By Susan C. Walker, Elliott Wave International
October 8, 2007
Helen Mirren accepted her Emmy award for best actress in the mini-series, "Prime Suspect" with elegance and grace. Just the opposite of the tough detective superintendent character she plays who tracks down murder suspects in England. Who would Jane Tennison pick out as the prime suspect for the murder of the U.S. housing market and the resulting gruesome credit crunch?
Suspect No. 1 – Phil Spector
No – sorry, wrong case, wrong suspect. Spector has been on trial for the murder of a guest at his home (the judge declared a mistrial this week), but Spector has nothing to do with the subprime mortgage fallout and ensuing credit crunch. O.J. Simpson, who stands accused of trying to "recover" his sports memorabilia, is not the prime suspect either. If the crime doesn't fit, you must acquit.
Suspect No. 2 – Alan Greenspan
Says that he didn't catch on for a few years that subprime mortgages could create a problem for the economy. As chairman of the Federal Reserve, he let easy credit ride, which facilitated the housing bubble and the subsequent implosion. Could liken his behavior to supplying the gun to a rampaging murderer. Guilty of aiding and abetting, but he's not necessarily the prime suspect.
Suspect No. 3 – Angelo Mozilo
Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial (largest mortgage company in the United States), says he kept his staff writing subprime mortgages day and night, because if they didn't, then home purchasers would just find someone else to give them a low-quality mortgage. Company went from writing 4.6% of its overall mortgages as subprimes and low-documentation loans in 2004 to 8.7% in 2006. Guilty of greed and a poor business plan but not murder.
Suspect No. 4 – S. & P. and Moody's
Oh, whoops, say these rating agencies, we thought that once you sliced up a BBB security thinly enough and packaged it with other more desirable collateralized debt obligations that we could call it AAA. Did we mislead anybody? Again, aiding and abetting but not a prime suspect.
Suspect No. 5 – Goldman Sachs and other investment banks
Says that their investors wanted higher returns and that collateralized debt obligations spiced up with subprime mortgages served the purpose. And besides, they say, the rating agencies gave them an excellent rating. Guilty of acting like a fence but not the prime murder suspect.
The True Prime Suspect
All of these are worth a look as suspects, but the true prime suspect has neither a first name nor a last. It's known as "social mood," and its m.o. is "herding behavior." That's our real murderer, the one that quashed the hopes and dreams of those who believed that house prices would always go up. Social mood changed, and with it changed the idea of what were smart financing moves to purchase a house. Suddenly, as house prices began to fall and subprime mortgagees began to default on their loans, the stick house built on low-quality mortgages seemed like a really bad idea.
Who knew? When social mood was positive, mortgage writers pushed people who couldn't really afford a mortgage into believing they could. Then they sold the mortgages to eager investment bankers who sliced them up into small packages of risk and re-packaged them with less risky securities. Then the ratings agencies gave their stamp of approval: AA? Why not AAA? And eager investors who wanted higher returns bought them up.
But now the game is up. When social mood turns from positive to negative, fear replaces greed, and people begin to see the riskiness for what it is. When social mood changes from positive to negative, markets turn from bullish to bearish. And no one can stop it – not even the Fed.
This is how Bob Prechter, president of Elliott Wave International, describes the phenomenon:
"Like credit inflation, credit deflation is in fact an intricate, interwoven process, whose initial impetus is a change in social mood from optimism toward pessimism. If you are still on the fence about this idea, ask yourself: What changed in the so-called “fundamentals” between June and August? The answer is: absolutely nothing. Interest rates did not budge; there were no indications of recession; there were no changes in bank lending policies; there were no chilling government edicts.
"The only thing that changed was people’s minds. One day sub-prime mortgages were a fine investment, and the next day they were toxic waste. There was no external cause of the change.… According to socionomic theory, the stock market is a sensitive indicator of such changes in mood. This is why The Elliott Wave Theorist has continually said that the financial structure will hold up as long as the stock market rises. A downturn occurred in mid-July, and its consequences in terms of negative social mood are becoming swiftly evident. Remember, C waves (see Elliott Wave Principle, Chapter 2) are when optimistic illusions finally disappear and fear takes over. Sounds like now." [Elliott Wave Theorist, September 2007]
How To Protect Yourself from the Prime Suspect Who is Still on the Loose
Social mood has turned ugly and is likely to continue its murderous rampage, leaving the policymakers helpless. As analysts Steve Hochberg and Pete Kendall write in The Elliott Wave Financial Forecast: "The Fed does not "inject" liquidity; it only offers it. If nobody wants it, the inflation game is over. The determinant of that matter is the market. When bull markets turn to bear, confidence turns to fear, and a fearful people do not lend or borrow at the same rates as confident ones. The ultimate drivers of inflation and deflation are human mental states that the Fed cannot manipulate."
What should you do to protect yourself in this time of falling home prices, a powerless Fed and a contracting economy? Bob Prechter wrote one of the best how-to books. It's his business best-seller, titled, Conquer the Crash, How To Survive and Prosper in a Deflationary Depression. You might want to start there.
Editor's Note: You can read a FREE 9-page chapter from Conquer the Crash –
You will learn the implications of the massive credit expansion, what triggers the change from boom times to recession, and more.
Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Her columns also appear regularly on FoxNews.com.