Fourth act: Reverse mortgages are Professor Jack Guttentag’s latest obsession. The need for them has never been greater, he says © FT
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Jack Guttentag was 74 when he started writing a weekly column on mortgages for his website. Eighteen years later, he is still at it and has yet to miss a single week.

It is not that he wants to keep the content fresh (although he does). It is more that if he stops, he worries what might happen.

“I think that in the back of my mind there’s this notion that if I ever give myself a week off, I’ll never write another article,” the 92-year-old says. “I’m sure that’s not true, but there is that lingering doubt.”

Some careers have a second act, and some even a third. But Professor Guttentag is well into his fourth or fifth. His roles have included heading the domestic research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and his current entrepreneurial incarnation, advising consumers on selecting mortgages.

And then there is a more than half-century association with the finance faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which he joined in 1962, moving to a professor emeritus role in 1996.

Prof Guttentag’s determination to work into his 10th decade, combined with his experience as an academic and economist, means that he has enjoyed an unusually broad view of the evolution of modern finance.

He was five when the US stock market crashed in 1929, tipping the country into the Great Depression. He was in his mid-eighties when Federal Reserve governor Ben Bernanke threw monetary policy into crisis mode in 2008.

“I think he did extremely well in the most difficult set of circumstances central banking has faced in 50 years,” Prof Guttentag argues.

He is forthright on the recent boom and bust in US real estate, which he says had little to do with shady practices at Wall Street banks.

Instead, he suggests, it was caused by a broad belief that house prices would keep rising — allied with strong demand created by government agencies, under orders to boost home ownership among lower-income segments.

Lenders and the investment banks that sold their loans through securitisation had “every reason” to believe they were doing what the government wanted them to do, he wrote in a recent article.

“None of the congressmen responsible for imposing purchase quotas on the agencies has yet gone to jail,” he complained.

Prof Guttentag launched his first business in 1985 with two Wharton colleagues. It provided mortgage-market data to banks. Two decades later it was sold and he made $7.5m.

His current venture is a mortgage comparison and advice service called The Mortgage Professor — mtgprofessor.com — that competes with the likes of LendingTree.com and LowerMyBills.com.

Prof Guttentag stresses his academic credentials on the site, positioning himself as a trusted guide to the mortgage market.

But it is not a charitable enterprise. For every lead that he generates for a group of mortgage lenders, he charges them $50. And every lead on a reverse mortgage counts double.

Reverse mortgages are Prof Guttentag’s latest obsession. They are complicated products. Funds are advanced to the borrower and interest accrues, but there are no monthly repayments and the balance is not due until the last borrower leaves the home, sells it or passes away.

Prof Guttentag says it is a market “full of paradoxes and ironies”, and “about one-tenth the size it should be”.

On the one hand, he says, the need for reverse mortgages has never been greater. American society is rapidly ageing and an increasing share of homeowners aged 62 and above — who together hold $5.8tn in home equity — need cash to top up pensions.

But it can be difficult to persuade these people to take the plunge, says Prof Guttentag, and once they register interest, the options can be baffling.

The standard government-backed programme — known as a home equity conversion mortgage, or a HECM — comes in a range of formats: a lump-sum upfront, a series of monthly payouts, a credit line that accrues interest when it sits unused, or some combination of the above.

Borrowers often end up taking out as much cash as they can at the beginning, says Prof Guttentag, when they might be much better off with a line of credit.

That can be a result of the skewed incentives of the mortgage broker, who stands to make a bigger fee when he sells the loan to Ginnie Mae, the government agency that packages them into securities.

“The market for HECMs is horrendously poor,” says Prof Guttentag, likening the task of trying to get information from an individual lender to stepping in a bear trap. “The volume of business is low, so the mark-ups are very high. When they get a lead, it is very difficult for them to let it go.”

When he is not running the site, Prof Guttentag tends a trove of photos amassed from years of international travel. He also enjoys seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra, and watching simulcast operas beamed in from New York with Doris, his wife of 61 years.

But the business clearly consumes him. He works on it three to seven days a week and gleefully recounts tussles with both the mortgage industry and the government.

Asked if he is ever tempted to slow down a bit, he smiles and shakes his head. “No, I don’t play golf. I do this because I like it.”

And when emailed a list of follow-up questions for this interview just after midnight, he replies at 2:50am.

“I put in some hours, yes, but you don’t have to take up a collection for me,” he says. “I’m doing pretty much what I want to do.”

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