financial crisis

The Wall Street Journal today writes about how the Obama administration is repeating the “mistakes of the past by intimidating banks into lending to minority borrowers at below-market rates in the name of combating discrimination.” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez has argued that bankers who don’t make as many loans to blacks as whites (because they make lending decisions based on traditional lending criteria like credit scores, which tend to be higher among white applicants than black applicants) are engaged in a “form of discrimination and bigotry” as serious as “cross-burning.” Perez has compared bankers to “Klansmen,” and extracted settlements from banks “setting aside prime-rate mortgages for low-income blacks and Hispanics with blemished credit,” treating welfare “as valid income in mortgage applications” and providing “favorable interest rates and down-payment assistance for minority borrowers with weak credit,” notes Investors Business Daily.

Under Perez’s “disparate impact” theory, banks are guilty of racial discrimination even if they harbor no discriminatory intent, and use facially-neutral lending criteria, as long as these criteria weed out more black than white applicants. The Supreme Court has blessed a more limited version of this theory in the workplace, but has rejected this “disparate impact” theory in most other contexts, such as discrimination claims brought under the Constitution’s equal protection clause; discrimination claims alleging racial discrimination in the making of contracts; and discrimination claims brought under Title VI, the civil-rights statute governing racial discrimination in education and federally-funded programs. Despite court rulings casting doubt on this “disparate impact” theory outside the workplace, the Obama administration has paid liberal trial lawyers countless millions of dollars to settle baseless “disparate impact” lawsuits brought against government agencies by minority plaintiffs, even after federal judges have expressed skepticism about those very lawsuits, suggesting that they were meritless.

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Ed Pinto, who was an executive at Fannie Mae long before it went into the toilet and nearly took the financial system down with it, notes that “the financial crisis resulted from an unprecedented accumulation of weak and risky Non-Traditional Mortgages (NTMs)” promoted by both the government and the government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae. “Each type of NTM featured increased borrower leverage and risk.”

In Government Housing Policy: The Sine Qua Non of the Financial Crisis, he describes in detail how government housing policy explicitly promoted massive increases in leverage and moral hazard by both borrowers and investors and chronicles the central role played by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the clearly-acknowledged kings of moral hazard and leverage. As he points out, government involvement included the facts that (1) Congress, at the behest of community advocacy groups, forced Fannie and Freddie to replace conservative underwriting with flexible underwriting knowing that banks would follow suit; (2) Fannie vowed to transform the housing finance system using flexible underwriting, in an effort to protect its charter privileges bestowed by Congress; and (3) HUD, after a decade of effort, proudly took credit for a revolution in affordable lending. This revolution then led directly to the 2008 financial crisis, which precipitated a $160 billion bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s two government-sponsored mortgage giants.

(Unlike the private banks, which repaid their bailouts with interest, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not expected to repay taxpayers, and their bailout tab may rise to $1 trillion, according to Bloomberg News. The Obama administration earlier lifted the $400 billion limit on bailouts for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so that they could continue to buy up junky mortgages at taxpayer expense, and showered their executives with $42 million in compensation. In May 2010, the administration and its congressional allies blocked efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)

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In 2010, Obama administration allies proposed a trillion-dollar bailout for those lucky mortgage borrowers whose loans were owned by the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — including wealthy borrowers who have no difficulty paying their mortgage — in order to increase their disposable income and temporarily pump up the economy through the next election. Now, Obama administration officials such as Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli are trying to achieve the same goal on a much smaller scale in settlement talks with the nation’s four biggest banks. Perrelli is demanding that they reduce the mortgages of certain favored underwater borrowers (many of whom are underwater because they didn’t make a substantial downpayment, the way thrifty people do), using the banks’ unrelated foreclosure paperwork violations as a pretext (benefiting lucky borrowers who were never foreclosed upon, much less treated improperly in any way).

But as Mark Calabria notes, this demand makes no sense at all economically. Any mortgage write-off that increases the disposable income of borrowers will reduce the disposable income of investors whose mortgage-backed securities are worth less after mortgages are partly written off. The government’s demand reflects irrational, magical thinking, a kind of voodoo economics. This  proposed rip-off of investors would not create any wealth or income, but rather merely redistribute wealth and income from investors to borrowers (reducing the disposable income of the suddenly poorer investors), discouraging future investment.

