Misunderstanding Credit and Housing Crises: Blaming the CRA, GSEs

“It’s telling that, amid all the recent recriminations, even lenders have not fingered CRA. That’s because CRA didn’t bring about the reckless lending at the heart of the crisis. Just as sub-prime lending was exploding, CRA was losing force and relevance. And the worst offenders, the independent mortgage companies, were never subject to CRA — or any federal regulator. Law didn’t make them lend. The profit motive did.”-Robert Gordon, American Prospect

I have been meaning to get back to this issue, but events in the market have kept me a tad busy.

Making the rounds amongst a certain subset of wingnuts on CNBC, at IBD and other selfconfoozled folks has been the meme that the entire housing and credit crisis traces to the the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. An alternative zombie myth is the credit crisis is due to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A 1999 article from the New York Times about the GSE’s role in subprime mortgages has been circulating as if its the rosetta stone of the credit crisis.

These memes have become a rallying cry — cognitive dissonance writ large — of those folks who have been pushing for greater and greater deregulation, and are now attempting to disown the results of their handiwork.

I feel compelled to set the record straight about this pseudo-intellectual detritus. As we have painstakingly discussed over the past few years, there were many direct and indirect causes of the current financial mess.

Let’s clarify the causes of current circumstances. Ask yourself the following questions about the impact of the Community Reinvestment Act and/or the role of Fannie & Freddie:

• Did the 1977 legislation, or any other legislation since, require banks to not verify income or payment history of mortgage applicants?

• 50% of subprime loans were made by mortgage service companies not subject comprehensive federal supervision; another 30% were made by banks or thrifts which are not subject to routine supervision or examinations. How was this caused by either CRA or GSEs ?

• What about “No Money Down” Mortgages (0% down payments)? Were they required by the CRA? Fannie? Freddie?

• Explain the shift in Loan to value from 80% to 120%: What was it in the Act that changed this traditional lending requirement?

• Did any Federal legislation require real estate agents and mortgage writers to use the same corrupt appraisers again and again? How did they manage to always come in at exactly the purchase price, no matter what?• Did the CRA require banks to develop automated underwriting (AU) systems that emphasized speed rather than accuracy in order to process the greatest number of mortgage apps as quickly as possible?

• How exactly did legislation force Moody’s, S&Ps and Fitch to rate junk paper as Triple AAA?

• What about piggy back loans? Were banks required by Congress to lend the first mortgage and do a HELOC for the down payment — at the same time?

• Internal bank memos showed employees how to cheat the system to get poor mortgages prospects approved that shouldn’t have been: Titled How to Get an “Iffy” loan approved at JPM Chase. (Was circulating that memo also a FNM/FRE/CRA requirement?)

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• The four biggest problem areas for housing (by price decreases) are: Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami, Florida, and San Diego, California. Explain exactly how these affluent, non-minority regions were impacted by the Community Reinvesment Act ?

• Did the GSEs require banks to not check credit scores? Assets? Income?

• What was it about the CRA or GSEs that mandated fund managers load up on an investment product that was hard to value, thinly traded, and poorly understood

• What was it in the Act that forced banks to make “interest only” loans? Were “Neg Am loans” also part of the legislative requirements also?

• Consider this February 2003 speech by Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozlilo at the American Bankers National Real Estate Conference. He advocated zero down payment mortgages — was that a CRA requirement too, or just a grab for more market share, and bad banking?

The answer to all of the above questions is no, none, and nothing at all.

The CRA is not remotely one of the proximate causes of the current credit crunch, Housing collapse,and mortgage debacle. As I detailed in Barron’s, there is plenty of things to be angry at D.C. about — but this ain’t one of them.

The root legislative cause of the current was excessive deregulation. From exempting derivatives from regulation to nonfeasance on the Fed’s part in supervising bank lending, the pendulum swung too far away from reasonable oversight. By taking the refs off of the field and erroneously expecting market participants could self-regulate, the powers that be in DC gave the players on Wall Street enough rope to hang themselves with — which they promptly did.

There are too many people who are trying to duck responsibility for the current mess, and seeking to place blame elsewhere. I find this to be terribly important, as we seek to repair the damage amidst an economic crisis. Rather than objectively evaluate the present crisis in an attempt to craft an appropriate response, the partisan hacks are trying to obscure the causes of the current situation. Like burglars trying to destroy the surveillance tape, they are all too aware of their role in the present debacle.

Shame on them for their foolishness or cowardice.

Whenever I see a CRA proponent blathering, I have a “Star Trek moment.” That’s when Captain Kirk proves to some random alien computer that its basic programming is logically inconsistent. It’s the AI (artificial intelligence) version of cognitive dissonance. The computer, recognizing the fraud its entire existence was based upon, seeing the futility of its belief system, at least has the dignity to blow itself up. No such luck with the wingnuts, who merely move on to their next piece of spin . . .

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Note in the Sources section, we have a few subtopics: “Sources” is what I use to show where data, quotes and charts are from. “Previously” discusses commentary on this subject we have written in the past. “Related” is a good jumping off point for further reading; lastly, Consistently Wrongis where we point out the willfully misleading tripe written by people who should know better, but publish nonsense anyway. In the case where it appears some are trying to mislead the public, the least we can do is call them out.


Originally published at The Big Picture on Oct 2, 2008 and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Misunderstanding Credit and Housing Crises: Blaming the CRA, GSEs"

  1. Mark Deitchman   October 4, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    The private mortgage industry made these profitable junk loans because it knew Fannie and Freddie would ultimately buy whatever junk they assembled. Since Big Brother was there to buy the junk, the industry went wild and made profits. Social activism with good intentions created this mess. If Fannie and Freddie were disbanded long ago, and the private sector would have provided sensible loans and not junk.

  2. Eric Willer   October 7, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I agree with the previous comment. In addition, if the fed hadn’t inflated the economy to get out of the last bubble, real estate prices wouldn’t have started a bubble, causing euphoria and expectations that you could buy anything cause housing prices will always go up. Recessions are ALMOST ALWAYS the result of govt. intervention.