10 Dec 2008

Social Justice and the Mortgage Mess

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Investors Business Daily debunks the spinning regulators trying to deny responsibility.

Four federal agencies enforce the CRA, a banking regulation whose original purpose of encouraging homeownership among the poor was well-intended. Abused by the Clinton administration, however, the act triggered the subprime crisis by relaxing lending standards across both the primary and secondary mortgage markets.

These agencies, which over the years have become entrenched in pushing the act, include the FDIC, Office of Thrift Supervision, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve. Top agency officials each took a turn Monday defending the CRA during a C-SPAN-covered panel discussion on the housing crisis.

OTS director John Reich insisted it “had absolutely nothing to do with the mortgage crisis.” FDIC chief Sheila Bair said it was a “myth,” adding that “it’s really unfortunate that this is out there.” “It’s simply not true,” she asserted. Next up was Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who agreed the CRA “certainly was not the cause of the subprime crisis.” …

In a more aggressive pursuit of “social justice,” the Clinton administration revised the CRA in April 1995 to mandate that banks pass lending tests in “underserved” communities and suffer tough new sanctions for failing to make enough loans there.

According to the language of the new Clinton regs, banks that used “innovative or flexible lending practices” to address the credit needs of low-income borrowers passed the test. Banks with poor CRA ratings were hit with stiff fines and blocked from expanding their operations. Soon, “flexible” lending became the norm, and banks used subprime loans, which charge higher interest rates, to cover the added risk.

But it wasn’t enough. So Clinton ordered HUD to pressure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy the higher-risk loans from private banks and lenders, while adopting the same “flexible” credit standards. By 2000, HUD had mandated that low-income mortgages — including CRA-related loans — make up half of their portfolios.

To further spread the risk, Clinton legalized the securitization of such mortgages. In 1997, Bear Sterns securitized the first CRA loans — $385 million worth, all guaranteed by Freddie Mac. Thus began the massive bundling of subprime mortgages that wound up poisoning the entire industry.

The cause and effect is clear. As ex-Fed chief Alan Greenspan recently testified: “It’s instructive to go back to the early stages of the subprime market, which has essentially emerged out of the CRA.”

It strains credulity for top regulators to now say the CRA had “absolutely nothing” to do with the subprime crisis. It smacks of political spin and bureaucratic CYA.

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One Feedback on "Social Justice and the Mortgage Mess"

Scott D

And, just coincidentally no doubt, the mid-90s were when the affordability index for housing took off into bubble territory.

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