The Future of Homeownership

Brooklyn Law Notes - Fall 2018I wrote a short article, Restoring The American Dream, for Brooklyn Law Notes. It is based on my forthcoming book on federal housing finance policy. It opens,

Two movie scenes can bookend the last hundred years of housing finance. In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey speaks to panicked depositors who are 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 (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 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 U.S. 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 shit. I’m talking rock-bottom FICO scores, no income verification, adjustable rates…Dog shit. Default rates are already up from 1 to 4 percent. If they rise to 8 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 21st century, that was largely how Americans bought homes.


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The Money Problem

Professor Ricks

I recently read The Money Problem: Rethinking Financial Regulation by Morgan Ricks (University of Chicago Press 2016).  While it is not a book for the financially faint of heart, it does provide a great introduction to what money is and what banks and other financial intermediaries do. The back matter reads,

Years have passed since the world experienced one of the worst financial crises in history, and while countless experts have analyzed it, many central questions remain unanswered. Should money creation be considered a ‘public’ or ‘private’ activity—or both? What do we mean by, and want from, financial stability? What role should regulation play? How would we design our monetary institutions if we could start from scratch?

In The Money Problem, Morgan Ricks addresses all of these questions and more, offering a practical yet elegant blueprint for a modernized system of money and banking—one that, crucially, can be accomplished through incremental changes to the United States’ current system. He brings a critical, missing dimension to the ongoing debates over financial stability policy, arguing that the issue is primarily one of monetary system design. The Money Problem offers a way to mitigate the risk of catastrophic panic in the future, and it will expand the financial reform conversation in the United States and abroad.

I particularly recommend Part I to those trying to get their hands around money (the concept, not hard currency itself) and how it is created. Ricks reviews the “standard textbook description” of bank money creation and others’ account of it before providing his own “modified story.” (58-59)

Parts II and III provides a far-reaching blueprint for reforming the monetary system.  This reform agenda is not without its critics, but I think Ricks gives a fair reading to competing views so you can make up your own mind as to who is right.