Integrative Thinking (or Lack of) and the Current Crisis

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Integrative Thinking (or Lack of) and the Current Crisis

FINANCIAL ANALYSIS

 

In February 2008 one of the guest speakers in Value Investment, the course taught by my colleague, Eric Kirzner, claimed that the subprime crisis was over and thus he could now shift his entire portfolio to Citigroup. Several of my students in Financial Statement Analysis, the second-year elective that I teach in the Rotman MBA program, have approached me and asked for my opinion. My response was that the subprime crisis, far from being over, is in a relatively early stage. 

It should be noted that, while the crisis was predictable, I failed to predict either its timing or its extent. Having made that mea culpa, I will provide in this chapter the reasons behind my assessment that the crisis is still with us, and will be for some time to come. I will also present my view of the underlying causes of the crisis, namely, opportunistic and bounded-rationality decision making, or lack of integrative thinking, by several actors in this game. (Avoiding the pitfall of bounded rationality and, instead, making rational, wellreasoned decisions is one of the dimensions of integrative thinking at Rotman.) In addition, this chapter will make some observations on the how this crisis will likely develop in the months ahead, as well as offering a few policy recommendations.

Some Basic Concepts

In order to understand the underlying causes of the current crisis, we need to examine the dynamics of the game played in this context by the various players. These players exhibited two problems that we often discuss in accounting, economics, and finance: the agency problem and bounded rationality (or, as my colleague John Oesch 
sometimes refers to it, temporal myopia). The agency problem, simply put, is self-interested or opportunistic behaviour by an agent in his or her relationship with a principal. This problem, for example, explains some of the recent accounting scandals, where executives chose to manipulate financial reports in order to maximize their 
own payoffs (ultimately at the expense of shareholders, unfortunately). The term ‘bounded rationality’ was first coined by the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon and later elaborated upon by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (who also won a Nobel Prize for his work). It describes the tendency of people to make decisions that maximize short-term payoffs at the expense of their long-term welfare. In short, people just want to ‘get by’ rather than use a rational long-term optimization framework. A related term is ‘Satisfice,’ that is, the combination of satisfy and suffice, or myopic decision making in the temporal sense. Going back to the earlier example of the accounting scandals, it seems that the managers’ decisions involved bounded rationality in that they preferred short-term increases to 
their compensation over a longer-term perspective.

How the Game Was Played (or Lack of Integrative Thinking Can Be Hazardous to Your Health)

Before I describe the game, I would like to point out that this is a highly stylized and oversimplified version of reality; the oversimplification and stylizing is done to obtain some insights on what precipitated the events we are now experiencing. As such, this is more an informal description than a formal model of the game that took place. Another important feature of the game sketched here is that it has to be examined in a multi-period setting (otherwise, bounded rationality is irrelevant). 

The dynamics of this game unfold as follows.

