Banking, Lending Standards, Dot-Com, Subprime Mortgage and Bill Clinton’s Recessions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 19th, 2013

History 101

Lending more made Banks more Profitable as long as they Maintained Good Lending Standards

Money is a commodity.  And like any commodity the laws of supply and demand affect it.  If a lot of people want to borrow money interest rates rise.  This helps to make sure the people who want to borrow money the most can.  As they are willing to pay the higher interest rates.  While those who don’t want the money bad enough to pay the higher interest rates will let someone else borrow that money.  If few people want to borrow money interest rates fall.  To entice those people back into the credit markets who had decided not to borrow money when interest rates were higher.

Okay, but who is out there who wants people to borrow their money?  And why do they want this?  The key to any advanced civilization and the path to a higher standard of living is a good banking system.  Because if ordinary people can borrow money ordinary people can buy a house.  Or start a business.  Not just the rich.  For a good banking system allows a thriving middle class.  As people earn money they pay their bills.  And put a little away in the bank.  When a lot of people do this all of those little amounts add up to a large sum.  Which converts small change into capital.  Allowing us to build factories, automobiles, airplanes, cell towers, etc.  Giving us the modern world.  As banks are the intermediary between left over disposable cash and investment capital.

Banks are businesses.  They provide a service for a fee.  And they make their money by loaning money to people who want to borrow it.  The more money they lend the more money they make.  They pay people to use their deposits.  By paying interest to people who deposit their money with them.  They then loan this money at a higher interest rate.  The difference between what they pay to depositors and what they collect from borrowers pays their bills.  Covers bad loans.  And gives them a little profit.   Which can be a lot of profit if they do a lot of lending.  However, the more they lend the more loans can go bad.  So they have to be very careful in qualifying those they lend money to.  Making sure they will have the ability to pay their interest payments.  And repay the loan.

With the Federal Reserve keeping Interest Rates low Investors Borrowed Money and Poured it into the Dot-Coms

Just as a good banking system is necessary for an advanced civilization, a higher standard of living and a thriving middle class so is good lending standards necessary for a good banking system.  And when banks follow good lending standards economic growth is more real and less of a bubble.  For when money is too easy to borrow some people may borrow it to make unwise investments.  Or malinvestments as those in the Austrian school of economics call it.  Like buying an expensive car they don’t need.  A house bigger than their needs.  Building more houses than there are people to buy them.  Or investing in an unproven business in the hopes that it will be the next Microsoft.

America became the number one economic power in the world because of a good banking system that maintained good lending standards.  Which provided investment capital for wise and prudent investments.  Then the Keynesians in government changed that.  By giving us the Federal Reserve System.  America’s central bank.  And bad monetary policy.  The Keynesians believe in an active government intervening in the private economy.  That can manipulate interest rates to create artificial economic activity.  By keeping interest rates artificially low.  To make it easier for anyone to borrow money.  No matter their ability to repay it.  Or how poor the investment they plan to make.

The Internet entered our lives in the Nineties.  Shortly after Bill Gates became a billionaire with his Microsoft.  And investors were looking for the next tech geek billionaire.  Hoping to get in on the next Microsoft.  So they poured money into dot-com companies.  Companies that had no profits.  And nothing to sell.  And with the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates artificially low investors borrowed money and poured even more into these dot-coms.  Classic malinvestments.  The stock prices for these companies that had no profits or anything to sell soared.  As investors everywhere were betting that they had found the next Microsoft.  The surging stock market made the Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan, nervous.  Such overvalued stocks were likely to fall.  And fall hard.  It wasn’t so much a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’.  He tried to warn investors to cool their profit lust.  Warning them of their irrational exuberance.  But they didn’t listen.  And once that investment capital ran out the dot-com bubble burst.  Putting all those newly graduated computer programmers out of a job.  And everyone else in all of those dot-com businesses.  Causing a painful recession in 2000.

