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'No Money Down' Falls Flat

Now they are also a major reason the subprime mortgage market is melting down, why 1.5 million Americans may lose their homes to foreclosure and why hundreds of thousands of homes could be dumped on an already glutted market. They also represent a huge cloud hanging over Wall Street investment houses, which packaged and sold these mortgages to investors around the world.

How did we get to this point?

It began years ago when Lewis Ranieri, an investment banker at the old Salomon Brothers, dreamed up the idea of buying mortgages from bank lenders, bundling them and issuing bonds with the bundles as collateral. The monthly payments from homeowners were used to pay interest on the bonds, and principal was repaid once all the mortgages had been paid down or refinanced.

Thanks to Ranieri and his successors, almost anyone can originate a mortgage loan -- not just banks and big mortgage lenders, but any mortgage broker with a Web site and a phone. Some banks still keep the mortgages they write. But most other originators sell them to investment banks that package and "securitize" them. And because the originators make their money from fees and from selling the loans, they don't have much at risk if borrowers can't keep up with their payments.

And therein lies the problem: an incentive structure that encourages originators to write risky loans, collect the big fees and let someone else suffer the consequences.

This "moral hazard," as economists call it, has been magnified by another innovation in the capital markets. Instead of packaging entire mortgages, Wall Street came up with the idea of dividing them into "tranches." The safest tranche, which offers investors a relatively low interest rate, will be the first to be paid off if too many borrowers default and their houses are sold at foreclosure auction. The owners of the riskiest tranche, in contrast, will be the last to be paid, and thus have the biggest risk if too many houses are auctioned for less than the value of their loans. In return for this risk, their bonds offer the highest yield.

It was this ability to chop packages of mortgages into different risk tranches that really enabled the mortgage industry to rush headlong into all those new products and new markets -- in particular, the subprime market for borrowers with sketchy credit histories. Selling the safe tranches was easy, while the riskiest tranches appealed to the booming hedge-fund industry and other investors like pension funds desperate for anything offering a higher yield. So eager were global investors for these securities that when the housing market began to slow, they practically invited the mortgage bankers to keep generating new loans even if it meant they were riskier. The mortgage bankers were only too happy to oblige.

By the spring of 2005, the deterioration of lending standards was pretty clear. They were the subject of numerous eye-popping articles in The Post by my colleague Kirstin Downey. Regulators began to warn publicly of the problem, among them Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Several members of Congress called for a clampdown. Mortgage insurers and numerous independent analysts warned of a gathering crisis.

But it wasn't until December 2005 that the four bank regulatory agencies were able to hash out their differences and offer for public comment some "guidance" for what they politely called "nontraditional mortgages." Months ensued as the mortgage bankers fought the proposed rules with all the usual bogus arguments, accusing the agencies of "regulatory overreach," "stifling innovation" and substituting the judgment of bureaucrats for the collective wisdom of thousands of experienced lenders and millions of sophisticated investors. And they warned that any tightening of standards would trigger a credit crunch and burst the housing bubble that their loosey-goosey lending had helped spawn.

The industry campaign didn't sway the regulators, but it did delay final implementation of the guidance until September 2006, both by federal and many state regulators. And even now, with the market for subprime mortgages collapsing around them, the mortgage bankers and their highly paid enablers on Wall Street continue to deny there is a serious problem, or that they have any responsibility for it. In substance and tone, they sound almost exactly like the accounting firms and investment banks back when Enron and WorldCom were crashing around them.

What we have here is a failure of common sense. With occasional exceptions, bankers shouldn't make -- or be allowed to make -- mortgage loans that require no money down and no documentation of income to people who won't be able to afford the monthly payments if interest rates rise, house prices fall or the roof springs a leak. It's not a whole lot more complicated than that.

Steven Pearlstein will host a Web discussion today at 11 a.m. at washingtonpost.com. He can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.


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