Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Who's To Blame?

There are a ton of great theories being floated right now. A few of them are laughable. Two that stand out are the following:

-- The Community Reinvestment Act caused financial institutions to lend to people who weren't credit worthy. This is crap. The CRA was signed into law in 1977 -- over 20 years before the current crisis. The second problem with this theory is the CRA only applies to banks and thrifts. Most of the mortgage lending during the last boom came from -- mortgage lenders who aren't regulated by CRA.

-- The theory that not putting Fannie and Freddie under a new super-regulator in 2005 caused the problem. The problem here is this administration is notoriously lax with any regulatory oversight. They're been asleep at the switch for 8 years (how many food recalls have we had? Or toys? How many mortgage brokers are being investigated by the FBI for fraud?) This is also laughable.

There are two real culprits that deserve a ton of blame.

The Federal Reserve for lowering interest rates to 0% after adjusting for inflation. Lower the price of anything available for sale and people will buy more of it. That's exactly what happened. Household debt exploded. Total household debt outstanding increased from $7.6 trillion in 2001 to $14 trillion in the second quarter of this year. That's a huge increase. Most of it was .... mortgage debt, which increased from $5.3 trillion to $10.6 trillion over the same time period. All of that debt had to go somewhere -- namely the balance sheet of every financial company on the planet.

Here's a great summation:

The Federal Reserve, which has encouraged excessive borrowing, is to blame for the credit crunch that has gripped world markets for more than a year, Marc Faber, the author of the Gloom Boom & Doom Report, told CNBC on Tuesday.

"About 15 percent of U.S. households have negative equity. Who supplied the leverage into the system? It's called the Federal Reserve Board," Faber said.

"If I'm the drug dealer I'm not responsible that everybody takes drugs, but I facilitate it, especially if I give it out free of charge, I can enlarge the market share, and that's what the Fed has done."

Any economist who says "I had no idea low interest rates would lead to this" is lying through his teeth.

The Federal Reserve was warned about the effects of lack of regulation several times over the last expansion:

Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve governor who died in September, warned nearly seven years ago that a fast-growing new breed of lenders was luring many people into risky mortgages they could not afford.

But when Mr. Gramlich privately urged Fed examiners to investigate mortgage lenders affiliated with national banks, he was rebuffed by Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman.

In 2001, a senior Treasury official, Sheila C. Bair, tried to persuade subprime lenders to adopt a code of "best practices" and to let outside monitors verify their compliance. None of the lenders would agree to the monitors, and many rejected the code itself. Even those who did adopt those practices, Ms. Bair recalled recently, soon let them slip.

And leaders of a housing advocacy group in California, meeting with Mr. Greenspan in 2004, warned that deception was increasing and unscrupulous practices were spreading.

John C. Gamboa and Robert L. Gnaizda of the Greenlining Institute implored Mr. Greenspan to use his bully pulpit and press for a voluntary code of conduct.

"He never gave us a good reason, but he didn't want to do it," Mr. Gnaizda said last week. "He just wasn't interested."

I should add the ratings agencies are also extremely culpable in all of this. They said all of this paper backed by mortgage was AOK. Well, it wasn't. And this paper isn't just blowing up in a few instances -- it's blowing up at alarmingly high rates. That indicates someone was asleep at the switch.

Add these three together and you get serious trouble.