Based on the Labor Force Participation Rate we are in one of the Worse and Longest Recession in U.S. History

Encouraging malinvestments in dot-coms was not the only mismanagement Bill Clinton did in the Nineties.  For he also destroyed the banking system.  With his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Where he fixed nonexistent discriminatory lending practices by forcing banks to abandon good lending standards.  And to qualify the unqualified.  Putting a lot of people into houses they could not afford.  Their weapon of choice for the destruction of good lending practices?  Subprime lending.  And pressure from the Clinton Justice Department.  Warning banks to approve more loans in poor areas or else.  So if they wanted to stay in business they had to start making risky loans.  But the government helped them.  By having Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buying those risky, toxic loans from those banks.  Getting them off the banks’ balance sheets so they would make more toxic subprime loans.  And as they did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac passed these mortgages on to Wall Street.  Who chopped and diced them into new investment vehicles.  The collateralized debt obligation (CDO).  High-yield but low-risk investments.  Because they were backed by the safest investment in the world.  A stream of mortgage payments.  Of course what they failed to tell investors was that these were not conventional mortgages with 20% down payments.  But toxic subprime mortgages where the borrowers put little if anything down.  Making it easy for them to walk away from these mortgages.  Which they did.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

So Bill Clinton and his Keynesian cohorts caused some of the greatest economic damage this nation had ever seen.  For Keynesian policies don’t create real economic activity.  They only create bubbles.  And bubbles eventually burst.  As those highly inflated asset prices (stocks, houses, etc.) have to come back down from the stratosphere.  The higher they rise the farther they fall.   And the more painful the recession.  For this government intrusion into the private economy caused a lot of malinvestments.  A tragic misuse of investment capital.  Directing it into investments it wouldn’t have gone into had it not been for the government’s interference with market forces.  And when the bubble can no longer be kept aloft market forces reenter the picture and begin clearing away the damage of those malinvestments.  Getting rid of the irrational exuberance.  Resetting asset prices to their true market value.  And in the process eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Jobs the market would have created elsewhere had it not been for the Keynesian interference.  We can see the extent of the damage of these two Clinton recessions if we graph the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) along with the labor force participation rate (the percentage of those who are able to work who are actually working).  As can be seen here (see Percent change from preceding period and Employment Situation Archived News Releases):

Labor Force Participation Rate and GDP Growth

The first Clinton recession caused a decline in the labor force participation rate (LFPR) that didn’t level out until after 2004.  Even though there were not two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth during this time.  Usually what it takes to call an economic slump a recession.  But the falling LFPR clearly showed very bad economic times.  That began with the dot-com bubble bursting.  And was made worse after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Eventually George W. Bush pulled us out of that recession with tax cuts.  The much maligned Bush tax cuts.  Which not only caused a return to positive GDP growth.  But it arrested the decline of the LFPR.  But the good times did not last.  For the second Clinton recession was just around the corner.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  Created with President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  That unleashed real economic woe.  Woe so bad we call it the Great Recession.  The little brother of the Great Depression.

This recession not only had two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth but five of six consecutive quarters showed negative growth.  And one of those quarters nearly reached a negative ten percent.  Which is when a recession becomes a depression.  This recession was so long and so painful because those artificially low interest rates and the pressure on bankers to lower their lending standards created a huge housing bubble.  Pushing housing prices so high that when the housing bubble burst those prices had a very long way to fall.  Worse, President Obama kept to the Keynesian policies that caused the recession.  Trying to spend the economy out of recession.  Instead of cutting taxes.  Like George W. Bush did to pull the economy out of the first Clinton recession.  Worse, anti-business policies and regulations stifled any recovery.  And then there was Obamacare.  The great job killer.  Which he helped pass into law instead of trying to end the Great Recession.  GDP growth eventually returned to positive growth.  And the official unemployment fell.  A little.  But the president’s policies did nothing to reverse one of the greatest declines in the LFPR.  More people than ever have disappeared from the labor force.  That will take a lot of time and a lot of new, real economic activity to bring them back into the labor force.  And no matter what the current GDP growth rate or the official unemployment rate are it doesn’t change the reality of the economy.  Based on the LFPR it is in one of the worse and longest recession in U.S. history.  And the worse recovery since the Great Depression.  Because of President Obama’s embrace of Keynesian policies.  Which do more to increase the size of government than help the economy.

