Friday, February 20, 2009

Are CRA, Clinton and Carter Really to Blame?

I am fed up with the conservative talk show hosts putting the blame of the current economic crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act. I’ve heard them say that the CRA was signed into law by Jimmy Carter and aggressively expanded under Bill Clinton forcing banks to make loans to people who could not afford them. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were also forced to buy these loans. Since people could not afford them, they defaulted causing the failure of Fannnie and Freddie and precipitating the crisis.

As my father used to tell me, “Harold, that sounds good if you are interested in sounds”. But what is the truth? The truth is that republican presidents rather than democrats were ultimately responsible. When I was Deputy Director of Economic Research at the Comptroller of the Currency, the Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1975. I was charged with determining if national banks (those who received their charter from the federal government) were guilty of discrimination and of redlining. Discrimination is the act of denying a person a loan based on a prohibited basis such as race. Redlining is the denying a loan to anyone regardless of race who is applying for a loan in a specific geographical area. My study (published in the American Economic Review, "Discrimination in Mortgage Lending," (with R. L. Schweitzer and L. Mandell), May 1978, v. 68, n. 2, pp. 186-192) showed weak statistical evidence of racial discrimination in the accept/reject decision but no evidence of redlining. These acts and our research at the OCC laid the foundation for other research on discrimination and to the passage of the CRA in 1977.

Although the CRA was signed into law by Jimmy Carter, two other important acts the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) were signed by a republican, Gerald Ford. The talk show hosts also state that Bill Clinton was responsive for the expansion of CRA and forcing the banks to make bad loans. However, the two major changes in the CRA occurred in 1989 with the passage of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) and the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992. Both were signed into law by George H. W. Bush. Under FIRREA, the reporting requirements of CRA compliance were expanded. The latter act required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to support affordable housing by purchasing CRA-qualifying loans. Even though the talk show hosts have said that up to one half of Fannie and Freddie loans were CRA loans, the act suggests that by the year 2010, that one-third of their purchases be affordable housing loans.

If there were pressures to expand CRA lending, it came in part from the banks themselves. As a result of the Riegel-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Act of 1994, signed into law by George W. Bush, CRA ratings became an important factor in determining if banks could merge or acquire across state lines. Because advocacy groups would use CRA ratings as a protest against the banks in order to get additional CRA lending, the banks greatly expanded these types of loans. I recall going to a Fed Atlanta conference on CRA lending, compliance and enforcement. A banker told me that the Feds never pressured him into making a bad loan. However, because they wanted to expand into other states, they had instituted a more liberal CRA lending policy.So the truth is that if there is blame to be handed out for a misguided CRA policy, it has to be laid at the feet of the republicans and the banks. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are convenient whipping boys and are well deserving of other blame but CRA lending is not one of them.

As to the banks making loans to people who could not pay them back? We in Finance have a technical term for such lenders – it is a fool. This makes no sense at all. Some people will say that the bankers could make bad loans because they would be sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well most CRA mortgages and subprime mortgages were sold to private investors. If these loans defaulted within 90 days, then the purchasers would put them back to the originator, If they defaulted later and more bad loans were made by the originator, then the investors would either not buy them or would offer low prices on mortgage pools of the originator. Either way, the originator would lose and would quit making bad loans.

Lastly, there are too few subprime mortgage to have caused the financial crisis. At year end 2008, there were $1.3 trillion in subprime mortgages. The default rate on subprimes had increased from 8 percent to around 20 percent. If you assume 100 percent loss on the defaulted mortgages, then this totals $260 billion. Well in 2008 the total loss in mortgage backed securities was $435 billion. If subprime defaults were at fault, then there would have been no need for the $800 TARP package. So like Carter and Clinton, subprime is just a convenient whipping boy. As my readers know, I am a laissez-faire free market conservative. But that does not blind me to the truth.

Forgettable and/or Lamentable?

