By 2004, the FICO system was gamed.
It was the final step in the destruction of Wall Street, a destruction engineered by the rapacity and dishonesty of American mortgage and fixed-income firms. Here, on Portfolio.com, Michael Lewis reveals that destruction in the best article I have yet read on the origins of the Credit Crisis. Mr. Lewis hasn't hipped to the FICO story yet, but he'll get it. He covers all the rest. The article is absolutely a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what really happened.
I first realized FICO got gamed while reading a paper by the American Enterprise Institute's Peter J. Wallison. Mr. Wallison is the principal author of the Republican talking points on Fannie and Freddie. Wallison has been carrying Wall Street's water for many years in their jihad against the GSEs. If you think Fannie and Freddie are to blame for it all, Peter J. Wallison earned his money. Like all good con men, Mr. Wallison sticks to the truth as closely as possible for as long as possible, but he slipped up with one simple sentence:
There are many definitions of a subprime loan, but the definition used by U.S. bank regulators is any loan to a borrower with damaged credit, including such objective criteria as a FICO credit score lower than 660.
Emphasis mine, but those words "objective criteria" jumped out at me.
Obviously the most objective criterion of credit risk is the actual default rate. Wallison talks about the default rates in the GSE portfolio coming largely from private-lable RMBS, but he does not cite the default rates for the actual borrowers to whom he objects most. I wondered why. If you read the paper and then look at the data (as best you can), I think you'll find something surprising.
First, it turns out that Mr. Wallison is correct that Fannie and Freddie DID take on borrowers with FICO scores lower than they should have - although not in the way he implies. But I found that the borrowers to which Mr. Wallison attributes so much damage actually defaulted at LOWER rates than that same FICO cohort defaulted for private banks. Moreover, because Fannie and Freddie bought Alt-A mortgage paper, Alt-A mortgages and even guaranteed a few Alt-A borrowers (but a very few), one can glean from the data that the farther away a borrower of a given FICO score was from the GSE's full due diligence process, the more likely that borrower was to default. Relative to the private sector, the GSEs were better judges of default risk and their default rates prove it. Even the private-label Alt-A paper bought by the GSEs has a markedly lower rate of default than the industry average.
Still, it was strange. Relative to how it worked in the private-sector data, FICO significantly OVER-predicted defaults in the GSE portfolios (when taken as a whole). If FICO is an "objective" measure, this should not have happened.
And then there is the question of the vintages.
That question became very intriguing to me when I read a much-quoted working paper published by the St. Louis Fed entitled: "Where’s the Smoking Gun? - A Study of Underwriting Standards for US Subprime Mortgages." I've long ago learned that people who have something to hide generally hide it in the title and the appendices. So, I went looking for the smoking gun the authors said was not there and quickly found it.
The authors boldly claim that:
Our results indicate that there is no evidence of a dramatic change in underwriting standards in the subprime market, particularly for originations after 2004. Given the multidimensional nature of ex ante credit risk, it is difficult to emphasize weakening in terms of some attributes as a decline in overall underwriting standards. The results show that while underwriting may have weakened along some dimensions (e.g. lower documentation), it also strengthened in others (e.g. higher FICO scores).
So, I immediately looked at their FICO data. It was shocking. To make the claim they make, you have to completely ignore the performance of the FICO cohorts and the fact that people in the business know that data. If you look at Table 12 (which divides FICO cohorts very suspiciously, but, that's another question) you will find that for the FICO cohort 660-720, first-year mortgage default rates went up a bit in 2004, doubled in 2005, quintupled in 2006 and were about eight times higher than normal in 2007. The numbers were terrible for all FICO cohorts, but that big one with SO many borrowers was just appalling.
So in 2004, bankers had suspect data and kept lending. In 2005, they had alarming data and kept lending. In 2006 they had shocking data and just kept right on lending faster than ever. In 2007, it was a travesty and they still kept lending until the whole thing blew up. Now these Bozos writing for the St. Louis Fed have the nerve to claim that underwriting standards didn't fall? Lenders knew that FICO has already failed. They knew it was gamed. Their data showed it conclusively. As if the data weren't enough, they could see the sudden profusion of new "Credit Reporting Agencies" and all the "score borrowing" and "rapid readjust" nonsense going on.
They didn't want to see it. The FICO cohort that was falling apart represented the bulk of their profitable borrowers. This was not the sub-620 extreme or the low-profit Prime book. This was the thick part of their bell curve. FICO was gamed. FICO was junk. But question FICO and you yanked the emergency brake on the Gravy Train. So not only did they not question it, they started to rely on FICO almost exclusively. They started to insist on having as little OTHER data on borrowers as possible. When they asked for the Equifax reports, they stopped asking for the employment and income data. They started pushing "low-doc" and "no-doc" paper out the door as fast as they could. See no evil, hear no evil and make a buttload of money.
You'll find that all lenders - including the GSEs - raised their FICO score standards in the later years of the crisis - to no avail. FICO was no longer "objective". It had become the foundation of a scam. As Michael Lews writes of one of the people who saw through the scam:
[He] knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism.
A crisis like this is not an "'or' crisis". It's not a question of looking back and deciding whether this happened "or" that happened. It's an "'and' crisis". This happened "and" that happened but the "this" - the malplactice and fraud - predominated. Yes, there were stupid borrowers and stupid buyers of these securities (including the GSEs) at both ends of the line. But the cause of this crisis was pervasive malfeasance by the people in the private-sector, non-GSE business of selling American mortgage debt to borrowers and customers. Starting with the FICO, there was fraud at every step of the way up to and including the derivatives on the stuctured products. The willful ignorance and stupidity of borrowers and customers were just the whipped cream and cherry on top. We are living through the results what is the largest case of financial malpractice in human history - "malpractice" at best.
I'd call it "fraud".
This is why Paulson's plan's won't work: You can try every excuse in the world, but you can't fix this problem until you admit what it was and is.
Disclosure: No positions.