Economy

Wall Street Lies Blame Victims to Avoid Responsibility for Financial Meltdown

To hear it from the big financial companies, the big crash started when poor people bought homes they couldn't afford. But that was at most 1% of the problem.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Nomi Prins' new book, It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.

The Second Great Bank Depression has spawned so many lies, it's hard to keep track of which is the biggest. Possibly the most irksome class of lies, usually spouted by Wall Street hacks and conservative pundits, is that we're all victims to a bunch of poor people who bought McMansions, or at least homes they had no business living in. If that was really what this crisis was all about, we could have solved it much more cheaply in a couple of days in late 2008, by simply providing borrowers with additional capital to reduce their loan principals. It would have cost about 3 percent of what the entire bailout wound up costing, with comparatively similar risk.

Just as great oaks from little acorns grow, so, too, can a Second Great Bank Depression from a tiny loan grow.  But so you know, it wasn't the tiny loan's fault. It was everyone and everything that piled on top. That's how a small loan in Stockton, California, can be linked to a worldwide economic collapse all the way to Iceland, through a plethora of shady financial techniques and overzealous sales pitches.

Here are some numbers for you. There were approximately $1.4 trillion worth of subprime loans outstanding in the United States by the end of 2007. By May 2009, there were foreclosure filings against approximately 5.1 million properties. If it was only the subprime market's fault, 1.4 trillion would have covered the entire problem, right?

Yet the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the FDIC forked out more than $13 trillion to fix the "housing correction," as Hank Paulson steadfastly referred to the Second Great Bank Depression as late as November 20, 2008, while he was treasury secretary. With that money, the government could have bought up every residential mortgage in the country — there were about $11.9 trillion worth at the end of December 2008 — and still have had a trillion left over to buy homes for every single American who couldn't afford them, and pay their health care to boot.

But there was much more to it than that: Wall Street was engaged in a very dangerous practice called leverage. Leverage is when you borrow a lot of money in order to place a big bet. It makes the payoff that much bigger. You may not be able to cover the bet if you're wrong — you may even have to put down a bit of collateral in order to place that bet — but that doesn't matter when you're sure you're going to win. It is a high-risk, high-reward way to make money, as long as you're not wrong. Or as long as you make the rules. Or as long as the government has your back.

The Second Great Bank Depression wouldn't have been as tragic without a thirty-to-one leverage ratio for investment banks, and, according to the

New York Times

, a ratio that ranged from eleven to one to fifteen-to-one for the major commercial banks. Actually, it's unclear what kind of leverage the commercial banks really had, because so many of their products were off-book, or not evaluated according to what the market would pay for them. Banks would have taken a hit on their mortgage and consumer credit portfolios, but the systemic credit crisis and the bailout bonanza would have been avoided. Leverage included, we're looking at a possible $140 trillion problem. That's right — $140 trillion! Imagine if the financial firms all over the globe actually exposed their piece of that leverage.

But for $1.4 trillion in subprime loans to become $140 trillion in potential losses, you need two steps in between. The most significant is a healthy dose of leverage, but leverage would not have had a platform without the help of a wondrous financial feat called securitization. Financial firms run economic models that select and package loans into new securities according to criteria such as geographic diversity, the size of the loans, and the length of the mortgages. A bunch of loans are then repackaged into an asset-backed security (ABS). This new security is backed, or collateralized, by a small number of original home loans related to the size of the security. Some securities, for example, might be 10 percent real loans and 90 percent bonds backed by those loans. Some might be 5 percent real loans. Whatever the proportion, the money the mortgage holders pay to lenders on their loans is used to make payments on new assets or securities. Those securities, in turn, pay out to their investors.

During the lead-up to the Second Great Bank Depression, the securities themselves were a much bigger problem than the loans. Between 2002 and 2007, banks in the United States created nearly 80 percent of the approximately $14 trillion worth of total global ABSs, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and other alphabetic concoctions or "structured" assets. Structured assets were created at triple what the rate had been from 1998 to 2002. Bankers from the rest of the world created, or "issued," the other 20 percent, around $3 trillion worth. Everyone was paid handsomely. In total, issuers raked in a combined $300 billion in fees. Fees can be made for all types of securitized assets, but the more convoluted they are, the riskier and more lucrative they become. Fees ranged from .1 percent to 0.5 percent on standard ABS deals and up to 0.3 percent for mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and whole business securitization (WBS) deals. Fees were better for CDOs—between 1.5 and 1.75 percent for each deal, and higher for the riskier slices. All told, the $2 trillion CDO market alone netted Wall Street around $30 billion before CDO values headed south. Because U.S. investment banks were making huge profits from packaging churning loans and leveraging them, mortgage-and asset-backed security volume skyrocketed.

