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Blame goes to banks that just couldn't say no

The more you reflect on the housing crisis, the more you realize it was just one big bungled bank job.

With last week's failure of yet another financial institution, Bear Stearns, it becomes clearer every day how much mortgage banker recklessness brought on the current fiasco.

Yes, people lied on their mortgage applications, exaggerating jobs and income to buy houses they couldn't afford.

Yes, buyers and sellers treated homeownership as a roulette game in which the house never loses.

Yes, many of these purchasers cynically walked away from investment properties when the payments got to be too much.

No doubt about it: The banks got mugged. But don't think they weren't willing victims. They were begging to be fleeced, begging for it as much as a guy who staggers through a dark alley at 2 a.m. wearing a bandolier stuffed with $100 bills.

You've probably heard how the game worked. Most lenders — especially big players like Countrywide — never actually bore the full risk of the tainted mortgages. Financial wizards packaged millions of home loans as securities for sale around the world.

The riskier the home loans, the higher the potential return on the securities. Of course, borrowers had to repay the loans or the superstructure crumbles. We're now living with that collapse.

The mind reels when you consider how blind the banks were as late as 11/2 years ago. I talked to a Clearwater couple last week who sold their house in mid 2006 for $1.1-million. But the buyer took out a loan for $1.4-million, the extra $300,000 ostensibly to make repairs on the house.

Of course, the extra money was never used for that purpose and within months the owner stopped making mortgage payments. The bank will sell the home at auction next month, probably for half of what it was worth.

The mortgage company in this case wasn't Ma and Pa Kettle's Lendin' Shack. It was New York's venerable Lehman Brothers.

Whatever happened to the gruff naysayer guarding the bank vault? You may have hated him when he shoved the rejected loan application across his big oak desk, but at least he understood one of the first laws of business: knowing when to say no.

James Thorner can be reached

at thorner@sptimes.com.

Blame goes to banks that just couldn't say no 03/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 5:20pm]
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