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Frequently Asked Questions
This weekend I typed up "draft testimony" on what caused the mortgage/financial crisis. Like anyone wants to hear it. Anyway, I'll paste it in below the fold.
UPDATE: If you follow the links in James Hamilton's post, during his talk (starts around minute 8), he really spells out the difference between what I call Method A and what I call Method B.
Forty years ago, depository institutions handled mortgage credit risk very differently than they do today. Back then, the depository institution, which was typically a savings and loan association, held mortgages that were underwritten by its own employees, given to borrowers and backed by homes in its own community. These were almost always 30-year, fixed-rate loans, with borrowers having made a significant down payment, often 20 percent of the price of the home. Call this approach to mortgage lending "Method A."
Today, mortgage loans held by depository institutions are often in the form of securities. These securities are backed by loans originated in distant communities by unknown borrowers, underwritten by mortgage brokers or other personnel not employed by the depository institution. The loans are often not 30-year fixed-rate loans, and the borrowers have typically made down payments of 5 percent or less, including loans with no down payment at all. Call this approach to mortgage lending "Method B."
If you compare the two methods using common sense, then Method B does not pass a simple sanity check. In fact, the current financial crisis consists of banks that are up to their necks in Method B.
Method A suffered a breakdown in the 1970's, because inflation was allowed to get out of control. The 6 percent mortgage interest rates that were commonly charged by savings and loans became untenable when inflation and interest rates soared to double-digit levels. The savings and loan industry went out of business. Whether Method B could survive a similar shock is unclear. The right lesson to learn from the 1970's was not that we should use Method B. The right lesson to learn is that we should not let inflation get out of hand.
Many articles have been written by economists from academia and Wall Street extolling the benefits of Method B. They speak of the wonderful innovation of mortgage securities and the supposed efficiency of the secondary mortgage market. In fact, if Method B were to compete fairly with Method A in a market test, Method B would fail. To survive against Method A, Method B requires government favors and subsidies. It always has, and it always will.
The secondary mortgage market began in 1968, when the United States formed the Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA). GNMA pooled loans originated under programs by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) and sold these pools to investors. The purpose of this, as with the quasi-privatization of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) that took place that year, was to take Federally guaranteed mortgage loans off of the books. President Johnson, fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam, wanted to save himself the embarrassment of having to come to Congress to ask for larger and larger increases in the ceiling on the national debt.
Thus, the first steps toward mortgage securitization were taken in order to disguise financial reality using accounting gimmicks. It has been the same ever since.
In the early 1980's, the savings and loan industry was imploding. The savings and loans held many mortgages that had lost value, due to inflation and high interest rates. Under the accounting rules prevailing at the time, they could record the mortgages at their original book values--as long as they did not sell them. The S&L's were stuck. If they did not sell mortgages, they would lack the cash to pay depositors. If they did sell mortgages, they would have to recognize losses, and regulators would shut them down.
The solution was a program called Guarantor at Freddie Mac and Swap at Fannie Mae. Under this program,, an S&L paid Fannie or Freddie a fee to pool loans into securities, which were retained by the S&L. The S&L could then use the securities as collateral to obtain loans. The key to the whole operation was an accounting ruling that allowed the S&L's to maintain the fictional book values of the mortgages held as securities,, even though lenders were using much lower market values when providing the collateralized loans to the S&L's. This accounting ruling came from fierce lobbying by Wall Street, which wanted to broker the loans to the S&L's.
Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Wall Street extracted large fees from this program. Ultimately, most of the S&L's failed, with losses borne by taxpayers. The Guarantor and Swap programs increased the cost, both directly by transferring wealth out of the S&L's and indirectly by allowing defunct S&L's to remain in business and continue gambling with other people's money.
Following the demise of the S&L's, regulators established capital requirements and other rules that made Method A lending very expensive relative to Method B lending. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were given freedom to leverage their guarantee at much higher ratios of assets to capital than were Method A lenders. In fact, the capital regulations even told banks that holding private mortgage securities under Method B was less risky and therefore required less capital than Method A lending. The result was that Method B came to dominate the American mortgage market. Had the playing field been level, Method A would have remained in place, and Method B likely would never have gotten started.
