Tag Archives: collateralized debt obligations

Greece, Goldman Sachs & the Canadian Dollar – They’re All Connected

The three big financial stories of the last week are all inter-connected, and do affect us all, directly or indirectly:

Last week, the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission charged the investment giant Goldman Sachs, with civil fraud. They are alleging, and it’s only that, until proven in court, that they defrauded investors out of over a billion dollars in selling mortgage backed securities. In the U.S., those are the mortgage packages sold all over the world, and probably in your mutual funds or pension plan, too. Yet, at the same time as they were selling and promoting these, Goldman Sachs was also betting that they would default sooner or later. At yesterday’s hearings in the Senate, there were a bunch of internal e-mails released where their big cheeses actually described these mortgage packages (so call collateralized debt obligations) as crap. Nice they were selling them to investors all over the world, while that’s what they thought of them. Stay tuned, there’s lots more to unfold here.

Yesterday also brought the official word that rating agencies have downgraded the debt that the Government of Greece owes to junk status. In other words, they’ve decided it’s the highest risk debt there is. It’s another lesson for you, me, and governments everywhere, especially in some European countries, that borrowing only works for so long. Greece has a lot of social programs, a very bloated civil service, and debt as far as they eye can see. What the government doesn’t want to do is to increase taxes, increase sales taxes, or to start making drastic cuts to government spending. It looks like now they will be forced to. Until they do, the rich cousin of Europe, Germany, has no intention of lending any more money to Greece. Their thinking is that the drastic cuts have to come first, and Greece has to first show that they can live on what they make. Gee, kind of like we have to – or should! Until then, more refinancing and more loans becomes like giving a drunk another drink.

Ironically, it was Goldmans Sachs who worked with the Greek government a few years back to convert some of their debt into complex financial instruments that nobody could really understand. It did make their finances look a lot better than they actually were. That is what it took to get Greece admitted to the European Union at the time. Ah, shuffling debt around, like we don’t often do that, transferring money from credit cards to lines of credit, and so on. But the chickens always come home to roost.

Finally, as a result of the debt rating for Greece, our Canadian dollar dropped over a cent. It did, but what really happened is that the U.S. dollar rose a lot. Investors were fleeing the Euro and getting their money out of the volatile environment over there, and going to a safe haven for their money – which is the U.S. So it was way more of a U.S. dollar increase than a Canadian dollar drop. The good news is that the U.S. needs investments. Now, we’re talking trillions here, not “you and me” amounts of money. And more money into the U.S. economy allows them to keep interest rates low for some time yet, and that’ll help the economy to speed up, and gives time for the housing market to heal.

Yes, we’re all in this together. What happens in Greece affects us. Because we’re all in one economy together, and money, debt financing, and investments don’t have any borders. Whether we like it or not, some far away problem becomes our problem literally overnight.

What The Heck Happened On Wall Street This Week?

In the months to come it’s likely this past Monday will be called Black Monday on Wall Street. Where do I start with the big three stories of the day.

But first things first: I wish I had five more minutes to give you a brief history of how we got here, because it affects us Canadians in huge numbers of ways.

Suffice it to say that in Canada, banks hold mortgages on their own books and keep them in-house. In the U.S. they’re packaged and sold in blocks called Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs. They’re all pieces of thousands of mortgages, good stuff, bad loans, subprime and kinky ones all put through a blender and packed nice and neat. Everybody wanted them and nobody could get enough on their books for years.

The huge investment firms were making billions in fees gathering them, packaging them and re-selling these CDOs. It turns out that they started to fall in love with the product they were selling. First, they put a ton into their own accounts, because it was a great return. When things slowly started going sour and they didn’t want to admit it and to keep making the market think everything was just fine, they got stuck with billons more they couldn’t sell.

Now back to Monday: First was the huge and well established investment firm Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy. They were done in, or finally dragged under, by over $60 billion of bad mortgage loans on their portfolio. And, gee – their CEO got $22 million in pay just this past year. Nice money for guiding his company into bankruptcy…

Then came the announced sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America. Same story in a way, since Bank of America is buying the firm in an all-stock deal. That’s kind of like me buying your house for no cash, but only paying off your credit card bills.

Lastly was the insurance giant AIG filing for re-organization. It’s not that the insurance business is bad. It’s just that AIG invested their clients’ premiums in mortgage loan portfolios, instead of GICs, because they were getting a better return. Lesson number 780 for all of us: If you want a higher return you have to take a higher risk!

And a month ago, we were told that the worst was behind us. Yea, right. Banks and investment firms are the oxygen of the economy and this isn’t helping.

Added to the Monday list is the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last week who hold over $5 TRILLION of mortgage loans. There isn’t really a Canadian equivalent unless you kind of think of CMHC holding half of all Canadian mortgages on their books!

Until home values stabilize we can keep using the quote from Lily Tomlin: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.