'House of Cards' is a real crash course

CNBC's exploration of the economic crisis works backward from case studies to give meaning to the headlines. CNBC's exploration of the economic crisis works backward from case studies to give meaning to the headlines. (Richard drew/associated press/file 2007)
By Joanne Ostrow
The Denver Post / February 11, 2009
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I'm counting the for-sale signs multiplying in my neighborhood and hearing from newly unemployed friends and family. Now that I've seen CNBC's "House of Cards," I'm beginning to grasp the way we got here.

Not that it's entirely comprehensible.

Even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan admits in this documentary that, while he knows a thing or two about math, he didn't understand the more complex financial instruments on the market.

Nobody can fully make sense of "collateralized debt obligations."

You don't need to understand CDOs to appreciate "House of Cards," debuting tomorrow at 8 p.m. on CNBC. David Faber's brisk two-hour exploration of the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression works backward from case studies to give meaning to financial instruments like CDOs. Very human accounts by homeowners, a repo officer, investment bankers, all the way up to Greenspan give meaning to the headlines. Bits of newscasts by Brian Williams and others punctuate the personal stories.

The continuing thread, of course, is greed.

The greed of mortgage lenders handing out mortgages to anyone with a pulse; the greed of would-be home buyers living far beyond their means; the greed of Wall Street, counting outrageous profits while ignoring a long-range systemic failure.

In the aftermath of 9/11, when President George W. Bush told Americans to go shopping, we obeyed. When the Fed drastically dropped interest rates, the country went on a real-estate binge.

People who normally couldn't qualify for loans were buying dream houses with adjustable-rate mortgages that would balloon later. When the value of those houses became inflated, people borrowed against the equity - to put in swimming pools.

They treated their homes "like ATM machines," a lender observes. The effects, once reality kicked in, were profound and global. Faber reports:

Daniel Sadek was a mortgage lender with one of those screaming TV commercials inducing anyone and everyone to borrow money and buy a house. Sadek, who had a third-grade education and fancied himself a film producer, was making personal profits of $5 million a month. Sadek didn't agree to an interview for the documentary, but footage depicts his high living, including his collection of race cars.

Narvik, Norway, a picturesque town above the Arctic Circle, was ruined by investing in Wall Street. Narvik Mayor Karen Kuvaas tells Faber the lesson: Don't trust "men in Armani suits."

The most obvious and, for some, the hardest lesson is also the simplest. As we've heard since childhood, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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