The Financial Crisis I. The Cause

 

Only by understanding the factors that led to and amplified the crisis can we hope to guard against a repetition.                                                                                                         Ben Bernanke, September 2, 2010

An outstanding new book by Peter Wallison, ”Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again” gives a voluminous and highly compelling explanation of the main cause of the financial crisis of 2008.  Mr. Wallison worked at the Treasury Department in the 1980s, was a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (2009 – 2011) and is currently a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
CaptureHere is the outline of Mr. Wallison’s story:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development gradually increased the requirement that loans acquired by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be made to low- and moderate-income borrowers from 30% in 1992 to 56% in 2008.
  • As a result of these policies, by the middle of 2008 there were 31 million Nontraditional (low down payment and/or poor credit) Mortgages (NTMs) in the U.S. Financial system, more than half of all mortgages outstanding, with an aggregate value of more than $5 trillion. At least 76% of these were on the books of government agencies such as Fannie, Freddie and the FHA or banks and S&L institutions, holding loans which they were required to make by the Community Reinvestment Act.
  • The 24 million NTMs acquired or guaranteed by government agencies were major contributors to the growth of the housing bubble and its lengthy extension in time.
  • The growth of the bubble suppressed the losses that would ordinarily have brought NTM type Private Mortgage-Backed Securities (PMBS) to a halt but rather made these instruments look like good investments.
  • When the bubble finally burst, the unprecedented number of delinquencies and defaults among NTMs drove down housing prices.
  • Falling home prices produced losses on mortgages, whether they were government backed or PMBS.
  • Losses on mortgages caused investors to flee the PMBS market, reducing the liquidity of the financial institutions that held the PMBS.
  • Once the housing bubble burst, four major errors were made by our top government financial officials: The first and major error was the rescue of Bear Stearns. The moral hazard created by this action reduced the incentive for other firms to restore their capital positions. Once Bear had been rescued it was essential to rescue Lehman Brothers. Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s arguing that they did not have legal authority to rescue Lehman provided an excuse for Congress to pass the destructive Dodd-Frank Act. Finally, TARP accomplished little but caused much popular resentment against the banks which supposedly got bailed out.

Conclusion: as long as the American people don’t understand that government housing policies were the main cause of the financial crisis, we are likely to repeat the same mistakes over again.

The Government’s Mishandling of the Financial Crisis

 

“If stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t stupidity get us out?”
Will Rogers, 1879 – 1935

The Financial Crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, from which we are still slowly emerging, is the greatest shock to our fiscal and economic health since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  There are many explanations available for what happened, the most believable ones being written by the major participants themselves. My favorite reference for these events is the book, “Bull by the Horns,” written by the former Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair, who held this post from 2006 – 2011.  Ms. Bair could see the crisis coming.  She interacted with all of the prime players but was too late on the scene, and with too little clout, to have a major effect on the outcome.
CaptureAnother persuasive account is provided by Richard Kovacevich, Chairman Emeritus of Wells Fargo, in a recent speech, “The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom Has It All Wrong.”  According to Mr. Kovacevich:

  • Forcing all large banks to take TARP funds, in October 2008, even if they didn’t want or need the funds, was one of the worst economic decisions in the history of the U.S.
  • If Bear Stearns had been allowed to go bankrupt in March 2008, Lehman Brothers would have been sold and the subsequent financial crisis greatly reduced. A total of just 20 financial institutions caused the crisis, half investment banks and half savings and loans, yet 6000 commercial banks are being punished by Dodd-Frank.
  • Dodd-Frank does not address the major causes of the recent crisis and offers few approaches to prevent the next one.
  • Since regulatory agencies are not capable of using the authority they already have to prevent failures, we need a regulatory system which limits the damage of failures. In case of failure, all creditors, other than insured depositors, should take a “haircut”.
  • Requiring excessive levels of capital will only cause financial institutions to take on greater risks. If equity and long term debt, at both the bank and bank holding company levels, is required to be maintained at 30% of assets, it is unlikely that the FDIC will ever incur losses.
  • The quasi-private/public agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to be abolished.
  • The Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933 and repealed in 1999, should not be reinstated because investment banking is far less risky than commercial banking, and therefore the two forms of banking need not be separated.
  • There are three warning signs when a financial institution is approaching the danger zone: concentration of risk, inadequate liquidity and significant exposure to capital markets. Competent regulators, not Dodd-Frank, are needed to address these risks.

Recoveries from past recessions have been much more vigorous than our anemic 2.2% rate of GDP growth for the past five years. Mr. Kovacevich believes that because of the Dodd-Frank legislation, and the current monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, the bottom 25% of Americans on the economic ladder have restricted access to mortgages and personal loans.  This is inhibiting economic growth and contributing significantly to the inequality gap.