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Too Good To Be True?

One of the things I've always tried to keep in mind when blogging (hell, in most things) is that "the more something seems to confirm your opinions, your prejudices, your beliefs, the more skeptical you should be about believing it." Failing to do that has been the downfall of many people wiser than I am, as they hear something that "sounds" good to them and they run with it -- right into a brick wall.

Well, there's an explanation floating around out there for the whole subprime mortgage/Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/investment meltdown that, doggone it, does just that -- it hits nearly every single one of my core beliefs and wraps them up in a nice, tidy package, with a big blue bow. And while I desperately want to buy into it, I find myself needing to heed the advice I've given others (often belatedly) so many times.

The best summation of the facts I've found so far is from Captain Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, but I think I can put it into a narrative form here -- relying on his superb documentation.

- - - - -

It all started back in the late 1970s, with that never-ending font of bad things, Jimmy Carter. At that time, banks were occasionally reluctant to make mortgage loans to minorities, especially in certain neighborhoods with certain demographics. (Yes, I'm talking about blacks and Hispanics, and portions of inner cities where they were concentrated.) The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 wasn't a bad thing, though -- in fact, it was mostly a good move.

The bill required that lending institutions actually serve the whole community where they were located. That meant that they couldn't just "redline" certain areas and say "we're not doing business in there." That worked out pretty well for a couple of decades.

Then along came Bill Clinton.

Clinton's philosophy seems to be "there's no such thing as too much of a good thing." He rammed through a major expansion of the program, requiring lenders to issue more mortgages to low-income and medium-income borrowers, setting quotas for loans the lenders had prior considered too risky. He also enabled lenders to skip balancing the risky loans with customer deposits, meaning that loans suddenly became investment properties in and of themselves.

At the time, critics warned that this could very easily lead to very large numbers of risky loans that would default, which would lead to a "cascade effect" of bad loans taking down lenders and those who had been treating those bad loans as investments.

Gee, that sounds familiar...

The people who helped push through Clinton's changes listened to the critics -- just a little. They agreed that they'd try them out for five years, then review and see how they were working out.

That five-year review came in 2002. The Bush administration was very troubled, worrying that a crash in the housing market triggered by a bunch of risky loans all going bad could lead to a major meltdown in the financial markets. That, coupled with a flawed oversight process, could even take down the giants -- Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Oh, pshaw, said the Democrats in Congress.

"These two entities -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis," said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."

Other Democrats also fought against any revisions to the Clinton Administration's changes to the Community Reinvestment Act, and they won. Despite Bush's expressed concerns, the program continued unabated.

So here's the narrative as I see it:

In the 1970s, Democrats decided that there was discrimination in the banking industry against inner-city minorities, and wrote a law to address it. That worked out pretty well for a while, until 1997, Bill Clinton decided to push it even further. He set up a system that forced lenders to make very risky loans at low interest rates. This meant that each individual loan was less profitable, which meant that when some of those loans started failing, there would be less profit from the successful loans to cover those losses. And since these loans were mandated by the government AND the lenders were being rewarded AND they were allowed to treat them as investment-grade assets, they were passed around and bought and sold on their face value, regardless of their actual likelihood to realize their stated value. Opponents of the plan failed to stop the plan, but did put a "reality check" on it with a mandatory review in five years.

In 2002, that review came due, and the Bush administration -- among others -- warned that many of the dire predictions were shaping up to be coming true. They urged that at least some of the 1997 reforms needed to be repealed or scaled back, or there could be a massive collapse that would wreak havoc across the entire financial services industry. They were ignored, and Congress chose to leave the matter as is.

In the meantime, a couple of the key players at Fannie Mae got themselves heavily involved in both the subprime mortgage business and Democratic politics. James Johnson, Walter Mondale's presidential campaign manager, served as Fannie Mae's chairman from 1991 to 1998. In 2006, he is vice chairman of Perseus LLC (which, I believe, is one of George Soros' financial creatures -- he owns several businesses named after the Greek hero) and served on Barack Obama's vice presidential search committee.

Johnson was succeeded at Fannie Mae by Franklin Raines. Raines had risen to vice chairman at Fannie Mae before leaving to be Bill Clinton's budget director, then returned to the top job. He took early retirement in 2004 amid an investigation into accounting irregularities, mainly involving subprime loans. Raines then went on to become a major advisor in Barack Obama's campaign.

Johnson and Raines were both "Friends Of Angelo," meaning that they got extremely favorable loans from Countrywide Financial at the direction of Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo. Johnson himself scored over $3 million in very, very favorable loans from Countrywide.