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Without a Bill Clinton the Bursting of the Canadian Housing Bubble will be less Painful than in the US

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 10th, 2012

Week in Review

The subprime mortgage crisis caused the Great Recession.  And bad government policy caused the subprime mortgage policy.  First with artificially low interest rates to encourage everyone to borrow money and take on enormous amounts of debt.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch.  By charging lenders with discrimination in their lending practices.  And if they didn’t find a away to qualify the unqualified for mortgages they would soon find themselves out of the mortgage business.  So they came up with subprime lending.  Adjustable rate mortgages (ARM).  No documentation mortgages.  Anything to get the government off of their backs.  And the government was so pleased with what they saw they started to buy (and/or guarantee) those toxic mortgages with their Government Sponsored Enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Clearing those toxic mortgages from the lenders balance sheet by unloading them onto unsuspecting investors.  Clearing the way for even more toxic subprime lending.  The government was pleased.  And the bankers were making money with bad lending practices.  Something they normally would have avoided because it is very risky.  But when the government was transferring that risk to the taxpayer what did they have to lose?

Governments like a hot real estate market.  Because housing sales drives so much economic activity.  Because people put a lot of stuff into those houses.  Which is why governments are always quick to use their monetary authority to lower interest rates.  Which is what they did in the US.  Cheap money to borrow.  Lax lending practices thanks to the Clinton administration.  Creating a housing boom.  And a housing bubble.  It was a perfect storm brewing.  The only thing that it needed was a raise in the interest rates.  Which came.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis as those ARMS reset at higher interest rates.  Leading to a wave of subprime mortgage defaults.  And the Great Recession.  Which raced around the world thanks to those toxic mortgages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac unloaded on unsuspecting investors.

Canada did not suffer as much from the Great Recession.  Because they did not pressure their lenders to qualify the unqualified like Bill Clinton did in the US.  But they still used their monetary authority to keep interest rates artificially low.  So while they escaped the great damage the Americans suffered in their subprime mortgage they still have a housing bubble.  And it looks like it may be time for it to burst (see Analysis: Canada braces as housing slowdown takes hold by Andrea Hopkins posted 11/10/2012 on Reuters).

Long convinced the country’s housing boom would never end in a crash, Canadians have watched this autumn as a sharp slowdown in real estate spreads across the country, leaving would-be home buyers hopeful and sellers scared…

Signs are everywhere that Canada’s long run-up in house prices is over, hit by a combination of tighter mortgage lending rules and growing consumer reluctance to take on more debt. Sales of existing homes are down steeply, with condo sales hit especially hard, and some long-booming prices have started to fall…

Canadian households hold more debt than American families did before the U.S. housing bubble burst, which has led the government to tighten mortgage lending rules four times in four years…

Tal believes slower sales activity will be followed by falling prices in many cities. But he says Canadian lending standards have been higher, and borrowers more cautious, than in the United States before its crash, which will prevent large-scale mortgage defaults and plunging prices.

Mindful of what happened in the United States, the Canadian government has tightened mortgage rules to prevent home buyers from taking on too much debt. While interest rates are low and expected to stay low into 2013, the fear is that eventual rate hikes will drive borrowers out of their homes or into bankruptcy…

The last round of mortgage rule changes took effect in July, forcing home buyers to cut back on their budget and pushing many prospective first-time buyers out of the market entirely.

The Canadians may escape the damage the US suffered as Bill Clinton was an American and not a Canadian.  So they only have to suffer the effects of bad monetary policy.  Not the effects of government enforced bad lending practices.  So housing prices will fall in Canada.  And there will probably be a recession to correct those inflated real estate prices.  But housing prices probably will not fall as far as they did in the US.  For the Canadians were more responsible with their irresponsible monetary policy than the Americans were.

The lesson here is that when markets determine interest rates housing bubbles are smaller and recessions are less painful.  If you don’t believe that just ask an American with an underwater mortgage.

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Housing Boom, Subprime Lending, ARMs, Housing Bubble, CDOs, Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Housing Inventories & Sales and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 24th, 2012

History 101

Artificially Low Interest Rates and Federal Pressure to Qualify the Unqualified created a Housing Bubble

The federal government loves home sales.  Because they generate a lot of economic activity.  From the washing machines and refrigerators new homeowners buy to furnish them.  To the raw materials extracted from nature to make the concrete, bricks, wood, pipes, wires, shingles, glass, plastic, paints, carpeting, insulation, etc., to build them.  Enormous amounts of economic activity at every level throughout the stages of production.  It reduces down to a simple formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  Enjoy a booming economy.  And how best to do that?  Make mortgages cheap.  By keeping interest rates cheap.  Artificially low.  To stimulate a housing boom.

