Financial Meltdown 101
From 1982 to 2000, the U.S. stock market went on the longest bull run ever, as share prices rose to dizzying heights. In the late 1990s, a combination of factors, which included the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates, created a huge price bubble in Internet stocks. A speculative bubble occurs when price far outstrips the fundamental worth of the asset. Bubbles have occurred in everything from real estate, stocks and railroads to tulips, beanie babies and comic books. As with all bubbles, it took more and more money to make a return*. This led to the Internet bubble popping in March 2000.
During this time of market mania, the Fed guts the Glass-Steagall Act, which was enacted during the Great Depression to prevent the type of banking activity that led to the 1929 stock market crash. In 1996, the Fed allows regular banks to become heavily involved in investment banking, which opens the door to conflicts of interest in banks pushing sketchy financial products on customers who poorly understood the risks. In 1999, under intense pressure from financial firms, Congress overturns Glass-Steagall, allowing banks to engage in any sort of activity from underwriting insurance to investment banking to commercial banking (such as holding deposits).
*For instance, if you purchased 100 shares of Apple at $10 a share and it rose to $20, it cost $1,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 100 percent return), but if the shares were $100 each and rose to $110, it would cost $10,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 10 percent return -- and the loss potential would be much greater, too.
Many Americans joined the stock mania literally in the last days and lost considerable wealth, and some, such as Enron employees, lost their life savings. When the stock market bubble erupted, turbulence rippled through the larger economy, causing investment and corporate spending to sink and unemployment to rise. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, generating a shock wave of fear and a drop in consumer spending. Burned by the stock market, many people shifted to home purchases as a more secure way to build wealth.
By 2002, with the economy already limping along, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Fed slashed interest rates to historic lows of near 1 percent to avoid a severe economic downturn. Low interest rates make borrowed money cheap for everyone from homebuyers to banks. This ocean of credit was one factor that led to a major shift in the home-lending industry -- from originate to own to originate to distribute. Low interest rates also meant that homebuyers could take on larger mortgages, which supported rising prices.
In the originate-to-own model, the mortgage lender -- which can be a private mortgage company, bank, thrift or credit union -- holds the mortgage for its term, usually 30 years. Every month the bank* originating the mortgage receives a payment made of principal and interest from the homeowner. If the buyer defaults on the mortgage, that is, stops making monthly payments, then the bank can seize and sell a valuable asset: the house. Given strict borrowing standards and the long life of the loan, it's like the homebuyer is getting married to the bank.
*Shorthand for any mortgage originator.
In the originate-to-distribute model, the banks sell the mortgage to third parties, turning the loans into a commodity like widgets on a conveyor belt. By selling the loan, the bank frees up its capital so it can turn around and finance a new mortgage. Thus, the banks have an incentive to sell (or distribute) mortgages fast so they can recoup the funds to sell more mortgages. By selling the loan, the bank also distributes the risk of default to others.
The banks made money off mortgage fees, perhaps only a few thousand dollars per loan. Because they sold the loan, sometimes in just a few days, they had no concern that the homebuyer might default. Banks began using call centers and high-pressure tactics to mass-produce mortgages because the profit was in volume--how many loans could be approved how fast. This was complemented by fraud throughout the realestate industry, in which appraisers over-valued homes and mortgage brokers approved anyone with a pulse, not verifying assets, job status or income. And the mushrooming housing industry distorted the whole economy. Of all net job growth from 2002 to 2007, up to 40 percent was housing-sector related: mortgage brokers, appraisers, real-estate agents, call-center employees, loan officers, construction and home-improvement store workers, etc.