I 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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