Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is considered the definitive history of the financial crisis. But to understand American finance, you need to understand Ace Cash Express as well as you do Goldman Sachs. Which is why Gary Rivlin’s Broke, USA is a necessary companion. While Lewis tells the story of mortgage-backed assets and the bankers who flogged them, Rivlin tells the story of the underlying mortgages and the folks who bought them. “To me, it was so counterintuitive,” Rivlin says. “People with no money in their pockets is good for business?” But they were profitable. By 1996, there were more payday lenders than all the McDonald’s and Burger Kings in the land combined.
Welders looking for an advance on a paycheck became unwitting cash cows for big banks. Schoolteachers taking out home loans became the collateral for leveraged bets on housing worked out in London and Greenwich, Conn. But before they were Wall Street grist, the working poor had to first become big business.
Unlike traditional banking, it wasn’t about finding good credit risks who could repay their loans promptly. Quite the opposite, actually. The central insight was that you wanted people who couldn’t quite stay ahead of the loan. Then you could use late fees and new loans to bleed them.
Making a value judgment about deflation depends in part on which side of the balance sheet you sit on, and on what’s going on in the broader economy. Borrowers with fixed-rate loans—like the government, many companies, and homeowners—will cheer for inflation and worry about deflation. When wages and prices grow modestly each year, it’s easier to stay current with existing debt. And when there’s lots of unused economic capacity—shuttered factories, large numbers of unemployed people—a little inflation can be just what the doctor ordered. Continually falling prices act as a disincentive to investment and risk taking. Moreover, many economists and most central bankers believe the ideal rate of inflation is slightly above zero. “Experience shows that a rate of inflation around 2 or 3 percent helps the economy to perform at full potential with maximum sustainable employment,” says Joseph Gagnon, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In fact, the Federal Reserve, the nation’s chief inflation fighter, actually wants prices to rise. One of the Fed’s mandates is to provide “price stability,” which means a consistent, reliable annual inflation rate. Without saying it in so many words, the Fed designs monetary policy to target inflation of between 1.5 and 2.0 percent per year.