Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Roots of the Subprime Crisis

Neatly summarized in the New York Post. Greedy lenders? Or government manipulation of credit standards to “help” the lower classes? Well, markets sometimes go south, but they’re pretty good at self correction. To really screw an entire sector of the economy over, you have to get the government involved:

“No sooner had the ink dried on its discrimination study than the Boston Fed, clearly speaking for the entire Fed, produced a manual for mortgage lenders stating that: ‘discrimination may be observed when a lender's underwriting policies contain arbitrary or outdated criteria that effectively disqualify many urban or lower-income minority applicants.’

Some of these ‘outdated’ criteria included the size of the mortgage payment relative to income, credit history, savings history and income verification. Instead, the Boston Fed ruled that participation in a credit-counseling program should be taken as evidence of an applicant's ability to manage debt.

Sound crazy? You bet. Those ‘outdated’ standards existed to limit defaults. But bank regulators required the loosened underwriting standards, with approval by oliticians and the chattering class. A 1995 strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act required banks to find ways to provide mortgages to their poorer communities. It also let community activists intervene at yearly bank reviews, shaking the banks down for large pots of money.”

[snip]

“Ironically, an enthusiastic Fannie Mae Foundation report singled out one paragon of nondiscriminatory lending, which worked with community activists and followed ‘the most flexible underwriting criteria permitted.’ That lender's $1 billion commitment to low-income loans in 1992 had grown to $80 billion by 1999 and $600 billion by early 2003.

Who was that virtuous lender? Why - Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender, recently in the headlines as it hurtled toward bankruptcy.”