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Mortgage Backed Securities (Insecurities)

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 28, 2010    •    318 Views

NPR’s Planet Money has been looking for the people behind a mortgage backed security. The story, almost like a page turner mystery, began with a $1,000 purchase. With $1,000, Planet Money reporters purchased a tiny piece of a mortgage backed security composed of loans on 2,000 mortgages. Like most investors, they hoped to make some money. In this example, they would profit if the owners of the properties continued to pay the interest and principle due on their mortgages.

A mortgage backed security begins its life when a mortgage broker or a bank or some group says, “We can lend you the money to buy your house.” From there, probably, the lender sells the loan to a second group who combines it with other loans and then sells it to someone else as a mortgage backed security.

You can see the cash flow here. When loans are sold, the seller gets more money to make more loans and then sells them and gets more money to do it all over again. The money made is from the transactions. The incentive? More transactions.

Their podcast was especially good because the mortgage backed security–essentially a computer printout–became human when Planet Money went to Florida to find the people with the mortgages. One couple, 82 years old with a dog named Muffin, had purchased their dream retirement home. However, when its value plunged and they had to choose between maintaining their lifestyle and paying their mortgage, they defaulted. A real estate speculator had purchased multiple properties for resale and then defaulted. A third group was being investigated by the FBI for fraud. And this was only the beginning. If the Planet Money reporters had continued, they would have found a different story behind each mortgage.

The Planet Money story reminded me that so many people relate to a mortgage backed security. In addition to the individuals who initially borrowed the money, we have the mortgage sellers, the mortgage packagers, and the investors. We can look at government and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We can investigate private businesses, families, investment banks, and hedge funds. And still there is more. The group is huge, it is diverse, and its spans the world. 

The Economic Lesson

Mortgage backed securities enabled a financial bubble to inflate because they funded house sales with more money than otherwise would have been available. More dollars chasing the same number of goods inflates prices. As with all bubbles, eventually prices cannot move any higher. At that moment, the bubble pops and prices descend. 

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