Investment banks, hedge funds, and other financial firms could use the $14 trillion of new securities as collateral against which to borrow money and incur more debt (leverage them). There is no way of knowing exactly how much was leveraged, because the players operated in an opaque system — that is, a system without proper regulatory oversight or enforcement to detect or curtail leverage. But a conservative estimate of the average amount of leverage is about ten to one, considering the roughly eleven-to-one leverage of the major commercial banks and the thirty-to-one leverage of investment banks. So, we're talking about a system that ultimately took on $140 trillion in debt on the back of $1.4 trillion of subprime loans. How insane is that? And, it happened so fast.

In 2005, the mortgage on some little home in Stockton provided the capital for two or three ill-advised loans that soon disappeared into an ABS. But it was the global banks, the insurance companies, and the pension funds — particularly in Europe — that purchased the related ABSs. Like their U.S. counterparts, European financiers bought boatloads of ABSs with borrowed money. 13 They also shoved them off-book into structured investment vehicles (SIVs) that required no capital charge and little reporting.

By the fall of 2008 those ABSs, CDOs, and all their permutations would be known as "toxic assets." They were considered by many to be the major cause of Big Finance's failures and losses. The push for TARP centered on ridding banks of these poisonous creatures. But make no mistake: toxic assets are not the same as defaulted subprime mortgage loans; loans are merely one of the ingredients that make up the assets. All the subprime loans in existence could have defaulted and the homes attached to them could have been devalued to zero (which didn't happen), but without the feat of securitization, the banks wouldn't have become nearly insolvent. Toxic assets became devoid of value, not because all the subprime loans stuffed inside them tanked, but because there was no longer demand from investors. If no one wants your Aunt Mary's antique gold-plated, diamond-encrusted starfish, for all intents and purposes, it has no monetary value at the moment. This basic supply-and-demand concept is something our government apparently didn't understand when it offered to take the toxic assets off the banks' books. And the Fed, as we'll see, doesn't seem to care that it took on trillions of dollars' worth of these assets.

Lazy Lending Legislation

The greedy predatory lending that fueled the Second Great Bank Depression could have been avoided. Back in 1994, there was actually enough popular pressure to introduce legislation that would have ushered in controls on lending and other banking activities. As is par for the course, a handful of consumer-oriented congresspeople and watchdog groups initially faced an uphill battle against a band of well-funded, well-placed politicians such as Florida's Bill McCollum, Texas's Phil Gramm, and Iowa's James Leach and Charles Grassley, who were carrying Wall Street's torch toward deregulation.

But a burgeoning predatory lending crisis reached a very public head in 1994 amid allegations that Fleet Finance Group had gouged hundreds of low-income and minority consumers. Busloads of irate anti-loan-shark-T-shirt-sporting citizens rallied through the halls of Congress to chronicle lending abuses.

In response, just before Newt Gingrich assumed power as Speaker of the House under Democrat president Bill Clinton, the House battled for the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act of 1994 (HOEPA) to cap the most outrageous predatory loans. 37 It was the last piece of legislation that attempted to regulate appalling lending practices. Perhaps if lending had been better regulated, subprime loans wouldn't have been the fodder for the Second Great Bank Depression. Maybe something else would have been. But that wasn't the case.

HOEPA contained several provisions that curbed "reverse redlining," in which nonbank lenders target low-income and minority borrowers. But it didn't reinstate full interest rate caps, which had been deregulated during the previous two decades, or limit fees or tighten requirements to determine the ability of borrowers to repay their loans. As you can imagine, the industry and certain Republicans bitterly opposed the original House bill.

"Why can't the lenders police themselves?" Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-AL) asked. Sure, and while we're at it, why not let power companies determine what's pollution and what isn't? Why not let agribusiness make the rules about what farms can do? Why not put lions in charge of your gazelle sanctuary or hire a fox to guard the henhouse? Shelby, as you may reca ll, later sprouted an activist streak in 2009 and took the Treasury Department to task for lying to Congress about TARP.

Even with the best intentions, HOEPA's passage had dire consequences. First, it left a huge gap between the first and second tier of rates and fees a lender could charge. If lenders didn't want to hit the new caps, they had plenty of fertile ground to play on by extending loans with rates and fees just beneath the HOEPA triggers. Because lenders would make less money from each loan, due to the reduced rates and fees, they'd have to find more borrowers to make the same profits. Voil à , the quiet birth of predatory subprime lending.

During those early and middle years of the Gingrich revolution, there was no talk of regulation. The market zoomed, and even though a spate of corporate fraud was percolating, it didn't look broke, so no one in Congress fixed it.

As the late 1990s stock market boom headed into the new millennium, there were renewed legislative attempts to rein in the lending industry. Notably, in April 2000, the dynamic duo of Representative John LaFalce (D-NY) and Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced the Predatory Lending Consumer Protection Act of 2000 (PLCPA) to strengthen the Truth-in-Lending Act.