The regulations that favored Method B were heavily influenced by the lobbying activities of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Wall Street investment bankers. The secondary mortgage market lobby made large campaign contributions to key legislators. Their influence tilted regulations to favor Method B. Thanks to the regulatory advantages given to Method B, Freddie, Fannie, and the investment banks earned large profits. It was a triangular trade: contributions for favors for profits.
The recent "rescue plan" can be viewed in this context. It attempts to revive the otherwise moribund mortgage securities market. It is another large favor being granted to Method B.
There has been a flight to safety in credit markets in recent weeks. What is probably a necessary and significant consolidation in the financial sector has turned into a rout.
Under the circumstances, there are two policy imperatives. First, regulators must sort out the banks that are sound from those that are insolvent. The insolvent institutions need to be merged or closed as expeditiously as possible. Sound banks should be encouraged to make loans to qualified borrowers. Some forbearance of capital requirements may be appropriate in order to ensure that good borrowers do not get turned down. Finally, there may be some banks that are neither clearly insolvent nor clearly sound, in part because of questions concerning the values of their mortgage securities. These banks should be allowed to continue operating, under close supervision, perhaps with loans from the Federal Reserve.
Under no circumstances is it justified to attempt to revive the mortgage securities markets. Resumption of active trading in those markets is neither necessary nor sufficient to address tightness in credit markets caused by the flight to safety.
Next, I wish to turn to examine the state of the housing market. One of the characteristics of Method B lending has been loans with low down payments. This caused a wave of speculation, leading to a sharp rise in house prices followed by a sudden decline. In fact, this is to be expected when most homes are bought with little or nothing down. When prices or rising, anyyone can afford a home. When prices are falling, on one can.
I wish to emphasize that I support the effort to increase the rate of home ownership among minorities and people with low incomes. The problem with Method B lending is not the color of anyone's skin or the content of anyone's credit report. The problem is the absence of a reasonable down payment. In my view, assistance with saving for a down payment would be better than a system that subsidizes indebtedness. I think of buying a home with little or no money down as home borrowership, not home ownership.
The housing market today is distorted and out of balance. The slogan "Let's keep borrowers in their homes" is rather useless, considering that many borrowers never occupied their homes to begin with. The Washington Post of December 10, 2007, contained a very illuminating story of people with very modest incomes who bought two and three homes during the speculative frenzy. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/09/AR2007120901197.html)
The plural of anecdote is data. In an article published in the Federal Reserve Bulletin of December 2007, economists Robert B. Avery, Kenneth P. Brevoort, and Glenn B. Canner reported that the share of mortgage loans going for non-owner-occupied housing went from 6.4 percent in 1996 to 17.3 percent and 16.5 percent in 2005 and 2006, respectively. (http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/bulletin/2007/articles/hmda/default.htm)
Finally, I wish to call your attention to a communication gap that exists between the financial engineers who design and value mortgage securities and the executives and regulators who make important decisions about how they are used. I call this the problem of the "suits" (the executives) and the "geeks" (the financial engineers). In many cases, the suits at banks and other financial institutions are putting these securities in their portfolios without appreciating their risk characteristics. Regulators, too, seem unaware of the threats posed by these complex instruments.
Charles Duhigg of the New York Times has written two stories, one about Freddie Mac on August 5th (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/05/business/05freddie.html?hp) and one about Fannie Mae on October 4th (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/business/05fannie.html?hp), that illustrate the suits vs. geeks divide. Each story cites former mid-level executives of the companies who issued warnings about risk, mis-pricing, and under-capitalization. But the geeks were ignored by the suits.
Robert Merton, a Professor of finance at Harvard and a Nobel Laureate, suggests that the decisionmakers who I call "suits" need better training in modern mathematical finance. That is one solution. Another solution would be to try to limit the ways in which under-educated "suits" can expose their firms and our economy to risk. As I indicated earlier, I do not believe that the mortgage securities market would have emerged without regulatory favoritism. If such favoritism were taken away, and the mortgage securities market were to fade away as a result, then the communication gap between the suits and the geeks would cease to be a problem.