When you exhaust your regular prime demand, you wonder how you can get the poor sub-prime guy into the game….