This is Keynesian economics.  Government intervention into the private market.  By having the Federal Reserve keep interest rates lower than the market would have them.  To encourage more people to buy houses.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch with their Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Investor’s Business Daily reported (see Smoking-Gun Document Ties Policy To Housing Crisis by PAUL SPERRY posted 10/31/2011 on Investors.com) that this policy statement forced lenders basically to qualify the unqualified.

At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties…

“The agencies will not tolerate lending discrimination in any form,” the document warned financial institutions.

The unusual full-court press was predicated on a Boston Fed study showing mortgage lenders rejecting blacks and Hispanics in greater proportion than whites. The author of the 1992 study, hired by the Clinton White House, claimed it was racial “discrimination.” But it was simply good underwriting.

There was no racial discrimination.  Just people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  But that didn’t stop the Clinton administration.  So there were artificially low interest rates.  And federal pressure to qualify the unqualified.  To let those who can’t afford to buy a house buy a house.  Enter subprime lending.  A way lenders could approve the unqualified for a mortgage.  With adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgages.  Zero down mortgages.  No documentation loans (say you earn whatever you want and we’ll enter it into the application without documenting it).  Anyone who wanted to have a house could have a house.  And a lot of people bought houses.  Even those with insufficient incomes to pay their mortgage payment if interest rates ever rose.

When the Housing Bubble Burst it Destroyed a lot of Economic Activity and a lot of Jobs

The economy was heating up.  There was a housing boom.  The boom turned into a housing bubble.  Housing prices soared demand was so high.  Builders couldn’t build them fast enough.  And people couldn’t buy a house big enough.  McMansions entered the lexicon.  Houses in excess of 3,000 square feet.  For a family of four.  Or smaller.  But then these artificially low interest rates began to heat up inflation.  And it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to keep that from happening.  So they raised interest rates.  Causing the interest rates on those ARMs to reset at a higher rate.  Making a lot of those monthly payments beyond the homeowners’ ability to pay.  Homeowners defaulted in droves.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Facilitating this economic carnage was the secondary mortgage market.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Who bought those very risky mortgages from the lenders.  Repackaged them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  And sold them to unsuspecting investors.  Who thought they were buying high-yield safe investments.  Because they were backed by historically the safest investment.  A mortgage.  But that was before subprime lending.  For these subprime mortgages weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These mortgages were toxic.

So when the housing bubble burst it not only destroyed a lot of economic activity, and a lot of jobs, it wreaked financial destruction in people’s investment portfolios.  All because of a formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  But when you play with the economy too much you don’t create economic growth.  You created bubbles.  And the bigger the bubble the longer and the more painful the recession will be when that bubble bursts.  As those artificially high house prices fall out of the stratosphere back to real market levels.

The Current Gulf between Housing Inventories and Sales is what made this Recession the Great Recession

If you look at the housing inventories and housing sales for the decade from 2001 to 2011 you can see how bad the recession was.  And will continue to be.  We took housing data from the United States Census Bureau.   Housing inventories from Table 7A.  And housing sales from Houses Sold.  The data shows housing units in inventory and sold.  We used 2001 as a base year, dividing each number by the 2001 base numbers.  Graphing the results shows how inventories and sales trended for this decade.

From 2001 to 2005 housing sales were rising at a greater rate than inventories.  Indicating demand for houses was greater than the supply of houses.  Causing house prices to rise.  Encouraging builders to build more houses.  Heating up the housing market.  Sending prices higher.  Creating the great housing bubble.  Then around 2005 the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates to tamp out inflation.  And those ARMs began to reset at higher rates.  Causing housing sales to fall.  From about 2005 to 2008 inventories continued to rise while sales collapsed.  Leaving the available housing supply far outstripping demand.  Causing house prices to collapse.  Leaving people underwater in their mortgage (owing more than their house is worth).  Or living in paid-off houses that lost up to half their value.  Or more.

The gulf between inventories and sales is what made this recession the Great Recession.  And is why the Great Recession lingers on.  There are just so many more houses than people want to buy.  Killing new housing starts.  And all that economic activity that building a house generates.