A third former Fannie Mae top exec might ring a few bells. Jamie Gorelick was the vice chairman from 1997 to 2003 (straddling both Johnson's and Raines' administrations) despite having no background in financing. During her tenure, she took home over $26 million dollars while Fannie Mae underwent a $10 billion accounting scandal. Gorelick had previously served in the Clinton Justice Department, where she was instrumental in constructing the "wall of separation" between foreign and domestic intelligence operations -- which kept the CIA and FBI from comparing notes on terrorist threats that might cross our borders. Gorelick was also one of the commissioners who were appointed to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- which struck a lot of us as troublesome, as we thought she would be better as a witness. I would have much preferred her to be answering questions, instead of asking them.

And now we are here today. All the things that the opponents of the Bill Clinton plan expanding Jimmy Carter's program warned us about in 1997 -- and warned us again in 2002 -- are coming true. A lot of those high-risk, low-interest loans have gone bad, and have triggered a "domino effect" that have taken out a whole host of businesses, including Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. President Bush and his administration tried to head it off in 2002, and John McCain's been warning about it for almost as long, but they were ignored -- and their predictions are now coming true. Trying to use the power of the government to trump the enlightened self-interest of the free market and enforce "fairness" and "social justice" has, as it almost always does, led to disaster and made things far worse. The quest for "equality" has once again led to widespread distribution of misery -- we're all equally unhappy, and we're all equally screwed. Thanks SO much, Democrats.

- - - - -

Yup, that narrative hits pretty much every single one of my preconceptions, my beliefs, my prejudices, my opinions. Which means that I find myself incredibly suspicious and distrustful of it. As much as I want to believe it, I am afraid to put my faith in it, and want to find the catch. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

I've said repeatedly that I'm no expert in these matters, so I don't have any real basis to evaluate the situation. But one way I have of evaluating things that I don't fully grasp is to look at what people predicted would happen, and compare that to what actually occurred.

Right now, to me it looks like those who opposed the Clinton plan called it nearly perfectly. They didn't put a timetable on the current crisis, but it's unfolding just like they predicted in 1997, and repeated in 2002.

Meanwhile, those who championed the Clinton plan -- and later denied that it needed any sort of review or revision or even increased scrutiny -- are now trying to find ways to blame the current crisis on those who predicted it, and deflect any blame away from themselves.

I don't like it. It's too neat, too tidy, too simple. There's gotta be more to the story, one that doesn't so conveniently conform my beliefs and confirm my prejudices. Things are never this simple.

Are they?


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Comments (21)

Jay, shame on you for bring... (Below threshold)
Jess:

Jay, shame on you for bringing up a topic that can't fit in the "100 words or less" category??

Well, to answer your question, Yes. Or no. OK?

There are two keys to this entire kerfuffle:
1) Government, at the Federal Level, should never have the keys to a large corporate enterprise (FNMA/FMAC), or simply put, "Big Mortage". $$ is the lifeblood of all politics, and the mortage industry both created and siphoned off a great deal of that lifeblood.

(One can only imagine the repercussions if Ms. Waters' hope of nationalized "Big Oil" came true...)

2)as far as "blaming" a political entity - national level Democrats relied on that cash, so their interest was in the status quo, whilst Republicans, largely shut off from this largess, called for investigations. Neither side aquits well here.

Now, as to causality and impact - there can be no doubt that the Twins' fall is the trigger mechanism, but in reality, total "damages" will not be as great as newscasts portray.

Within the mortage business, there will be an oversupply of end use product (housing) for a time. Most of the "bad" loans really won't cost us as taxpayers that much (I know, we shouldn't be paying any... ), and the fall of invesment groups leveraged by the Twins' paper won't impact "main street" investors, either.

So - again, Jay, the answer to your question is Yes. Or No.
Either way, this is a near perfect rebuttal for any suggestion of Federal "oversight" of any commercial enterprise.

J(another J)

(One can only imagine... (Below threshold)

(One can only imagine the repercussions if Ms. Waters' hope of nationalized "Big Oil" came true...)

That one's easy to imagine: oil for food, Saddam and Europe/Asia.

Linked to this is the AIG s... (Below threshold)
Jess:

Linked to this is the AIG storyline, and a possible "end" to this entire "crisis"...

