The Hidden Leverage of Mortgage Securitization

Ed Glaeser has a nice piece about the debate over whether securitization should get the blame for the subprime mess. But it doesn’t address one of the problems created by securitization: hidden leverage.

When banks (commercial and investment) sold off mortgage backed securities, they got them off their balance sheets, and so there was a pretense that they were no longer liabilities. But in order to sell the MBS, the lenders had to offer repurchase agreements, which said that if there was something materially wrong with the loan underwriting, the investor could return the mortgage backed security to the lender at par. Lenders also often kept residual positions of mortgage backed securities, meaning that to reassure investors, the lenders (i.e., the sellers of the securities) would take first loss positions.

Both repurchase agreements and residuals effectively increased the leverage taken on by lenders. Let me illustrate: suppose a lender has an whole asset and capital of ten percent, and the asset loses one percent of its value. The lender takes a ten percent hit against capital, because it is levered at 10 to one. But now suppose it takes a first loss position of ten percent on residuals, and the mortgage underlying the residuals lose one percent of value. The residual loses ten percent of its value, which means it wipes out the capital that is implicitly backing it. The combination of ten percent capital and a ten percent first loss position implies actual leverage of 100 percent.

Ironically, the fact that financial institutions ate some of their own cooking–something that should have mitigated moral hazard–made them more vulnerable.

About Richard K. Green 102 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

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