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The Great Housing Bubble and The Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 27th, 2011

History 101

Putting People into Houses trumped Sound Monetary Policy, a Sound Currency and good Lending Practices

Housing has for a long time been the key to economic prosperity.  Because to build a house you need a lot of economic activity.  Industries produce lumber, concrete, sheetrock, brick, shingles, door frames, doors, windows, glass, flooring, plumbing pipes, plumbing fixtures, sump pumps, furnaces, heating ducts, insulation, air conditioners, electrical wiring and fixtures, carpeting, tile, linoleum, etc.  The bigger the house the more of this stuff there is.  Once built people have to buy them (stimulating the mortgage banking industry) and then furnish them.  This triggers a monsoon of economic activity.  Drapes, shades, blinds, paint, washers, dryers, stoves, refrigerators, freezers, microwave ovens, toasters, blenders, food processers, plates, dishes, knives, silverware, ceiling fans, televisions, home theaters, sound systems, computers, cable and internet services, utilities, shelving, furniture, beds, cribs, art, etc.  And, of course, the exterior of the house creates further economic activity.

This is why one of the most important economic indicators is new housing starts.  For each new house we build we create a whirlwind of economic activity.  So much that it boggles the mind trying to think about it.  That’s why governments do whatever they can to stimulate this particular economic activity.  They encourage borrowing by allowing us to deduct the interest we pay on our mortgages.  They use monetary policy to keep interest rates as low as possible.  They’ve created federal programs to help veterans.  To help low income people.  And to remove risk from lenders to encourage more risky lending (as in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).  They’ve even used the power of government to force mortgage lenders to qualify the unqualified (Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending).

You see, putting people into houses trumped everything else.  Sound monetary policy.  A sound currency.  Good lending practices.  Everything.  Because that was the key to a healthy economy.  A happy constituent.  And healthy tax revenue.  Not to mention you can score a lot of points with the poor and minorities by helping them into houses they can’t afford.  So this coordinated effort to put people into houses did two things.  Made money cheap and easy to borrow.  And created a boom in new housing starts.  Which resulted in a third thing.  A housing bubble.

Subprime Mortgages were for those who didn’t have Good Credit or Stable Employment with Reliable Income

Builders couldn’t build enough houses.  People were buying them faster than they built them.  And the houses they bought were getting bigger and bigger.  As they qualified for ever larger mortgages.  Poor people and people with bad credit could walk into a bank and get approved without documenting income.  House flippers could walk in day after day and get loans to buy houses.  Fix them up.  And put them back on the market.  Without using any of their own money. The market was soon flooded with new McMansions.  And refurbished smaller homes that people were moving out of.  Demand for homes was high.  And interest rates were low.  So the supply of homes swelled.  As did home prices.

Interest rates were low.  But they didn’t stay low.  All this coordinated effort to put as many people into homes as possible created a lot of artificial demand.  Heating up the economy.  Increasing prices higher than they had been.  Leading to inflationary worries.  So the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates.  To temper that inflation.  Which didn’t sit well with those low income house owners.  Who got into their homes with the help of the Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Which forced lenders to get creative in qualifying the unqualified.  To avoid undo federal attention.  And legal actions against them.  So a lot of poor people had subprime mortgages.  As did all of those house flippers.  People who used little of their own money.  Who put little down.  And had little to lose.

What is a subprime mortgage?  In a word, risky.  It isn’t a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at a good interest rate.  No, for those you need a good credit score and years of stable employment with reliable income.  And enough money saved up to put close to 20% down.  Subprime mortgages were for those who didn’t have a good credit score.  Years of stable employment with reliable income.  Or any savings.  These people didn’t get the ‘prime’ mortgages.  They got the expensive ones.  The ones with the higher interest rates.  And the higher monthly payments.  Why?  Because risk determined the interest rate.  And the higher the risk the higher the interest rate.

In their Effort to sustain Economic Activity the Government caused the Worst Recession since the Great Depression

But this posed a problem.  Because of the Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Making loans available to the unqualified was no good if the unqualified couldn’t afford them.  Enter the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  These mortgages had lower interest rates.  And lower monthly payments.  How you ask?  By making them adjustable.  A fixed-rate mortgage has to account for inflation.  And adjustable-rate mortgage doesn’t.  Because if there is inflation and the interest rates go up the ARM resets to a higher value.  Which is what happened right about the time housing prices peaked.