Were AIG handled by the Feds as FM/FM, we'd see AIG "split" right away - core state regulated insurance split off from the rest of the company, but by not doing that, the Feds have drawn a "line in the sand" - saying that while stockholders of given companies may be injured, investors whose holdings are influenced by those companies will not. It's an important distinction, one that is unfortunatly lost in the mudslinging on the morning talkshows today...

J (another J)

PS - it's true that AIG's insurance businesses will most likely be sold off - eventually. That likelyhood will prop up AIG's value... we'll have to wait & see how this plays out & impacts other players in the business.

Jim Johnson was also Managi... (Below threshold)

Jim Johnson was also Managing Director of Lehman Brothers before joining Fannie Mae.

There are also a quite a few board members or execs from Freddie Mac who were Hillary supporters and switched to support of Obama.

And yes, Perseus LLC is a Soros' baby. McClellan's recent book was published by Public Affairs Books, which is owned by Perseus Book Group, which is owned by Perseus Funds Group, which is owned by Perseus LLC (the parent company to many other subsidiaries). Others of Perseus execs are Frank Pearl and Richard Holbrooke.

Yea, all roads lead ... (Below threshold)
Larry:


Yea, all roads lead to Barney Frank, more or less, at least currently. Questions remain; why haven't we heard anything since 2002 from the Bush Administration? Why did a Republican Congress do nothing when they were able? How loud and long did McCain actually broadcast his warnings? Where was the media all during this time?

We really, really need a Newt style turnover in Congress without the Newt ego implosion that followed. And especially the pit bull idiot Tom DeLay that followed. Govern from the center or suffer the consequences. Well, maybe govern from common sense would be a better mantra. Our choices seem to be self serving versus even more self serving than the other one.

One last comment (I promise... (Below threshold)
Jess:

One last comment (I promise...sort of) -
I admit that it's tempting to look for a sort of "unified bogeyman" theory (Oh look - George Soros!!!!), but that's the weakest link in analyzing this.

Sure, one will be able to find common names among the various organizations (what a shocker - people who have made $$ in finance working in... finance) - such merry go rounds exist in every sector (software, auto, oil, congress).

As to these names appearing at the Federal level, well, recall that the first Clinton admin. was very short on talent in a few fields, especially finance(Robert Reich joke there...).

WJC rightfully realized a shortage (heh) in that area of his new administration, and went with what was local to DC - finance people w/Democrat Party ties. Post Clinton, it's no surprise that many of the same folks returned to the quasi private sector.

So, do these names correlate with the events of the day? Sure. Indicate causality? Not so much.

J

PS - Jamie Gorelick as a "mover & shaker"? Not really - more like Peter Sellers as the gardener

There's gotta be more to... (Below threshold)
wbgonne:

There's gotta be more to the story, one that doesn't so conveniently conform my beliefs and confirm my prejudices. Things are never this simple.

Things are always simple to a simpleton. Everything is the fault of the Democrats and you have been absolutely correct all along. Enjoy! Things are always simple to a simpleton.

But Jay...You're forgetting... (Below threshold)
DoninFla:

But Jay...You're forgetting a basic rule of evidence...
Looks like a pile of shit...
Smells like a pile of shit...
Lots of grinning democrats standing around...

...You get the picture.

Anyone have the actual Hous... (Below threshold)
sawb_23:

Anyone have the actual House bill number for the CRA of 2002? I'm just curious to see who voted for it and who didn't...

WBGONNE:It is abso... (Below threshold)
Larry:

WBGONNE:

It is absolutely clear that a Republican Congress did nothing in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and on into 2006. That make you happy?

By your logic, the real problem is that the Republicans did nothing to overturn something that Democrats did that had bad consequences.

Did I understand you correctly?

Hilarious. Jay is consciou... (Below threshold)

Hilarious. Jay is consciously looking for strong evidence to the contrary that this is largely a Democrat boondoggle and wbgonne accuses him of just the opposite.

So, wbgonne, tells us what earthshaking evidence you have to reverse that which has been uncovered? C'mon, give it your best shot. Or is it your contention that something else must be the overriding factor because, well, it just HAS to be?

You know, sometimes Occam's... (Below threshold)
pgg:

You know, sometimes Occam's Razor really does work.

Perhaps not in this case, but on the other hand...

Ok, not last post:... (Below threshold)
Jess:

Ok, not last post:

Occam's Razor? Nah, I prefer Braun...

This entire issue = Heinlein's Razor. Better yet, B. Ingham's Razor.

J

"the Republican congress di... (Below threshold)
Mike:

"the Republican congress did nothing."

That seems to be the new DNC talking points memo.

