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 Richmans' Trade and Taxes Blog

Congress Is Responsible for This Recession; Not the Banks, Not Wall Street
Raymond Richman, 6/22/2010

A few days ago, in a bid to stem taxpayer losses for bad loans guaranteed by federal housing agencies Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) proposed that borrowers be required to make a 5% down payment in order to qualify. His proposal was rejected 57-42 on a party-line vote.

The Senate and House are investigating the Banks and Wall Street for causing this recession but they should be investigating themselves. Every Congress and every President since James Earl Carter, who signed the original Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977, bear responsibility for this recession. The act was a government intrusion in private sector banking where it had no right to be. It also involved two government-sponsored enterprises, FNMA and FMAC which, when created, were stated to be independent of the government but which had to be bailed out.

The close involvement of the U.S. government in making it very easy to obtain a mortgage led Wall Street and Lombard Street and banks all over the world to believe all our mortgages were government insured. The bipartisan support for the CRA, Fannie Mae, and Freddy Mac was also misleading; it gave the impression that Republicans and Democrats would, when push came to shove, save investors in those government-sponsored mortgages. In any case, the consequence was the housing bubble whose collapse ushered in the most serious financial crisis and economic recession since the Great Depression.

In the sixties, leftist agitators and a few academics claimed that the banks were red-lining black neighborhoods, i.e., they were not making proportionately as many loans to households in those neighborhoods as they were in white neighborhoods. Indeed, fewer loans per inhabitant were being made in such neighborhoods. But the conclusion that this evidenced racial discrimination was spurious. Fewer loans are made to poorer households than richer regardless of the location of their residence. Unfortunately, then as now, a higher percentage of black households were poor.  If the federal government wanted poor households who were unable to qualify for mortgages to own houses, all it needed to do was to guarantee them as they did with FHA and GI bill mortgages. No new bureaucracy needed to be created.

The CRA gave leftist groups – ACORN, the NY Agency for Community Affairs (NYACA), which shared staff and space with ACORN, the Union Neighborhood Assistance Corporation (NACA), and others -- the power to blackmail the banks. As a result, those leftist groups became powerful and rich beyond their wildest dreams with infusions of billions of dollars, including not only funds derived from the banks but from the government itself. Pres. Obama, before he began his political career, appeared as counsel for ACORN in a suit in Chicago against Citibank that alleged racial discrimination in its lending policies. The parties settled with ACORN getting appointed as an agent of the bank. A jury’s award of millions of dollars from a major bank in a case in California alleging racial discrimination, demonstrated to the banks that resistance to blackmail would prove more costly than cooperating with the blackmailers.

In 2006, the New York Agency for Community Affairs (NYACA), which shares staff and space with ACORN, reported a little over $1.3 million in income-producing activities. That same year, the organization paid close to $1.2 million for “contractual services” to ACORN. Bruce Marks, executive director of Union Neighborhood Assistance Corporation (NACA) and self-styled urban terrorist, is reported as threatening that if banks aren’t willing to meet the new standards of community investment, then “we’ll have to start making it in their interest to do so.” And indeed they have. His NACA acts as agents of banks usually with authority to approve mortgage applicants.  It receives a $2000 origination fee and had a budget of $10 million per year. ACORN made similar arrangements with a number of large banks, including Bank of America. A Senate Banking Committee estimated that as of 2000, as a result of CRA, such groups had received $9.5 billion in services and salaries. Groups such as ACORN also had received tens of billions of dollars from HUD and other agencies: ACORN Housing, $760 million; Boston-based Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, $3 billion; a New Jersey Citizen Action-led coalition, $13 billion; the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, $220 million. The number of CRA mortgage loans increased by 39 percent between 1993 and 1998, while other loans increased by only 17 percent.

It is frequently stated that this recession was the result of bankers’ and Wall St. greed. Greed is often merely taking advantage of money-making opportunities.  It was not Wall St. greed, but legislators’ desires to appease supporters and foolish sentimentality that caused them to approve legislation to pressure the banks to make loans to unqualified borrowers. CRA was given teeth by Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush in 1989 in legislation that required the administrators of the CRA to rank banks on their lending activities and to deny banks the right to open branches or to buy other banks if they are rated low. Pres. Bill Clinton required banks to show the numbers of loans they made in their neighborhoods. And Congress made “blackmail” by neighborhood activists’ legal by providing for public hearings on the ratings. If there were no pay-offs, you can be sure the neighborhood activists would find grounds to challenge the banks.

Many journalists, public officials, and economists claim that the Community Reinvestment Act had nothing to do with the current recession; it was the banks and Wall Street greed that produced the recession. The CRA was amended during every administration. The rapid expansion of mortgages did not begin until the 90s. Once the banks in response to CRA pressures reduced their standards for collateral, etc., and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came to be seen as likely guarantors of mortgages, even those with poor collateral, the impression gained currency that the U.S. government stood behind those mortgages. The trillions of mortgages created to finance the housing bubble had to have a secondary market and that is what Wall Street provided. Once those markets were created, banks and other mortgage lenders began to compete to make loans easier to obtain, requiring less and less in the way of collateral, proof of value and causing standards to keep falling. The bubble was the inevitable consequence of government telling private banks how to lend and making it easy for nearly anyone to get a mortgage that he, she, or they could not afford once housing prices stabilized and began to fall.

The role of the Federal Reserve in this fiasco needs to be examined. Under the original bill it was the responsible administrator of the CRA. Then control passed to a group of other agencies including the Fed, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the FDIC, and the Comptroller of the Currency. But others had inputs. In a March, 2007 speech, Mr. Bernanke summarized the research evaluating the effects, benefits, and costs of the CRA. The loans made by banks under the CRA were barely profitable. At least one benefit-cost study concluded the costs to the banks exceeded the benefits and that did not include the costs to the government of administering the program and the undeserved enrichment of groups like ACORN and other leftwing organizations. In any case, two years later there can be no doubt. The lending policies of the banks created the worst financial crisis experienced since the depression. In our view, the CRA was wrong in conception as an unjustified intrusion in the private sector, produced no net benefits, and rewarded America’s domestic enemies.

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  • [An] extensive argument for balanced trade, and a program to achieve balanced trade is presented in Trading Away Our Future, by Raymond Richman, Howard Richman and Jesse Richman. “A minimum standard for ensuring that trade does benefit all is that trade should be relatively in balance.” [Balanced Trade entry]

    Journal of Economic Literature:

  • [Trading Away Our Future] Examines the costs and benefits of U.S. trade and tax policies. Discusses why trade deficits matter; root of the trade deficit; the “ostrich” and “eagles” attitudes; how to balance trade; taxation of capital gains; the real estate tax; the corporate income tax; solving the low savings problem; how to protect one’s assets; and a program for a strong America....

    Atlantic Economic Journal:

  • In Trading Away Our Future   Richman ... advocates the immediate adoption of a set of public policy proposal designed to reduce the trade deficit and increase domestic savings.... the set of public policy proposals is a wake-up call... [February 17, 2009 review by T.H. Cate]