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Incorrect pricing of risk

The insurance industry got into the game by trading in “credit default swaps”—in effect, insurance policies stipulating that, in return for a fee, the insurers would assume any losses caused by mortgage-holder defaults. What began as insurance, however, turned quickly into speculation as financial institutions bought or sold credit default swaps on assets that they did not own. As early as 2003, Warren Buffett, the renowned American investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, called them “financial weapons of mass destruction.” About $900 billion in credit was insured by these derivatives in 2001, but the total soared to an astounding $62 trillion by the beginning of 2008.

As long as housing prices kept rising, everyone profited. Mortgage holders with inadequate sources of regular income could borrow against their rising home equity. The agencies that rank securities according to their safety (which are paid by the issuers of those securities, not by the buyers) generally rated mortgage-backed securities relatively safe—they were not. When the housing bubble burst, more and more mortgage holders defaulted on their loans. At the end of September, about 3% of home loans were in the foreclosure process, an increase of 76% in just a year. Another 7% of homeowners with a mortgage were at least one month past due on their payments, up from 5.6% a year earlier. By 2008 the mild slump in housing prices that had begun in 2006 had become a free fall in some places. What ensued was a crisis in confidence: a classic case of what happens in a market economy when the players—from giant companies to individual investors—do not trust one another or the institutions that they have built.