NYT Reporter / Deadbeat`s Argentine Firecracker Wife
May 22, 2009, 05:11 PM
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Ever since the New York Times Magazine ran that sob story by NYT Federal Reserve reporter Edmund Andrews about how he had been lured by lenders into taking on too big a mortgage to pay back, what with his $4k per month alimony payments, anonymous posts have been showing up in various blog's comment sections saying that a missing part of the story involved the reporter's new wife, Patricia Barreiro, an Argentine immigrant with a passion for fashion.

Megan McArdle has now tracked down the facts that Andrews left out of his book. She paid eight cents per page to look at court documents:

In September 1998, California bankruptcy court records indicate that Patty and her first husband declared bankruptcy. The financial statement they filed with the court indicated family income of $174,000 in 1996, $87,000 in 1997, and $126,000 in the first nine months of 1998. The income fluctuations are not surprising, given that her husband was in the film production industry. By the time of the filing, the couple owed about $30,000 on 8 credit cards, over $200,000 in back taxes, and almost $15,000 in private school tuition, as well as substantial car and mortgage payments.

In 2007, nearly as soon as she was eligible, Patty Barreiro filed again in Montgomery Country. When called for comment yesterday, Andrews was unavailable, but there is no question that it is his wife: his income and occupation are prominently featured in the docket.

This is really highly unusual. For starters, the overwhelming majority of people who file bankruptcy do not make anything close to $100,000 a year—the standard estimate when the 2005 bankruptcy reform was passed was that about 80% of filers had household incomes below the median income in their state. The number of affluent people who file twice is even smaller, and has presumably gone down since the 2005 filing largely eliminated abusive serial Chapter 13 filings, which used to be used, often by quite wealthy people, to forestall evictions or foreclosure.

The bankruptcy code requires filers to wait 8 years after a previous Chapter 7 discharge. Barely four months after she became eligible, Patty Barreiro filed again. And the filing shows some suggestion of strategic debt management.

Ms. Barreiro filed separately from Andrews, and had to amend the filing to include Andrews' income after a complaint from a creditor who wanted to force her into a Chapter 13 repayment plan. She filed when her income was at rock bottom, consisting only of unemployment; the timing may have just excluded having to declare $5,000 in freelance editing income Andrews mentions in the book. And she shed what appear to be jointly incurred debts, such as a Comcast account. Comcast does not service the address listed on the 1998 filing, but as I can attest (to my sorrow), it is the main cable provider in Silver Spring, where she moved to live with Andrews in 2004.

Serial bankruptcies can, of course, happen to anyone with enough bad luck. But they usually don't. And when they do, they usually hit people with marginal incomes that leave no margin for error in the budget. Most people, even in LA, are able to build a sustainable budget out of an income in the low six figures.

Moreover, pesky bad luck isn't really the picture painted by either filing. Rather, Ms. Barreiro seems to have spent most of the last two decades living right up to the edge of her income, and beyond, and then massively defaulting. If you structure your finances so that absolutely everything has to go right, it's hard to blame the mortgage company when you don't quite make it.

Andrews has been admirably open about many of the poor decisions and the wishful thinking that led him deep into debt. Nonetheless, he has laid much of the blame onto irresponsible bankers and mortgage brokers. The missing bankruptcies substantially undermine this basic narrative arc of Andrews' story. Particularly in his book, the bankers are the villains, America's current troubles are the inevitable denouement of their maniacal greed, and the Andrews household stands in for an American public led, by their own greed and longing and hopeful trust, into the money pit.

Sure, the two married couples had seven children between them, but what's that to stand in the way of Love? And a "stately" home in Maryland?

By the way, an unwritten part of the story of the mortgage meltdown has to do with quiet importation of Fiesta Culture attitudes toward saving and spending.