A Look At Wall Street's Shadow Market

60 Minutes: How Some Arcane Wall Street Financial Instruments Magnified Economic Crisis

On Friday Congress finally passed - and President Bush signed into law - a financial rescue package in which the taxpayers will buy up Wall Street's bad investments.

The numbers are staggering, but they don't begin to explain the greed and incompetence that created this mess.

It began with a terrible bet that was magnified by reckless borrowing, complex securities, and a vast, unregulated shadow market worth nearly $60 trillion that hid the risks until it was too late to do anything about them.

And as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, it's far from being over.



It started out 16 months ago as a mortgage crisis, and then slowly evolved into a credit crisis. Now it's something entirely different and much more serious.

What kind of crisis it is today?

"This is a full-blown financial storm and one that comes around perhaps once every 50 or 100 years. This is the real thing," says Jim Grant, the editor of "Grant's Interest Rate Observer."

Grant is one of the country's foremost experts on credit markets. He says it didn't have to happen, that this disaster was created entirely by Wall Street itself, during a time of relative prosperity. And they did it by placing a trillion dollar bet, with mostly borrowed money, that the riskiest mortgages in the country could be turned into gold-plated investments.

"If you look at how this started with the subprime crisis, it doesn't seem to be a good bet to put your money behind the idea that people with the lowest income and the poorest credit ratings are gonna be able to pay off their mortgages," Kroft points out.

"The idea that you could lend money to someone who couldn't pay it back is not an inherently attractive idea to the layman, right. However, it seemed to fly with people who were making $10 million a year," Grant says.

With its clients clamoring for safe investments with above average return, the big Wall Street investment houses bought up millions of the least dependable mortgages, chopped them up into tiny bits and pieces, and repackaged them as exotic investment securities that hardly anyone could understand.

60 Minutes looked at one of the selling documents of such a security with Frank Partnoy, a former derivatives broker and corporate securities attorney, who now teaches law at the University of San Diego.

"It's hundreds and hundreds of pages of very small print, a lot of detail here," Partnoy explains.

Asked if he thinks anyone ever reads all this fine-print, Partnoy says, "I doubt many people read it."

These complex financial instruments were actually designed by mathematicians and physicists, who used algorithms and computer models to reconstitute the unreliable loans in a way that was supposed to eliminate most of the risk.

"Obviously they turned out to be wrong," Partnoy says.

Asked why, he says, "Because you can't model human behavior with math."

"How much of this catastrophe had to do with the instruments that Wall Street created and chose to buy…and sell?" Kroft asks Jim Grant.

"The instruments themselves are at the heart of this mess," Grant says. "They are complex, in effect, mortgage science projects devised by these Nobel-tracked physicists who came to work on Wall Street for the very purpose of creating complex instruments with all manner of detailed protocols, and who gets paid when and how much. And the complexity of the structures is at the very center of the crisis of credit today."

"People don't know what they're made up of, how they're gonna behave," Kroft remarks.

"Right," Grant replies.

But it didn't stop ratings agencies, like Standard & Poor's and Moody's, from certifying the dodgy securities investment grade, and it didn't stop Wall Street from making billions of dollars selling them to banks, pension funds, and other institutional investors all over the world. But that was just the beginning of the crisis.

What most people outside of Wall Street and Washington don't know is that a lot of people who bought these risky mortgage securities also went out and bought even more arcane investments that Wall Street was peddling called "credit default swaps." And they have turned out to be a much bigger problem.

  • CBSNews

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