Thomas Sowell on the root causes of the mortgage lending crisis

Here’s a 33-minute video of Thomas Sowell explaining what caused the current recession.

He blames everybody, but Barney Frank and Chris Dodd most of all.

For those who cannot watch a big long video, here’s an article from Reason magazine.

Here’s a summary from the article:

Now, in The Housing Boom and Bust (Basic Books), Sowell contemplates the greatest expansion of government power in a generation, which was itself occasioned by the greatest economic crisis in as long. A quick but thorough guide to the causes of the crises, Sowell’s book shows how government policies led to a huge increase in highly risky housing loans. As he notes, the immense local variability in housing prices and failed loans reveals that the government mistook a set of local problems for a national one, and then imposed a single troublesome national solution. Sowell argues that while foolish decisions to indulge in complicated investment vehicles affected the specifics of how the financial contagion spread, at its root the housing problem is one of bad mortgages. And those came from bad decisions by government and by borrowers themselves.

And an excerpt:

reason: You parcel out some share of responsibility for the specific way the housing bust broke down to borrowers, lenders, financial markets, and the government. What was the borrowers’ share?

Sowell: There are those who borrowed to buy a place to live and speculators who borrowed to speculate, and did enormously well for a number of years. Then there were people who simply don’t understand complex mortgages, particularly people who never owned a home before and whose educations were limited. But the people I would blame the most in the sense that without their interference other problems would have been within manageable means are the politicians—people in Congress and the president and regulators—who pushed the lenders and the banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into lending and buying mortgages based on people who didn’t meet standards that evolved in the marketplace and which had worked. Those politicians, in addition to that initial mistake, ignored all sorts of warnings from all sorts of sources. As I list in the book, the Economist in London, Fortune, Barron’s, people at the American Enterprise Institute, all over the map, saw that this policy of encouraging homeownership at all costs was leading to trouble.

But the politicians clearly had as their political goal homeownership as “a good thing” and persisted—and for that matter persist to this moment in pushing it. The Federal Housing Administration last I checked was promoting supporting mortgages that have less than 4 percent down payment. We all make mistakes, but politicians have persisted in their mistakes, and in the pointing of fingers in other directions.

“Affordable housing” covers a number of things. There was this sense in Washington that the cost of buying a house had become a nationwide major problem which would require a federal answer as opposed to a local answer. All the data say that was not true. People weren’t paying a higher percent of their income nationwide for housing than they had a decade earlier. In fact, it was a somewhat lower percentage in some areas. Now in some areas, including California—coastal California—people were paying half their family income to put a roof over their head. That in turn was a result of local political people putting all sorts of restrictions on building.

Implicit in the idea of “affordable housing” is the notion that third parties know what people can afford better than those people know themselves. If you spell it out it sounds so absurd you wonder how anyone could have believed it. But for politicians the question is not, is it absurd? The question is whether or not the public will buy it.

reason: How much weight do you place on the notion that Federal Reserve expansionary money and credit policies primed the bubble, and bust, in housing?

Sowell: I find it hard to accept. I’m sure if the interest rates had been at 8 percent the boom would not have gone as far and the bust would not have been as big. I’m not saying monetary policy had no effect. But I am struck by the fact that Federal Reserve policy is nationwide, and in places like Dallas the increase in housing prices was in single digits and the decrease has been in single digits. So while Fed policy undoubtedly aggravated circumstances, it can’t be the fundamental cause because the defaults were so heavily concentrated. 60 percent of all defaults nationwide were in five states, and I suspect if you broke down the data even more you’d find specific regions in those five states very heavily implicated in defaults.

For more on the specific laws that caused the prices of homes to skyrocket in those 5 states, read this article.


Let us go back to square one to consider the empirical consequences of policies in the housing market. Politicians in Washington set out to solve a national problem that did not exist — a nationwide shortage of “affordable housing” — and have now left us with a problem whose existence is as undeniable as it is painful. When the political crusade for affordable housing took off and built up steam during the 1990s, the share of their incomes that Americans were spending on housing in 1998 was 17 percent, compared to 30 percent in the early 1980s. Even during the housing boom of 2005, the median home took just 22 percent of the median American income.

What created the illusion of a nationwide problem was that, in particular localities around the country, housing prices had skyrocketed to the point where people had to pay half their income to buy a modest-sized home and often resorted to very risky ways of financing the purchase. In Tucson, for example, “roughly 60% of first-time home buyers make no down payment and instead now use 100% financing to get into the market,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Almost invariably, these locally extreme housing prices have been a result of local political crusades in the name of locally attractive slogans about the environment, open space, “smart growth,” or whatever other phrases had political resonance at the particular time and place.

Where housing markets have been more or less left alone — in places like Houston or Dallas, for example — housing did not take even half as big a share of family incomes as did comparable housing in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where heavily hyped political crusades had led to severe restrictions on building. It was in precisely these extremely high housing-cost enclaves that the kind of people for whom the national housing crusade expressed much concern — minorities, low-income people and families with children — were forced out disproportionately.

Few things blind human beings to the actual consequences of what they are doing like a heady feeling of self-righteousness during a crusade to smite the wicked and rescue the downtrodden. Statistical studies about disparities between blacks and whites in mortgage loan approval rates might be said to have “jump-started” the housing crusades that began in the 1990s. Politicians and the media led this crusade, with many community activists following in their wake, much like scavengers, able to extract large sums of money from banks and other institutions by raising claims of discrimination, whose power to delay government approval of bank mergers and other business decisions made pay-offs to these activists the only prudent course for those accused.

I’m pretty sure that the San Francisco Bay area is run by leftists. And not moderate leftists – radical leftists. And I’m pretty sure that Dallas and Houston are not run by radical leftists. This crisis was local to areas that were dominated by Democrats who were passing all kinds of regulations and restrictions on the real estate market in order to drive up the price of their own properties and keep the “undesirable” minorities out.

I really recommend that everyone buy Thomas Sowell books and read them. I just finished “The Housing Boom and Bust” and am now working on “Economic Facts and Fallacies” and next up is “Intellectuals and Society”.

Related posts

2 thoughts on “Thomas Sowell on the root causes of the mortgage lending crisis”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s