Bad faith and the banking crisis

It’s deeply satisfying to see the Tory leader excoriating bankers for their obscene bonuses, but there’s something rather embarrassingly closer to home here — as John Gapper points out.

There is no question that professionals of many nationalities – bankers, financiers, estate agents and regulators – behaved badly. They got paid a lot of money and wilfully loosened credit restrictions to keep house prices rising and bonuses flowing. Many of them, although far from all, were American.

But I would like to propose another culprit for the difficulty that many economies are in: you and I. We home buyers and mortgage borrowers share the blame, whether we are American, British or Icelandic.

Take nationality first. A year ago, when the US subprime mortgage debacle was evident but the British housing market was still doing well, I took a trip to London from my home in New York. On a visit to friends in west London, I was struck by the number of houses in their street with “To Let” boards outside.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about how the UK housing market differed from that of the US because it was a small island with a limited housing stock, there was no equivalent of subprime lending and so on. But those “To Let” boards said something different to me.

They showed that cheap debt and rising asset prices had led to housing speculation all over the world; it just took different forms. In wide, flat Florida it created sprawls of condominium apartments; in densely packed UK cities it generated a rush into buy-to-let properties. For subprime mortgages in the US, read “self-certified” UK loans…

I’m a conservative about money and so have been watching what’s been going on for the last decade with mounting disbelief — in this country and in Ireland. The Buy-to-Let racket in the UK was particularly screwy. There was a time, for example, when owners of such properties weren’t particularly bothered if they didn’t have tenants because their value was escalating so quickly that the rent was just icing on the cake. One didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that this was nuts.