The Anatomy of a Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 17th, 2010

Old Time Politics – Buying Votes

There’s a lot of lying going on about the subprime mortgage crisis.  How it happened.  Who was responsible for it.  Was it the banks and their predatory lending?  That’s who Barney Frank blames.  Well, them and Republicans.  Or was it some more of that irrational exuberance that led to a real estate bubble?  It created a dot-com bubble in the 1990s.  Which in turn caused a recession.  Was it just a little history repeating itself?  Perhaps they both played a part.  But if they did, they were minor supporting roles.  They weren’t the star of the crisis.  For neither could have done anything had it not been for their enabler.

The Boston Globe’s Donovan Slack writes about one of the enablers backpedaling on his previous rosy statements about the two companies at ground zero of the crisis (see Stance on Fannie and Freddie dogs Frank on boston.com).  Fannie Mae.  And Freddie Mac.  Frank is running for reelection.  And his words are coming back to haunt him.

America is a center-right nation.  To counter that, the Left courts a coalition of special interests and single-issue voters.  Federal workers, teachers, unions, gays & lesbians, pro-choice feminists, environmentalists, socialists, minorities, etc.  Each taken by themselves is a very small percentage of the voting population.  But taken together it’s a sizeable percentage.  Then add in one more very important Democrat constituency.  The poor.  Now with all of these firmly in the Democrat’s camp, it’s just a matter of getting enough of the moderate and independent vote to win an election.  Of course, this is a moot point if they DON’T lock in the Democrat base.  And they do this by giving away as much free stuff and favorable legislation as possible. 

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning for a House They Can’t Afford

The key to locking in the base is, of course, the poor.  There are a lot of them.  So the Left courts them.  Engages in class warfare.  They paint the Republicans as rich fat-cats who want to take their welfare, social security, food stamps, etc., away from them.  That they want to keep them in slums or throw them onto the street.  In contrast, they, the Democrats, want to provide for them.  To help them.  And they give them a lot of things.  To earn their gratitude.  And their votes at the election booth.  And the grandest of all the things given to them?  Affordable housing.

Poor people don’t have a lot of money.  That’s pretty straight forward but it needs to be said.  Because people who don’t have a lot of money can’t afford to buy a house.  Again, that’s pretty straight forward.  But it needs to be said.  Now, when these people apply for a mortgage and get denied, why do you think they got denied?  Here’s a hint.  Re-read this paragraph.  They get denied because they don’t have a lot of money.  You see, if you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t buy expensive things.  Again, straight forward.  But it needs to be said.  Again.  And often.

Now, what do you think a politician thinks the reason was for these poor people getting their mortgage applications denied?  Red-lining.  Racism.  Classism.  Unfairism.  (Yeah, that isn’t a word.  But it works.)  A large percentage of those denied mortgages are from the inner city poor.  And because of previous white-flight, that inner-city poor also happens to be primarily minority.  Hence the charges of racism.  And that’s just gold to a political party who needs poor minorities to vote for them.

The Siren Song of Affordable Housing

Now Barney Frank is running for reelection.  His Republican challenger is using Frank’s own words in his campaign.   And they’re causing some damage.  For Frank sat on the House’s Financial Services Committee (the oversight committee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) throughout the time the crisis built.  And now he’s answering some very uncomfortable questions (this and all quotes are from Stance on Fannie and Freddie dogs Frank).

Frank, in his most detailed explanation to date about his actions, said in an interview he missed the warning signs because he was wearing ideological blinders. He said he had worried that Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration were going after Fannie and Freddie for their own ideological reasons and would curtail the lenders’ mission of providing affordable housing.

Ideology trumped responsibility.  The Left cries foul when the Right doesn’t reach across the aisle, but the Left never reaches out when they have power.  It’s us against them.  Pure partisanship.  Even when there’s great danger brewing.  It’s their interests first.  Then the country’s.  So he protected Freddie and Fannie.  And enabled them to cause greater harm.

Freddie and Fannie are in the secondary mortgage market.  They don’t write mortgages.  They guarantee them (so banks are more willing to take risks with less credit-worthy people).  And they buy these risky mortgages from the banks.  This further reduces a bank’s risk in approving very risky loans to people who are not credit-worthy.  Which is what the Democrats want.  More affordable housing for people who can’t afford to buy houses.  Frank’s committee sets the rules Freddie and Fannie must follow to keep them from approving mortgages that are crazy-stupid.  But that’s exactly what they encouraged.  Subprime loans.  Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgages.  No documentation approvals.  Any bank that didn’t have enough of these mortgages on their books (i.e., risky loans to poor people who couldn’t afford to buy houses) was in trouble.  The federal government would investigate them for red-lining, racism, classism, etc.

