21 Feb 2009

What Went Wrong

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Former Senator Phil Gramm dispels with clarity and precision the liberal malarkey about deregulation being responsible for the credit crisis, and puts the blame where it belongs.

I believe that a strong case can be made that the financial crisis stemmed from a confluence of two factors. The first was the unintended consequences of a monetary policy, developed to combat inventory cycle recessions in the last half of the 20th century, that was not well suited to the speculative bubble recession of 2001. The second was the politicization of mortgage lending. …

In the inventory-cycle recessions experienced in the last half of the 20th century, involuntary build up of inventories produced retrenchment in the production chain. Workers were laid off and investment and consumption, including the housing sector, slumped.

In the 2001 recession, however, consumption and home building remained strong as investment collapsed. The Fed’s sharp, prolonged reduction in interest rates stimulated a housing market that was already booming — triggering six years of double-digit increases in housing prices during a period when the general inflation rate was low.

Buyers bought houses they couldn’t afford, believing they could refinance in the future and benefit from the ongoing appreciation. Lenders assumed that even if everything else went wrong, properties could still be sold for more than they cost and the loan could be repaid. This mentality permeated the market from the originator to the holder of securitized mortgages, from the rating agency to the financial regulator.

Meanwhile, mortgage lending was becoming increasingly politicized. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requirements led regulators to foster looser underwriting and encouraged the making of more and more marginal loans. Looser underwriting standards spread beyond subprime to the whole housing market. …

The 1992 Housing Bill set quotas or “targets” that Fannie and Freddie were to achieve in meeting the housing needs of low- and moderate-income Americans. In 1995 HUD raised the primary quota for low- and moderate-income housing loans from the 30% set by Congress in 1992 to 40% in 1996 and to 42% in 1997.

By the time the housing market collapsed, Fannie and Freddie faced three quotas. The first was for mortgages to individuals with below-average income, set at 56% of their overall mortgage holdings. The second targeted families with incomes at or below 60% of area median income, set at 27% of their holdings. The third targeted geographic areas deemed to be underserved, set at 35%.

The results? In 1994, 4.5% of the mortgage market was subprime and 31% of those subprime loans were securitized. By 2006, 20.1% of the entire mortgage market was subprime and 81% of those loans were securitized. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that GSE losses will cost $240 billion in fiscal year 2009. If this crisis proves nothing else, it proves you cannot help people by lending them more money than they can pay back.

Blinded by the experience of the postwar period, where aggregate housing prices had never declined on an annual basis, and using the last 20 years as a measure of the norm, rating agencies and regulators viewed securitized mortgages, even subprime and undocumented Alt-A mortgages, as embodying little risk. It was not that regulators were not empowered; it was that they were not alarmed.

With near universal approval of regulators world-wide, these securities were injected into the arteries of the world’s financial system. When the bubble burst, the financial system lost the indispensable ingredients of confidence and trust. We all know the rest of the story.

The principal alternative to the politicization of mortgage lending and bad monetary policy as causes of the financial crisis is deregulation. How deregulation caused the crisis has never been specifically explained. Nevertheless, two laws are most often blamed: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) Act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

GLB repealed part of the Great Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, and allowed banks, securities companies and insurance companies to affiliate under a Financial Services Holding Company. It seems clear that if GLB was the problem, the crisis would have been expected to have originated in Europe where they never had Glass-Steagall requirements to begin with. Also, the financial firms that failed in this crisis, like Lehman, were the least diversified and the ones that survived, like J.P. Morgan, were the most diversified.

Moreover, GLB didn’t deregulate anything. It established the Federal Reserve as a superregulator, overseeing all Financial Services Holding Companies. All activities of financial institutions continued to be regulated on a functional basis by the regulators that had regulated those activities prior to GLB.

When no evidence was ever presented to link GLB to the financial crisis — and when former President Bill Clinton gave a spirited defense of this law, which he signed — proponents of the deregulation thesis turned to the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), and specifically to credit default swaps.

Yet it is amazing how well the market for credit default swaps has functioned during the financial crisis. That market has never lost liquidity and the default rate has been low, given the general state of the underlying assets. In any case, the CFMA did not deregulate credit default swaps. All swaps were given legal certainty by clarifying that swaps were not futures, but remained subject to regulation just as before based on who issued the swap and the nature of the underlying contracts.

In reality the financial “deregulation” of the last two decades has been greatly exaggerated. As the housing crisis mounted, financial regulators had more power, larger budgets and more personnel than ever. And yet, with the notable exception of Mr. Greenspan’s warning about the risk posed by the massive mortgage holdings of Fannie and Freddie, regulators seemed unalarmed as the crisis grew. There is absolutely no evidence that if financial regulators had had more resources or more authority that anything would have been different.

A must read analysis.

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