A quick guide to sub-prime issues

How individual loan defaults in a faraway land can have a domino effect all over the world – including here

PAUSE for a moment to consider these facts: HSBC, the world’s third-largest bank, announced that 50 per cent of its earnings in 2006 were wiped out by sub-prime losses from its US subsidiary. Since the beginning of that year, over 50 US mortgage companies have put themselves up for sale, closed or been declared bankrupt. In July this year, Bear Stearns closed two of its ailing hedge funds, while in June, BNP Paribas announced the suspension of three of its funds due to exposure to US mortgages.

With news like this making waves in financial markets lately, it is hardly surprising to see the proliferation of doomsday headlines like ‘Market falls parallel previous collapses’, and ‘Anxiety attack knocks markets down’. No longer confined to the US real estate or financial markets, the topic of America’s sub-prime mortgage market has taken centre-stage, as fears of a spillover spread to financial markets in Europe and Asia – even Singapore.

How did it all begin?

Before the US real estate bubble burst, sub-prime lending was a rapidly growing segment of the mortgage market.

It worked by banks extending credit to borrowers who, for a number of reasons, would otherwise be unable to qualify for credit. According to the US Department of Treasury guidelines issued in 2001, ‘sub-prime borrowers typically have weakened credit histories that include payment delinquencies, and possibly more severe problems such as charge-offs, judgments and bankruptcies’.

Most US sub-prime mortgages have an attractive initial fixed-rate mortgage payment for a few years, followed by a higher adjustable rate for the remaining life of the mortgage. The sub-prime mortgage industry began to proliferate earlier this century and estimates say that about 21 per cent of all mortgage originations from 2004 to 2006 were sub-prime – a sharp increase from 9 per cent in 1996-2004. At its height in 2005, sub-prime mortgages were worth US$805 billion.

Although not all sub-prime loans are necessarily high-risk, many of them were made to homebuyers with poor credit or little income. As the US housing market boomed, thousands of lenders greedily sought greater profits by aggressively touting loans to individuals with poorer credit ratings and making greater exceptions to guidelines. In certain cases, individuals were not even required to produce any proof of their income.

These sub-prime loans were bought mainly by big banks which bundled the debt and sold them to Wall Street firms. To sell these ticking time bombs, Wall Street packaged these risky loans with supposedly safer loans to create instruments known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) – making them more attractive to risk-averse investors. In 2006, an estimated US$100 billion of sub-prime debt went into US$375 billion worth of CDOs.

In pursuit of higher yields, investors stretching from Europe to Asia invested in these instruments for their potentially higher returns, as compared to bonds with the same ratings.

What went wrong?

Trouble started brewing when the US economy began showing signs of slowing down. Interest rates crept up, house prices tumbled and sub-prime mortgage defaults began climbing at an alarming rate, reaching 12.6 per cent at one point.

As default rates soared, creating losses on the underlying mortgages of CDOs, investors began to question the reliability of the models and ratings which valued these CDOs; indeed, credit rating agencies like Moody’s have come under fire for misjudging default rates in sub-prime mortgages. With the uncertainty surrounding the current analysis and valuation of credit risk, many investors have decided to pull back on investments in CDOs and hedge funds with stakes in such securities.

Explained Jeremy Goh, an associate professor of finance at the Singapore Management University (SMU): ‘When investors heard all these negative things about default rates in the news, they started withdrawing their money from hedge funds and parked them in safer money market instruments like treasury bills.’

The result was a triggered chain of reactions which affected markets worldwide. Hedge funds were forced to unload their assets in order to raise cash.

The scattered ownership of CDOs has in turn created widespread loss of confidence in financial markets. Besides affecting all holders of sub-prime-related assets, the greater and more serious implication of the sub-prime crisis is a squeeze on liquidity. Due to the uncertainty over other financial institutions’ exposure to sub-prime losses, they became unwilling to lend to each other.

A tsunami or ripple effect?

However, central banks around the world have responded by injecting liquidity into the markets to ease fears of a liquidity crunch. The US Federal Reserve has also cut its discount rate (which it charges for emergency lending to banks) from 6.25 per cent to 5.75 per cent.

Asian equity funds have also been hit hard, and among those affected the most are funds from Singapore and Malaysia. Data from Morningstar Asia showed that funds from both countries sank an average of 10 per cent.

Asian stock markets has also been tumultuous, spreading fears that a slowdown in the US economy will extend to the rest of the world.

Although the sub-prime crisis in the US may be a cause for concern, investors here should not be overly worried as Asian fundamentals remain strong. Many industry watchers agree that Asia’s economies are no longer as reliant on the US as in the past. As intra-regional trade grows, Asian giants like China and India have become increasingly important trade partners for other Asian countries instead of the US.

Fundamentals of Singapore’s economy remain firm as well, analysts agree. With the introduction of Formula One and the integrated resorts in the coming years, demand and consumption is likely to continue to propel Singapore’s growth.

Prof Goh concurs: ‘I think the jittery stock market in Singapore is only temporary, and I believe that highly-rated CDOs are still safe. Even if the US economy is heading for a recession, it will be a mild one, so the problem could be due to panic selling in the markets or hedge funds unloading some illiquid assets.

‘ As a result, it triggers fear in the lending market. Lenders are more reluctant to lend, which might have some effect on the economy – but nothing major, in my opinion.’

 

Source: Business Times 10 Sept 07

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