The more mortgages Freddie and Fannie bought, the more cash banks had to make more risky loans.  They then dumped these risky loans onto Wall Street.  You see, before the day of subprime loans, ARMs, interest only mortgages and no documentation approvals, mortgages were very safe loans.  But these subprime loans weren’t.  But they looked safe when Wall Street sold them.  I mean, buyers didn’t see the mortgage applications.  They had no idea what a credit risk these people were.  They just knew mortgages were traditionally safe investments.  So they just bought them.  And Freddie and Fannie made it all possible.

Known as government-sponsored enterprises, they didn’t provide mortgages themselves, but rather bought loans from banks and mortgage brokers, freeing up cash so the lenders could make more loans. Fannie and Freddie held or bundled the loans and sold them to investors as mortgage-backed securities.

Investors bought these very ‘profitable’ securities.  This demand just fueled the crisis in waiting.  Because Freddie and Fannie could dump these on Wall Street, they wrote more and more risky loans.  This made everyone happy.  Everyone was making money.  And more people who couldn’t afford to buy houses were buying houses.  And this was, after all, Freddie and Fannie’s mission.  Affordable housing.

In an effort to increase homeownership, the Clinton administration in the late 1990s and the Bush administration in the 2000s pushed Fannie and Freddie to meet growing quotas for buying affordable home loans. Those pushes, combined with a drive for more profits at the enterprises, drove Fannie and Freddie to take on more risk and more debt. They backed subprime and other risky loans, including mortgages for borrowers without proof of steady income.

Even the Republicans got on the band wagon.  New homes sales drive the economy (because of the stuff people have to buy to put into those houses that they can’t afford).  And you make points with the poor and the minorities.  There was just no down side in affordable housing.  Or was there?

But the director of the federal office responsible for overseeing Fannie and Freddie, Armando Falcon, began noticing their expanding portfolios and increasing reliance on risky investments. In early 2003, Falcon warned Congress in a 118-page report of the companies’ potential for a catastrophic failure that could jeopardize the economy.

Okay.  Five years before the crash someone was taking notice.  And he warned Congress.  Thank god someone was looking out for America’s best interests.

But Frank and other Democrats still opposed tighter regulation, Frank most notably in his public statements saying there was nothing wrong with Fannie and Freddie. He and other House Democrats also sent a letter to President George W. Bush in June 2004, saying the proposed crackdown could “weaken affordable housing performance . . . by emphasizing only safety and soundness.’’

Frank and the Democrats were saying that it was more important to put people who couldn’t afford houses into houses than it was to provide oversight.

So he initially supported a Republican measure in 2005 that would have imposed stricter standards on the lenders. But he voted against it in the full chamber because it did not include funding for affordable housing, he said. The bill passed the House.

Frank came around.  He supported a Republican measure to provide stricter oversight.  But he changed his mind.  Once again, affordable housing was more important than the oversight he was supposed to provide.  Then, in the summer of 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned Frank again.  Now Frank chaired the House’s Financial Services Committee.  Now, more than ever, it was his responsibility to reign in Freddie and Fannie.  To provide the oversight that was his committee’s responsibility.  But he still didn’t.  Like Nero, he fiddled as the crisis burned out of control.

In July 2008, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called Frank and told him the government would need to spend “billions of taxpayer dollars to backstop the institutions from catastrophic failure,’’ according to Paulson’s recent book. Frank, despite that conversation, appeared on national television two days later and said the companies were “fundamentally sound, not in danger of going under.’’

A few months later, Freddie and Fannie would cause the worst recession since the Great Depression.  On Frank’s watch.  And he kept denying that there was any problem until the very end.

Lots of Blame to Go Around – On the Left Side of the Aisle

Barney Frank is not the sole cause of the subprime mortgage crisis.  He was just one of the leading players.  Ultimately, it was an ideology.  Affordable housing.  Putting people into houses who couldn’t afford to buy houses.  This is what caused the worst recession since the Great Depression.  And, yes, the Bush administration did partake in the affordable housing mania.  But if you want to assign real responsibility, ask yourself this question.  Which party do you think of when it comes to affordable housing for the poor and minorities?

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LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 

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