Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without the big banks extending so many bad loans. But while poor and elderly people were deliberately targeted with bad loans, the real honey pot was people willing to flip houses.
The grim tale of America’s “subprime mortgage crisis” delivers one of those stinging moral slaps that Americans seem to favor in their histories. Poor people were reckless and stupid, banks got greedy. Layer in some Wall Street dark arts, and there you have it: a global financial crisis.
Dark arts notwithstanding, that’s not what really happened, though.
Analyzing a huge dataset of anonymous credit scores from Equifax, a credit reporting bureau, the economists—Stefania Albanesi of the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Geneva’s Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal of Boston College—found that the biggest growth of mortgage debt during the housing boom came from those with credit scores in the middle and top of the credit score distribution—and that these borrowers accounted for a disproportionate share of defaults.
As for those with low credit scores—the “subprime” borrowers who supposedly caused the crisis—their borrowing stayed virtually constant throughout the boom. And while it’s true that these types of borrowers usually default at relatively higher rates, they didn’t after the 2007 housing collapse. The lowest quartile in the credit score distribution accounted for 70% of foreclosures during the boom years, falling to just 35% during the crisis.
This set up a dangerous dynamic. The mortgages these prime borrowers were able to secure were much bigger than those taken out by poor homebuyers. Worse, speculators have less incentive to hold onto their extra homes than those who only own one home. So when the housing market started tumbling and the economy soon followed, they were much more willing to default and foreclose, as you can see in the chart below.
This would explain why, as the researchers put it, “the rise in mortgage delinquencies is virtually exclusively accounted for by real estate investors.” The share of single-mortgage borrowers who couldn’t keep up on their loan payments barely budged between 2005 and 2008.