Why Did Financial Institutions Sell RMBS at Fire Sale Prices during the Financial Crisis?
Much attention has been paid to the large decreases in value of non-agency residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) during the financial crisis. Many observers have argued that the fall in prices was partly caused by fire sales. We use capital requirements and accounting rules to identify circumstances where financial institutions had incentives to engage in fire sales and then examine whether such sales occurred. For financial institutions subject to credit-sensitive capital requirements, capital requirements increase as an asset's credit becomes impaired. When accounting rules require such an asset's value to be marked-to-market and the fair value loss to be recognized in earnings, a capital-constrained firm can improve its capital position by selling the credit-impaired asset even if it has to accept a liquidity discount to do so. In contrast, a financial firm whose fair value losses are not recognized in earnings for the purpose of calculating capital requirements is more likely to satisfy capital requirements by selling liquid assets whose value has not fallen and hence would be unlikely to engage in fire sales. Using a sample of 5,000 repeat transactions of non-agency RMBS by insurance companies from 2006 to 2009, we show that insurance companies that became more capital-constrained because of operating losses (uncorrelated with RMBS credit quality) and also recognized fair value losses sold comparable RMBS at much lower prices than other insurance companies during the crisis.
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