Saturday, September 27, 2008

Where is all that Wall Street money?

You've all heard the news - investment houses going bankrupt, being sold off to retail banks, large insurance companies being nationalized - all within the span of a couple of weeks. What amazes me the most is the sort of numbers floating around. A year ago the market capitalization of these busted companies was 100s of billions of dollars. They employed 10s of thousands of people, including ivy league-educated finance jocks and MBAs. Their stock prices seemed to go up, up and away - a complete endorsement of their magical money making ability. Then, ignominiously, they went broke.

Monetary circulation is a closed entity - dollars don't just float away into outer space. So I am thinking - where did all those loaned dollars go? To understand that, lets look at Mr. John Doe's 4-bed/3-bath home in suburban San Diego that was built ca. 2004 and bought by Mr. Doe at a hefty price via a loan. Say Mr. Doe has fallen behind on his payments in 2008, therefore adding to the toxicity of the CDOs - Collateralized Debt Obligations - that wrongly counted Mr. Doe's mortgage as AAA+ reliable. But all this happened in 2008. Where did the money go to in 2004?

The developer bought the land from the state. Therefore a part of the loan capital went to the state. The house itself was built using superior building materials (expensive house) and therefore, part of that capital flowed into the pockets of the building material company shareholders - the glass company, the wood company, the lighting company etc. A big part of the house price was profit for the builder/architect company and therefore, it went to these companies' shareholders. There was Latin American labor to built the house, and so some of the money went to Latin America via Western Union transfers. Some more must have flowed to China for building materials, or perhaps to Italy for the Italian marble.

Now the key point is that the value of the asset handed to Mr. Doe was supposed to rise as time went by, because this house was in the San Diego area, with the beautiful Southern California climate, the wonderful, peaceful, and happy society, the good public school in the neighborhood, and consequently the never ending demand for housing as people from all over the world came looking for a piece of this beautiful part of the world. In fact, Mr. Doe bought the house factoring all this into the future equation to pay back the hefty mortgage. In the worst case (he thought), he could just sell the house and pay back the mortgage, making a neat sum for himself. And until he sold, he could live a good life in the expensive home.

Unfortunately for Mr. Doe (and everyone else), the price of his house actually fell, and this voided the whole argument of the previous paragraph. Now if Mr. Doe's house goes into foreclosure, Mr. Doe's lending bank will only recover the reduced price of the house. The notional and fluffy value described in the previous paragraph could not be converted back into hard money when it was needed in 2008. Money has been lost, and this fact bubbles up to all those CDOs on Wall Street. Until the value of the asset -that house - rises again, there is no way to fix the problem.