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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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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