But is it true? From the Washington Post:

"In 2005, Republican Mike Oxley, then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, brought up a reform bill (H.R. 1461), and Fannie and Freddie's lobbyists set out to weaken it. The bill was rendered so toothless that [Andrew] Card called Oxley the night before markup and promised to oppose it. Oxley pulled the bill instead."

Only an idiot would argue that the minority party has no power to defang and/or derail majority legislation. The classic example is the Republicans' successful effort to derail Hillarycare in '93. The truth is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac funneled millions in lobbying money and political contributions to Democrats, who successfully tore down at least two attempts by Republicans to regulate Fannie and Freddie.

In the words of Bill O'... (Below threshold)
Chip:

In the words of Bill O'

Who's looking out for you?

McCain's attempt to fix Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac in 2005
via Hotair

The Speech in the Senate
via GovTrack

Well looks like it wasn't, "Chris Dodd, then the ranking member of the Banking Committee and now its chair."

Mike, one of the worst chan... (Below threshold)

Mike, one of the worst changes to the bill was in the attempt to enforce more oversight - but not for one more year. In the meantime Fannie and Freddie would have been free to expand far beyond their stated purpose and limits to become unfairly competitive with other tightly regulated mortgagors.

That was three years ago too. So this canard that republicans are at false is, well, a canard. This might have been headed off if meaningful reform hadn't been so severely manipulated.

Just looking at the level of lobbying efforts and when the heat was turned up on reform talk and how they correlate is telling. In 05 and 06 Fannie Mae lobbying exceeded $10m each year.

sorry, that should read, <i... (Below threshold)

sorry, that should read, "So this canard that republicans are at fault...

Jay, there is one thing I d... (Below threshold)
CSK:

Jay, there is one thing I don't understand. Republicans did have control of the Congress in both 2002 and 2005, if I remember correctly (perhaps not). Why didn't they overhaul this when they could?
I'm a conservative - but I don't believe in letting our side get away with things either.
Maybe I have the facts wrong, and perhaps you can explain in more detail why we couldn't get these bills passed. I, too, would like to know a lot more about this issue. Seems there's plenty of blame to go around.

Govt is DIRECTLY Responsibl... (Below threshold)
Holman:

Govt is DIRECTLY Responsible

In 1995, as a result of interest from President Clinton's administration, the implementing regulations for the Community Reinvestment Act were strengthened by focusing the financial regulators' attention on institutions' performance in helping to meet community credit needs. The 1995 revisions were credited with helping to substantially increase the amount of loans to small businesses and to low- and moderate-income borrowers for home loans.


The revisions allowed the securitization of CRA loans containing subprime mortgages. The first public securitization of CRA loans started in 1997. 16 - 1/2 years ago.


As Stan Liebowitz, a University of Texas economist has pointed out, a Fannie Mae Foundation report enthusiastically singled out one mortgage lender that followed "the most flexible underwriting criteria permitted." That lender's loans to low-income people had grown to $600 billion by 2003. Its name? Countrywide, the largest U.S. mortgage lender and one of the lenders in the most trouble for its lax lending practices.


Mainstream banks were forced to loan money to borrowers they never would have, had government regulation not forced them to. Additionally, government regulation encouraged Wall Street to package the loans that never should have been made into negotiable securities and sold, and resold. This made these high risk securities backed by the loans, which never should have been made in the first place, popular with the hedge funds and investment banks worldwide - since they had a high yield. This created tremendous demand back down the pipe for more of these securities, which accelerated even further the building of homes that never should have been built, and sold to buyers who could not afford, nor had the ability to borrow, which overbuilt the entire housing market and deflated the value of all houses.


The genesis of the entire mess is GOVERNMENT wrongly demanding a solution to so-called "affordable housing", adopting the attitude that Banks were racist for "wink & nod" redlining, then ordering banks to loan money to people NOT based upon credit standards that protected the bank and the public that insures them..


President Clinton ran on a platform of re-inventing affordable housing in 1991. He culminated his signature effort by signing the "Community Development Banking Financial Institutions Act, Sept. 23, 1994", which contained within it a reformation of the "Community Reinvestment Act".


The investment banks, pension groups, sovereign wealth funds, Hedge funds, GSEs (including Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac) all purchased MBSs then used them as cash downs to purchace 20 times the amount in derivatives and other high-risk securities. When the cash down (MBSs) lost market value, all the other securities they anchored were called. - OUCH!


This is what collapsed the world, as we know it.

