John P. Hussman PhD | Hussman Funds | 28 July 2014
After the 2000-2002 recession, the Federal Reserve remained fixed on holding down short-term interest rates in efforts to stimulate demand in interest-sensitive sectors of the economy. Corporations – particularly those with low quality balance sheets – were quick to take advantage of the low interest rates, swapping long-term debt for shorter-term debt. By late-2003 it was already obvious that this process was becoming a threat to longer-term economic stability, prompting me to ask: “the real question is this: why is anybody willing to hold this low interest rate paper if the borrowers issuing it are so vulnerable to default risk? That’s the secret. The borrowers don’t actually issue it directly. Instead, much of the worst credit risk in the U.S. financial system is actually swapped into instruments that end up being partially backed by the U.S. government. These are held by investors precisely because they piggyback on the good faith and credit of Uncle Sam.” Needless to say, this turned out badly.
Meanwhile, deprived of a meaningful return on safe investments, investors looked for alternatives that might offer them a higher rate of return. They found that alternative in mortgage securities. Historically, home prices had never experienced a major and sustained decline, and mortgage securities were AAA credits. On that basis, investors chased mortgage securities in search of higher yield, and hedge funds sought to leverage the “spread” by purchasing massive volumes of higher yielding mortgage securities and financing those purchases using debt that was available a lower interest rate.