Unreal: Banks' Created Fake Demand to Boost Profits and Yearly Bonuses
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The mortgages were bundled into bonds, which were in turn combined into CDOs offering varying interest rates and levels of risk.
Investors holding the top tier of a CDO were first in line to get money coming from mortgages. By 2006, some banks often kept this layer, which credit agencies blessed with their highest rating of Triple A.
Buyers of the lower tiers took on more risk and got higher returns. They would be the first to take the hit if homeowners funding the CDO stopped paying their mortgages. (Here's a video explaining how CDOs worked .)
Over time, these risky slices became increasingly hard to sell, posing a problem for the banks. If they remained unsold, the sketchy assets stayed on their books, like rotting inventory. That would require the banks to set aside money to cover any losses. Banks hate doing that because it means the money can't be loaned out or put to other uses.
Being stuck with the risky portions of CDOs would ultimately lower profits and endanger the whole assembly line.
The banks, notably Merrill and Citibank, solved this problem by greatly expanding what had been a common and accepted practice: CDOs buying small pieces of other CDOs.
Architects of CDOs typically included what they called a "bucket" -- which held bits of other CDOs paying higher rates of interest. The idea was to boost overall returns of deals primarily composed of safer assets. In the early days, the bucket was a small portion of an overall CDO.
One pioneer of pushing CDOs to buy CDOs was Merrill Lynch's Chris Ricciardi, who had been brought to the firm in 2003 to take Merrill to the top of the CDO business. According to former colleagues, Ricciardi's team cultivated managers, especially smaller firms.
Merrill exercised its leverage over the managers. A strong relationship with Merrill could be the difference between a business that thrived and one that didn't. The more deals the banks gave a manager, the more money the manager got paid.
As the head of Merrill's CDO business, Ricciardi also wooed managers with golf outings and dinners. One Merrill executive summed up the overall arrangement: "I'm going to make you rich. You just have to be my bitch."
But not all managers went for it.
An executive from Trainer Wortham, a CDO manager, recalls a 2005 conversation with Ricciardi. "I wasn't going to buy other CDOs. Chris said: 'You don't get it. You have got to buy other guys' CDOs to get your deal done. That's how it works.'" When the manager refused, Ricciardi told him, "'That's it. You are not going to get another deal done.'" Trainer Wortham largely withdrew from the market, concerned about the practice and the overheated prices for CDOs.
Ricciardi declined multiple requests to comment.
Merrill CDOs often bought slices of other Merrill deals. This seems to have happened more in the second half of any given year, according to ProPublica's analysis, though the purchases were still a small portion compared to what would come later. Annual bonuses are based on the deals bankers completed by yearend.
Ricciardi left Merrill Lynch in February 2006. But the machine he put into place not only survived his departure, it became a model for competitors.
As Housing Market Wanes, Self-Dealing Takes Off
By mid-2006, the housing market was on the wane. This was particularly true for subprime mortgages, which were given to borrowers with spotty credit at higher interest rates. Subprime lenders began to fold, in what would become a mass extinction. In the first half of the year, the percentage of subprime borrowers who didn't even make the first month's mortgage payment tripled from the previous year.