We've now entered a new stage of the financial crisis: the ritual assigning of blame. It began in earnest with Monday's congressional roasting of Lehman Bros. CEO Richard Fuld and continued on Tuesday with Capitol Hill solons delving into the failure of AIG. On the Republican side of Congress, in the right-wing financial media (which is to say the financial media), and in certain parts of the op-ed-o-sphere, there's a consensus emerging that the whole mess should be laid at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failed mortgage giants, and the Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed during the Carter administration. The CRA, which was amended in the 1990s and this decade, requires banks—which had a long, distinguished history of not making loans to minorities—to make more efforts to do so.
The thesis is laid out almost daily on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, in the National Review, and on the campaign trail. John McCain said yesterday, "Bad mortgages were being backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and it was only a matter of time before a contagion of unsustainable debt began to spread." Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer provides an excellent example, writing that "much of this crisis was brought upon us by the good intentions of good people." He continues: "For decades, starting with Jimmy Carter's Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, there has been bipartisan agreement to use government power to expand homeownership to people who had been shut out for economic reasons or, sometimes, because of racial and ethnic discrimination. What could be a more worthy cause? But it led to tremendous pressure on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—which in turn pressured banks and other lenders—to extend mortgages to people who were borrowing over their heads. That's called subprime lending. It lies at the root of our current calamity." The subtext: If only Congress didn't force banks to lend money to poor minorities, the Dow would be well on its way to 36,000. Or, as Fox Business Channel's Neil Cavuto put it, "I don't remember a clarion call that said: Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster."
Let me get this straight. Investment banks and insurance companies run by centimillionaires blow up, and it's the fault of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and poor minorities?
These arguments are generally made by people who read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and ignore the rest of the paper—economic know-nothings whose opinions are informed mostly by ideology and, occasionally, by prejudice. Let's be honest. Fannie and Freddie, which didn't make subprime loans but did buy subprime loans made by others, were part of the problem. Poor Congressional oversight was part of the problem. Banks that sought to meet CRA requirements by indiscriminately doling out loans to minorities may have been part of the problem. But none of these issues is the cause of the problem. Not by a long shot. From the beginning, subprime has been a symptom, not a cause. And the notion that the Community Reinvestment Act is somehow responsible for poor lending decisions is absurd.
The Community Reinvestment Act applies to depository banks. But many of the institutions that spurred the massive growth of the subprime market weren't regulated banks. They were outfits such as Argent and American Home Mortgage, which were generally not regulated by the Federal Reserve or other entities that monitored compliance with CRA. These institutions worked hand in glove with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, entities to which the CRA likewise didn't apply. There's much more. As Barry Ritholtz notes in this fine rant, the CRA didn't force mortgage companies to offer loans for no money down, or to throw underwriting standards out the window, or to encourage mortgage brokers to aggressively seek out new markets. Nor did the CRA force the credit-rating agencies to slap high-grade ratings on packages of subprime debt.
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