How A School Board In Wisconsin (And The NYC Subway System) Became Accidental Hedge Funds
from the the-obfuscation-of-risk dept
We’ve talked in the past about how one of the causes of the financial crisis was that many banks on Wall Street stopped acting like banks and started acting like hedge funds — despite not really knowing how to do that. That is, they took on much greater risks and higher leverage, without having much of an understanding of how to really hedge that risk. That was fine when all was going well, but when the bubble burst, it started impacting everyone.
Now, in a combined effort between NPR’s Planet Money (I know I’ve said this, but I’ll say it again: if you’re not listening to this every day, you’re missing out, big time) and the NY Times, reports are coming out about how it went well beyond banks turning into hedge funds, to all sorts of other organizations as well. The scary example being described in the first article in this series is how a Wisconsin school board and the NYC subway system, both effectively became hedge funds, lending money out to various banks in exchange for CDOs (collateralized debt obligations). What a CDO is, effectively, is the mashing together of a variety of different debt instruments (loans) that pay out some sort of return. So, you could basically buy some of the return on a whole mess of loans, packaged in all different ways (some amazingly creatively).
If all of those debt instruments that you’re buying into keep on paying, you’re in good shape. If, however, there are defaults, you can be in an awful lot of trouble. However, while everything was going great, defaults weren’t an issue and the folks sold on these CDOs often had no idea how risky they really were. In the article above, for example, the guy who sold the Wisconsin school district on investing $200 million of its pension money in CDOs had only taken a two hour course on them, and greatly downplayed the risks.
And, of course, to make matters even worse, in many cases, the actual risks of such CDOs were hidden through some games, and made worse by either clueless or complicit ratings agencies which rated seriously high risk CDOs as being extremely safe bets. To see a rather graphic (and easily understandable) example of this, I recommend the following Paddy Hirsch video comparing CDOs to pyramids of champagne glasses: