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Groundbreaking Columnist Calls it a Wrap After 23 Years

When John B. Levy began writing a monthly column for Barron's in 1983, Ronald Reagan was in his first term as U.S. president, Tiger Woods was a 7-year-old golfing sensation, and the birth of CMBS was still almost a decade away.

Nearly 300 columns and 23 years later, John has decided to end the pioneering effort known as the Barron's/John B. Levy & Co. National Mortgage Survey. He will now devote more energy to his expanding boutique real estate investment-banking firm in Richmond, Va.

Since October 1986, an adapted version of his Barron's column has appeared monthly in NREI under the heading Financing Today. His final installment appeared in the July 2006 issue. “There was no epiphany,” says John of his decision to end the column. “What I found with the survey is that we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

John's ability to cut through the financial jargon, spot trends and assess their impact has endeared him to both editors and readers alike. His idea to launch a column in the early 1980s stemmed from a complete lack of reliable information on the then trillion-dollar commercial mortgage industry, the third largest sector of the debt business. “If you were a borrower or a lender and you wanted to know what was going on in the market, who was playing in it and at what rates and terms, you asked your friends,” he recalls.

Life insurance companies were virtually the sole providers of permanent loans back then, with an occasional pension fund thrown in for good measure. To get a better handle on loan rates and terms, John began to survey the 30 largest institutional investors nationwide, and by the mid-1990s that list grew to include CMBS buyers and sellers.

The columnist points to two sea changes in the past 20 years. The first was the real estate depression of 1990 and 1991, when the industry faced what he describes as a government-engineered collapse of the real estate credit markets as scores of thrifts closed. “Mortgage rates weren't the real problem. It was the availability of capital — there was none,” says John. The second sea change was the move to a more securitized and transparent market in the early 1990s that began when the Resolution Trust Corp. began selling off the failed assets of the S&Ls. That move was the forerunner to today's exploding CMBS market.

Will John write again? Yes, but he's not sure in what form. “We've had several interesting high-level offers to do columns,” he acknowledges. “I'm thinking about it over the summer.” Whatever John decides, we'd be remiss if we didn't take this opportunity to acknowledge his tremendous contributions.

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