When the Federal Reserve was restructured in its present form, the first true chairman of the Fed was Mariner Eccles. In his footsteps came Thomas McCabe, William McChesney Martin, Arthur F. Burns, G. William Miller, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan and now Ben Bernanke. What is striking is the stature of these men. McCabe only served three years and was the place holder between two giants - Eccles and Martin. G. William Miller was a disaster and has generally been regarded as the least competent Fed chairman. Until now. Ben Bernanke is an embarrassment and acts as if he is a toady to the administration. Instead of acting like he is auditioning for reappointment by Obama, how about acting like he still considers inflation as being job one? Instead of asserting Fed independence he has flooded the economy with funds by having the Fed buy over $2 trillion in assets and announcing the intention of purchasing another $1 trillion in asset-backed securities. He has helped tank the dollar in world markets and only the world recession  has saved it from sinking any farther. 

Its too much to ask but how about reinstituting the Fed's focus on fight inflation, preserving the value of the dollar and slowing down the growth in the money supply to equal that of the long term real rate of growth in the economy? So Ben, here is some advice: Let them fail! This is America not the old Soviet Union. This is capitalism. The markets are sending you a message that you are ignoring. In so doing, you are help turning the greatest economy in the world into a banana republic. The problem with living in DC is that it inflates your ego and makes you feel self important. I have always advocated moving the Fed to Kansas City in order to get away from DC and putting it in touch with real people. We saw that forbearance only upped the price of the S&L failures in the 1980s. This propping up of failures is the new forbearance. The Fed buys assets, holds them and hopes that the markets recover and increases their value. Maybe this will happen but in the interim we are rewarding bad behavior. Ben, have you ever heard of moral hazard?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

John Taylor on the Origins of the Financial Crisis

John Taylor's commentary in the Wall Street Journal on the origins of the financial crisis neatly encapsulates a good many of my News-Sentinel articles and posts on this blog. I couldn't agree more so here it is for those who might have missed it.

      0.            OPINION

     .                FEBRUARY 9, 2009

How Government Created the Financial Crisis

Research shows the failure to rescue Lehman did not trigger the fall panic.



Many are calling for a 9/11-type commission to investigate the financial crisis. Any such investigation should not rule out government itself as a major culprit. My research shows that government actions and interventions -- not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy -- caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis.

The classic explanation of financial crises is that they are caused by excesses -- frequently monetary excesses -- which lead to a boom and an inevitable bust. This crisis was no different: A housing boom followed by a bust led to defaults, the implosion of mortgages and mortgage-related securities at financial institutions, and resulting financial turmoil.

Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom.

The effects of the boom and bust were amplified by several complicating factors including the use of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, which led to excessive risk taking. There is also evidence the excessive risk taking was encouraged by the excessively low interest rates. Delinquency rates and foreclosure rates are inversely related to housing price inflation. These rates declined rapidly during the years housing prices rose rapidly, likely throwing mortgage underwriting programs off track and misleading many people.

Adjustable-rate, subprime and other mortgages were packed into mortgage-backed securities of great complexity. Rating agencies underestimated the risk of these securities, either because of a lack of competition, poor accountability, or most likely the inherent difficulty in assessing risk due to the complexity.

Other government actions were at play: The government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were encouraged to expand and buy mortgage-backed securities, including those formed with the risky subprime mortgages.

Government action also helped prolong the crisis. Consider that the financial crisis became acute on Aug. 9 and 10, 2007, when money-market interest rates rose dramatically. Interest rate spreads, such as the difference between three-month and overnight interbank loans, jumped to unprecedented levels.

Diagnosing the reason for this sudden increase was essential for determining what type of policy response was appropriate. If liquidity was the problem, then providing more liquidity by making borrowing easier at the Federal Reserve discount window, or opening new windows or facilities, would be appropriate. But if counterparty risk was behind the sudden rise in money-market interest rates, then a direct focus on the quality and transparency of the bank's balance sheets would be appropriate.

Early on, policy makers misdiagnosed the crisis as one of liquidity, and prescribed the wrong treatment.

To provide more liquidity, the Fed created the Term Auction Facility (TAF) in December 2007. Its main aim was to reduce interest rate spreads in the money markets and increase the flow of credit. But the TAF did not seem to make much difference. If the reason for the spread was counterparty risk as distinct from liquidity, this is not surprising.

