Levine on Wall Street: Mortgages and Mobile Homes

Jerome Kerviel's walk from Rome to Paris has eased his mind and cut back his smoking to just a pack a day. It has not, however, gotten him all that close to Paris.

The mortgage system is complicated .

Here is a good overview of the considerations around replacing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, from Nick Timiraos at the Wall Street Journal. My simple theory of Fannie and Freddie is that the status quo, while only quasi-legal and sort of embarrassing, is otherwise pretty much great for everyone: Investors get to buy mortgages that are more or less explicitly guaranteed by the government, Treasury gets billions of dollars in Fannie and Freddie profits, homeowners get cheap 30-year mortgages, and Fannie/Freddie shareholders get to feel like aggrieved underdogs. Government-owned Fannie and Freddie socialize both the risks and the rewards of providing mortgage insurance. So you can see why in six years there's been only limited progress on changing anything. This article will not, I think, make you confident that much will change any time soon.

Adjustable-rate mortgages are back.

"But banks say this time is different," insofar as the new ARMs are aimed at jumbo borrowers who can actually afford their mortgage payments. I guess that is how it always begins.

QuickTake Wall Street Is My Landlord

You too can be a mobile-home mogul .

I thought this New York Times Magazine story about mobile-home moguls was great business journalism. There is a macro story about downward mobility in a changing U.S. economy, which is important and depressing, but there's also an even more interesting micro story about how to succeed in business. I started out wondering why the article's main subject is teaching classes in mobile-home mogulry: Ordinarily expensive seminars on "how to get rich doing X" carry a whiff of fraud, since if the classes worked the guy teaching them would just be getting rich doing X instead. But this guy actually did get rich owning mobile homes! He's apparently teaching the classes just because he likes to work and has no better ideas for how to spend his time. That is perhaps the meta-lesson of the course.

Awkward Pimco parties .

If you worked at Pimco, would you go to a goodbye party for Mohammed El-Erian? The answer is apparently no; going to the party would seem disloyal to Bill Gross. Sounds like a barrel of laughs over there. "Investors, as well as some employees, are alarmed by the firm's subpar performance and outflows over the past year," and Pimco has been calling on its investors to reassure them. Also, in what is apparently a kinder-and-gentler initiative, "over the past few weeks Gross has met more than two dozen senior portfolio managers individually for half an hour each, and asked them how they were doing and what was on their mind," which is a significant effort for a man who normally "doesn't like employees speaking with him or making eye contact."

How will sanctions against Russia go?

They might reverse years of "painstaking efforts to connect Russia back to the basic plumbing of international finance," says Joseph Cotterill at FT Alphaville, who is not a buyer of the theory that the City of London is so beholden to Russian oligarchs that sanctions will be impossible.

Speaking of Russian oligarchs.

Russian billionaires Mikhail Fridman and German Khan announced a deal to buy German energy company RWE Dea for 5.1 billion euros to diversify their energy interests outside of Russia. "Such diversification makes sense for the Russian oligarchs, particularly at a time when the Russian business environment is unsettled by a confrontation with the West over Ukraine."

Let's check in with Jerome Kerviel .

The former SocGen rogue trader still seems to be in Italy, so he's not making great progress on his plan to walk to Paris in time for his court date on March 19. (If the court orders him to jail, he says, "I won't take the train back to Paris, but I won't resist if Italian authorities come for me.") Otherwise, though, he's completely delightful:

Because he uses GPS to guide his route, he mostly walks alongside traffic, despite Italy's dense network of country lanes. Once near Siena, the GPS put him on the "autostrada," or highway, for six kilometers.

He said the French-speaking Carabinieri who stopped him were so amused by his tale of losing billions at a bank they let him off without a fine.

All the fresh air and exercise are doing him good, and he's "Sporting a beard and a tan, and with his three-packs-a-day habit down to less than one pack of Marlboro's."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Matt Levine writes about Wall Street and the financial world for Bloomberg View.)

    To contact the author on this story:
    Matthew S Levine at mlevine51@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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