REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 9, 2019

Financing The American Dream

By David Reiss

I published Financing The American Dream in the May/June 2019 issue of the ABA’s Probate & Property magazine.  it opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO Radio Pictures Inc. 1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors demanding their money back from Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. This tiny thrift in the little town of Bedford Falls had closed its doors after it had to repay a large loan and temporarily ran out of money to return to its depositors. George tells them:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.

Local lenders lent locally, and local conditions caused local problems. And in the early 20th century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.

In Adam McKay’s movie The Big Short (Plan B Entertainment 2015), the character Jared Vennett is based on Greg Lippmann, a former Deutsche Bank trader who made well over a billion dollars for his employer by betting against subprime mortgages before the market collapse. Vennett  demonstrates with a set of stacked wooden blocks how the modern housing finance market has been built on a shaky foundation:

This is a basic mortgage bond. The original ones were simple, thousands of AAA mortgages bundled together and sold with a guarantee from the US government. But the modern-day ones are private and are made up of layers of tranches, with the AAA highest-rated getting paid first and the
lowest, B-rated getting paid last and taking on defaults first.

Obviously if you’re buying B-levels you can get paid more. Hey, they’re risky, so sometimes they fail. . . .

Somewhere along the line these B and BB level tranches went from risky to dog [excrement]. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates. . . dog [excrement]. Default rates are already up from one to four percent. If they rise to eight percent—and they will—a lot of these BBBs are going to zero.

After the whole set of blocks comes crashing down, someone watching Vennett’s presentation asks, “What’s that?” He responds, “That is America’s housing market.”

Global lenders lent globally, and global conditions caused global and local problems. And in the early twenty-first century, that was largely how Americans bought homes. This article provides an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each aspect of the housing finance system in order to enable discussion of how to design a stronger system for the rest of the 21st Century. For a much more extensive treatment of this topic, see the author’s forthcoming book, Paying for The American Dream: How To Reform The Market for Mortgages (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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