How Your Mortgage Payment Funds Norwegian Town’s Workforce

On the first day of class, I made the argument that in order for me to fulfill my pedagogical goals this semester, I need your help. I needed you to understand that what you choose to do (or not to do) in the classroom (and on your blog) will affect not only the grade you receive and how much you learn in this course, but will also affect the learning and grades of your peers sitting beside you in class. We live in societies, in which we all–to a greater or lesser extent–have an effect on those with whom we come into contact, with whom we share work places, roads, stadia, and class rooms. We all understand that if your neighbor’s house is unkempt and the lawn is overgrown, this will have a detrimental effect on your own property values.

Since we’re talking about property and the effects of social interaction, how is it that the town of Narvik, Norway (on the Arctic Circle) has had to miss a payroll for its municipal workers as the result of residents of Stockton (CA), Miami (FL), Flint(MI), and Worcester (MA), no longer being able to pay their residential mortgages? This New York Times article helps explain, and so does Jon Stewart’s guest, CNN Personal Finance editor Gerri Willis:

— At this time of year, the sun does not rise at all this far north of the Arctic Circle. But Karen Margrethe Kuvaas says she has not been able to sleep well for days.

What is keeping her awake are the far-reaching ripple effects of the troubled housing market in sunny Florida, California and other parts of the United States.

Ms. Kuvaas is the mayor of Narvik, a remote seaport where the season’s perpetual gloom deepened even further in recent days after news that the town — along with three other Norwegian municipalities — had lost about $64 million, and potentially much more, in complex securities investments that went sour.

”I think about it every minute,” Ms. Kuvaas, 60, said in an interview, her manner polite but harried. ”Because of this, we can’t focus on things that matter, like schools or care for the elderly.”

Norway’s unlucky towns are the latest victims — and perhaps the least likely ones so far — of the credit crisis that began last summer in the American subprime mortgage market and has spread to the farthest reaches of the world, causing untold losses and sowing fears about the global economy.

Where all the bad debt ended up remains something of a mystery, but to those hit by the collateral damage, it hardly matters.

Tiny specks on the map, these Norwegian towns are links in a chain of misery that stretches from insolvent homeowners in California to the state treasury of Maine, and from regional banks in Germany to the mightiest names on Wall Street. Citigroup, among the hardest hit, created the investments bought by the towns through a Norwegian broker…

…But Narvik has $34.5 million in a second Citigroup-devised investment, known as a collateralized debt obligation, which has also lost value as a result of the broader market turmoil. The town stands to lose at least some of that money, too.

Those investments represent a quarter of Narvik’s annual budget of $163 million, and covering the losses would necessitate taking out a long-term loan, which the town could only pay off by cutting back on services.

”You can calculate this in terms of places for schoolchildren or help for the elderly,” said Mr. Hermansen, a soft-spoken man who sat in his office in near-darkness, the lights switched off…

…In 2004, Narvik and a number of other towns took out a large loan, using future energy revenue as collateral. They invested the money, through Terra Securities, in the Citigroup debt vehicle, which offered a better return than traditional investments. In June 2007, as the subprime problems were brewing, Narvik shifted some money from that investment into an even more complex one, again through Terra Securities.

Do read the whole thing as it is interesting. Note, however, the really key part of the whole story in bold in the paragraph above and use the experience of Narvik to learn a very important lesson about investing. There is a clear immutable relationship in the investing world: the higher the expected return, the higher the level of risk associated with that return. If you expect to receive outsized returns, be prepared to accept outsized risk. Period. There may have been fraud perpetrated here (and it’s difficult to know without reading the signed agreements), but caveat emptor would have been valid advice in this situation.

What is the general link between subprime mortgages and other collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)–such as auto loans, student loans, and credit card debt–and the international political economy. Is there a general systemic risk to the global economy from new financial instruments, which Warren Buffett has referred to as “financial weapons of mass destruction?” Here is a panel at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, which will shed more light on the financial industry.

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