Excerpt from an article by Zachary Karabell, Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008
Call it the revenge of Enron. The collapse of Enron in 2002 triggered a wave of regulations, most notably Sarbanes-Oxley. Less noticed but ultimately more consequential for today were accounting rules that forced financial service companies to change the way they report the value of their assets (or liabilities). Enron valued future contracts in such a way as to vastly inflate its reported profits. In response, accounting standards were shifted by the Financial Accounting Standards Board and validated by the SEC. The new standards force companies to value or "mark" their assets according to a different set of standards and levels.
The rules are complicated and arcane; the result isn't. Beginning last year, financial companies exposed to the mortgage market began to mark down their assets, quickly and steeply. That created a chain reaction, as losses that were reported on balance sheets led to declining stock prices and lower credit ratings, forcing these companies to put aside ever larger reserves (also dictated by banking regulations) to cover those losses.
In the case of AIG, the issues are even more arcane. In February, as its balance sheet continued to sharply decline, the company issued a statement saying that it "believes that its mark-to-market unrealized losses on the super senior credit default swap portfolio ... are not indicative of the losses it may realize over time." Unless one is steeped in these issues, that statement is completely incomprehensible. Yet the inside baseball of accounting rules, regulation and markets adds up to the very comprehensible $85-billion of taxpayer money.
What AIG was saying then, and what others from Lehman to Bear Stearns to the world at large have been saying since, is that the losses showing up aren't "real." Yes, the layer upon layer of derivatives built on the foundation of mortgages is mind-boggling.
Among its many products, AIG offered insurance on derivatives built on other derivatives built on mortgages. It priced those according to computer models that no one person could have generated, not even the quantitative magicians who programmed them. And when default rates and home prices moved in ways that no model had predicted, the whole pricing structure was thrown out of whack.
The value of the underlying assets -- homes and mortgages -- declined, sometimes 10%, sometimes 20%, rarely more. That is a hit to the system, but on its own should never have led to the implosion of Wall Street. What has leveled Wall Street is that the value of the derivatives has declined to zero in some cases, at least according to what these companies are reporting.
There's something wrong with that picture:Down 20% doesn't equal down 100%. In a paralyzed environment, where few are buying and everyone is selling, a market price could well be near zero. But that is hardly the "real" price. If someone had to sell a home in Galveston, Tex., last week before Hurricane Ike, it might have sold for pennies on the dollar. Who would buy a home in the path of a hurricane? But only for those few days was that value "real."