The Meltdown


THE MELTDOWN….OK, this is probably sort of a dumb question, but: Has anyone figured out yet how America’s financial giants all managed to misprice the risk of the subprime mortgage market so spectacularly? Yes, I know bankers have been doing this forever. Centuries of experience tell us that they have the impulse control of five-year-olds. And yes, the rating agencies screwed up in a big (and possibly fraudulent) way. That certainly helped things along.

Still: it’s not as if the bubbly nature of the U.S. housing market was a secret or something. It’s been a hot topic of conversation for years. Everyone knew that there was at least a decent chance that the bubble would burst at some point. Even if you were an optimist, you’d concede the possibility.

So what happened? I don’t buy the “black swan” theory. What happened wasn’t that unusual or that unlikely. Anyone with access to a Case-Shiller chart and even a vague notion of what was going on in the mortgage market knew that a bursting of the bubble was a distinct possibility. So why did bankers get into a frenzy bidding each other down on the size of that possibility? Were their risk managers all out to lunch? Or did they all get overruled by the suits in mahogany row? What’s the deal?

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