All About Sub-Prime…

The current upheaval in the global financial markets has caused more mayhem in a fortnight than the world has seen in its entire economic history.
Although there are many reasons responsible for bringing the world to the doorstep of financial doom, the main cause of this financial disaster is said to be the �sub-prime loan.’
So what is this sub-prime loan? And why has it caused global panic? If it is related to the American housing sector, why should it affect Indian and other markets?
A sub-prime loan
Sub-prime mortgage loans (or housing loans or junk loans) are very risky. But since profits are high where the risk is high, a lot of lenders get into this business to try and make a quick buck. Sub-prime loans are dicey as they are given to people with unstable incomes or low creditworthiness. These individuals are not financially sound enough to be given a loan when judged under the strict standards that should normally be followed by a bank or lending institution. However, there’s more to it. Let us simplify this issue to understand better how sub-prime loans work and how they brought the world down to its knees
It all begins with an American wanting to live the famed American dream. So he seeks a housing loan to give shape to his dream home. But there is a slight problem. He doesn’t have good credit rating. This means that he is unable to clear all the stringent conditions that a bank imposes on an individual before it sanctions a loan. Since his credit is not good enough, no bank will give him a home loan as there is a fear that the chances of a default by him are high. Banks don’t like customers who default on their payments.But lo!, before the American dream can fade away, there enters a second American — usually a robust financial institution — who has good credit rating and is willing to take on some amount of risk.

Given his good credit rating, the bank is willing to give the second American a loan. The bank gives the loan at a certain rate of interest. The second American then divides this loan into a lot of small portions and gives them out as home loans to lots of other Americans — like the first American — who do not have a great credit rating and to whom the bank would not have given a home loan in the first place. The second American gives out these loans at a rate of interest that is much higher rate than the rate at which he borrowed money from the bank. This higher rate is referred to as the sub-prime rate and this home loan market is referred to as the sub-prime home loan market.

Also by giving out a home loan to lots of individuals, the second American is trying to hedge his bets. He feels that even if a few of his borrowers default, his overall position would not be affected much, and he will end up making a neat profit. Now if this home loan market is sub-prime, what is prime? The prime home loan market refers to individuals who have good credit ratings and to whom the banks lend directly. Now let’s get back to the sub-prime market. The institution giving out loans in the sub-prime market does not stop here. It does not wait for the principal and the interest on the sub-prime home loans to be repaid, so that it can repay its loan to the bank (the prime lender), which has given it the loan.

So what does the institution do? It goes ahead and �securitises’ these loans. Securitisation means converting these home loans into financial securities, which promise to pay a certain rate of interest. These financial securities are then sold to big institutional investors. Many investment banks (or institutions like the �second American’ in our story) sold complicated securities that were backed by debt which was very risky. And how are these investors repaid? The interest and the principal that is repaid by the sub-prime borrowers through equated monthly installments (EMIs) is passed onto these institutional investors.

The institution giving out the sub-prime loans takes the money that it gets by selling the financial securities and passes it on to the bank he had taken the loan from, thereby repaying the loan. And everybody lives happily ever after. Or so it would have seemed. The sub-prime home loans were given out as floating rate home loans. A floating rate home loan as the name suggests is not fixed. As interest rates go up, the interest rate on floating rate home loans also go up. As interest rates to be paid on floating rate home loans go up, the EMIs that need to be paid to service these loans go up as well.

With US interest rising, the EMIs too increased. Higher EMIs hit the sub-prime borrowers hard. A lot of them in the first place had unstable incomes and poor credit rating. They, thus, defaulted. Once more and more sub-prime borrowers started defaulting, payments to the institutional investors who had bought the financial securities stopped, leading to huge losses. The problem primarily began with the United States keeping its interest rates very low for a very long time, thus encouraging Americans to go in for housing loans, or mortgages. Lower interest rates led to buyers wanting to take on bigger loans, and thus bigger and better homes.

But life was fine. With the American economy doing well at that time and housing prices soaring on the back of huge demand for real estate and bigger and better homes, financial institutions saw a mouthwatering opportunity in the mortgage market. In their zeal to make a quick buck, these institutions relaxed the strict regulatory procedures before extending housing loans to people with unstable jobs and weak credit standing. Few controls were put in place to handle the situation in case the housing �bubble’ burst. And when the US economy began to slow down, the house of cards began to fall. The crisis began with the bursting of the United States housing bubble.

A slowing US economy, high interest rates, unrealistic real estate prices, high inflation and rising oil tags together led to a fall in stock markets, growth stagnation, job losses, lack of consumer spending, a virtual halt to new jobs, and foreclosures and defaults. Sub-prime homeowners began to default as they could no longer afford to pay their EMIs. A deluge of such defaults inundated these institutions and banks, wiping out their net worth. Their mortgage-backed securities were almost worthless as real estate prices crashed. The moment it was found out that these institutions had failed to manage the risk, panic spread. Investors realised that they could hardly put any value on the securities that these institutions were selling. This caused many a Wall Street pillar to crumble.

till den… :D


9 thoughts on “All About Sub-Prime…

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