All the analysts chortling over the “equivalent of a tax break” for consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses as the chickens of financializing oil come home to roost.

The pundits crowing about the stimulus effect of lower oil prices on consumers are missing the real story, which is the financialization of oil. Financialization is another word that is often bandied about without the benefit of a definition.

Here is my definition:

Financialization is the mass commodification of debt and debt-based financial instruments collaterlized by previously low-risk assets, a pyramiding of risk and speculative gains that is only possible in a massive expansion of low-cost credit and leverage.

That is a mouthful, so let’s break it into bite-sized chunks.

Home mortgages are a good example of how financialization increases financial profits by jacking up risk and distributing it to suckers who don’t recognize the potential for collapse and staggering losses.

In the good old days, home mortgages were safe and dull: banks and savings and loans issued the mortgages and kept the loans on their books, earning a stable return for the 30 years of the mortgage’s term.

Then the financialization machine appeared on the horizon and revolutionized the home mortgage business to increase profits. The first step was to generate entire new families of mortgages with higher profit margins than conventional mortgages. These included no-down payment mortgages (liar loans), no-interest-for-the-first-few-years mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and so on.

This broadening of options and risks greatly expanded the pool of people who qualified for a mortgage. In the old days, only those with sterling credit qualified for a home mortgage. In the financialized realm, almost anyone with a pulse could qualify for one exotic mortgage or another.

The interest rate, risk and profit margins were all much higher for the originators. What’s not to like? Well, the risk of default is a problem. Defaults trigger losses.

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