Another early policy response was the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, passed in February. The major part of this package was to send cash totaling over $100 billion to individuals and families so they would have more to spend and thus jump-start consumption and the economy. But people spent little if anything of the temporary rebate (as predicted by Milton Friedman's permanent income theory, which holds that temporary as distinct from permanent increases in income do not lead to significant increases in consumption). Consumption was not jump-started.

A third policy response was the very sharp reduction in the target federal-funds rate to 2% in April 2008 from 5.25% in August 2007. This was sharper than monetary guidelines such as my own Taylor Rule would prescribe. The most noticeable effect of this rate cut was a sharp depreciation of the dollar and a large increase in oil prices. After the start of the crisis, oil prices doubled to over $140 in July 2008, before plummeting back down as expectations of world economic growth declined. But by then the damage of the high oil prices had been done.

After a year of such mistaken prescriptions, the crisis suddenly worsened in September and October 2008. We experienced a serious credit crunch, seriously weakening an economy already suffering from the lingering impact of the oil price hike and housing bust.

Many have argued that the reason for this bad turn was the government's decision not to prevent the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers over the weekend of Sept. 13 and 14. A study of this event suggests that the answer is more complicated and lay elsewhere.

While interest rate spreads increased slightly on Monday, Sept. 15, they stayed in the range observed during the previous year, and remained in that range through the rest of the week. On Friday, Sept. 19, the Treasury announced a rescue package, though not its size or the details. Over the weekend the package was put together, and on Tuesday, Sept. 23, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson testified before the Senate Banking Committee. They introduced the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), saying that it would be $700 billion in size. A short draft of legislation was provided, with no mention of oversight and few restrictions on the use of the funds.

The two men were questioned intensely and the reaction was quite negative, judging by the large volume of critical mail received by many members of Congress. It was following this testimony that one really begins to see the crisis deepening and interest rate spreads widening.

The realization by the public that the government's intervention plan had not been fully thought through, and the official story that the economy was tanking, likely led to the panic seen in the next few weeks. And this was likely amplified by the ad hoc decisions to support some financial institutions and not others and unclear, seemingly fear-based explanations of programs to address the crisis. What was the rationale for intervening with Bear Stearns, then not with Lehman, and then again with AIG? What would guide the operations of the TARP?

It did not have to be this way. To prevent misguided actions in the future, it is urgent that we return to sound principles of monetary policy, basing government interventions on clearly stated diagnoses and predictable frameworks for government actions.

Massive responses with little explanation will probably make things worse. That is the lesson from this crisis so far.

Mr. Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged and Worsened the Financial Crisis," published later this month by Hoover Press.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Some Random Thoughts

1. Find the cost per pupil in the public schools in a state and compare it with that of private schools. If equal or larger then simply give each family a voucher equal to that amount so they can send their kids to the private school.


2. What most Americans want are sound money, low inflation, low taxes and less government. If the Republicans want to become relevant again they need to espouse these and mean it.


3. What is the difference between Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and  Social Security? Nothing.


4. The Obama Administration was early to get egg on its face. First, Bill Richardson, then Timothy Geithner and now Tom Daschle. Isn’t it interesting that the tax cheats have advocates rushing to save them leaving Richardson high and dry?


5. Obama’s government spending binge obviously excludes the Pentagon which was told to trim 10 percent off their proposed budget. Too bad this doesn’t apply across the board to the entire federal budget.


6. I get a lot of emails from people asking my opinion about the use of term limits to curb government excesses. I always point to California which enacted term limits in 1990 and its current fiscal mess.


7. The Obama presidency is already one of failed leadership. He said no lobbyists and then he appointed two to major posts. He said no pork in his adminstration and then he supports the largest single piece of pork legislation in the nation’s history under the guise of a “stimulus” bill.


8. I didn’t care when Obama granted his first interview to a Moslem network. What I minded was his apologizing for America. This country has been remarkably restrained in its actions. No mosques were burned after 9/11. The military could have acted much more decisively in Iraq than it has. No mosques in Iraq have been bombed or even searched by Americans giving the enemy sanctuary. The apology needs to go the American public.