Bear Stearns needed George Bailey

Warning!  This post contains geezer-ness, as in “Remember the good old days?”

Today, I was imagining explaining the Bear Stearns debacle to Maw Maw, my grandmother, and picturing what she would have said.  In her direct, plain spoken way, I think her basic summary would be that they just got too smart for their own good and too big for their britches.

Here’s how it goes . . . loan money to folks who can’t afford to buy whatever it is they are buying (in this case houses), lure them in by giving them a low payment to start with that will go up later when (surely) they will be better able to pay.  Throw in a crazy over-inflated assessment (appraisal, if you will) of the value of the house and tell them they can sell it to someone else in just a few years and make a LOT of money.  Now bundle up all these dicey loans and give them a fancy name (in this case hedge funds) and sell them to some greedy idgits who think this is a grand idea even though they have never met the people they are now loaning money to, never set eyes on the properties that secure the loans; and they’ll have to borrow money to play this game to boot!  Just keep reassuring them that the U.S. government can’t possibly let this scheme fail.  (Well, that part is certainly true.)

Swell concept.  What could possibly go wrong?

Remember that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, when there’s a run on the building & loan?  George Bailey talks to the people about what their money in the bank does for their neighbors, their town.  He knows everyone of them well enough to know how much they really need to take out of the bank and what they can hang in for.  But not one person buying into the Bear Stearns’ hedge funds can put faces to even one family.  They invested in paper, not people.  They were motivated by ROI, not building something—a community—of value.

I know, I know.  The world is more complex today.

Is that such a good thing?

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