And who was financing all this? How on earth was giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to criminal enterprises a viable business? Those from-the-gut questions led me to briefly describe the market in mortgage-backed securities and the rudiments of its financial modeling, including such strategies as diversifying mortgage securities pools among multiple states and shifting risk back onto consumers through prepayment penalties and other onerous terms.
It should have been obvious, even to a neophyte like myself, that that house of cards would fall apart. But at the time even I fell into the trap of believing that the financial industry’s Masters of the Universe knew best, and that the returns promised to investors on mortgage bonds would be honored. While I received invaluable help from analysts at credit ratings agencies in understanding the mechanics of securitization, they were hardly the ones to tell me that the emperor had no clothes. Community advocates, usually ready to go out on a limb with predictions of doom and destruction, had fallen into an “us versus them” mentality that distorted reality. Typically, they described the problem of mass foreclosures in their neighborhoods as one of collateral damage from a system that generally worked out well for investment bankers and investors alike. Those activists made the same error that Wall Street analysts and business reporters did: believing that the future would follow patterns of the past. As City Limits and other independent media had reported during the 1990s, subprime mortgages had defaulted at high rates for years - with the fallout overwhelmingly hitting urban, minority neighborhoods and borrowers. Yet only briefly, in the wake of the credit crunch of the late 1990s, did the securities themselves falter. And so all of us chose to believe that the story would continue to be one of discrimination and disparity—not a calamity that would swallow the entire housing market and then the economy.
But despite our own shortcomings, I hope business journalists can learn a few things from what we did get right and especially how we got there:
First and foremost, we looked for the real-world impacts of business practices. Financial journalists tend to focus on the internal benefits (to investors and bankers) of economic activity, without accounting for external social costs. We indies saw benefits and costs as inextricably linked. We could see clearly that it was a zero-sum game, and the gap between winners and losers was growing unconscionably wide. That chasm turned out to be a critical weakness in the financial system. The basic model of subprime lending, after all, exploited asymmetries of information between consumers and the financial services and real estate industries. It was only a matter of time before players within the industry—mortgage brokers, subprime lenders, investment banks, ratings agencies, etc.—played the same game, albeit for higher stakes, with the investors who were supplying the funds.
Two, we indies were also reporting out in the real world, in my case thanks to a magazine that values and invests in place-based reporting. While numbers were a starting point, it was only after I’d spent more than a week in a foot of snow in Cleveland that the scope and workings of the growing crisis began to become apparent. Leads gleaned from foreclosure, property and bankruptcy records, tips from consumer lawyers, and a spreadsheet of recent sales transactions compiled by a community development corporation yielded stories far more vivid and troubling than I could have imagined. Entire streets had been taken over by mortgage fraud schemes that left most houses empty and put remaining homeowners under siege. I met a Croatian immigrant whose 95-year-old father was found dead on the kitchen floor after a break-in. A suburban speculator living out a Flip This House fantasy introduced his low-income buyer to a subprime mortgage broker who fudged the borrower’s financial profile on the mortgage application, and didn’t deny it when I called. A speculator used his girlfriend’s good credit to buy a half dozen dilapidated houses, then immediately resold them to his own companies at double or triple the price. What I’d found was an organized crime scene that extended for miles and into hundreds of millions of dollars.