Are Mortgages a Risky Business?

by : Jenny Barclay

A bank or mortgage company is nothing more than a box in which to keep money. The owner of the box has to do a few calculations. Firstly, how much is he going to offer those people who deposit cash in his box, in return for such a deposit? Secondly, how much of that money should he keep as cash in case the owners of that cash want it back? Maybe 5%, maybe 10%, what are the regulations in his jurisdiction? Thirdly, how much is he going to charge those people who wish to borrow the money of others, previously deposited in his box?

The person who owns the box then sets out to find lots of other people to put their spare cash in the box, in return for which he promises to give them their money back plus interest. In the eyes of some economists, these people are lenders and not investors. This terminology is based on the fact that the capital investment of lenders does not change, whereas the capital value of investors, in stocks or property for example, can go up or down. The owner of the box then has to find other people who do not have spare cash, but in fact wish to borrow it.

Fixed or variable?

Both the lenders and the borrowers can sometimes be bewildered by the variety of terms offered by such institutions. The easiest terms to understand are those that are based on a current rate that will vary according to the market for interest rates, which alters daily, although the companies will try to even out such daily fluctuations with only periodic changes in the rate. Fixed rates, for a given period, are more difficult for the average lender or borrower to understand, a fact that has given rise in the past to greedy companies being able to reap huge benefits from such lack of knowledge. The reason for an institution wanting to attract deposits at a fixed rate could be based on the fact that their advisors calculate that interest rates are going to rise. Should they find it possible to attract deposits at e.g. 3% over 3 years, and then find that current rates are 5%, they will be somewhat pleased. In the case of a borrower finding that they are in this situation they should be congratulated for being better at guessing than the company’s advisors. On the other hand, a borrower tied in to a contract at say 10% for several years who then finds that rates have dropped to 5%, will not exactly be celebrating. In my short experience since I started at university fourteen years ago, I have seen deposit rates vary from 14.5% down to 1.5%.

Is a bank safe?

There is also a common belief among lenders that their capital is safe. In the absence of a government or similar state authority providing such a guarantee, this can be far from the case. At university one of the cases we studied, was that of a particular savings bank. A rumour went around the city that the bank was in trouble. A great number of people went to the bank to withdraw their savings. Those that represented the first few % of the total deposit had no problem. When the percentage rose to 6%, which in this case was the amount decided by “the owner of the box", the rumour became fact in that there was no cash to pay out to depositors. As this was in a country in which the owners of all the boxes were members of a club, the aim of which was to protect the undeserved, but perceived, reputation of said members, the members sent round security vans with sufficient cash to pay out all those who people who “had taken notice of an unfounded rumour." Things quietened down after a while, and the government decided to introduce legislation to create a minimum liquidity level.

Another case we studied was that of one of the world’s largest banks, the board of which was mainly composed of greedy souls. They had decided that the stock market was a good place to keep the liquidity margin, so that in the event of a bear market, they could create more profit for the shareholders. A sudden bear market wiped out the liquidity margin, and the bank came within a hair’s breadth of going belly up.

Once the bank has reached a substantial size, the liquidity should be sufficiently large to cater for all such panic withdrawals, unless of course the panic is as great as 1929.

For the borrower it provides a necessary service, and apart from penal conditions imposed on borrowers, is a vital service to our society. From the investor’s point of view, it depends firstly on the mentality of the treasury function within the bank, and secondly the legislation that governs their actions and accountancy practices. From the investor’s point of view, considering investing in the stock of such an organisation, it depends entirely on an analysis of the bank’s net worth and profitability. Both the examples mentioned above have since gone from strength to strength, and have since been bought for more billions that most of us can count.

© Jenny Barclay