Against the securitization contrarians

By Felix Salmon
September 24, 2009
Stacy-Marie Ishmael says, "there has been an outbreak of contrarian thinking on the links between ratings, securitisation and the mortgage market" of late. She points to a paper by Ronel Elul, while Zubin Jelveh, who has been following the contrarian line for a while now, picks up on a different paper by Ryan Bubb and Alex Kaufman.


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As Stacy-Marie Ishmael says, “there has been an outbreak of contrarian thinking on the links between ratings, securitisation and the mortgage market” of late. She points to a paper by Ronel Elul, while Zubin Jelveh, who has been following the contrarian line for a while now, picks up on a different paper by Ryan Bubb and Alex Kaufman.

But the fact is that none of these findings are all that powerful. Elul, for instance, essentially confirms that securitization causes a decline in performance: “a typical prime ARM loan originated in 2006 becomes delinquent at a 20 percent higher rate if it is privately securitized,” he writes, and the fact that a similar pattern can’t be seen in subprime loans is basically just a function of the fact that “very few subprime loans were actually held in portfolio” — substantially all of them were destined for the securitization machine.

As for the Bubb-Kaufman paper, the chart that Jelveh picks up on shows a good 90% of subprime mortgages getting securitized. Can that really suggest, as Jelveh says, that securitization might not be to blame for the decline in lending standards? If lending standards dropped at the same time as the securitization rate soared, I’d say there’s a strong correlation between the two, and a pretty good prima facie case for a causal relationship too.

At heart, it all comes down to information: loans are stronger and more desirable than bonds, because a bank intends to hold its loan to maturity and does a lot of underwriting, shoring it up with covenants. Bonds, by contrast, are often held only briefly, and are often bought by investors who do precious little fundamental analysis; what’s more, they simply don’t have the kind of granular information that bank lenders have. And securitizations are even worse than bonds — no one really knows what’s in them, and they’re ultimately based more on models than on shoe-leather underwriting. So it’s entirely predictable that the boom in mortgage securitization was bad for the overall quality of the debt. And attempts to show otherwise are ultimately doomed.

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