Phil Gramm, a former U.S. Senator from Texas, is vice chairman of UBS Investment Bank, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on Deregulation and the Financial Panic: Loose money and politicized mortgages are the real villains.
Gramm argues that the current debate about the cause of the financial crisis is important because the reforms implemented by Congress in the US, and other governments around the world, will be profoundly affected by what people believe caused the crisis. Gramm writes
If the cause was an unsustainable boom in house prices and irresponsible mortgage lending that corrupted the balance sheets of the world's financial institutions, reforming the housing credit system and correcting attendant problems in the financial system are called for. But if the fundamental structure of the financial system is flawed, a more profound restructuring is required.Gramm goes on to say that in his view there are two main factors that lead to the crisis.
The first was the unintended consequences of a monetary policy, developed to combat inventory cycle recessions in the last half of the 20th century, that was not well suited to the speculative bubble recession of 2001. The second was the politicization of mortgage lending.About the problems with monetary policy Gramm says
Critics of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan say he held interest rates too low for too long, and in the process overstimulated the economy. That criticism does not capture what went wrong, however. The consequences of the Fed's monetary policy lay elsewhere.and expands on this by writing
In the 2001 recession, however, consumption and home building remained strong as investment collapsed. The Fed's sharp, prolonged reduction in interest rates stimulated a housing market that was already booming -- triggering six years of double-digit increases in housing prices during a period when the general inflation rate was low.On the topic of the politicisation of mortgage lending Gramm explains
Buyers bought houses they couldn't afford, believing they could refinance in the future and benefit from the ongoing appreciation. Lenders assumed that even if everything else went wrong, properties could still be sold for more than they cost and the loan could be repaid. This mentality permeated the market from the originator to the holder of securitized mortgages, from the rating agency to the financial regulator.
Meanwhile, mortgage lending was becoming increasingly politicized. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requirements led regulators to foster looser underwriting and encouraged the making of more and more marginal loans. Looser underwriting standards spread beyond subprime to the whole housing market.And the story doesn't have a happy ending.
As Mr. Greenspan testified last October at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "It's instructive to go back to the early stages of the subprime market, which has essentially emerged out of CRA." It was not just that CRA and federal housing policy pressured lenders to make risky loans -- but that they gave lenders the excuse and the regulatory cover.
Countrywide Financial Corp. cloaked itself in righteousness and silenced any troubled regulator by being the first mortgage lender to sign a HUD "Declaration of Fair Lending Principles and Practices." Given privileged status by Fannie Mae as a reward for "the most flexible underwriting criteria," it became the world's largest mortgage lender -- until it became the first major casualty of the financial crisis.
The 1992 Housing Bill set quotas or "targets" that Fannie and Freddie were to achieve in meeting the housing needs of low- and moderate-income Americans. In 1995 HUD raised the primary quota for low- and moderate-income housing loans from the 30% set by Congress in 1992 to 40% in 1996 and to 42% in 1997.
By the time the housing market collapsed, Fannie and Freddie faced three quotas. The first was for mortgages to individuals with below-average income, set at 56% of their overall mortgage holdings. The second targeted families with incomes at or below 60% of area median income, set at 27% of their holdings. The third targeted geographic areas deemed to be underserved, set at 35%.
The results? In 1994, 4.5% of the mortgage market was subprime and 31% of those subprime loans were securitized. By 2006, 20.1% of the entire mortgage market was subprime and 81% of those loans were securitized. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that GSE losses will cost $240 billion in fiscal year 2009. If this crisis proves nothing else, it proves you cannot help people by lending them more money than they can pay back.
Blinded by the experience of the postwar period, where aggregate housing prices had never declined on an annual basis, and using the last 20 years as a measure of the norm, rating agencies and regulators viewed securitized mortgages, even subprime and undocumented Alt-A mortgages, as embodying little risk. It was not that regulators were not empowered; it was that they were not alarmed.
With near universal approval of regulators world-wide, these securities were injected into the arteries of the world's financial system. When the bubble burst, the financial system lost the indispensable ingredients of confidence and trust. We all know the rest of the story.