The Boom-Bust Cycle, Applied to Many Markets

Every now and then, valuation metrics in a market will get changed by the entrance of an aggressive new buyer or seller with a different agenda than existing buyers or sellers in the marketplace.  Or conversely, the exit of an aggressive buyer or seller.

Think of the residential mortgage marketplace over the last several years.  With an “originate and securitize” model where no one enforced credit standards at all, credit spreads got really aggressive, and volumes ballooned. Many marginal mortgage lenders entered the market, because it was strictly a volume business.  Now with falling housing prices, there are high levels of delinquency and default, and mortgage volumes have shrunk, leading to the failures/closures of many of those marginal lenders.  Underwriting standards rise, as capacity drops out.  Even prime borrowers face tougher standards.  In two short years, fire has given way to ice.

If you’ll indulge another story of mine, I worked for an insurer who had a well-run commercial mortgage arm.  Very conservative.  They did small-ish loans on what I would call “economically necessary real estate.”  See that ugly strip mall with the grocery anchor?  Everyone in the area shops there; that’s a good property.

Well, in 1992, the head of the Commercial Mortgage area had a problem.  The company had only three lines of business, and two lines representing 60% and 20% of the assets of the firm were full up on mortgages.  What was worse, was they didn’t want to even replace maturing loans, because the ratings agencies had told the company that commercial mortgage loans were a negative rating factor.  Never mind the fact that the default loss rate was 40% of the industry average.

He stared down the possibility that he would have to close down his division.  He had one last chance.  He called the actuary that ran the division that I was in (my boss), and pitched him on doing some commercial mortgages.  The conversation went something like this:

Mortgage Guy: I know you haven’t liked commercial mortgages in the past, but my back is against the wall, and if you don’t take my originations, I’ll have to shut down.  You’ve heard that the other two divisions won’t take any more mortgages at all. 

Boss: Yeah, I heard.  But the reason we never took commercial mortgages was that we didn’t like the credit spread compared to the risks involved.  150 basis points over Treasuries just doesn’t make it for us.

M: Well, because many companies have reduced originations, the spreads are 300 basis points now.

B: 300?! But what about the quality of the loans?

M: Only the best quality loans are getting done now.  I can insist on additional equity, in some cases recourse, and faster amortization.  My loan-to-values are the lowest I’ve seen in years.  Coverage ratios are similarly good.

B: Well, well.  Perhaps I’ve been right in the past, but I’m not pigheaded.  Look, we could take our percentage of assets in mortgages from 0% to 20%, but no more.  At your current origination rate, that would allow you to survive for two years.  We will take them all, subject to you keeping high credit quality standards.  Okay?

M: Thank you.  We’ll do our best for you.

And they did.  For the next two years, our line of business and the mortgage division had a symbiotic relationship, after which, spreads tightened significantly as confidence came back to the market.  We had 20% of our assets in mortgages, and the other two lines of business now felt comfortable enough with commercial mortgages to begin taking them again — at much lower spreads (and quality) than we received.

It’s important to try to look through the windshield, and not the rear-view mirror in investing.  Analyze the motives of current participants, new entrants, and their likely staying power to understand the competitive dynamics.  I’ll give one more example: the life insurance industry was a lousy place to invest for years.  Why?  A bunch of fat, dumb, and happy mutual companies were willing to write life insurance business earning a minimal return on capital.  As another boss of mine once said, “It doesn’t take mere incompetence to kill a mutual life insurer; it takes malice.”  Well, malice, or at least its cousin, killed a number of insurers, and crippled others in the late 80s to mid 90s.  Investment policies that relied on a rising commercial real estate market failed.

But that was the point to begin investing in life insurers.  They began pricing capital economically, and the industry began insisting on higher returns as a group.  Many mutuals demutualized, and the remaining large mutuals behaved indistinguishably from their stock company cousins.  The default cycle of 2001-2003 reinforced that; it is one of the reasons that the life insurance industry has had only modest exposure to the current difficulties afflicting most financials.  After years of being outperformed by the banks, the life insurers look pretty good in comparison today.

I could go on, and talk about the CDO and CLO markets, and how they changed the high yield bond and loan markets, or how credit default swaps have changed fixed income.  Instead, I want to close with an observation about a very different market.  Who likes Treasury bonds at these low yields?

Well, I don’t.  At these yield levels the odds are pretty good that you will lose purchasing power over a 2-3 year period.  Then again, I’m a bit of a fuddy-duddy.  So who does like Treasury yields at these levels?

  • Players who are scared.
  • Players who have no choice.

There is a “fear factor” in Treasury yields now.  Beyond that, there is the recycling of the current account deficit, which is still large relative to the issuance of Treasuries.  The current account deficit is large, but shrinking, since the US dollar at these low levels is boosting net exports.  As the current account deficit shrinks, Treasury yields should rise, because foreign demand has been a large part of the buyers of Treasuries.  The Fed can hold the short end of the curve where it wants to, but the long end will rise as the current account deficit shrinks.

I think the current account deficit does shrink from here, because the cost of buying US debts, and not buying US goods is getting prohibitive.  Also, fewer retail buyers will take negative real yields.

That’s my thought for the evening.  Analyze the motives of other players in your markets, and don’t assume that the current state of the market is an equilibrium.  Equilibria in economics are phantoms.  They exist in theory, but not reality.  Better to ask where new entrants or exits will come from.