Category Archive 'Roberta Achtenberg'

08 Oct 2008

All the Left’s Fault

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Dennis Sewall, in the Spectator, traces the subprime mess back to the social engineering policies of the Clinton Administration.

This crisis was not caused on Wall Street — it was caused in the White House. The root problem was not financial — it was political, and those truly responsible for this fiasco were not bankers, nor even Bush Republicans; they were Clinton Democrats.

For generations, America’s bankers have been firmly refusing credit to those they judged unworthy of it. Yet the mountain of toxic subprime debt that has threatened to overwhelm the entire financial system, and the astonishing number of mortgage foreclosures across the United States, is proof that, at some point in the relatively recent past, bankers radically altered their behaviour and began to shower mortgages on borrowers who had no realistic prospect of keeping up their repayments. What could possibly have induced them to act so recklessly, and so out of character? The facile answer to that question is greed, the lure of a fast and easy buck. The correct answer is that banks were bullied, cajoled and coerced into lowering their lending standards by politicians in pursuit of an ideological agenda.

Let’s wind back to 1993 and Roberta Achtenberg’s arrival on the Washington political scene. Achtenberg had made her name in San Francisco as a civil rights lawyer and activist, campaigning to keep open the city’s gay bathhouses, and (I promise I’m not making this up) pressing for an increase in the number of gay Scoutmasters. Bill Clinton offered her a job in his new administration, and Roberta Achtenberg became the first openly lesbian nominee ever to receive a Senate confirmation. She duly took up her post as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The main thrust of the Clinton housing strategy was to increase home ownership among the poor, and particularly among blacks and Hispanics. White House aides, in familiar West Wing style, could parrot the many social advantages that would accrue: high levels of home ownership correlated with less violent crime, better school performance, a heightened sense of commun-ity. But standing in the way of the realisation of this dream were the conservative lending policies of the banks, which required such inconvenient and old-fashioned things as cash deposits and regular repayments — things the poor and minorities often could not provide. Clinton told the banks to be more creative.

Meanwhile, Ms Achtenberg, a member of the kickass school of public administration, was busy setting up a network of enforcement offices across the country, manned by attorneys and investigators, and primed to spearhead an assault on the mortgage banks, bringing suits against any suspected of practising unlawful discrimination, whether on the basis of race, gender or disability. Achtenberg believed racism was a big factor in keeping minorities from enjoying the same level of home ownership as whites. She doubted if much could be done to change people’s attitudes on racial matters, but she was confident she, in cahoots with Attorney General Janet Reno, could use the law to change the behaviour of banks.

However, when little or no overt or deliberate racial discrimination was discovered among the mortgage lenders, HUD’s investigators turned to trying to prove ‘disparate treatment’ of minority groups, a notion similar to that of unintentional ‘institutional racism’. If a bank refused loans to proportionally more black applicants than white ones, for instance, the onus would fall on it to prove it had good grounds for doing so or face settlement penalties running into millions of dollars. A series of highly publicised cases were brought on this basis, starting in 1994. Eventually the investigators would turn somewhat desperately to ‘disparate impact’, a form of discrimination so abstract and rarefied as to be imperceptible to its supposed victims, and indeed often only discernible at all through the application of multivariate regression analysis to information stored on regulators’ databases. …

These mortgage banks, which have been responsible for issuing about three quarters of the dodgy subprime loans that are proving troublesome today, quickly took the hint. From the mid-1990s they began to abandon their formerly rigorous lending criteria. Mortgages were offered with only 3 per cent deposit requirements, and eventually with no deposit requirement at all. The mortgage banks fell over one another to provide loans to low-income households and especially to minority customers. In the five years from 1994 to 1999, the number of African-American and Latino homeowners increased by two million.

The national banks, responsible for the remaining quarter of the current subprime loans, were put under a different kind of pressure by the Clinton team to boost their low-income and minority lending too. Changes were made to the Community Reinvestment Act to establish a system by which banks were rated according to how much lending they did in low-income neighbourhoods. A good CRA rating was necessary if a bank wanted to get regulators to sign off on mergers, expansions, even new branch openings. A poor rating could be disastrous for a bank’s business plan. It was a different kind of coercion, but just as effective. At the same time, the government pressed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two giants of the secondary mortgage market, to help expand mortgage loans among low and moderate earners, and introduced new rules allowing the organisations to get involved in the securitisation of subprime loans. The first package was launched in 1997 in collaboration with Bear Stearns.

Read the whole thing.


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