Saturday, November 24, 2007

That sinking feeling

If there is one math that nobody seems to get right, it’s the quantum of losses from sub-prime mortgage fiasco. Not just that nobody knows how much, they don’t really know who should bear it. The estimates vary between $100 -$400 billion.

“What were they smoking?” asks the cover of the current issue of Fortune magazine. Underneath the headline are photos of recently deposed Wall Street titans, captioned with the staggering sums they managed to lose.

The answer, of course, is that they were high on the usual drug — greed. And they were encouraged to make socially destructive decisions by a system of executive compensation that should have been reformed after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, but wasn’t. Should the ongoing election campaign make corporate governance a central issue? It had better.

In fact, according to Fortune, Merrill Lynch made its biggest purchases of bad debt in the first half of this year — after the subprime crisis had already become public knowledge.

Now the bill is coming due, and almost everyone — that is, almost everyone except the people responsible — is having to pay.

The losses suffered by shareholders in Merrill, Citigroup, Bear Stearns and so on are the least of it. Far more important in human terms are the hundreds of thousands if not millions of American families lured into mortgage deals they didn’t understand, who now face sharp increases in their payments — and, in many cases, the loss of their houses — as their interest rates reset.

“And then there’s the collateral damage to the economy”, says Paul Krugman in NYT.



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