The mortgage and credit crisis wasn’t merely predictable; it was predicted. It all started to make sense to me when I attended Learning Annex’s Wealth Expo earlier this year. These courses all promised to teach the properly motivated American how to find homeowners down on their luck and approaching foreclosure, as well as how to buy those homes from under them and resell them at a great profit. What made the spectacle doubly outrageous were not the dancing girls or indoor fireworks; it was the fact that most of the participants were themselves desperate former homeowners, whose illnesses, divorces, fires, and floods had put them in to foreclosure, too. Get it? They were paying to learn how to feed on people just like themselves.
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The whole show was a fitting metaphor for the credit crunch, a misnamed sabotage of the credit system by institutions with the problem of too much, not too little, money to put to work. As I explained in my last column, banks and credit institutions simply had more money on hand than they had people who were qualified to borrow it. So they changed the law to create more demand for the money they had in oversupply.
The banking industry lobbied to reduce the remaining regulations on its lending practices. They won a repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a law enacted just after the depression as a way to prevent regular savings banks from doing risky things with depositors’ money. A “Chinese Wall” was put in place between banks and investment brokerages, preventing conflicts of interest and limiting financial institutions’ power over both the lending and borrowing sides of the same transactions. With the repeal of the Act in 1999, banks were now free use their capital to lend money to unworthy borrowers, package those loans, and then underwrite the sale of those loans to other institutions—such as pension funds.
Meanwhile, the credit industry spent over $100 million lobbying to change bankruptcy laws. Although a corporation in bankruptcy still has its debts erased, the regulations surrounding personal bankruptcy were changed so that personal debts stay on the books forever. The logic they used to argue for the change was that debtors are smart, gaming the system to buy beyond their means and then declaring bankruptcy at the last minute.
But the very same creditors knew that just the opposite was true—as evidenced by their sales tactics and marketing campaigns. They turned to a social science known as behavioral finance—the study of the way people consistently act against their own best financial interests, as well as how to exploit these psychological weaknesses when peddling questionable securities and products.
These are proven behaviors with industry-accepted names like “money illusion bias,” “loss aversion theory,” “irrationality bias,” and “time discounting.” People do not borrow opportunistically, but irrationally. As if looking at objects in the distance, they see future payments as smaller than ones in the present—even if they are actually larger. They are more reluctant to lose a small amount of money than gain a larger one—no matter the probability of either in a particular transaction. They do not consider the possibility of any unexpected negative event occurring between the day they purchase something and the day they will ultimately have to pay for it.
Credit card and mortgage promotions are worded to take advantage of these inaccurate perceptions and irrational behaviors. “Zero percent” introductory fees effectively camouflage regular interest rates up to 20 or 30 percent. Lowering minimum payment requirements from the standard 5 percent to 2 or 3 percent of the outstanding balance looks attractive to borrowers. The corresponding increase in interest charges and additional years to pay off the debt will end up costing them more than triple the original balance. It is irrational for them to make purchases and borrow money under these terms, or to prefer them to the original ones. But they do. We do. This behavior is not limited to the trailer park renters of the rural south, but extends to the highly educated, highly leveraged co-op owners of the Northeast.
Combine this with George Bush’s campaign to convince Americans that home ownership is a virtue—itself a revival of a strategy intended to assuage the resentment of veterans returning from World War II—and you end up with a population willing to do almost anything to “get into” a house, and a mortgage lending industry ready to provide the instruments capable of doing it. Once the mortgage rates shifted and homeowners began to default, the people who created the mess were largely safe. Bankers and high-salaried directors received their bonuses for a job well done, and the only people who lost money were the hapless shareholders—people like you and me—who might own some supposedly low-risk bank stocks. And, of course, all the people who were holding mortgages bigger than the total value of their homes.
The fiction is that the money just “vanished.” Financial newspapers and cable TV business channels say that the value of holdings has been “erased” by market downturns, but it hasn’t been erased at all. It’s on the negative side of one balance sheet, and the positive side of someone else’s. While Goldman Sachs was underwriting mortgage-backed securities of dubious value, it was simultaneously selling them short. Take the example of John Paulson, a trader who earned himself $4 billion and his funds another $15 billion in one year by betting against the housing market. For help predicting the extent of the downturn, Paulson hired none other than Alan Greenspan as an advisor to his hedge fund. The Fed Chairman who encouraged the housing bubble even after it began to crash is now cashing in on the very devastation his policies created. The money did not disappear at all. It merely changed hands. People’s homes were just a medium for the redistribution of wealth.
That’s because the biggest industry in America—maybe the only real industry left—is credit itself: money is lent into existence by the central bank, and then lent again to regional banks, savings and loans, and eventually to you and me. Each bank along the way takes its cut; the final borrower is the only one who has to figure out how to pay it back, with interest, by the close of the contract.
The problem is, in order to pay back three or four dollars on every one dollar borrowed, someone else has to lose. Our monetary system is itself a shell game, with losers built into the very rules. The more the credit industry dominates our economy, the more losers there will inevitably be.
As anyone in any business at all well understands—even the editor of this magazine, I’m sure—one has to borrow money to do almost anything real in this society. Anything that requires a resource, a supply, an office, a piece of ground, transportation, also requires a bit of capital. That capital has to be borrowed. And if it’s not coming from a friend or from mom or dad, it’s being borrowed from an institution that borrowed from another institution that borrowed it, and so on, and so on.
Participation in business or, in most of our cases, land or home ownership, means helping put those wheels of the credit industry in motion. And the more we push, the more momentum they gain, and the more influence they have over an increasingly large portion of our experience. Reality becomes defined by credit sectors, and our time is consumed more each day with wondering how we’re going to pay back what we’ve borrowed.
Every once in a while, though, we break the rules and get to see the possibility for another kind of economy. Whether it’s an alternative currency, an open source software solution, or the simple good faith gifts we make to one another for creating value in each other’s lives. It’s the way Arthur readers bailed out the magazine a few months ago, within a few hours of when creditors would have turned off the lights in the editor’s apartment bedroom (which doubles as the Arthur office). Or the way Robert Anton Wilson’s fans came to his rescue via Paypal to let the ailing writer die at home in his bed rather than a free city hospital (thus saving the taxpayers a whole lot more money than we raised and spent).
Without getting spiritual or mushy, we can agree that there are self-perpetuating cycles of greed and generosity in which we can participate. The more we commit to one or the other, the more of the world conforms to its rules.