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Finding the Man Who Started the Global Recession

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Some communicable diseases can be traced back to what medical researchers call “patient zero”, the first carrier of an illness and often someone who has no symptoms. One of the most notorious examples of this is “Typhoid Mary”, Mary Mallon, who is alleged to have spread typhoid fever in New York City and its suburbs between 1901 and 1906.

The global recession has a “patient zero”, a single person who set off the series of events which may lead the economy into its greatest downturn since The Great Depression and, by some estimates, push 50 million people around the world out of jobs this year, according to The International Labour Organisation. (See pictures of the global financial crisis).

“Patient zero” bought a house in Stockton, California, in 2003 after getting a subprime mortgage. He defaulted on that mortgage 39 months later.

Most economists blame the collapse of the credit markets which began the recession on a drop in US housing prices and devaluing of subprime mortgage-backed securities. The Wall St. experts who created these financial instruments failed to predict how quickly low-quality mortgages would default to some extent because the national value of housing had gone up for decades. But, as defaults did rise, the value of these derivatives cascaded and the banks and other institutions which held them were required to take massive losses. At Davos, Russian and Chinese leaders attacked the U.S. for the “failure” of regulators which allowed the spread of toxic derivatives.

Building the securities which were sold as mortgage-backed financial products was complex. Financial firms had to buy large pools of existing mortgages and develop mathematical models for the cash flows they would produce well into the future as homeowners made their monthly payments. These pools were cut into tranches with each tranche carrying a probability of how many mortgages in it would pay out to maturity and how many would fail. After these calculations were made, they were sold to banks, brokerage firms, and other financial institutions as high-yield paper. The major credit agencies gave these securities “Aaa” ratings based, in part, on the fact that nationwide home prices had not dropped in any year since The Great Depression. The notion that pools of subprime mortgages could be rated “Aaa” under any circumstance is astonishing. (See who’s to blame for the current financial crisis.)

In 2007, mortgage default rates, especially among subprime mortgage holders, began to climb at an unprecedented rate. Many home loans had been given to people without even a credit check or income verification. The mortgages often carried very low interest rates in their first three years which reset to much higher numbers after that period. Homeowners found their monthly mortgage payments spiking up and, in many cases, they could no longer afford to make these payments as employment fell across the economy.

At that point the original mathematical projections for the performance of mortgage-backed paper began to sharply diverge from what was actually happening. With the cash flow from many mortgage pools dropping quickly, the derivatives based on them began to lose a tremendous part of their value. The paper became so “toxic” from a performance standpoint that the trading in the instruments locked up, making them illiquid and driving down their values even faster.

Someone who took out a subprime loan in 2003 is the “patient zero” who began the great recession. In financial models, he was supposed to pay his mortgage for ten years and then sell his home. When his mortgage reset in 2006, he defaulted. The flow of his payments into the mortgage pool stopped. The differential between the real world and the Wall St derivative model moved off center by a fraction of a millimeter. Another person within the same pool defaulted the next day, and quickly the mortgage pool lost the financial yield characteristics that it was supposed to have. Tranches began to change in value, one by one. A small snow ball turned into an avalanche. On the day of this first unexpected default, the value of the other homes in its neighborhood ticked down a fraction. With each default that occurred, this drop accelerated.

Where was the recession’s “patient zero” from and what were his financial circumstances? Based on where the real estate markets began to decline and where the most subprime loans where made, he was a client of Countrywide. He got a $250,000 mortgage five years ago, He did not have to put a nickel down to get the loan. The value of real estate in Stockton, California, where he bought his home had been rising at 10% a year for four years. He was a good credit risk not because of his income but because the value of the asset he bought was bound to go up 100% by the end of this decade. Two months after his mortgage reset in 2006, he lost his job. He was in default less than 90 days later.

Somewhere in the Countrywide archives are his number, phone number, and most recent forwarding address. He is still looking for permanent employment.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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