Reckless Endangerment of the Truth

I wrote this draft of a column yesterday, only to discover that Dean Baker had written about the same thing in a widely echoed post. So, about noon, I wrote a second column. It was probably for the best, I’ve written about this so much it’s hard to muster the will to take it on yet again, especially with the attitude it deserves, and I liked the second column better. But with David Brooks, George Will, and a new book by Gretchen Morgenson and Josh Rosner recently pushing the idea that Fannie, Freddie, and Democrats caused the financial crisis it’s important to push back. The right is very good at repeating their story line over and over and over, and if that redundancy goes unmatched — if they are allowed to have the last word many, many times over — they stand a good chance of capturing the narrative. So, one more time, here’s a rebuttal (it’s still in draft form, e.g. I would have turned the list of points into paragraphs and worked on sprucing up the text, but hopefully this will do):

Reckless Endangerment of the Truth: If we want to minimize the chance of another financial crisis, it’s important for us to understand how it happened. If we get the causes wrong, our attempts to fix the problems in the financial sector are unlikely to be successful.

That’s why I was so disappointed to see the new book by Gretchen Morgenson and Josh Rosner, Reckless Endangerment, blaming the financial crisis on Fannie, Freddie, and Democrats. The book has been highlighted recently by George Will and David Brooks, and it joins a chorus of conservative voices promoting the idea that government policies to encourage home ownership among middle and low income households is at the heart of the financial crisis.

The dispute over the cause of the financial crisis breaks down along standard ideological lines. Democrats generally argue that the crisis can be traced to misplaced faith in the ability of markets to self-regulate. According to this view, economists, regulators, and politicians on both sides of the aisle came to believe that large, economy wrecking financial meltdowns were a thing of the past. This misplaced faith in markets led to deregulation of the financial sector, less enthusiastic enforcement of the rules that remained on the books, and government inattention to important market failures in the financial industry.

The second explanation, one pushed by free market advocates, is that government involvement in housing markets to encourage home ownership caused the financial market problems. In this story of the crisis, the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie and Freddie, Democrats promoting home ownership, and the middle and low income households that received home loans they couldn’t afford are cast as the villains. Had government stepped out of the way and pursued laissez-faire policies, the crisis would not have happened.

However, the evidence does not support the second explanation. First, with respect to the CRA, the main culprits in the crisis were private sector financial institutions that were not subject to the requirements of the CRA. In the story being pushed by free market advocates, the CRA forced banks to make loans to unqualified, low-income households. When those loans blew up, it caused the financial crisis. But the largest players in the subprime market were private sector firms that were not subject to the CRA’s rules and regulations. For example, “Only one of the top 25 subprime lenders in 2006 was directly subject to the housing law that’s being lambasted by conservative critics.” The largest losses had nothing to do with banks covered by the CRA.

Second, even if the banks themselves were subject to the CRA, not all loans that they made were covered by these rules. Even in banks where the CRA applied, most of the problems were in loans that did not fall under the CRA’s jurisdiction.

Third, the CRA has been in existence since 1977. If the CRA was responsible, why didn’t the crisis occur sooner? The timing simply doesn’t match up.

Fourth, the CRA only applies to domestic firms, but the crisis occurred in many countries. If the CRA is the problem, why did countries that had nothing like the CRA experience similar problems?

Fifth, even if this story had any validity, both parties promoted an “ownership society,” so blaming Democrats alone is about politics, not reality.

Thus, the evidence against the claim that the CRA was an important factor in the financial crisis is quite strong and, turning next to Fannie and Freddie, the evidence here is also compelling. First, during the important years in the build up to the crisis, from 2002 until late in 2006, Fannie and Freddie were losing subprime market share to private sector firms. For example, as noted by McClatchy News, “More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions,” and “Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year.” The loss of market share ended in late 2006, but by then the crisis was already set in motion.

Second, one of the reasons that Fannie and Freddie lost market share is that they faced more restrictions on their activities than firms in the unregulated shadow banking sector. Fannie and Freddie eventually found ways around these restrictions as they moved aggressively to prevent further loss of market share in late 2006, but prior to that time the restrictions were effective. If firms in the shadow banking sector had been subject to similar rules and regulations, and had the rules and regulations been enforced aggressively, things might have turned out very differently.

Third, the targets for home ownership that supposedly led to Fannie and Freddie’s aggressive entry into subprime markets were set in 1992. If these targets were the problem, why didn’t the crisis occur sooner?

Fourth, if Fannie and Freddie had never existed, securitization would have likely happened anyway. As Barry Ritholtz notes, “securitized credit card receivables, auto loans, small biz loans, etc. took place without GSEs. I assume there would likely have been a private sector version for conforming loans, the way there was a private sector securitizing response to the demand for non-conforming (sub-prime) loans.”

The bottom line is that the case that the CRA, Fannie, and Freddie – and by implication Democrats supporting these institutions – were key players in the crisis is at odds with the evidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots for reasons to be concerned about Fannie and Freddie, and I’m not trying to defend them or their choices, but the idea that support of these institutions caused the financial crisis is wrong.

[Also posted at CBS MoneyWatch.]

This post originally appeared at Economist’s View and is reproduced here with permission.