Conservatives Push Absurd Lie that Wall Street Hustlers Were Innocent Victims ... of Poor People
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As Sheila Blair, the chairwoman of the FDIC, asked in a December 2008 speech, “Where in the CRA does it say: make loans to people who can’t afford to repay? Nowhere! And the fact is, the lending practices that are causing problems today were driven by a desire for market share and revenue growth . . . pure and simple.”
Fannie and Freddie: Tempted by Easy Profits
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created by an act of Congress, but they are (or were, until being taken over in the wake of the housing crash) private, for-profit entities whose dual mandate was to increase the availability of mortgages to moderate- and low-income families, and at the same time turn a profit for their shareholders. Fannie and Freddie did end up with a very large portfolio of subprime loans, with a high rate of default, but they didn’t get into the market because the government mandated it. They dived in deep because there were profits to be made as the housing bubble expanded. As Mary Kane, a finance reporter for the Washington Independent , put it:
Neither the Community Reinvestment Act—the law most cited as the culprit—nor other affordable housing goals set by the government forced Fannie, Freddie or any other lender to make loans they didn’t want to. The lure of the subprime market was high yields and healthy profit margins—it’s as simple as that.
Contrary to the conservative spin, University of Michigan law professor Michael Barr told a congressional committee that although there was in fact quite a bit of irresponsible lending in low-income communities in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, “More than half of subprime loans were made by independent mortgage companies not subject to comprehensive federal supervision; another 30 percent of such originations were made by affiliates of banks or thrifts, which are not subject to routine examination or supervision, and the remaining 20 percent were made by banks and thrifts [subject to CRA standards].” Barr concluded, “The worst and most widespread abuses occurred in the institutions with the least federal oversight [italics added].”
That’s not to say that millions of Americans didn’t bite off more than they would eventually be able to chew in the housing market. A lot of people looking to turn a quick buck by capturing the booming value of real estate in the mid- to late 2000s bought property with “teaser” loans that offered very low rates for the first few years; the investors assumed that they’d be able to turn a tidy profit before higher interest rates kicked in. Many of those individuals have since found themselves “under water”—owing more on their homes (and investment properties) than they’re worth.
Yet it’s worth noting that most of the experts also didn’t identify the real estate bubble as a problem, even as home prices far surpassed values that could be reasonably explained by the laws of supply and demand. Irrational exuberance was the theme of the day. In 2006, David Learah, the former head of the National Association of Realtors, wrote a book titled Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust—And How You Can Profit from It: How to Build Wealth in Today’s Expanding Real Estate Market . The book made quite a splash at the time.
In 2010, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan offered a bit of historical revisionism to a House committee investigating the causes of the financial crisis, telling lawmakers, “In 2002, I expressed concern . . . that our extraordinary housing boom, financed by very large increases in mortgage debt, cannot continue indefinitely. . . . I warned of the consequences of this situation in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in 2004.”