by Hans Bader
The President has just announced proposals for a massive overhaul of the financial system. The proposals would force banks to make even MORE risky loans to low-income people. Even liberal newspapers like the Village Voice have admitted that “affordable housing” mandates are a key reason for the housing crisis and the massive number of defaulting borrowers. But Obama will not accept this reality. Instead, he wants to create a new “Consumer Financial Protection Agency” to rigorously enforce regulations pressuring banks to make loans to low-income borrowers, such as the Community Reinvestment Act. (Obama once represented ACORN, which pressures banks to make risky loans).
In explaining why there is a need for this agency, when other agencies already enforce the Act and other fair-lending laws, his regulatory blue print complains that “State and federal bank supervisory agencies’ primary mission is to ensure that financial institutions act prudently, a mission that, in appearance if not always in practice, often conflicts with their consumer protection responsibilities.” (Pg. 54).
In other words, the power to force banks to make low-income loans should be given to an agency that has no duty to ensure prudent lending or to take into account the effects of such requirements on banks’ stability or viability.
The President also wants to give financial regulators the power to seize key companies to prevent real or imagined “systemic risks” to the financial system. These are the same federal regulators who used the AIG bailout to give billions in unnecessary payments to Goldman Sachs, which neither needed nor expected that much money, and forced Freddie Mac to run up $30 billion in losses to bail out deadbeat mortgage borrowers. We are taking about the same federal government that took over Chrysler and General Motors, and then used them to rip off pension funds and taxpayers to enrich the UAW union.
(There is one good thing in the President’s proposals, though: it gets rid of the inept Office of Thrift Supervision, which supervises savings and loans and failed to protect investors, and gives most of its responsibilities to the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, which competently supervises national banks.)
Obama’s regulatory blue-print disingenuously claims that the Community Reinvestment Act, which pressures banks to make low-income loans, can’t have contributed to the mortgage crisis, because it existed for years before the crisis began. But it is not the Act’s passage on paper that economists credit with causing the mortgage crisis, but rather the draconian regulations adopted under the Act many years after the Act’s passage. Those regulations went into effect not long before the mortgage bubble began, as historian Clayton Cramer notes. Economists, investment bankers, and historians have long noted the role of the Community Reinvestment Act and its regulations in promoting the risky lending that spawned the financial crisis. Investors Business Daily has chronicled how “the Community Reinvestment Act” pressured lenders to make the risky loans that led to the mortgage meltdown.
The current mortgage crisis came about in large part because of Clinton-era government pressure on lenders to make risky loans in order to “make homeownership more affordable for lower-income Americans and those with a poor credit history,” the DC Examiner notes. “Those steps encouraged riskier mortgage lending by minimizing the role of credit histories in lending decisions, loosening required debt-to-equity ratios to allow borrowers to make small or even no down payments at all, and encouraging lenders the use of floating or adjustable interest-rate mortgages, including those with low ‘teasers.’”
The liberal Village Voice previously chronicled how Clinton Administration housing secretary Andrew Cuomo helped spawn the mortgage crisis through his pressure on lenders to promote affordable housing and diversity. “Andrew Cuomo, the youngest Housing and Urban Development secretary in history, made a series of decisions between 1997 and 2001 that gave birth to the country’s current crisis. He took actions that—in combination with many other factors—helped plunge Fannie and Freddie into the subprime markets without putting in place the means to monitor their increasingly risky investments. He turned the Federal Housing Administration mortgage program into a sweetheart lender with sky-high loan ceilings and no money down . . . Three to four million families are now facing foreclosure, and Cuomo is one of the reasons why.” (See Wayne Barrett, “Andrew Cuomo and Fannie and Freddie: How the Youngest Housing and Urban Development Secretary in History Gave Birth to the Mortgage Crisis,” Village Voice, August 5, 2008).
In drafting his financial regulation proposals, Obama has turned to Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, lawmakers who are among those most culpable in spawning the financial crisis. The New York Times reports that “the plan is largely the product of extensive conversations between senior administration officials and top Democratic lawmakers — primarily Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.” Frank and Dodd were the lawmakers whoy defeated reform proposals to rein in the government-sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which later had to be bailed out for hundreds of billions of dollars. Fannie Mae killed reform proposals by paying off liberal lawmakers and bullying critics. Dodd recently attracted criticism for financial and ethical lapses.
Banks and mortgage companies have long been under pressure from lawmakers and regulators to give loans to people with bad credit, in order to provide “affordable housing” and promote “diversity.” That played a key role in triggering the mortgage crisis, judging from a story last year in the New York Times.
For example, “a high-ranking Democrat telephoned executives and screamed at them to purchase more loans from low-income borrowers, according to a Congressional source.” The executives of government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “eventually yielded to those pressures, effectively wagering that if things got too bad, the government would bail them out.” But they realized the risk: “In 2004, Freddie Mac warned regulators that affordable housing goals could force the company to buy riskier loans.” Ultimately, though, Freddie Mac’s CEO, Richard F. Syron, told colleagues that “we couldn’t afford to say no to anyone.”
As a Washington Post story shows, the high-risk loans that led to the mortgage crisis were the product of regulatory pressure, not a lack of regulation. In 2004, even after banking officials “warned that subprime lenders were saddling borrowers with mortgages they could not afford, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helped fuel more of that risky lending. Eager to put more low-income and minority families into their own homes, the agency required that two government-chartered mortgage finance firms purchase far more ‘affordable’ loans made to these borrowers. HUD stuck with an outdated policy that allowed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to count billions of dollars they invested in subprime loans as a public good that would foster affordable housing.”
Lenders also face the risk of being sued for discrimination if they fail to make loans to people with bad credit, which often has a racially-disparate impact (proving that such impact is unintentional is costly and difficult, and not always sufficient to avoid liability under antidiscrimination laws). They also risk possible sanctions under the Community Reinvestment Act.
Banks get sued for discrimination no matter what they do. If they don’t make enough loans in low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods, they get accused of “redlining,” and are subject to sanctions under politically-correct laws like the Community Reinvestment Act, which contributed to the financial crisis by pressuring lenders to make risky mortgage loans.
But if they do make such loans, they get accused of “reverse redlining,” and get sued by the liberal special-interest groups and municipalities that encouraged them to make such loans during the mortgage bubble. Baltimore and various borrowers have also brought “reverse redlining” lawsuits against banks.
The Washington Post reported that bond-rating agencies like Moody’s and Fitch are now getting sued, too, for “reverse redlining,” under the theory that they encouraged risky loans to low-income minorities (who subsequently regretted taking out those loans) by giving respectable ratings to the mortgage-backed securities produced by packaging those mortgage loans. The plaintiffs include the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which has been pressuring lenders to make risky loans to low-income minorities for years. They blame the ratings-agencies for allowing lenders to make loans to minorities with “insufficient borrower income levels.”