A Whole Different Monster in the Crisis gets Exposed

Monster

I can not believe it has taken this many dozens of books for me to get to one where the great enemy in the financial crisis of 2008 is not merely Wall Street, or Fannie Mae, or Congress, or the Federal Reserve, but rather, the mortgage brokers all over the country (particularly the subprime ones) who served as the “drug dealers” in this whole affair.  I am not saying I necessarily agree with that perspective (indeed, if there is one thing my own “final assessment” is going to reveal is that it is utter foolishness to try and narrow down the bad guys in this saga to one or two or even three players).  In fact, I actually disagree with this author rather dramatically on a few points.  However, there is no question that The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America–and Spawned a Global Crisis does something that needed to be done: It at least adds to our list of villains around the country not just the subprime lenders themselves, but their various dirtbag employees who wouldn’t know a moral action if it hit them across the face.

A few clarifications are in order: I do not believe all mortgage brokers are or were bad people.  In fact, I not only a few good ones, but even know a few bright ones (yes, a few).  I believe the most insidious of actors in this affair (the ones who from 2000-2006 were making roughly 10x their actual intellectual and financial contribution to society) are all out of the mortgage business now, and have likely returned to their prior careers of pizza delivery or make-up sampling at the mall.  There are exceptions, of course, and I am sure the business still has its fair share of unseemly folks (as any business does).  But there needs to be an analysis done as to why 2000-2006 lent itself (no pun intended) to such an exaggerated stage of dirtbags and utter morons being empowered to have such an authoritative role in almost ruining the world.  The Monster is an acceptable attempt at that.

Michael Hudson’s underlying thesis is that the now deceased Roland Arnall of Ameriquest fame was the anti-christ.  He certainly overstates his case that the culture of Ameriquest (and all the subprime lenders) was as evil as the day as long (riddled with fraud, corruption, bullying, and a total lack of regard for what was best for their customers).  I suspect Arnall was as bad of a guy as Hudson says.  But I have to say, it is just unfathomable to me that somehow we are supposed to vindicate the morally bankrupt brokers who actually committed the fraud and deceit around the country just because there was not a good compliance structure in place, or just because the higher-ups were looking for fraud and deceit to take place.  Hudson would have written a better book, in my opinion, if he not overstated his case for the bad culture at Ameriquest, and instead evaluated how it was even fundamentally possible that such low-lifes were ever in a position to benefit from that bad culture to begin with.   Whether or not I think the book’s conclusions (or implied conclusions) are correct, namely that better regulation would have made all the difference in the world, I do believe the book is valuable in showing how the distribution phase of this crisis went down.  Yes, securitization (the willingness of Wall Street to buy fraudulent loans knowing they could sell them off to yield-starved clients) is a huge part of this story.  And yes, monetary policy helped fuel that firey drive for yield, and yes, flawed policy made housing a holy grail it never should have been.  But inside of the perfect storm that all these factors helped to create, there had to be “soldiers” – minions who blindly went about their business getting folks to sign on the line that is dotted.  Hudson portrays them as the immature, selfish, greedy, and utterly bush-league force of evil that they were.  So kudos.

But Hudson really, really misses the mark in a major part of this book.  And that is in his inexplicable desire to vindicate Main Street for their role in all this.  If one didn’t know better, they would read Hudson’s book and actually believe that no American consumer ever understood what he was signing, or ever understood the terms of his loan.  Were there isolated cases of fraud and deceit and “predatory” practices?  Of course!  But does Hudson actually believe that those extreme outlier cases where people thought their rate was 7% and it turned out to be 15% were the rule, and not the exception?  Does he believe that the 80-year old couples in Minnesota who got duped were what brought the world’s financial system to its knees?  Oh please.  Give me a  break.  All commentators who evaluate the 2008 financial crisis with a bias towards defending the American people are attempting the impossible, and defending the indefensible.  I will join Hudson in his moral consternation of the mortgage lending industry all day long, but to paint a picture as he does that the American people were just innocent sheep being led astray by predatory lenders is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, and Hudson HAS to know this.

But maybe he doesn’t.  If there is one thing  I am convinced of at this stage in my research, it is that people are willing to believe some horrific things if it fits their ideology.  This crisis desperately needs a full-orbed analysis.  My reading and writing continues.