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Analysts who once downplayed the government’s role in causing the financial crisis now have changed their tune, concluding that government regulations that promoted risky loans played a major role in spawning the crisis. In a May 3 note to clients, Michael Cembalest, the Chief Investment Officer of JP Morgan Private Bank, revised his 2009 account of what caused the financial crisis.  Under the heading, “Retractions – the primary catalyst for the US housing crisis,” he wrote:

US Agencies played a larger role in the housing crisis than we first reported. In January 2009, I wrote that the housing crisis was mostly a consequence of the private sector… However, over the last 2 years, analysts have dissected the housing crisis in greater detail. What emerges from new research is something quite different: government agencies now look to have guaranteed, originated or underwritten 60% of all “non-traditional” mortgages, which totaled $4.6 trillion in June 2008. What’s more, this research asserts that housing policies instituted in the early 1990s were explicitly designed to require US Agencies to make much riskier loans, with the ultimate goal of pushing private sector banks to adopt the same standards.”  (emphasis in original)

Clinton-era affordable housing mandates were also a key reason for the risky lending. The Washington Examiner cited a recent study by Peter Wallison, who had prophetically warned about risky financial practices for years, finding that two-thirds of all bad mortgages were either “bought by government agencies or required to be bought by private companies under government pressure.”

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Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out at a cost to taxpayers of between $148 billion and $363 billion. Their recklessness and wrongdoing was so obvious that even Treasury Secretary Geithner admits that “Fannie and Freddie were a core part of what went wrong” in the financial crisis. The two government-sponsored mortgage giants engaged in massive accounting fraud, and their allies in the Obama administration have now spent $160 million in taxpayer money defending them against various charges.

Yet, their longtime defenders, like the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, are completely unrepentant. They continue to suggest that only right-wing ideologues could want to eliminate scandal-plagued Fannie and Freddie. Pearlstein long dismissed warnings from conservatives like the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot about the dangers these mortgage giants posed to our financial system.

Incredibly, Pearlstein still believes that what’s good for Fannie and Freddie is good for America. In the January 23 Washington Post, Pearlstein showed he has learned nothing from the financial crisis.  Pearlstein called House Republicans “free-market ideologues” for wanting to rein in the two companies. He praised “low-income-housing advocates and the Obama administration” for opposing this reform effort.  He suggested that access to mortgages (and thus, homeownership) would suffer without Fannie and Freddie, ignoring the fact that homeownership rates are higher in countries like Chile and Italy that have nothing like Fannie or Freddie.

The last thing America needs is to keep Fannie and Freddie around to help spawn the next financial crisis. Fannie and Freddie helped spawn the current mortgage crisis by buying up risky mortgages and repackaging them as prime mortgages, thus creating an artificial market for junk: “From the time Fannie and Freddie began buying risky loans as early as 1993, they routinely misrepresented the mortgages they were acquiring, reporting them as prime when they had characteristics that made them clearly subprime.” As Government-Sponsored Enterprises, they were not subject to the sort of capital requirements that apply to private entities, so they did not have enough reserves to cover their losses when their mortgages started defaulting.

Congressional Democrats last year blocked a GOP amendment that would have reformed the  government-sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The Obama administration lifted a $400 billion limit on bailing them out and showered their executives with $42 million in pay.

At the direction of the Obama administration, Freddie Mac ran up more than $30 billion in losses to bail out mortgage borrowers, some of whom had high incomes. Federal regulators sought to make Freddie Mac hide the resulting losses from the SEC and the public.

Obama received $125,000 in contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives as a senator, second only to the Senator Chris Dodd, who was forced to retire last year over financial improprieties (such as his real estate gift from a lobbyist and “sweetheart mortgage from Countrywide Financial“), yet was the chief drafter of the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” law.  (Dodd-Frank harms the economy, and violates both the Constitution’s separation of powers, and private property and equal-protection rights).

Despite the devastating financial impact of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s mistakes, their defenders are as unrepentant, and perhaps as influential, as ever.  Don’t expect their allies in the Obama administration to endorse any meaningful reforms.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg published an article by Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff in which he declared that the U.S. was bankrupt and headed toward an economic disaster that would be “worse than Greece”:

Last month, the International Monetary Fund released its annual review of U.S. economic policy. … the IMF has effectively pronounced the U.S. bankrupt. Section 6 of the July 2010 Selected Issues Paper says: “The U.S. fiscal gap associated with today’s federal fiscal policy is huge for plausible discount rates.” It adds that “closing the fiscal gap requires a permanent annual fiscal adjustment equal to about 14 percent of U.S. GDP.”

