My 87-year-old mother is a native Kansan who grew up in the throes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. She is a classic "buy and hold" investor who would make Warren Buffett proud. Her investment returns always exceeded those of my father, to his eternal consternation. He actively traded his stocks and produced decent returns, but nothing like those my mother achieved by simply buying stocks of companies she understood and liked, and then holding onto them.
So I have become a strong advocate of the "basics" when it comes to investing: Do your homework, invest in securities you understand, and then hold on. As a government policymaker, I advocate informed investment decisions - not only to protect investors from losses but also because the efficient functioning of our capital markets relies on investors' doing their homework.
The private-label mortgage-backed securitization markets are a prime example. Trillions of dollars of investor money funded millions of mortgages that borrowers had little chance of repaying. Investors relied heavily on ratings agencies, which in turn relied too heavily on mathematical models instead of analyzing the underlying loans. To be sure, borrowers, brokers, lenders, securitizers, as well as state and federal regulators, all bear responsibility for the widespread deterioration in lending standards. But the problem was compounded by the fact that those ultimately holding the risk - the investors - did not look behind their investments at the quality of the mortgages themselves. If they had, they would have seen high loan-to-value ratios, little income documentation, burdensome fees, and steep payment resets. They would have seen mortgages unaffordable from the beginning, originated based on the assumption that home prices would continue to rise and borrowers would refinance. Of course, we now know that as home prices began to depreciate, borrowers were unable to refinance, leading to massive foreclosures and further price declines. This self-reinforcing downward spiral is at the core of the economic problems we face today.
We will dig out of this. And when we do, I hope for a back-to-basics society - where banks and other lending institutions promote real growth and long-term value for the economy, and where American families have rediscovered the peace of mind of financial security achieved through saving and investing wisely. We need to return to the culture of thrift that my mother and her generation learned the hard way through years of hardship and deprivation. Those are lessons learned that the current crisis is teaching us again.
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