If there was anybody who should have avoided the mortgage catastrophe, it was I. As an economics reporter for The New York Times, I have been the paper's chief eyes and ears on the Federal Reserve for the past six years. I watched Alan Greenspan and his successor, Ben S. Bernanke, at close range. I wrote several early-warning articles in 2004 about the spike in go-go mortgages. Before that, I had a hand in covering the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Russia meltdown in 1998 and the dot-com collapse in 2000. I know a lot about the curveballs that the economy can throw at us.
But in 2004, I joined millions of otherwise-sane Americans in what we now know was a catastrophic binge on overpriced real estate and reckless mortgages. Nobody duped or hypnotized me. Like so many others -- borrowers, lenders and the Wall Street dealmakers behind them -- I just thought I could beat the odds. We all had our reasons. The brokers and dealmakers were scoring huge commissions. Ordinary homebuyers were stretching to get into first houses, or bigger houses, or better neighborhoods. Some were greedy, some were desperate and some were deceived.
As for me, I had two utterly compelling reasons for taking the plunge: the money was there, and I was in love. It was August 2004, just as the mortgage party was getting really good. I was 48 years old and eager to start a new chapter in my life with Patricia Barreiro, who was then my fiancée.
Patty was brainy, regal, sexy, fiery and eclectic. She was one of my closest friends when we were both students at an American high school in Argentina. Back then, we would talk together about politics and books at a coffee shop every day after school. We were not romantic in those days and went our separate ways after high school. But each of us would go through bruising two-decade-long marriages, and we felt that sweet spark of remembrance and renewal upon meeting again in middle age.
After a one-year bicoastal courtship, Patty was about to move from her home in Los Angeles to Washington. We would need a home with enough space for her two youngest children, as well as for my own teenage boys on the weekends. I had assumed we would start by renting a house or an apartment, but it quickly became clear that it was almost easier to borrow a half-million dollars and buy something.