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House of Cards Part 2

Apr 5, 2008
Last week, I talked about how the current credit crises evolved. This crisis is the result of mistakes made by the homeowner, the mortgage company, the investment banks and the rating agencies. This week, you'll see what caused the House of Cards to fall and will learn how this example can keep you from making a financial mistake.

Leverage was used at each stage of the mortgage-chain. Leverage is when money is borrowed so that additional investments can be made. The idea is that more can be earned on the investment than has to be paid in interest on the loan. So the homeowner borrows the full value of the home, the investment banks borrow money so they can buy more loans, etc. While leverage can increase returns, it also exacerbates a decline.

For example, a popular concept these days is to borrow the equity from your home and invest it in life insurance (one that I don't agree with). Perhaps both spouses work and their income easily covers the additional mortgage payment. The couple only sees the potential profit and doesn't realize if things don't work out, this transaction can be very costly to unwind.

Suppose one spouse loses their job and their income falls short of covering the mortgage payment. Or maybe their mortgage payment increases because of interest rates. Unless the spouse can find another job, the couple will be faced with having to sell their home quickly to pay back the mortgage company. If there are lots of other people in the situation, all trying to sell their homes at the same time, the value of a home is going to drop quickly.

Taking this example a step further, if home prices in general have declined 20%, then those who had 20% equity in their home suddenly have none. Now their home is only worth what they owe. Or, they may have a home equity line of credit. The bank is going to reduce the line of credit based on the decreased amount of equity.

That's basically what has occurred on a national scale at every point in the mortgage-chain. If a portfolio of mortgages is used as collateral and it's suddenly worth 50% less, the lender is going to want their money.

What should we learn from this? First, examine why so many homes are in foreclosure. Is it because the borrower wasn't informed about the details of the loan? No, the bank or mortgage company provided lots of fine print for homeowners to sign, explaining every aspect of their loans, including how interest rates would increase payments in the future.

Did banks or mortgage companies illegally provide mortgages to consumers who weren't qualified? No, not really. Obviously, the mortgage lenders wanted to sell as many mortgages as possible because that's how they made money. It wasn't their job to protect the borrower.

It's the same in the world of investing. You can't expect the one selling you a product like a mutual fund or annuity to be the one to watch out for your best interests. As a consumer, it is your responsibility to do the research, read the fine print and thoroughly understand any financial contract you sign. A financial advisor isn't going to say to you, "Hey, this might not be the best investment for you. Your money is going to be locked up for 15 years and the only way you can tap it is by paying a big penalty. Besides, you can earn even more using a balanced portfolio of quality investments."

Believe it or not, a commission-based broker or agent is NOT legally obligated to do what is in your best interest. They only have to offer investments that are suitable. They don't have to make sure you understand the fine print you sign. They don't have to go over all the future consequences of your financial decisions. They don't have to sort through all your investment options and find the one that fits you perfectly. That's not their job!

Don't let fear or greed cause you to defy common sense when it comes to investing. Do independent research, read and carefully parse the fine print and if you can't understand it then you shouldn't buy the investment. Don't let a smooth-talking advisor cause you to skip any of these important steps.
About the Author
Nationally-syndicated financial columnist and Certified Financial Planner(R) Jeffrey Voudrie provides personal, in-depth money management services and advice to select private clients throughout the USA.

Read more or ask Jeff a financial question at www.guardingyourwealth.com.
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