ALAN GREENSPAN, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, proclaimed last month that no one could have predicted the housing bubble. “Everybody missed it,” he said, “academia, the Federal Reserve, all regulators.”
But that is not how I remember it. Back in 2005 and 2006, I argued as forcefully as I could, in letters to clients of my investment firm, Scion Capital, that the mortgage market would melt down in the second half of 2007, causing substantial damage to the economy. My prediction was based on my research into the residential mortgage market and mortgage-backed securities. After studying the regulatory filings related to those securities, I waited for the lenders to offer the most risky mortgages conceivable to the least qualified buyers. I knew that would mark the beginning of the end of the housing bubble; it would mean that prices had risen — with the expansion of easy mortgage lending — as high as they could go.
I had begun to worry about the housing market back in 2003, when lenders first resurrected interest-only mortgages, loosening their credit standards to generate a greater volume of loans. Throughout 2004, I had watched as these mortgages were offered to more and more subprime borrowers — those with the weakest credit. The lenders generally then sold these risky loans to Wall Street to be packaged into mortgage-backed securities, thus passing along most of the risk. Increasingly, lenders concerned themselves more with the quantity of mortgages they sold than with their quality.
Meanwhile, home buyers, convinced by recent history that real estate prices would always rise, readily signed onto whatever mortgage would get them the biggest house. The incentive for fraud was great: the F.B.I. reported that its mortgage fraud caseload increased fivefold from 2001 to 2004.
At the same time, I also watched how ratings agencies vouched for subprime mortgage-backed securities. To me, these agencies seemed not to be paying much attention.
By mid-2005, I had so much confidence in my analysis that I staked my reputation on it. That is, I purchased credit default swaps — a type of insurance — on billions of dollars worth of both subprime mortgage-backed securities and the bonds of many of the financial companies that would be devastated when the real estate bubble burst. As the value of the bonds fell, the value of the credit default swaps would rise. Our swaps covered many of the firms that failed or nearly failed, including the insurer American International Group and the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
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