Bernanke's Big Rock ... (Below threshold)
williambanzai7:


Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

(to the melody of Big Rock Candy Mountain)
Lyrics By WilliamBanzai7


One evening as the DOW went down and the ABX was burning
Down the track came a banker hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away from Wall Street's crystal towers
So come with me we'll go and see the Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

In Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow from the Bush bailout pros and you sleep sound every night
Where the ABS books are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the bonus trees
Where the perrier springs where the squawk box sings
In the Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

In Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains all the regulators have wooden legs
And the shorts all have rubber teeth and the taxpayers lay golden eggs
The traders books are full of fruit and the bankers play all day
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

In Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains you never sell your stocks
And the glimmering streams of origination fees come a-trickling down the rocks
The enforcers have to tip their hats and the bears and shorts are banned
There's a lake of stew and of champagne too
You can sail all around 'em in your custom yachts
In Bernankies Big Rock Candy Mountains

In Bernanke's Rock Candy Mountains white collar jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung that jerk from Berkshire Hathaway
In Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

I'll see you all this coming fall in Bernanke's Big Rock Candy Mountains

How The Grinch Almost Kille... (Below threshold)
williambanzai7:

How The Grinch Almost Killed Wall Street
(How the Grinch Stole Christmas revised by
William Banzai7)
http://williambanzai7.blogspot.com/

Every Banker down on Wall Street Liked CDOS a lot...
But the Grinch,Who lived just north in Greenwich, Did NOT!
The Grinch hated those investment bankers for a whole list of reasons!
Now, that is why we are having this exciting fall season.
It could be his trader head was screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his white shoes were a little too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his NAV was 12 sizes too small.
Whatever the reason, His smarts or his shoes,
He stood there last week, hating all Wall Street's Whose Whos,
Staring down at his trading P&L with a sour, Grinchy frown,
Detesting those warm lighted screens in Wall Street town.
For he knew every Captain down in Wall Street beneath,
Was busy now, trying to sail through the great Subprime reef.
"And they're firing their traders" he snarled with a sneer,
"In three months its Christmas! It's practically here!"
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
"I MUST find some way to give those investment bankers a drubbing!"
For Tomorrow, he knew, all the Whose Who of Bankers,
Would wake bright and early. And rush to save all their bonus earnings!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise!
Noise! Noise! Noise!
That's one thing he hated! The NOISE!
NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!
Then the Whose Whos, young and old, would all fly Far East.
And they'd try to talk Korea and China into feasting on trading book yeast!
And they'd feast! And they'd FEAST!
FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!
They would feast on champagne and rare banker roast beast.
Which was something the Grinch couldn't stand in the least!
And THEN They'd do something He liked least of all!
Every Who down in Wall Street, the Bulls and the Bears,
Would stand close together, with opening bells ringing.
They'd stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing!
They'd sing! And they'd sing! And they'd SING!
SING! SING! SING!
And the more the Grinch thought of this Singing,
The more the Grinch thought, "I must stop this whole thing!"
"Why, for year after year I've put up with it now!"
"I MUST stop a Wall Street bailout from coming! But HOW?"
Then he got an idea! An awful idea!
THE GRINCH GOT A WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!
"I know just what to do!" The Grinch laughed in his throat.
And he made a some quick calls to spread rumours of a giant toxic CDS boat.
And he chuckled, and clucked, "What a great short seller trick!"
"With this phone and this screen, I'll batter those Wall Streetwalkers selling asset backed tricks"

"PoohPooh to the Whose Whos!" he was grinchishly humming.
"They're finding out now that no Chinese White Knight is coming!"
"They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!"
"Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,
Then the Whose Whos down in Wall Street will all cry BooHoo!"
"That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply MUST hear!"
So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear.
And he did hear noises over the trading screen glow.
It started low. Then it started to grow.
But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!
He stared down at Bloomberg and Reuters! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every banker down in Wall Street, the Bulls and the Bears,
Was singing! Without any White Knight at all!
He HADN'T seen a Big Federal bailout coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came!
And the Grinch, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
"It came with out tickers! It came without a tab!"
"It came as Federal largesse in boxes and bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe a Bailout," he thought, "is not just for financial Whooers"
"Maybe Fed bailout...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And what happened then? Well...on Greenwich Main Street they say,
That the Grinch's taxes grew 12 sizes that day!
And the minute his wallet didn't feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his Lexus through the South Bronx morning light,
And he met those Wall Street boys for a Smith & Wolensky feast!
And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the beef!




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