The First Period: First Generation Subprime Loans

In the first period, a high-risk (subprime) borrower approaches a mortgage broker to borrow money for a house. The mortgage broker has a vested interest in getting the mortgage because it involves getting a fee. The borrower has a vested interest in getting the loan so he or she can buy the house. Both of these players are willing to forgo the 
long-term implications of their decisions since they just want to ‘get by.’ Both the mortgage broker and the borrower also use faulty reasoning in their thinking, believing that, because real estate prices have been on the rise in the past, they will continue to rise in the future. The mortgage broker and borrower, therefore, agree on a variable rate mortgage where the payments for the first two years are significantly lower than afterwards. The borrower is willing to take this risk because, as he or she mistakenly reasons, in two years prices will go up and, if worse comes to worst, the house can be sold for a gain. The mortgage broker applies to a financial institution for the loan, shading it strongly by his or her own bias to get it. The person at the lending institution has a vested interest in seeing this through (to get this year’s bonus) and has no long-term rational perspective whatsoever. The financial institution’s employee also mistakenly reasons that the risk is well managed because the loan is backed by an asset (‘What can go wrong? This house can only appreciate’). Next, this mortgage needs to be financed. So the financial institution 
approaches investors and sells the mortgage to them as part of a package that includes not just this subprime loan but other higherquality securities. The investors make their decisions on the premise again that mortgages carry high return and subprime mortgages carry much higher yield owing to the inherent risk. Thus, the investors are semi-happy but still not convinced. In order to convince them, the financial institution either buys from another party, or creates on its own, an insurance for this security. In order to avoid the regulation involved with the term ‘insurance,’ a new term is created, a ‘credit default swap,’ which offers insurance against default of the security but has no regulation attached to it whatsoever. In particular, the insurer does not need to satisfy the same funding requirements that are mandated by insurance regulators. Why would the insurer take part in such an adventure? Again, short-term gain is the key, as well as the idea that the security is backed by a valuable asset. Now the investor is a ‘happy camper’ – the money is provided and the loan is made. Throughout the first year, payments are made by the borrower (at a reduced rate) and so all players are happy. The accounting rule for such securities requires that they should be valued at their fair market value (the rule is also known as ‘marked to market’). In the absence of a market for such securities, the rule becomes ‘marked to model’ and unrealized gains are shown with respect to this security.

The Second Period: Second-Generation Subprime Loans

Here the game is played similarly to the first period but with one major difference: the mortgage broker is now willing to take on an even worse credit risk since he or she, having succeeded in the first period, has grown even more emboldened. The financial institution’s employee, the investor, and the insurer (through the credit default 
swap) all go along because again they all stand to gain: the loan is secured by an asset, and house prices continue to appreciate. Any potential concern is alleviated by the existence of the credit default swap and by the fact that the borrower in the first period is making payments. And so in the second period the quality of the synthetic security is worse than in the first one. The fair-value accounting treatment at this point once more shows gains. 

The Third Period: A Perfect Storm

In this period the first-generation borrower is facing difficulties meeting the escalated mortgage payments, which are well above what he or she can afford based on his or her income. It should also be observed that, at this point, the principal on the loan is higher than when we started because the payments by the borrower covered only part of the interest and no principal. At the same time, real estate prices plunge and thus we face a double whammy – the loan’s principal is higher and the value of the house is lower than when we started. The borrower tries to make payments but eventually gives up and, since this is a non-recourse loan (which is standard in most U.S. states), is willing to abandon the house. A non-recourse mortgage means that, as opposed to the situation in Canada, the lender has no claim on the borrower’s assets other than the house and therefore cannot force bankruptcy. The lender has no choice but to foreclose on the house, which is worth substantially less than the principal on the mortgage. The lender approaches the provider of the credit default swap to compensate him or her for the loss, but the provider, alas, has not deposited enough money in a fund to cover such losses. The lender still gets money from the insurer but it is clear that we are in the beginning of a subprime crisis. What exacerbates the problem is the fair-market-value accounting rule, which now shows losses (and that ‘the emperor is naked’). The accounting 
losses affect adversely the stock prices of all the securities involved.

Fourth Period: A Meltdown

Here the second-generation loans come back to haunt us. Real estate prices are significantly down, borrowers abandon houses en masse, and the seller of the credit default swap does not have enough money to cover all these losses. At this stage, the accounting losses mount even higher, which, in turn, creates a meltdown in the stock prices 
for all institutions involved. The financial institutions face a liquidity crisis and the U.S. government (and others) step in. Another interesting development is the suspension of the fair-market-value accounting rule by standard setters in Canada and the United States.