PLCPA would have brought down the HOEPA triggers and cut origination fees so that profit from home mortgages had to come from payments, ensuring that everyone in the chain had an interest in homeowners' ability to repay loans. Sarbanes and Senate staffer Jonathan Miller worked feverishly to line up cosponsors.

The industry attacked the bill and won, with help from McCollum and Connie Mack III (R-FL). What did pass, however, was Phil Gramm's Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA). That act ushered in tremendous growth of unregulated commodity trades through its "Enron Loophole," which allowed companies to trade energy and other commodity futures on unregulated exchanges.

It also sparked growth in the unregulated credit derivative trades that bet on defaults of corporations or loans, which became the main ingredient in the hot new Wall Street financial gumbo. Credit derivatives were a type of insurance contract written against not just one corporation or loan but on investments that scarfed up bunches of subprime loans and stuffed them into the unregulated CDOs that imploded and hastened the greater lending crisis. The problem was that they weren't regulated (even half-heartedly) like insurance policies were.

Meanwhile, the quixotic Sarbanes and LaFalce soldiered on, trying to avert lending disaster through appropriate regulation. They reintroduced their bill as the Predatory Lending Consumer Protection Act of 2001, but the mortgage industry and its mouthpieces were relentless. In July 2001, Stephen W. Prough, chairman of Ameriquest Mortgage Company, said at the Senate's Banking Committee hearings, "'Predatory' is really a high-profile word with no definition." In August 2001, Senate Banking Committee chairman Gramm concurred, "Some people look at subprime lending and see evil," he said. "I look at subprime lending and I see the American dream in action." The 2001 version of PLCPA also died.

Down and nearly out, Sarbanes and LaFalce tried to pass their act again in May 2002. It failed again and then again, for the final time, on November 21, 2003. Bush's ownership society ideology was in full swing by then, and the country was at war. Any hope for regulation or transparency in the lending or banking sector was basically dead.

The culmination of years of minor and significant acts of deregulation coalesced with mortgage industry sycophants beating back solid attempts at regulation or transparency. Loans that lenders pushed on homeowners were the perfect fodder for Wall Street, which eagerly packaged the loans and profited. House prices, in turn, skyrocketed.

How Lenders Created a Risk-Free Business

Meanwhile, lending practices had gotten really wild. Alan Greenspan had chopped rates dramatically to bolster the economy following the stock market plunge in 2001 and 2002. Lower rates meant that it was cheaper for banks to borrow more money from the Fed and from one another. It also meant that lenders had more funds to play with. Because prime loan rates fell in tandem, these loans weren't funneling as much profit to lenders. To make up for it, lenders extended riskier (nonprime) loans at higher rates to more borrowers.

With cheaper money, lenders were able to fund more mortgages for those riskier borrowers. If some loans didn't go well, it wouldn't matter. Lenders bet that they could either sell the underlying homes for higher prices, which would more than cover the defaulted loans, or convince the borrowers to take out equity loans backed by the homes' presumably rising value.

That increased the risk of default and, more so, the potential loss to the lender: the same house could now back two loans instead of one, so if its value fell and the borrower couldn't pay up, both loans were screwed. Super-low teaser interest rates lasted for two or three years and begged to be refinanced (for which lenders got extra fees) before they zoomed up. This added more risk to the system: loans couldn't be refinanced, and borrowers couldn't make the high rate payments. But as long as home prices kept rising as they had since at least the early 1960s, systemic loan defaults weren't a huge concern.

While rates remained fairly low, there was always more cash for lenders to dole out. Lenders pushed an ongoing cycle of refinancing and new home purchases, both of which could be classified as new mortgages on their books, which was good for stock prices. Between 2002 and 2005, the stock price of the once-largest independent mortgage lender, Countrywide Financial, had tripled — well before Bank of America agreed on January 11, 2008, to buy its remains. The firm created $434 billion in new loans in 2003, a 75 percent increase over 2002, securing a post in Forbes America's top twenty-five fastest-growing big companies for 2003. The number-three home lender, Washington Mutual, issued $384 billion in loans that year. (Emulating Countrywide's rapid descent later in the decade, Washington Mutual lost a combined $4.44 billion in the first and second quarters of 2008, before JPMorgan Chase swooped in to buy it, with the government's help, on September 25, 2008.) Wells Fargo, which hung on to buy Wachovia in October 2008, topped the charts in 2003 with $470 billion in new loans. That's a combined $1.3 trillion in new home loans created by the big three mortgage lenders in 2003.

As home prices spiked amid low rates, demand increased for securitized loans, and more loans were offered. In 2003, the securitization rate of subprime loans matched that of prime loans in the mid-1990s. From 2002 to 2006, subprime loan originations went from 8.6 percent of all mortgages to 20.1 percent.

