Editor’s note: We’re pleased to be rolling out a summer series on investing books. Each week we’ll be reviewing two books — one classic, one a bit newer. Our editors and contributors will offer their perspective on some popular titles. We hope you find some inspiration.
Guess what year the housing crisis and financial meltdown of the banking industry started. 2008? 2007? A year or two earlier than that?
How about in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton roamed the White House?
That’s the timing posited by authors Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner in their book Reckless Endangerment, my choice for our summer reading series.
Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times writer Morgenson, and Rosner, a partner at research consulting group Graham Fisher & Co., combined their writing talents, research data and shoe-leather reporting to craft a fascinating narrative that helps chronicle and explain the slow — yet inexorable — march toward the early-2008 economic meltdown.
It was during the Clinton administration that the leaders of quasi-public housing agencies like Fannie Mae, run at the time by James A. Johnson, and government lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — including Barney Frank (D-MA), and Robert Zoeller (R-UT) — forged a plan virtually codified by Clinton in 1994:
More Americans should own their own homes, for reasons that are economic and tangible, and reasons that are emotional and intangible, but go to the heart of what it means to harbor, to nourish, to expand the American Dream.
Those words became the rallying cry for legislators, bankers, investment houses, the housing industry, regulators and lenders to engage in making that American Dream come true — by any means necessary.
Morgenson and Rosner take readers through nearly two decades of institutional recklessness and unaccountability that eventually led to trillions of dollars’ worth of loss in investments both in housing and the financial sector; millions of Americans who were evicted from or lost their homes; and ultimately a financial bailout, followed by a recession that led to a massive unemployment problem that still plagues the economy today.
The problems really started in 1995 when the government put together a coalition of banks, homebuilders, securities firms and real estate firms — a total of 65 national organizations broken into 131 small groups — to make homeownership affordable.
As outlined by Morgenson and Rosner, the major flaw in that combination of public (government) and private enterprise was that it skewed in favor of the private enterprises, led by Fannie Mae and its Chairman Johnson. Fannie Mae became the catalyst for the entire enterprise, jawboning and bullying regulators and critics alike into allowing virtually any potential homeowner to get the credit necessary to buy a home.
By backstopping the real estate industry with its de-facto government credit “guarantee” to the banking industry, Fannie Mae grew into the largest holder of private mortgages, with hundreds of billions of dollars sitting on its taxpayer-supported balance sheet.
Complicity in the form of rapacious lenders, lax regulators, including cowed ratings agencies, investment banks trying to feed the monster and collect billions in fees, and, yes, willing borrowers, put an out of control system right on the brink. Inevitably it collapsed.
Morgenson and Rosner have done their homework in spades, and their narrative gives life to what could’ve been a monotonous data dump. The characters in this drama are well drawn — and since the majority are still around, they’re given even more life since they are so familiar.
Reckless Endangerment is a story worth telling, a cautionary tale about a system run amok that resonates today as the continued debate over whether “too big to fail” is still a viable concept, and what — if indeed anything — can be done to avoid making the same mistakes again.
It’s a great read, well worth a few afternoons of lounging time at the pool or beach.
Marc Bastow is an Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace.com.