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Bum and bummer; sub-prime doesn't pay

By Henry Thornton - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The right approach for Australians is to tighten our belts, reduce borrowings whenever possible and increase personal and business productivity.

The first news of the US sub-prime crisis generated no great alarm. The general view was this was a minor glitch in a buoyant American economy, itself part of a massively buoyant world economy.

Two developments gradually raised levels of concern. It became evident that there were many more sub-prime (American for “dud”) housing loans than could have been imagined when the problem first emerged. Second, the dud loans had been sliced, diced and packaged in innovative ways - often combined with other assets - and then passed from owner to owner. As the size of the problem grew, also growing was uncertainty about exposures to the dud loans and to valuations of complex asset packages.


The success of the “sub-prime” strategy by US lenders depended on house prices continuing to rise. As the inevitable housing downturn took effect, prices began to fall and borrowers began to default. There are a lot of dud loans that cannot be serviced once interest rates are “reset” to much higher levels, compensating for low (or even zero) initial rates. This effect is expected to peak in the first half of 2008.

Uncertainty about valuation of complex asset package has created what is in effect an old fashioned banking crisis. Banks and other financial institutions that played pass the parcel with packages including dud loans no longer trust each other and so much normal inter-bank lending and borrowing has dried up.

The US government has explored radical solutions, including imposing interest rate holidays for loans unable to be serviced. The US Federal Reserve has cut its discount rate, lent freely to commercial banks at the lower rates, purchased assets freely from banks and auctioned chunks of discount credit so banks need not be shamed by excessive use of the discount window. Other central banks have participated in this global bailout.

US monetary policy has been eased - certainly faster than it would have been without the “ripples” from the sub-prime crisis. The first real signs of inflation showed up in 2007 but with increasingly fragile financial markets the US Fed has faced a particularly acute dilemma.

US Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, last week said: "Financial and economic conditions can change quickly. Consequently, the Committee must remain exceptionally alert and flexible, prepared to act in a decisive and timely manner and, in particular, to counter any adverse dynamics that might threaten economic or financial stability"

This was the concluding thought in a speech presented recently in Washington.


The speech itself contained the Fed chief's usual calmly rational exposition. He sketched US economic outcomes since the most recent recession, awarding implied praise to his predecessor. He explained with considerable thoroughness what went wrong during the sub-prime imbroglio. Effects outside the USA have been larger than might have been expected, partly because "the subprime crisis led investors to reassess credit risks more broadly". There is also an ongoing issue. "... the subprime shock is that it has contributed to a considerable increase in investor uncertainty about the appropriate valuations of a broader range of financial assets, not just subprime mortgages".

Mr Bernanke then gave a detailed account of the Fed's response so far. But the bit the audience was waiting for came, as usual, at the end. What does it all mean for the future of interest rates? The Fed’s ongoing concern for inflation has already been noted, but just at present concerns for economic activity seems predominant.

“A number of factors, including higher oil prices, lower equity prices, and softening home values, seem likely to weigh on consumer spending as we move into 2008". These things might get worse. The latest report on jobs growth was disappointing and if workers begin to fear for their jobs, confidence will fall further.

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First published in The Australian on January 12, 2008 and on Henry Thornton's blog.

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About the Author

Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a banker, M.P., Philanthropist, and a leading figure in the influential group of Evangelicals that was known as the Clapham set. His column is provided by the writers at

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