Lost a reliable Internet connection at home for the past 3 days so my posting has been non-existent (but I did change a few lightbulbs with my free time)
Back in the day, I loved to read books like Barbarians at the Gate, Den of Thieves and Liars Poker covering the truth and mythology of Wall Street (now I read books like Pontoon). Michael Milken was directly or indirectly connected to many of those stories, as well as the firm he worked for Drexel Birnham Lambert because of the financial vehicle he championed, the fabled junk bonds.
When the subprime crisis first became kitchen table talk last summer, initially there was discussion that it was another “junk bond” crisis. I cringed because junk bonds weren’t bad in and of themselves. The investors that used or purchased them got into trouble, because didn’t appreciate the risks associated with them. Higher returns, equals higher risk. Sounds a lot like subprime market participants doesn’t it?
Andrew Ross Sorkin’s excellent article in the New York Times today called Junk Bonds, Mortgages and Milken addresses this issue:
“The financial crisis we’re in today stems from the invention by Drexel Burnham Lambert of the junk bond,” Martin Lipton, the superlawyer who co-founded Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, said derisively at a conference last month. “You can draw a straight line from Drexel Burnham to the financial world today.”
Critics who compare the subprime debacle to the bubble in high-yield, high-risk corporate bonds that Drexel helped inflate two decades ago are “people who don’t understand markets very well,” Mr. Milken said. He suggests that “their rationale is that both types of financial instruments are risky.”
And he says junk bonds, or those rated below investment grade, “have little in common with mispriced subprime mortgages,” which he says are the real culprits.
“Having financed several of America’s largest home builders, I know a few things about the housing industry,” Mr. Milken said. “What happened to housing was not a failure of securitization, but rather a disastrous lowering of underwriting standards and other unfortunate practices.”
Criticizing securitization — the slicing and dicing of debt that he helped popularize — is “like condemning scalpels because a few unqualified surgeons have injured patients,” he said.
With the introduction of new financial instruments, users tend to go overboard at the end of the cycle and then new regulation is introduced that tends to go to far (ie mortgage current underwriting standards will become a self-fulfilling prophecy).
Ultimately what junk Bonds and subprime mortgages really had in common, were the people that used them. They didn’t reflect adequate risk into their pricing. A more pro-active SEC might keep that in check, but then squash innovation.
I need to change some more lightbulbs.