Outlook

When looking at this crisis we need to separate the U.S. and the Canadian markets because, while the U.S. situation has a substantial impact on Canada, the financial institutions in both countries differ in some significant respects. First, the Canadian banking system is more concentrated than the U.S. one. Consequently, while banking 

in Canada is more expensive than in the United States, the system is much more stable and more resilient than its American counterpart. Secondly, the exposure of the financial institutions to subprime loans in Canada is minimal, and, while Canadian banks have been exposed to such loans in the United States, their exposure level differs 
and none has been involved in catastrophic risk. Thirdly, because mortgage loans in Canada do not have the non-recourse feature, borrowers will be less inclined to walk away from their homes when things get tough than their U.S. equivalents. These differences between the United States and Canada notwithstanding, the U.S.-generated crisis has had some negative impact on Canada, for financial institutions here (like their U.S. counterparts) have started tightening credit. This will be felt hardest by small businesses, which will face severe difficulties managing 
their working capital as a result of the credit crunch. The result may be increased numbers of insolvencies, which, in turn, will adversely affect the economy through jobs lost. In the United States, there are other issues too. While Congress has approved a bailout package, in reality relatively little of the money has made its way into the system. Consequently, a political decision has been made but is not yet implemented. This problem is obvious to the markets, leading to erratic market behaviour. Additionally, the bailout package will probably be implemented through 
massive printing of money by the Federal Reserve, leading to inflation. Such inflation, in conjunction with the other well-known woes of the U.S. economy (e.g., government deficits), could cause again the erosion of the U.S. dollar that we have recently seen, a development that will have a negative impact on Canadian exports to the United States.

Does all this mark the end of capitalism, as some people claim? Probably not. First, the alternative is unclear. Secondly, the question itself stems in large part from a misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism. Capitalism is not synonymous with laissez-faire but rather involves, to a certain degree, some government intervention when 
there are market failures, as is the case with the current crisis.

Lessons to Be Learned and Policy Implications

There is no question that several institutions should reflect on their decision-making framework. Of no one is this more true than the regulators, who completely failed to regulate the credit-default-swap market (the size of this market is unknown because it is unregulated but it is estimated to be well above US$60 trillion). Other institutions that failed in their decisions in this crisis were the rating agencies, which need to examine how they conducted 
their business while remaining completely blind to the problem growing up around them. The accounting profession should also look at the way that ‘marked to market’ works. The problem here, though, is that it is unclear what a better alternative would be, since historical cost might yield even less information. Lending and screening practices at financial institutions certainly need to be re-examined. This has to involve some changes in compensation practices so as to alleviate the agency and bounded-rationality problems that were discussed above. With confidence in the financial institutions considerably eroded, one of the objectives of the federal government, both in Canada and in the United states, should be to prevent runs on banks. This can be achieved by instituting, at least temporarily, full insurance of any amounts deposited in the financial institutions both by businesses and individuals. In Canada this gesture will have probably no cashflow implications for the government because, as was mentioned 
earlier, our financial institutions are quite healthy. At the same time, while such a move will likely not have adverse effects on government spending, it should reduce uncertainty and provide a tremendous boost to public confidence in the system. 
Finally, government should pay attention to the credit crunch faced by many businesses, both in Canada and in the United States. Since reducing the interest rate is a blunt instrument, I would rather like to see greater efforts by the central banks in both countries to ensure that money is flowing to businesses of all sizes. Conclusion One of the interesting features of bounded rationality, as it relates to the stock market, is that when things are good the overall market sentiment is that things will never go bad, and when the market is in a free fall no one believes that things will ever turn around. This probably has to do with the fact that we tend to view the future as an extrapolation of the past, and not consider points of discontinuity. Any economic process has its ups and downs, whether it is real estate or the stock market. As a result, while fortunes were lost in this crisis, there is no doubt in my mind that fortunes will also be made both in the stock market and in real estate. In order to achieve this, we should try to avoid the pitfalls of bounded rationality, take a balanced look at the current situation, and understand that the crisis will end at some point and search for some undervalued stocks because markets usually overreact to bad news. In other words, we should use integrative thinking for financial analysis and investments.

 

Prof. Rami Elitzur

Associate Professor of Accounting at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

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