Why Occupy Wall Street has it wrong
If you listen to those who are semi-coherent in the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they blame Wall Street for the financial straits we’re in. They’ve been convinced (and I’m sure for most it didn’t take much convincing) that it is the greed and recklessness of bankers and Wall Street tycoons which caused the housing bubble and subsequent financial collapse.
However Peter Wallison has taken the time and made the effort to lay out the entire sequence of government actions (and their subsequent consequences) which drove both the housing bubble and its collapse which put us in the financial position we’re in today.
As usual, it was government intrusion – in the name of social justice – that distorted the housing market and created incentives that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Social engineering, with the best of intentions, that led to catastrophic unintended consequences.
The irony, of course, and what Wallison points out, is the OWS crowd is clueless at best or mendacious at worst. But the fault for our condition should be laid squarely in government’s lap. Where these protests should be taking place is in front of Congress, the White House, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration – not Wall Street.
Beginning in 1992, the government required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to direct a substantial portion of their mortgage financing to borrowers who were at or below the median income in their communities. The original legislative quota was 30%. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development was given authority to adjust it, and through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations HUD raised the quota to 50% by 2000 and 55% by 2007.
It is certainly possible to find prime borrowers among people with incomes below the median. But when more than half of the mortgages Fannie and Freddie were required to buy were required to have that characteristic, these two government-sponsored enterprises had to significantly reduce their underwriting standards.
Fannie and Freddie were not the only government-backed or government-controlled organizations that were enlisted in this process. The Federal Housing Administration was competing with Fannie and Freddie for the same mortgages. And thanks to rules adopted in 1995 under the Community Reinvestment Act, regulated banks as well as savings and loan associations had to make a certain number of loans to borrowers who were at or below 80% of the median income in the areas they served.
So there are the required guidelines – by law – enforced by government. And note, it wasn’t just Democrats. It was Republicans too. But the impetus and driving force behind all of this wasn’t Wall Street. It was government.
Research by Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer of Fannie Mae (now a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute) has shown that 27 million loans—half of all mortgages in the U.S.—were subprime or otherwise weak by 2008. That is, the loans were made to borrowers with blemished credit, or were loans with no or low down payments, no documentation, or required only interest payments.
Of these, over 70% were held or guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie or some other government agency or government-regulated institution. Thus it is clear where the demand for these deficient mortgages came from.
The huge government investment in subprime mortgages achieved its purpose. Home ownership in the U.S. increased to 69% from 65% (where it had been for 30 years). But it also led to the biggest housing bubble in American history. This bubble, which lasted from 1997 to 2007, also created a huge private market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS) based on pools of subprime loans. [emphasis mine]
Subprime loans, required by law to go to a certain percentage of applicants who otherwise wouldn’t get loans, built to half of all loans closed. Bubble created. Why? Because you’re talking about government “guaranteed” loans – safe money. That created a private market for MBS because the subprime loans in question would have been a poor risk on their own, but were a good risk with the government guarantee.
Demand grew, the bubble grew. But this was a foundation built on financial sand:
As housing bubbles grow, rising prices suppress delinquencies and defaults. People who could not meet their mortgage obligations could refinance or sell, because their houses were now worth more.
Accordingly, by the mid-2000s, investors had begun to notice that securities based on subprime mortgages were producing the high yields, but not showing the large number of defaults, that are usually associated with subprime loans. This triggered strong investor demand for these securities, causing the growth of the first significant private market for MBS based on subprime and other risky mortgages.
Again, because of who was holding or guaranteeing the loans, the real risk was masked, thereby triggering demand for these high-yield securities. How risky could they really be if they’re backed by the full faith and credit of the US, right?
And so the MBS market continued to grow:
By 2008, Mr. Pinto has shown, this market consisted of about 7.8 million subprime loans, somewhat less than one-third of the 27 million that were then outstanding. The private financial sector must certainly share some blame for the financial crisis, but it cannot fairly be accused of causing that crisis when only a small minority of subprime and other risky mortgages outstanding in 2008 were the result of that private activity.
And there is the salient point. No government intrusion, no government guarantees, no laws which “encouraged” or put quotas on loans with a certain percentage in the subprime category and no housing bubble, no demand for risky MBS, no financial crisis.
People, as they have for centuries, would have actually had to meet much stricter criteria for a loan and fewer would have owned homes. The market would have stayed stable, no bubble would have developed and we’d not be in the shape we’re in today. Oh, don’t get me wrong – government would still be out of control and on it’s eternal spending spree – but we wouldn’t have the added financial stress of a recession caused by government.
When the bubble popped, the inevitable happened:
When the bubble deflated in 2007, an unprecedented number of weak mortgages went into default, driving down housing prices throughout the U.S. and throwing Fannie and Freddie into insolvency. Seeing these sudden losses, investors fled from the market for privately issued MBS, and mark-to-market accounting required banks and others to write down the value of their mortgage-backed assets to the distress levels in a market that now had few buyers. This raised questions about the solvency and liquidity of the largest financial institutions and began a period of great investor anxiety.
The government’s rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008 temporarily calmed the market. But it created significant moral hazard: Market participants were led to believe that the government would rescue all large financial institutions. When Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail in September, investors panicked. They withdrew their funds from the institutions that held large amounts of privately issued MBS, causing banks and others—such as investment banks, finance companies and insurers—to hoard cash against the risk of further withdrawals. Their refusal to lend to one another in these conditions froze credit markets, bringing on what we now call the financial crisis.
And there’s the real litany of how what happened happened. Market distortion by government is the real cause of this debacle. We’ve been pointing this out for quite some time. The problem, of course, is the unintended consequences of such intrusion seem never to be understood by the lawmakers and technocrats who come up with these sorts of grand social justice schemes. And again, understand that it wasn’t just the Democrats who helped this all along.
The bottom line however, as Wallison points out, is that while Wall Street isn’t blameless in all of this, their role, in comparison, is minor. The entire scenario was government inspired. However, that’s not what has been sold to the public. Instead we’ve gotten propaganda and class warfare in a blatant attempt to shift the blame to private concerns:
The narrative that came out of these events—largely propagated by government officials and accepted by a credulous media—was that the private sector’s greed and risk-taking caused the financial crisis and the government’s policies were not responsible. This narrative stimulated the punitive Dodd-Frank Act—fittingly named after Congress’s two key supporters of the government’s destructive housing policies. It also gave us the occupiers of Wall Street.
Indeed. If anyone needs to be in jail it is the perpetrators of the government policy that encouraged/required the market distortion that led to the bubble and ultimately collapse of the housing market.
That wasn’t Wall Street. What happened in the financial community is they reacted to an incentive created and supposedly guaranteed by government. But it was unsustainable. And it finally came to a head, dealing financial destruction all around.
Here’s the bottom line – no government intrusion, no incentive/requirement to push subprime loans. No subprime loans (especially in the amount required by government), no housing bubble. No housing bubble, no financial crisis. No financial crisis, no OWS, who simply have it all wrong.
But then, given the government propaganda effort to this group who want to believe what government is claiming, is anyone surprised?