The more subprime loans there were in the market, the more the securities piled on top of them became exposed to the risk that a larger number of loans than expected might default. Of course, this risk was hidden until home prices started to fall and defaults started to rise. Subprime defaults decreased to 5.37 percent in 2005 (nearly half of what they'd been during the 2001 recession), right before those seeds of risk between lenders and borrowers began to sprout like Audrey II, the alien plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

Consumer protections were simultaneously chucked. On April 20, 2005, President George W. Bush signed the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), which worsened the quietly growing housing crisis for consumers. 55 Borrowers facing bankruptcy could no longer negotiate down the principal of their mortgages with their creditors if the market declined, meaning that they had no way to avoid foreclosure, even if they wanted to.

On September 1, 2005, two years after the final Sarbanes-LaFalce bill failed to gain traction, Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) chief economist Patrick Lawler said, "There is no evidence here of prices topping out. On the contrary, house price inflation continues to accelerate, as some areas that have experienced relatively slow appreciation are picking up steam."

Markets weren't yet constrained for credit. Because lenders were assured money through securitizations on Wall Street, they didn't have to worry about guidelines on individual loans. If rating agencies would certify trillions of dollars worth of collateralized packages of loans with the highest possible rating, AAA, Wall Street investment banks could sell them to a wider pool of investors, which included pension funds, university endowments, and municipalities. High-interest loan volume, which includes most subprime loans, soared to a combined $1.5 trillion between 2004 and 2006, representing 29 percent of home loans made in 2006.  Home equity loans bulged simultaneously. It was a loan-lending fest until adjustable rates ultimately kicked in, and prices topped out. At the same time that housing values were faltering, borrower mortgage payments jumped by 25 to 30 percent as adjustment periods began. Then the foreclosures ramped up to levels last seen during the Great Depression.

The Cruelest Lie of All

There are those who blame lending, and certainly subprime lending was terribly predatory. Conservatives, however, toward the end of 2008, began to blame the people getting the subprime loans and the Democrats for pushing through the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in 1977, which sought to end discriminatory home-lending practices.

CRA "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 conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote on September 26, 2008, in his nationally syndicated column. Translation: the Democrats allowed Poor People to do this. And innocent Wall Street paid the price.

Krauthammer continued, "Were there some predatory lenders? Of course. But only a fool or a demagogue — i.e., a presidential candidate — would suggest that this is a major part of the problem." 95 (Of course, maybe Krauthammer is just always reactionary. At the beginning of the Iraq War, he wrote, "Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We've had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven't found any, we will have a credibility problem." 96 Credibility problem indeed.)

Since late 2008, plenty of fools and demagogues have argued and, in fact, proved Krauthammer wrong. But for a while, conservative stalwarts such as Fox News's Neil Cavuto and newspaper columnist George Will echoed the idea that it wasn't greed but a 1977 regulatory law that brought down the economy. 97 Given that the value of subprime loans in the market is overwhelmed by the amount of the full federal bailout by a factor of ten to one, that's not anywhere near reality.

The finance community's theory is one of selective Darwinism: Little people who take bad risks deserve the consequences. Companies that take bad risks are a welcome addition to the fallen competitor list. Banks that survive the chaos can reposition themselves at the top of the financial piles, and deserve all the federal bailout money, and assistance in growing even bigger, that they can get.

Indeed, after the Bear Stearns bailout, then treasury secretary Paulson said of his former competitor, "When we talk about moral hazard, I would say, 'Look at the Bear Stearns shareholder.'" 98 Blaming the bad apple and delivering some well-chosen words about America's destiny will usually mute the need for regulation. That's why current congressional packages tend to offer cosmetic financial solutions to long-term regulatory dilemmas.

No matter where the blame lies, as housing prices kept dropping and foreclosures kept rising, the feds jumped into gear late and indicted several hundred mortgage players, including former Bear Stearns credit hedge fund stars and current scapegoats Ralph Cioffe and Matt Tannin, and many lesser-known characters. The FBI and the Department of Justice targeted a slew of small and big firms after the fact, from Puerto Rico – based Doral Financial Corporation, unknown to most households, to more prominent names: AIG, Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, UBS AG, New Century Financial, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae.

When all is forgotten and we've moved on to our next financial crisis, there will be certain fingers frozen in time pointing at the subprime loans as the cause of the calamity. Big Finance would prefer that. But the truth is that the subprime loan tragedy was merely the catalyst that exposed the mega-tiered securitizations of securitizations, the massive leverage chain derivatives attached to nothing concrete, and the ineffective regulatory restraints. All of which led us down the rabbit hole of the Second Great Bank Depression.

Nomi Prins is a senior fellow at the public policy center Demos and author of It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.
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