When the ARMs reset a lot of people couldn’t make their monthly payments anymore.  Having put little down and having made few monthly payments, these homeowners had little to lose by walking away from their homes.  And a lot of them did.  Including those house flippers.  And that was just the beginning.  With higher interest rates the new home market contracted.  Those artificially high house prices began to fall.  And when the ARMs reset they caused an avalanche of defaults and foreclosures.  The market was correcting.  There were far more houses for sale than there were buyers looking to buy.  Home values began to fall to reflect this real demand.  People who bought the biggest house they could afford because they thought real estate prices always went up soon discovered that wasn’t true.  People were making monthly payments on a mortgage that was greater than the value of their house.  Some walked away.  Some got out with short sales.  Where the lender agreed to eat the loss equity.

The housing market was imploding.  Thanks to a great real estate bubble created by the government.  In their quest to put as many people into houses as possible.  By making mortgages cheap and easy to get.  Relaxing lending standards.  And encouraging risky lending.  None of which would have happened had they left the housing market to market forces.  Where the market sets interest rates.  And housing prices.  The irony of the subprime mortgage crisis is that in their effort to sustain economic activity the government caused the worst recession since the Great Depression.  The Great Recession.

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Keynesian Economics gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, but the Government blames S&P

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 20th, 2011

We call it the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, not the Mortgage-Backed Securities Crisis 

When responsible for a problem you can accept blame.  Or you can blame the messenger.  Or better yet, you can attack the messenger (see Criticism of Standard & Poor’s over U.S. credit rating compounds its troubles in Washington by Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times, posted 8/18/2011 on WGNtv).

The backlash against Standard & Poor’s for downgrading the U.S. credit rating adds to the company’s problems in the nation’s capital, where it faces investigations for its role in fueling the financial crisis with faulty assessments of mortgage-backed securities.

S&P and the other credit-rating firms are widely believed to have enabled the near market meltdown by giving AAA ratings to many securities backed by risky subprime mortgages.

So the credit-rating firms enabled the subprime mortgage crisis.  Interesting.  Because the bad subprime mortgages already existed by the time those mortgage-backed securities came to them for review.  And it was those preexisting mortgages that people defaulted on and caused the near market meltdown.  So I don’t think you can blame this all on S&P.  And remember, we call it the subprime mortgage crisis.  Not the mortgage-backed securities crisis.  Ergo, the cause was the subprime mortgages.  And S&P didn’t write those mortgages.

Subprime Mortgages:  Creative Financing to Qualify the Unqualified

Once upon a time you saved up 20% for the down payment on a new house.  Then you went to a savings and loan to get a mortgage.  Or a bank.  In those days, people saved their money.  They deposited it into their savings accounts and earned 3% interest.  The banks and savings and loans then loaned it at 6%.  And the bankers were on the golf course by 3 PM.  Hence the joke about the 3-6-3 industry.  It wasn’t very sexy.  But it was reliable.  Few defaulted.  Because a new home owner had a lot to lose from day 1 thanks to that 20% down payment.

But there was a problem with this.  Home ownership was restricted to only those people who could afford to buy houses.  Those who could put down a 20% down payment.  And who had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage.  Well, you can see the problem with this.  What about the poor people who couldn’t come up with the 20% down payment nor had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage?

After World War II home ownership became a national goal.  Home ownership equaled economic growth.  It became the American dream (no longer was it the liberty that the Founding Fathers gave us).  As the years went by some saw that the poor were being left out.  Included in that long list of those who could not qualify for a mortgage were a lot of blacks.  Activists claimed that banks were redlining.  Disapproving a larger percentage of black applicants than white.  There were protests.  Investigations.  Banks had to figure out a way to qualify the unqualified and fast.  To prove that they weren’t being racist.

And the subprime mortgage was born.   Adjustable Interest Rate (ARM).  No documentation.  Zero down.  Interest only.  All kinds of creative financing to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  And it was a hit.  Poor people liked them.  But banks were still reluctant to issue many of them.  Because they were far more risky than a conventional mortgage.  And it was dangerous to have too many of them on their books.  But then federal government solved that problem.

