Property Rights Beget Prosperity So Uncertainty Begets _____?

Businessweek article, excerpt below:

Property rights beget prosperity.

That’s why the burgeoning foreclosure mess in the U.S. strikes at the nation’s economic heart. Confusion is so rife that Bank of America (BAC), the biggest mortgage lender, suspended foreclosures in all 50 states to determine whether faulty documents were used to confiscate homes. Americans took their title-recording system for granted, abused it during the housing boom, and let it deteriorate. “Somehow in the last 10 or 15 years, everything that was good record-keeping isn’t telling the truth anymore,” says de Soto, reached by phone while traveling in Copenhagen. “My feeling is this: Your recession is going to last. And it’s going to last, and it’s going to last, because essentially the trust has broken down.”

De Soto may be an alarmist, but he has correctly identified why the foreclosure mess is not a simple clerical problem. It’s part of a broader breakdown in the financial world—the one that nearly caused a depression in 2008 when banks and other financial players couldn’t tell whose balance sheets were stuffed with toxic subprime mortgage debt and whose weren’t. Unable to trust one another, the big institutions pulled back from every asset except Treasury debt. At the height of the crisis, even stalwarts like AT&T couldn’t borrow in the commercial paper market for durations of more than a day—meaning they were only 24 hours removed from default.

That crisis is past, but its causes aren’t. Uncertainty still reigns. Its current manifestation is faintly ridiculous: Lenders can’t say for sure who holds a mortgage—which means that sales can’t go through. Buyers won’t put down good money for a property if they aren’t sure they’ll get clear title to it, nor will lenders extend loans. Buyers of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of mortgage-backed securities may have grounds to sue. That could “rock the market,” says Joshua H. Rosner, managing director of Graham Fisher & Co., a research firm.

All this at a time when every imaginable bit of information—from your bank statement to your Facebook photos—seems to be stored in the cloud, ready for instant retrieval. Google “who owns my mortgage?” and you get a quarter of a million results in a quarter of a second. What the cloud can’t tell you is what you really want to know, which is who actually does own your mortgage—that is, who has the power to throw you out on the street if you stop paying. The only way to verify that is to leave the cloud and dive into a recording system that predates the founding of the U.S.


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