Comparing Greece’s debt problem with the McMansions of the 2007-2008 subprime crisis

One writer links the issues with McMansions in the last decade with the debt issue in Greece:

Sometimes the best way to summarize a complex situation is with an analogy. The Greek debt crisis, for example, is very much like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08.

As you might recall, service workers earning $25,000 annually got $500,000 mortgages to buy McMansions in subprime’s go-go days. The applicant fudged a bit here and there on income and creditworthiness, and lenders reaping huge profits from originating and selling mortgages were delighted to ignore prudent underwriting standards and stamp “low-risk” on the mortgage because it was quickly sold to credulous investors…

The loan was fundamentally imprudent and risky because the borrower was not qualified for a loan of such magnitude. But since the risk was distributed to others, the banks ignored the 100% probability of eventual default and skimmed the profits upfront.

Greece was the subprime borrower, and its membership in the euro gave the banks permission to enter the credit rating of Germany on Greece’s loan application. Though anyone with the slightest knowledge of Greece’s economy knew it did not qualify for loans of such magnitude, lenders were happy to offer the loans at interest rates close to those of Greece’s northern neighbors, and then sell them as low-risk sovereign debt investments.

In effect, the banks were free-riding the magical-thinking belief that membership in the euro transformed risky borrowers into creditworthy borrowers.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Most analogies made about McMansions are not likely to reflect well on such homes. Here, McMansions are part of huge financial problems. Later in the piece we have more negative ideas about McMansions:

Meanwhile, the poorly constructed McMansion is falling apart…So the hapless subprime borrower with the crumbling McMansion and Greece both have the same choice: decades of zombie servitude to pay for the crumbling structure, or default and move on with their lives.

Not exactly attractive options. Yet, the assumption here is that all or most McMansions fall apart within ten years or so. Is this truly the case with McMansions – do they have more repair issues than other homes? Perhaps Consumer Reports could sort this out for us since they like collecting such data.

2. I don’t recall seeing strong evidence that the subprime crisis was primarily driven by people purchasing McMansions. Rather, mortgages were granted that were too risky. But, how many of these loans were actually made for McMansions as opposed to other kinds of housing? The whole housing market was doing crazy things, not just in the McMansion sector.


A variety of opinions on Obama’s “sputnik moment”

One particular historical reference in President Obama’s State of the Union address has attracted some attention. Amidst a section urging America to innovate, Obama said (according to the White House transcript):

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Some liked this reference, others did not. The Atlantic sums up some of the reaction here.

This is the problem with historical analogies. On one hand, Sputnik stirs up certain emotions and memories for the American public. American history books suggest this was a consequential moment as America altered its course to keep up with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, this moment was over 50 years ago, it came during a unprecedented period in American history, and there is no more Soviet Union.

It would be interesting to see poll data on what viewers thought of the Sputnik reference. Is this something that resonates with a majority of Americans? Does this idea of an outside threat (whether it is the Soviet Union, or Japan, or China) motivate people?