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  • Myths and Facts about the Financial Crisis

    Myths and Facts about the Financial Crisis

    The conservative spin machine went into overdrive after the financial crisis exploded their claim that unregulated markets always work best. Here’s a guide to the most widely spun myths:

    Myth: The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act is to blame for the current financial crisis.

    The Facts: Several media figures have attempted to connect the financial crisis to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), originally passed in 1977 and since amended. However, according to housing experts, a large number of subprime loans were not made under the CRA, which applies only to depository institutions. Additionally, a study released earlier this year by a law firm specializing in CRA compliance estimated that in the 15 most populous metropolitan areas, 84.3 percent of subprime loans in 2006 were made by financial institutions not governed by the CRA.

    Myth: Progressives have opposed strengthening oversight over Fannie and Freddie.

    The Facts: Several media figures have accused progressives in Congress of opposing stronger oversight of two mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In fact, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), chairman of the Financial Services Committee, and his predecessor, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-OH) made efforts to enhance regulatory oversight on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, including the Federal Housing Finance Reform Act of 2005 and sponsoring the Federal Housing Finance Reform Act of 2007. Both of these bills called for a new agency to oversee and regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    Myth: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the current financial mess.

    The Facts: While some are attempting to scapegoat Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, economist Dean Baker recently stated that while Fannie and Freddie “got into subprime junk and helped fuel the housing bubble,” they were “trailing the irrational exuberance of the private sector” and actually lost market share to private subprime lenders in the years 2002-2007, when “the volume of private issue mortgage backed securities exploded.”


    In a 2006 Securities and Exchange Commission filing (available here) covering its activities in 2004, Fannie Mae stated: “We did not participate in large amounts of these non-traditional mortgages in 2004 and 2005.” In the report, Fannie Mae also noted the growth of subprime lending and reported, “These trends and our decision not to participate in large amounts of these non-traditional mortgages contributed to a significant loss in our share of new single-family mortgage-related securities issuances to private-label issuers during this period.”

    Additionally, Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 6, 2008, that Fannie and Freddie’s failure played a minimal role in Lehman’s demise.

    Myth: Congress sought to divert funding in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act to ACORN.

    The Facts: Numerous media figures reported that Congress tried to steer money to ACORN in the recent housing bailout bill. In fact, neither the draft proposal nor the final version of the bill contained any language mentioning ACORN. Those making the false claim were misrepresenting a provision—since removed—that would have directed 20 percent of any profits realized on troubled assets purchased under the plan into two previously established funds: the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund, which, under the law authorizing them, distribute funds through state block grants and through competitive application processes, respectively.
    Setting the Record Straight on the Financial Crisis

    Various media outlets have covered the current financial crisis as a tale of overzealous government intervention—government-backed institutions (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) and government-led efforts (the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, or CRA) trying too hard to extend loans to low-income and minority communities. According to this narrative, a desire to comply with the CRA caused lenders like Fannie and Freddie to issue loans to minorities and other low-income homebuyers who could not afford to pay them back, leading to the current fiscal meltdown.

    This “blame progressive policies and poor people” message has been widely disseminated. For example, Stan Liebowitz, in a February 5 op-ed in the New York Post, blamed the “mortgage mess” on “a 1995 strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act.” A September 22 editorial by National Review asserted that “CRA inquisitors” forced banks to make loans “to people who do not have the credit, assets, income, or down payment to qualify for a normal mortgage.” In a September 28 Boston Globe column, Jeff Jacoby wrote that the CRA pressured lenders into “loosening their underwriting standards and making increasingly shoddy loans.” Syndicated columnist Mona Charen wrote in a September 26 article in thesouthern.com that the CRA “forced banks to serve their ‘whole communities’ and required them to offer loans to people who were not credit worthy.” Charles Krauthammer asserted in the September 25 Washington Post that the 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.” And Politico uncritically repeated the charge of a conservative congressman that “We are not confronting the 800 pound gorilla in room…the role of Fannie and Freddie in this debacle.”

    However, the claim that the CRA is responsible for the current crisis ignores several crucial facts:


    The CRA does not cover independent mortgage companies, which issued the vast majority of the loans underlying the crisis. The act applies only to depository banks and thrifts (savings and loan associations) that are federally-insured. According to University of Michigan law professor Michael Barr in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, just 20 percent of the subprime mortgages since the late 1990s were issued by CRA-covered lenders. Thus, 80 percent subprime loans were made by lenders not regulated by the CRA.

    The CRA actually created more responsible lending. San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet L. Yellen rejected the “tendency to conflate the current problems in the subprime market with CRA-motivated lending,” and noted “that the CRA has increased the volume of responsible lending to low- and moderate-income households.”

    The act was passed in 1977, well before the subprime loan bonanza occurred. In fact, the Bush administration’s weakening of the CRA coincided with the subprime boom.

    Banks did not engage in an orgy of reckless subprime lending to meet CRA obligations; they did so for they same reason they always do: to make money. Only this time, deregulation allowed them to get paid not just for making the loans, but for turning them into securities and trading them (see below).

    Another part of the “blame progressive policies and poor people” narrative is the claim that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sparked the crisis by buying bad mortgages from loan originators. For example, on the September 24 edition of Fox News’ Special Report, host Brit Hume said, “Many financial analysts are saying that if mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been effectively regulated years ago, the supercharged subprime mortgage meltdown that led to the current financial mess would either never have happened or would have been nowhere near as severe.” A September 25 editorial in Investor’s Business Daily asserted that the CRA “forced banks to make many more subprime loans” and that Bill Clinton “supercharged the process” and “extensively rewrote Fannie and Freddie’s rules,” leading “inevitably to corruption and the Fannie-Freddie collapse.”

    But such claims mistake effect for cause. Fannie and Freddie were part of the culture of subprime lenders, but not the main purveyors.

    * Private lenders—not the government-backed Fannie and Freddie—issued the vast majority of subprime loans, and to low- and moderate-income borrowers in particular. Fannie and Freddie did not guarantee and securitize large quantities of subprime loans.
    * In fact, Fannie Mae actually lost market share because it chose not to “participate in large amounts of these non-traditional mortgages in 2004 and 2005” because it “determined that the pricing offered for these mortgages often was insufficient compensation for the additional credit risk associated with these mortgages.” As economist Dean Baker stated, “Fannie and Freddie got into subprime junk and helped fuel the housing bubble, but they were trailing the irrational exuberance of the private sector….In short, while Fannie and Freddie were completely irresponsible in their lending practices, the claim that they were responsible for the financial disaster is absurd on its face—kind of like the claim that the earth is flat.”
    * In testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld acknowledged that Fannie and Freddie’s role in Lehman’s demise was “de minimis,” or so small that it does not matter.

    Finally, the “blame progressive policies and poor people” narrative also ignores the role of deregulatory policies in the housing market meltdown:

    * The explosion in subprime loans after 2000 were made by unregulated mortgage companies, and the vast majority of them were issued to higher income borrowers, not low- to moderate-income borrowers.
    * The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (GLBA) dismantled Depression-era law that had prohibited bank holding companies from owning other financial companies such as investment, commercial banking, and insurance companies. GLBA ignited a wave of mergers and hampered government regulators charged with preventing conflicts of interest and risky financial behavior.

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