…Based on the CBO’s data, I calculate a fiscal gap of $202 trillion, which is more than 15 times the official debt. This gargantuan discrepancy between our “official” debt and our actual net indebtedness isn’t surprising.

We have 78 million baby boomers who, when fully retired, will collect benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that, on average, exceed per-capita GDP. The annual costs of these entitlements will total about $4 trillion in today’s dollars. Yes, our economy will be bigger in 20 years, but not big enough to handle this size load year after year.

In an article published in the July/August 2006 edition of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Kotlikoff suggested that the only way to deal with the United States’ impending fiscal disaster would focus on productivity growth, which would translate to wage growth, combined with limited requisite tax hikes and an expanded tax base. While I can’t agree with all of Kotlikoff’s suggestions for reform (in particular his bid for mandatory enrollment in a universal health care system), he provides insight and intriguing options that the U.S. government must consider. One suggestion seems particularly viable: radically increase China’s ability to directly invest in the U.S.

It seems almost silly that up until this very day the federal government has hesitated to allow the second greatest holder of U.S. debt to directly invest in our economy. Presumably, allowing greater direct investment would increase China’s desire to see the US economy grow.

As I said, I certainly don’t agree with all of Kotlikoff’s suggestions, but he is is right in declaring that the time is now (or the time has passed) for U.S. regulators to take action to prevent economic collapse.

Perhaps it is time to take a chance on radical capitalism. It appears that the quality of life in the U.S. is bound to decrease no matter what steps we take to right the economy. So, is it not worth it to take a chance on radically cutting back government programs in an attempt to reduce the budgetary shortfall and see if the free market will pick up the slack?

There are plenty of books and articles that detail how capitalism has improved the quality of human existence, but perhaps it is time to consider how we might escape slipping into a fiscal dark-ages by letting the the invisible hand take the wheel of some of government provided services and focus government activity on protecting rights of individuals rather than directing lives and providing goods. Housing, education, retirement, food and drug oversight and enforcement–many of these services could easily be handled by free market enterprises and some shouldn’t be government priorities at all. If the quality of life in the U.S. is going to deteriorate one way or the other, why not give the open market a chance to assume the role as provider of some of these unessential goods and services. Who knows, it just might turn out that the quality of these goods and services increases rather than decreasing.

The bailouts are getting even bigger, for the most undeserving recipients.  “More Aid Expected for Fannie, Freddie,” reports The Washington Post.

The Obama administration earlier lifted a $400 billion limit on bailouts for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage giants known as the Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs).   It was just the beginning: “Late last year, the Obama administration pledged to cover unlimited losses through 2012 for Freddie and Fannie,” reports The New York Times.

At the direction of the Obama administration, Freddie Mac ran up more than $30 billion in losses to bail out mortgage borrowers, some of whom have high incomes.  Federal regulators sought to make Freddie Mac hide the resulting losses from the SEC and the public.)

Fannie and Freddie helped spawn the mortgage crisis by buying up risky mortgages and repackaging them as prime mortgages, thus creating an artificial market for junk.  ”From the time Fannie and Freddie began buying risky loans as early as 1993, they routinely misrepresented the mortgages they were acquiring, reporting them as prime when they had characteristics that made them clearly subprime.”  They paid their CEOs millions, and engaged in massive accounting fraud–$6.3 billion at Fannie Mae alone–to increase the size of their managers’ bonuses.  As Government-Sponsored Enterprises, they were exempt from the capital requirements that apply to private banks, so they did not have enough reserves to cover their losses when their mortgages started defaulting.

The Obama administration refuses to reform these mortgage giants, saying it is “too hard” to do.  Earlier, Senate Democrats blocked reform of the mortgage giants in a party-line vote.

The financial “reform” bills recently passed by the House and Senate do nothing to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  But they would wipe out jobs, increase pressure on banks to make risky loans in depressed neighborhoods, and increase credit card costs.   Fuller coverage of the financial “reform” bills can be found here.  How CEI worked to make the bill less awful than it otherwise would have been is discussed here.

There are plenty of problems with the financial “reform” bill, but the media aren’t interested in that.  They’re much more interested in revelations that senior enforcement staff at the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, which would gain new powers under the bill, spent many hours looking at porn on their office computers.

The porn issue certainly deserves some attention, given just how much time some SEC staff wasted looking at porn at taxpayers’ expense: “A senior attorney at the SEC’s Washington headquarters spent up to eight hours a day looking at and downloading pornography. When he ran out of hard drive space, he burned the files to CDs or DVDs, which he kept in boxes around his office.”  You have to wonder if this kind of inattention to its duties led the SEC to ignore the $50 billion fraud by Bernard Madoff, which was repeatedly brought to its attention to no avail, and the multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme committed by Robert Allen Stanford.  But it probably didn’t.