Fannie and Freddie enabled the Mortgage Lenders to Approve Risky Mortgages

Enter Fannie Mae and Freddie MacGovernment Sponsored Enterprises.  They would buy (or guarantee) those risky mortgages from the banks.  The banks breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Then started selling the crap out of subprime mortgages.  Because they were exposed to no risk thanks to Fannie and Freddie.  And the housing market took off.  The government urged Fannie and Freddie to lower their standards and buy even more risky mortgages.  To keep the housing boom alive.  And they did.  Not only were home owners snatching them up.  But speculators, too.  And the term ‘house flipping‘ entered the American lexicon.

Fannie and Freddie then repackaged the subprime mortgages they bought and resold them.  Into so-called ‘safe’ investments.  Thanks to being tied to a mortgage, historically one of the safest investments in America.  Well, they were when people were putting 20% down, at least.  So these mortgage back securities were created.  Reviewed by the credit-rating agencies.  And sold to investors, mutual funds, pension funds, 401(k)s, etc.  Who bought them with abandon.  Because they were rated AAA.  Long after those risky mortgages were written.

They were time bombs just waiting to go off.  Not because of the credit rating agencies.  But because of Fannie and Freddie.  Who enabled the mortgage lenders to approve risky mortgages with no risk to themselves.  And a long standing government policy to put as many people as possible into homes.  Because economic growth all came from home ownership.  And then it happened.  There was a housing bubble thanks to easy monetary policy.  The economy was heating up.  Worried about inflation, the Fed tapped the brakes.  Raised interest rates.  And all of those ARMs reset at higher rates.  People couldn’t afford the new higher monthly payments.  The higher interest rates left the speculators with lots of houses.  That they bought with no money down.  That no one was buying.  And, well, the rest you know.

The Greatest Threat to American Fiscal Solvency is the Government’s growing Health Care Tab 

So S&P didn’t cause the subprime mortgage crisis.  Whether they gave those securities AAA ratings or not those subprime mortgage holders were going to default anyway.  The origins of the subprime mortgage crisis reach a lot further back than S&P.  But their credibility did take a hit.  So they’re trying to be a little more cautious these days.  And if anyone paid attention during the debt ceiling debates, they know the country’s long-term finances are in some serious trouble.

Jeffrey Miron wrote a paper about the health of the U.S. states.  He starts in the introduction by going over the state of affairs in the federal government (see The Fiscal Health of U.S. States by Jeffrey Miron posted 8/15/2011 on Mercatus Center).

As the worldwide financial crisis has eased, economic policy debates have shifted from the short-term issue of stabilization to the log-term issue of fiscal imbalance.  Current projections suggests that the U.S. federal government faces an exploding ratio of debt to GDP, driven in large part by spending on health insurance1.  If this trend continues, the United States will soon find itself unable to roll over its debt and be force to default, generating a fiscal crisis.

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1  U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “CBO’s 2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook” (Washington, DC: CBO, June 2011)

Perhaps this is why S&P downgraded U.S. debt.  Because that debt ceiling deal did nothing to address the greatest threat to American fiscal solvency.  The government’s growing health care tab.  The nation indeed may be seeing some difficult times.  As will the states.

This paper offers five conclusions. First, state government finances are not on a stable path; if spending patterns continue to follow those of recent decades, the ratio of state debt to output will increase without bound. Second, the key driver of increasing state and local expenditures is health-care costs, especially Medicaid and subsidies for health-insurance exchanges under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. Third, states have large implicit debts for unfunded pension liabilities, making their net debt positions substantially worse than official debt statistics indicate. Fourth, if spending trends continue and tax revenues remain near their historical levels relative to output, most states will reach dangerous ratios of debt to GDP within 20 to 30 years. Fifth, states differ in their degrees of fiscal imbalance, but the overriding fact is that all states face fiscal meltdown in the foreseeable future.

Not a pretty picture.  This whole European Socialism model is pushing both the states and the country to default.  Like it is currently pushing European nations toward default in the Eurozone.  Whose financial crisis is worst than America’s.  So far.

Keynesian Economics stimulated the Housing Market into the Granddaddy of all Housing Bubbles 

Social engineering.  Tax and spend liberalism.  Keynesian economics.   These are what gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Putting people into houses who couldn’t afford them.  And keeping interest rates artificially low to stimulate the housing market into the granddaddy of all housing bubbles.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  And more of the same will only push us further down the Eurozone road.  Sadly, a road often taken throughout history.  As once great nations fell, littering this road.  The Road to Serfdom.

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