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The rise, fall, future of mortgage industry

Barry McNamara
04/27/2010
Almost 100 years ago to the day of John Courson’s Whiteman Lecture at Monmouth College, former president Theodore Roosevelt delivered his “The Man in the Arena” speech at The Sorbonne in Paris, France.

Roosevelt famously said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Courson, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), used that quotation to illustrate the highs and lows of his career in the mortgage industry, which spans more than half a century. His career was especially affected by the volatility of the past decade, which saw him fulfill a lifelong dream of owning a mortgage company in 2000, only to have to close it seven years later.

“It was the most devastating thing that happened in my life,” he told the audience in the college’s Dahl Chapel and Auditorium, which included students, professors and area bankers.

While referencing a speech that occurred a century ago on April 23, 2010, Courson also related his experiences from a half-century ago, the day in 1960 when he arrived in Monmouth on board the Denver Zephyr.

“The train stopped at the Monmouth depot, and I looked for a line of taxis,” he said, recalling the Denver-influenced big-city mentality he had at the time.

Courson soon began to appreciate Monmouth’s small-town charms, including a man he had just met in a diner who offered to haul Courson and his two steamer trunks from the train station to the college’s Graham Hall.

“My year at Monmouth was one of the most vivid, memorable times of my life,” said Courson, who returned to Colorado after a year due to financial reasons. “I remember the charm, the excitement and the commitment to education that I experienced at Monmouth.”

Courson’s year at Monmouth College was a simpler time for most facets of life, including the mortgage industry. One of his major messages during his talk, which MC president Mauri Ditzler called “one of the best lectures I’ve heard in this hall in a long time,” was that a return to the 1960s mentality of “comfortable and predictable” would be a good thing for his industry.

“The basic tenets of the 1960s are the right ones,” he said.

Before addressing the current state of the mortgage banking industry, Courson elaborated on the “mid-1980s meltdown,” which occurred while he was in Dallas, Texas.

“I thought, ‘It can’t get any worse than this,’” he said. “We found out it was the junior varsity compared to the varsity problems we’re facing now.”

But even out of those dire times, Courson emerged as a stronger person.

“I experienced one of the benchmark times of my life,” he said of a “no” vote that he cast in a corporate boardroom. His board wanted to approve a long list of loan requests with a single vote, but he objected, having not seen the individual loan files.

“Two years later that thrift went under, the owner spent eight years in prison and the board of directors were in litigation with the regulators,” he said. “That truly was a life-changer for me. The right way is the only way.”

Courson likened the economic turmoil of the past decade to the tornado that swept through Dorothy’s Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz” and to astronaut Jim Lovell proclaiming, “Houston, we have a problem” on board Apollo 13.

“Dorothy got back to Kansas, and Apollo 13 returned,” he said, adding that it is his industry’s job to ensure a happy ending also comes out of its recent troubles. “We have to renew the faith and restore the confidence. We have a job. This happened on our watch; this is our problem.”

One way to solve it, he said, is the Mortgage Industry Reform Act, which MBA introduced. Those reforms have targeted the problems of sub-prime and exotic loans, which led to the meltdown of 2007-08. In large part, Courson said, the meltdown was a result of “pushing people into homes who really shouldn’t have one … Got bad credit? We’ve got a loan for you. No money down? We’ve got a loan for you.

“Now, it’s all about jobs,” he said of helping homeowners keep up with their mortgages during times of high unemployment. “We’ve started a bridge program to allow those people to get to the point where they can make payments. We have to be very careful as we solve these issues. We don’t want short-term solutions to create long-term problems. Do no harm.”

Complicating the cleanup, Courson contends, is that “Washington has never been more partisan. The chasm across the aisle is getting wider and wider. It's going to come down to who’s willing to step up and accept compromise at the risk of alienating their party?”

What it all boils down to, said Courson, is “people.”

“Those loan files are families,” he said. “That’s what we forget.”

The Whiteman Lecture Series brings prominent leaders of American business and industry to the Monmouth College campus. It is named in memory of Wendell Whiteman, an alumnus of the college and long-time executive of Security Savings Bank in Monmouth.