While the media, including the New York Times, has reported on the porn, it has largely ignored substantive criticism of the financial “reform” bill, which is a Trojan horse that would reinforce risky practices that led to the housing bubble, while ignoring needed reforms, harming insurance policyholders, and giving executive branch officials arbitrary power to bail out or take over banks and financial institutions.

As journalist Matt Welch notes, Obama “is lying his face off about financial reform.”

President Obama has collected millions from Wall Street special interests, his administration contains many Wall Street lobbyists, and he supported the unnecessary $700 billion bank bailout.  But now, he’s pushing a deceptive financial regulation bill with phony rhetoric about “reform,” claiming it is “not legitimate” to point out that the bill could lead to yet more bailouts and government takeovers (as economists and banking experts like Peter Wallison have demonstrated).

Obama’s legislation would do nothing to rein in the worst offenders behind the mortgage crisis, the government-subsidized mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even as it would enrich the politically-connected liberal Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs (recently accused of fraud), enrich left-wing lobbying groups and community organizers, and give the government the permanent ability to bail out and take over Wall Street firms.

Obama’s proposed financial rules overhaul does absolutely nothing about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, admits Obama’s Treasury Secretary, tax cheat Timothy Geithner, even though he admits that “Fannie and Freddie were a core part of what went wrong in our system.” Worse, the Obama administration lifted the $400 billion limit on bailouts for Fannie and Freddie, so that they could continue to buy up junky mortgages at taxpayer expense, and showered their executives with $42 million in compensation.  The Obama administration is now expanding the bailouts of these mortgage giants so that they can lavish pay on their CEOs and reduce the payments of deadbeat mortgage borrowers.  (At the direction of the Obama administration, Freddie Mac is now running up $30 billion in lossesto bail out mortgage borrowers, some of whom have high incomes.  Federal regulators sought to make Freddie Mac hide the resulting losses from the SEC and the public.)

Fannie and Freddie helped spawn the mortgage crisis by acting as loan toilets, buying up risky mortgages and thus creating an artificial market for junk.  “From the time Fannie and Freddie began buying risky loans as early as 1993, they routinely misrepresented the mortgages they were acquiring, reporting them as prime when they had characteristics that made them clearly subprime.”

Why did they buy these risky loans?  They put up with Clinton-era affordable-housing regulations that required them to buy up lots of risky loans, in order to curry favor on Capitol Hill and thus retain their annual $10 billion in tax and other special privileges (which they possessed owing to their status as “Government-Sponsored Enterprises” or GSEs). They paid their CEOs millions in the process, and engaged in massive accounting fraud — $6.3 billion at Fannie Mae alone — to increase the size of their managers’ bonuses.  As GSEs, they were exempt from the capital requirements that apply to private banks, so they did not have enough reserves to cover their losses when their mortgages started defaulting.

Banking expert Peter J. Wallison, who prophetically warned against the risky practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for years, says that Obama’s proposals will lead to “bailouts forever” and give big, politically-connected banks that are “too big to fail” the ability to drive smaller rivals out of business at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.  His colleague Alex Pollock notes that Obama has not lived up his Administration’s claims that it would back reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Obama claims that it will not lead to more bailouts, but even congressional Democrats admit that it will.  As Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) admitted, the “bill has unlimited executive bailout authority. . .The bill contains permanent, unlimited bailout authority.”

Government pressure on banks to make loans in economically-depressed neighborhoods was another key reason for the mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis.  If Obama has his way, that pressure will increase.  The House earlier approved Obama’s proposal to create a politically-correct entity called the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. “The agency would be in charge of enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act, a law that prods banks to make loans in low-income communities.”  It would do so without regard for banks’ financial safety and soundness, even though the Community Reinvestment Act was a key contributor to the financial crisis.

Obama’s proposed financial regulations would also harm retail banking operations used by middle-class people and small businesses.

The Obama administration and Congressional leaders are pushing a trojan-horse financial “reform” bill that would enrich the wealthy and powerful investment bank Goldman Sachs, which was recently cited for massive fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  That’s the discovery of John Berlau, who won the National Press Club’s Sandy Hume Memorial Award for exposing the conflicts of interest of a former IRS Commissioner.

