December 8, 2015
Reviewing the Big Short
Realtor.com quoted me in Explaining the Housing Crash With Jenga—Did ‘The Big Short’ Get It Right? The story reads in part,
One of the more hyped movie releases this Oscar season stars the housing crisis itself: “The Big Short,” in which four financial wheelers and dealers (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt) join forces to figure out what caused the housing bubble of 2003-2005 to burst (and how they could profit from it, of course). It’s based on the best-selling, intensively reported book by journalist Michael Lewis.
Granted, the subprime mortgage meltdown is a complicated subject… but this movie purports to illuminate all with a simple visual aid: a tower of Jenga blocks. As Gosling explains in [this video clip], mortgage bonds at that time were made up of layers called tranches, with the highest-rated and most secure loans stacked on top of the lower-rated “subprime” ones. And once holders of those subprime mortgages defaulted in droves, as they did starting in 2006, the whole structure collapsed. Jenga!
Which seems simple enough. Only is this depiction accurate, or just a Hollywood set piece?
Well, according to David Reiss, Research Director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, this movie’s high-concept depiction of the mortgage crisis is largely on the money.
“There is a lot that is accurate in the clip: the history of mortgage-backed securities, the degradation of mortgage quality during the subprime boom, the loss of value of lower grade tranches,” he says.
* * *
Yet there is one thing that the movie did fudge, according to Reiss.
“I would argue that there is one big inaccuracy that exists, I am sure, for dramatic effect,” he says. “I would have put the AAA [tranches] at the bottom of the Jenga stack. In fact, the failure of the Bs and BBs did not cause the failure of AAAs, and many AAAs survived just fine or with modest losses.”
In other words, only the top half of the Jenga tower should have crumbled … but that wouldn’t have looked quite as flashy, would it?
“It would not sound as cool if only the top part of the stack crashed,” Reiss concedes. “But the bigger point, that the failures of the secondary mortgage market led to the crash of the housing market, is spot on.”
And hopefully one that won’t play out again in real life.| Permalink