Tuesday, September 30, 2008

'Mark-To-Market' Isn't To Blame For Meltdown That Led To Crisis

From IBD:

People who say that it's not proper to value a long-term asset at today's value miss the point. Most such assets were never meant to be long-term investments for the banks that had just issued them or still held them when the credit crisis struck.

Suspending the rules won't slow this crisis. With or without the rules, nobody knows what certain securities are worth. Investors didn't short Lehman Brothers' stock because the company had written its opaque securities down to zero (it hadn't). They shorted Lehman partly because they didn't think that it had written such securities down far enough.

As for the charge that it's ridiculous to value some mortgages at 22% on the dollar, as a buyer for Merrill Lynch securities did, and that fair-value accounting helps to create the absurdity: maybe, maybe not.

The stark truth is that when you consider that banks wrote mortgages against houses that may have been more than 100% overvalued, and when you consider how much it costs such institutions to foreclose on a house and maintain it for a few months or longer before sale in a tough market, it's easy to see how values get down to less than half. Subtract some more money for uncertainty — which markets do all the time — and you're down to 22%.

The only thing that was wrong with "fair value" accounting was that it was a mirror of the modern financial industry. Financial institutions thought that they could trade anything, anywhere, at anytime, safely and virtually risk-free and for an instant profit. They couldn't. But the anti-"mark-to-market" crowd may well get its wish, because investors will regard the business behind such rules more carefully. Financial institutions needed money from the outside world to create all of those fair-value investments. It's unlikely they'll replenish their now-depleted coffers to do the same thing in the future, because investors now understand what complex securities and assets structured to trade instantaneously do — not only on their way up, but on their way down.

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