I know that most non-financial folks, including myself, have their head spinning after this past few weeks' doings on Wall Street. Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap have a pretty good layman's roundup on Fannie/Freddie, Lehman, and AIG. My sense is that their Lehman explanation also applies to Bear Stearns as well. Here is just one small piece of a much longer article:
The Fannie and Freddie situation was a result of their unique roles
in the economy. They had been set up to support the housing market.
They helped guarantee mortgages (provided they met certain standards),
and were able to fund these guarantees by issuing their own debt, which
was in turn tacitly backed by the government. The government guarantees
allowed Fannie and Freddie to take on far more debt than a normal
company. In principle, they were also supposed to use the government
guarantee to reduce the mortgage cost to the homeowners, but the Fed
and others have argued that this hardly occurred. Instead, they appear to have used the funding advantage to rack up huge profits
and squeeze the private sector out of the "conforming" mortgage market.
Regardless, many firms and foreign governments considered the debt of
Fannie and Freddie as a substitute for U.S. Treasury securities and snapped it up eagerly.
Fannie and Freddie were weakly supervised and strayed from the core
mission. They began using their subsidized financing to buy
mortgage-backed securities which were backed by pools of mortgages that
did not meet their usual standards. Over the last year, it became clear
that their thin capital was not enough to cover the losses on these subprime
mortgages. The massive amount of diffusely held debt would have caused
collapses everywhere if it was defaulted upon; so the Treasury
announced that it would explicitly guarantee the debt.
But once the debt was guaranteed to be secure (and the government
would wipe out shareholders if it carried through with the guarantee),
no self-interested investor was willing to supply more equity to help
buffer the losses. Hence, the Treasury ended up taking them over.
Lehman's demise came when it could not even keep borrowing. Lehman
was rolling over at least $100 billion a month to finance its
investments in real estate, bonds, stocks, and financial assets. When
it is hard for lenders to monitor their investments and borrowers can
rapidly change the risk on their balance sheets, lenders opt for short-term lending. Compared to legal or other channels, their threat to refuse to roll over funding is the most effective option to keep the borrower in line.
This was especially relevant for Lehman, because as an investment
bank, it could transform its risk characteristics very easily by using
derivatives and by churning its trading portfolio. So for Lehman (and
all investment banks), the short-term financing is not an accident; it
Why did the financing dry up? For months, short-sellers were
convinced that Lehman's real-estate losses were bigger than it had
acknowledged. As more bad news about the real estate market emerged,
including the losses at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, this view spread.
Lehman's costs of borrowing rose and its share price fell. With an
impending downgrade to its credit rating looming, legal restrictions
were going to prevent certain firms from continuing to lend to Lehman.
that might have been able to lend, even if Lehman's credit rating was
impaired, simply decided that the chance of default in the near future
was too high, partly because they feared that future credit conditions
would get even tighter and force Lehman and others to default at that
A.I.G. had to raise money because it had written $57 billion of insurance contracts whose payouts depended on the losses incurred on subprime real-estate related investments.
While its core insurance businesses and other subsidiaries (such as its
large aircraft-leasing operation) were doing fine, these contracts,
called credit default swaps (C.D.S.'s), were hemorrhaging.
Furthermore, the possibility of further losses loomed if the housing
market continued to deteriorate. The credit-rating agencies looking at
the potential losses downgraded A.I.G.'s debt on Monday. With its lower
credit ratings, A.I.G.'s insurance contracts required A.I.G. to
demonstrate that it had collateral to service the contracts; estimates
suggested that it needed roughly $15 billion in immediate collateral.
A second problem A.I.G. faced is that if it failed to post the
collateral, it would be considered to have defaulted on the C.D.S.'s.
Were A.I.G. to default on C.D.S.'s, some other A.I.G. contracts (tied
to losses on other financial securities) contain clauses saying that
its other contractual partners could insist on prepayment of their
claims. These cross-default clauses are present so that resources from
one part of the business do not get diverted to plug a hole in another
part. A.I.G. had another $380 billion of these other insurance
contracts outstanding. No private investors were willing to step into
this situation and loan A.I.G. the money it needed to post the
In the scramble to make good on the C.D.S.'s, A.I.G.'s ability to
service its own debt would come into question. A.I.G. had $160 billion
in bonds that were held all over the world: nowhere near as widely as
the Fannie and Freddie bonds, but still dispersed widely.
In addition, other large financial firms "” including Pacific
Investment Management Company (Pimco), the largest bond-investment fund
in the world "” had guaranteed A.I.G.'s bonds by writing C.D.S.
Given the huge size of the contracts and the number of parties
intertwined, the Federal Reserve decided that a default by A.I.G. would
wreak havoc on the financial system and cause contagious failures.
There was an immediate need to get A.I.G. the collateral to honor its
contracts, so the Fed loaned A.I.G. $85 billion.
Update: Travis has an awesome post with his own FAQ about what is going on. Here is a taste:
Lots of financially naive folks think that we can remove all risk,
inflation, etc. by only ever trading apples for chickens on the barrel
head, and doing away with paper money (so that all money is gold) and
doing away fractional reserve banking, so that when I deposit one gold
coin in the bank, the bank can then take that actual physical gold coin
and loan it to someone else. It turns out that the friction involved in
doing things this way is so huge that the effect would make The Road
Warrior look like a children's bedtime story. You want to borrow money
to buy a car? The bank can't just loan money that's been deposited in
someone else's checking account - the bank has to get that person to
sign a note saying "yes, I understand that this money is on deposit
until that dude buying the card pays the bank back IN FULL". And the
lender, if he wants his money out ahead of time, is SOL. And even then,
there can be a flood, and your car gets totaled, and you get
Legionaire's disease, and you can't make the payments.
Now, for the next complication, let's also imagine that there are
300 million other people watching all of this, thinking "How bad is
this? Should I go down to the gun store, stock up on .223 and 12 gauge
shells, then stop by the veterinarians to see how much antibiotics I
can cadge before heading to the hills" ?
And the Feds really don't want 300 million armed folks heading
for the national forests, so they first try to tell everyone who owns a
bicycle "Hey, the value of your bike didn't really drop! It's still
But no one wants to believe that.
So then they go to the guy who's writing insurance policies on
the value of bikes and they say "if you got $100 million, would that
calm things down a bit?".