Earlier, the administration used the AIG bailout to give billions in legally unnecessary payments to Goldman Sachs, which is so rich that it has admitted it didn’t even need the money.  Goldman Sachs, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, is using its political connections to reap record profits.

Moreover, Obama’s legislation would do nothing to rein in the worst offenders behind the mortgage crisis, the government-subsidized mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even as it would give the government the permanent ability to bail out Wall Street firms.

Obama’s proposed financial rules overhaul does absolutely nothing about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, admits Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, even though he admits that “Fannie and Freddie were a core part of what went wrong in our system.” Worse, the Obama administration lifted the $400-billion limit on bailouts for Fannie and Freddie, so that they could continue to buy up junky mortgages at taxpayer expense, and showered their executives with $42 million in compensation.

The administration is now expanding the bailouts of these mortgage giants, which are now giving lavish pay to their CEOs and reducing the payments of deadbeat mortgage borrowers.  (At the direction of the Obama administration, Freddie Mac is now running up $30 billion in losses to bail out mortgage borrowers, some of whom have high incomes.  Federal regulators sought to make Freddie Mac hide the resulting losses from the SEC and the public).

Fannie and Freddie helped spawn the mortgage crisis by acting as loan toilets, buying up risky mortgages and thus creating an artificial market for junk.  “From the time Fannie and Freddie began buying risky loans as early as 1993, they routinely misrepresented the mortgages they were acquiring, reporting them as prime when they had characteristics that made them clearly subprime.”

Why did they buy these risky loans?  They put up with Clinton-era affordable-housing regulations that required them to buy up lots of risky loans, in order to curry favor on Capitol Hill and thus retain their annual $10 billion in tax and other special privileges (which they possessed owing to their status as “Government-Sponsored Enterprises” or GSEs). They paid their CEOs millions in the process, and engaged in massive accounting fraud — $6.3 billion at Fannie Mae alone — to increase the size of their managers’ bonuses.  As GSEs, they were exempt from the capital requirements that apply to private banks, so they did not have enough reserves to cover their losses when their mortgages started defaulting.

Banking expert Peter J. Wallison, who prophetically warned against the risky practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for years, says that Obama’s proposals will lead to “bailouts forever” and give big, politically connected banks that are “too big to fail” the ability to drive smaller rivals out of business at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.  His colleague Alex Pollock notes that Obama has not lived up his administration’s claims that it would back reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Government pressure on banks to make loans in economically-depressed neighborhoods was another key reason for the mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis.  If Obama has his way, that pressure will increase.  The House earlier approved Obama’s proposal to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. “The agency would be in charge of enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act, a law that prods banks to make loans in low-income communities.”  It would do so without regard for banks’ financial safety and soundness, even though the Community Reinvestment Act was a key contributor to the financial crisis.

Louis Brandeis was a hero of the Progressive Era. One of the central tenets of his philosophy is that when it comes to business, big equals bad. Even if consumers benefit. Doesn’t matter. Big is bad.

This is not an exaggeration. Business historian Thomas McCraw wrote that “a deep-seated antipathy toward bigness clouded his judgment.”*

Then there is Brandeis on consumers: “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.” That’s a direct quote, by the way.** It was his justification for wanting to fix prices in favor of small businesses. Consumers invariably prefer low prices. The problem is that sometimes big businesses offer those low prices. And this upset Brandeis to no end. How dare consumers take price into account! The size of the business is more important!

This is not a rigorous line of thought.

But it’s one the current administration has bought into. The White House is expected to propose today a maximum allowable size for banks. Because big is bad.

This reform is unlikely to have its desired effect. The reason banks behaved so badly during the housing bubble is because the regulatory and political climate gave them an incentive to. It had nothing to with size. The solution, then, is to channel incentives in a better direction. Reward good behavior. Punish bad behavior. Any reform that ignores incentives will fail every time.

On one hand, as long as bankers know that the government will bail out their losses, they’ll take as many crazy risks as they can. Where’s the incentive to be careful if taxpayers will cover the bill when you mess up?

On the other hand, a size cap might actually make banks too risk-averse. Loans are risks taken in the hope of future profit. But too much profit — too much good lending — could potentially make a bank run into size problems with the government. This is not the kind of incentive structure the administration should be shooting for.

Today’s fixation on size is just as misguided as Brandeis’ was. Consumers and banks alike would be better served by letting profits encourage risk, and losses encourage prudence, as Russ Roberts put it. That means no size restrictions. No bailouts either.

*Thomas McCraw, Prophets of Regulation, p.99.
**McCraw, p. 107.