George Will

George Will by Scott Ableman


It really is incredible to see such a concerted effort to rewrite history in front of our faces. There is not much ambiguity in the story of the housing bubble. The private financial sector went nuts. They made a fortune issuing bad and often fraudulent loans which they could quickly resell in the secondary market. The big actors in the junk market were the private issuers like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Lehman Brothers. However, George Will and Co. are determined to blame this disaster on government “compassion” for low-income families.

The facts that Will musters to make this case are so obviously off-base that this sort of column would not appear in a serious newspaper. But, Will writes for the Washington Post.

The first culprit is the Community Re-investment Act (CRA). Supposedly the government forced banks to make loans against their will to low-income families who did not qualify for their mortgages. This one is wrong at every step. First, the biggest actors in the subprime market were mortgage banks like Ameriquest and Countrywide. For the most part these companies raised their money on Wall Street, they did not take checking and savings deposits. This means that they were not covered by the CRA.

Let’s try that again so that even George Will might understand it. Most of the worst actors in the subprime market were not covered by the CRA. The CRA had as much to do with them as it does with Google or Boeing.

The second CRA problem is many of the worst loans would not have been covered even if the institution was. Many of the worst loans were made to finance homes purchased in newly created exurbs. The CRA is about having banks make loans in inner city areas where they take deposits. So we have the wrong location and wrong institutions for the George Will story.

Step 3, the big subprime issuers (Ameriquest, Countrywide, New Century, IndyMac) were making money hand over fist on their subprime mortgages. Their profits and stock prices soared in the peak years of the housing bubble. Does George Will think that bankers need government bureaucrats to tell them to make money?What sort of free market believer is he?

Finally, the CRA has no enforcement power. In the worst case the government tells you that you have been a bad boy. If a bank wants to merge, they may be forced to pledge to do better in the merged company. (With the pledge generally being unenforceable.)

So we have banks that are not covered by the CRA, being forced to make loans that are not covered by the CRA, which were hugely profitable, by a rule that had no enforcement mechanism. Welcome to the world of George Will logic.

The beating up on Fannie Mae as the main culprit in this story is similarly short on logic. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lost market share at an incredibly rapid pace in the peak bubble years precisely because they were not buying the worst of the junk. That was going to the private investment banks.

This is not a secret. They did start to get into the junk market late in the game in 2006, precisely because they were losing market share.

Here’s what Moody’s had to say about Freddie Mac in their December 2006 assessment:

 

Increasing Market Share

Freddie Mac has long played a central role (shared with Fannie Mae) in the secondary mortgage market. In recent years, both housing GSEs have been losing share within the overall market due to the shifting nature of consumer preferences towards adjustable-rate loans and other hybrid products. For the first half of 2006, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac captured about 44 percent of total origination volume — up from a 41 percent share in 2005, but down from a 59 percent share in 2003. Moody’s would be concerned if Freddie Mac’s market share (i.e., mortgage portfolio plus securities as a percentage of conforming and non-conforming origination), which ranged between 18 and 23 percent between 1999 and the first half of 2006, declined below 15 percent. To buttress its market share, Freddie Mac has increased its purchases of private label securities. Moody’s notes that these purchases contribute to profitability, affordable housing goals, and market share in the short-term, but offer minimal benefit from a franchise building perspective. (p 6).”

 

This puts things about as clearly as they possibly could be. Moody’s was concerned that Freddie (the same applied to Fannie) was losing market share to the private issuers because they were not big actors in “adjustable-rate loans and other hybrid products [i.e. junk].” However, they were cheered by the fact that Freddie was moving in this direction. In other words, the private issuers were very clearly the big actors and Fannie and Freddie were jumping in as a business decision to preserve market share. In other words, it was profit, not government compassion that drove this bubble.

Just to be clear, Fannie and Freddie were horrible actors in this story. I criticized them throughout this period and raised the possibility of these two mortgage giants being sunk by the bubble as early as 2002. Housing is all they do, how could they have totally missed the largest housing bubble in the history of the world?

There were also numerous cases of some really seriously misguided “compassion.” There were many community groups and foundations touting the rise in homeownership even when it should have been apparent that this increase was being driven by people were using junk mortgages to buy homes at bubble-inflated prices. If there was truth in labeling, the “asset building” programs pushed by many of these outfits would be called “asset shrinking.”

But it is a tremendous re-write of history to blame misguided do-gooders for the core problem. Good old-fashioned capitalists were making money hand over fist and they were doing it largely without government support, except for the implicit too-big-too fail (TBTF) guarantees that ensured that outfits like Citigroup and Bank of America would survive no matter how reckless they had been. If Will wants to blame the government because of the implicit subsidy of TBTF then he has somewhat of a case. But the argument in this article belongs in the fiction section.