What was the real cause of the financial crisis?

From the American Spectator.

Excerpt:

I believe that the sine qua nonof the financial crisis was U.S. government housing policy, which led to the creation of 27 million subprime and other risky loans — half of all mortgages in the United States — which were ready to default as soon as the massive 1997-2007 housing bubble began to deflate. If the U.S. government had not chosen this policy path — fostering the growth of a bubble of unprecedented size and an equally unprecedented number of weak and high-risk residential mortgages — the great financial crisis of 2008 would never have occurred.

In this article, I will outline the logical process that I followed in coming to the conclusion that it was the U.S. government’s housing policies — and nothing else — that were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.

The inquiry has to begin with what everyone agrees was the trigger for the crisis — the so-called mortgage meltdown that occurred in 2007. That was the relatively sudden outbreak of delinquencies and defaults among mortgages, primarily in a few states — California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida — but to a lesser degree everywhere in the country. No one disputes that the losses on these mortgages and the decline in housing values that resulted from the ensuing foreclosures weakened financial institutions in the U.S. and around the world and were the precipitating cause of the crisis.

[…]Researcher shows that the turning point came in 1992, with the enactment by Congress of what were called “affordable housing goals” for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two firms, which were shareholder-owned, had been chartered by Congress more than 20 years earlier to operate a secondary market in mortgages. The original idea was that they would buy mortgages from banks and other originators (Fannie and Freddie were not permitted to originate mortgages), standardize the mortgage document, resell those mortgages to institutional and other investors, and in that way create a national market for U.S. mortgages.From the beginning, Fannie and Freddie’s congressional charters required them to buy only mortgages that would be acceptable to institutional investors — in other words, prime mortgages. At the time, a prime mortgage was a loan with a 10-20 percent down payment, made to a borrower with a good credit record who had sufficient income to meet his or her debt obligations after the loan was made. Fannie and Freddie operated under these standards until 1992.

The 1992 affordable housing goals required that, of all mortgages Fannie and Freddie bought in any year, at least 30 percent had to be loans made to borrowers who were at or below the median income in the places where they lived. Over succeeding years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) increased this requirement, first to 42 percent in 1995, to 50 percent in 2000, and finally to 55 percent in 2007. It is important to note, accordingly, that this occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations.

At the 50 percent level, Fannie and Freddie had to acquire at least one goal-eligible loan for every prime loan that they acquired, and since not all subprime loans were goals-eligible Fannie and Freddie were in effect required to buy many more subprime loans than prime loans to meet the goals. As a result of this process, by 2008, Fannie and Freddie held the credit risk of 12 million subprime or otherwise risky loans — almost 40 percent of their single-family book of business.

But this was not by any means the full extent of the problem. HUD took Congress’s enactment of the affordable housing goals as an expression of a congressional policy to reduce underwriting standards so that low-income borrowers would have greater access to mortgage credit. As outlined in my dissent, by tightening the affordable housing goals, HUD put Fannie and Freddie into competition with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a government agency with an explicit mission to provide credit to low-income borrowers, and with subprime lenders such as Countrywide, that had pledged to reduce underwriting standards in order to make more mortgage credit available to low-income borrowers. Moreover, all these organizations were joined by insured banks and S&Ls, which as noted above were required under the CRA to make mortgage credit available to borrowers who are at or below 80 percent of the median income in the areas where they live.

Of course, it is possible to find borrowers who meet prime loan standards among low-income families, but it is far more difficult to find such loans among these borrowers than among middle-income groups. And when Fannie, Freddie, FHA, subprime lenders like Countrywide, and insured banks and S&Ls are all competing to find loans to borrowers in the low-income category, the inevitable result was a significant deterioration in underwriting standards.

So, for example, while one in 200 mortgages involved a down payment of 3 percent or less in 1990, by 2007 it was one in less than three. Other credit standards had also declined. As a result of this government-induced competition, by 2008 19.2 million out of the total of 27 million subprime and other weak loans in the U.S. financial system could be traced directly or indirectly to U.S. government housing policies.

I’ve read Thomas Sowell’s “The Housing Boom and Bust” and this article is a snapshot of that book. It mentions Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act, the Federal Housing Administration, and so on.

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2 thoughts on “What was the real cause of the financial crisis?”

  1. I do find his reasoning laughable. He failed to address several key issues:

    1) why is no blame laid on the consumers to should have known that they couldn’t afford these homes?
    2) What about the federal reserves role in lowering rates to make it cheaper
    3) Real estate agents pushing people in to more commission friendly homes (read: expensive)
    4) the tax incentives and the pundits that pushed it as a great investment as opposed to what it should be – a roof over your head (this one relies more on herd mentality theories since the homeowners listened to the “experts” instead of forming their own opinions)
    5) The banks themselves – there was no law that said you have to sell a $260,000 house to a person making $8.79 an hour (I know 2 examples of this personally and countless other second-hand examples). Even if they were “encouraged”, business smarts should have guided it much more than it did.
    6) What about wall street and it’s blind eye on these obviously risky dirivatives and their overly complicated schemes to bundle and sell these
    7) What about the obviously complicit rating companies like standard and poors that gave the dirivatives mentioned in point 6 high ratings – A or higher when they obviously should have been labeled junk
    8) What about the herd thinking that houses prices can only go up despite government agencies releasing data showing the average american only makes around 9.69 an hour? If house prices are only going to go up, whose going to buy them on that hourly rate?
    9) The bush administration that pushed home ownership while failing to implement any oversight in an increasingly unstable housing market
    10) The Clinton administration for pushing for less stringent requirements for lending (I believe this was mentioned above, but I know if I didn’t explicitly call it out with point 9 above, most would be up in arms)

    So to focus on one small area that is an after-the-fact company is to demonstrate an ignorance too large to ignore.

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    1. I do want to clarify – I wasn’t claiming the ignorance was on your part wintery (unless you fully bought in to Spectator’s article). I just get annoyed when people try to claim something was a single point of failure as if something so complicated could have been caused by simply vetoing bill X.

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