The self-destruction of Wall Street

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]

Michael Lewis — who wrote Liar’s Poker back in 1989 — gives a fascinating, detailed chronicle of just how Wall Street managed to cause the current financial maelstrom that’s hurting all of us these days. Much of the article focuses on Steve Eisman, who kept asking uncomfortable questions until he figured out just how screwed up the entire subprime financial market was. He kept trying to make people understand just how bad things were going to be come, but was largely ignored. He then started shorting the subprime market, that is, investing in such a way that he would get a return only if the market went bad:

And short Eisman did—then he tried to get his mind around what he’d just done so he could do it better. He’d call over to a big firm and ask for a list of mortgage bonds from all over the country. The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking home­owners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.

More generally, the subprime market tapped a tranche of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street. Lenders were making loans to people who, based on their credit ratings, were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population. Eisman knew some of these people. One day, his housekeeper, a South American woman, told him that she was planning to buy a townhouse in Queens. “The price was absurd, and they were giving her a low-down-payment option-ARM,” says Eisman, who talked her into taking out a conventional fixed-rate mortgage. Next, the baby nurse he’d hired back in 1997 to take care of his newborn twin daughters phoned him. “She was this lovely woman from Jamaica,” he says. “One day she calls me and says she and her sister own five townhouses in Queens. I said, ‘How did that happen?’?” It happened because after they bought the first one and its value rose, the lenders came and suggested they refinance and take out $250,000, which they used to buy another one. Then the price of that one rose too, and they repeated the experiment. “By the time they were done,” Eisman says, “they owned five of them, the market was falling, and they couldn’t make any of the payments.”

It’s a long article, but it is very much worth reading all the way through. However, if you don’t have the patience, though, I once again recommend this stick-figure presentation, whcih is a remarkable accurate and succinct, if somewhat…ah…pungent summary of just what went wrong. ..bruce..

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