Article published Thursday, September 18, 2008, at Fox News.

Analysis: Reckless Mortgages Brought Financial Market to Its Knees

By John R. Lott, Jr.

The stock market has fallen dramatically from its peak a year ago. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has declined by about 25 percent, a significant drop, though not anywhere near as large as the 36 percent drop that occurred over two months from August to October 1987. Few would argue, though, that the financial market is not in a mess.

Meanwhile the economy has kept growing. In the second quarter of this year from April to June, GDP grew at a fairly fast 3.3 percent. For the first half of this year GDP has grown at about 2.2 percent, near the historical average. Obviously some sectors of the economy have been doing well, while others, such as housing, have been in a real mess.

With the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as well as other bankruptcies in the financial sector, there are a lot of questions. The strangest fact is that the housing sector is having such problems when the economy otherwise has been doing well. Why have there been so many defaults when the economy has not been in a recession? Defaults have been at historically high rates despite reasonable economic growth and a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.1 percent.

Some, such as James H. Carr, the CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, argue that the high default rates are a result of "unfair and deceptive practices, steering customers to high price loans . . . High upfront payments made it so that they couldn't later pay their mortgages."

Surprisingly, research done by economists a decade ago in 1998, particularly by Professors Ted Day and Stan Liebowitz at the University of Texas at Dallas, predicted the current problems and tried to warn people of a different cause. Starting during the early 1990s, mortgage-underwriting standards have been consistently weakened. Many of the names involved in the forefront of those changes, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as well Countrywide and Bear Stearns, , have been the most prominent financial entities to become insolvent.

Others did not share these economists' concerns. The Wall Street Journal quoted Congressman Barney Frank in 2003 as criticizing Greg Mankiw, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, "because he is worried about the tiny little matter of safety and soundness rather than ‘concern about housing.'"

The changes in underwriting standards were pushed to accomplish what many called a "noble goal" -- an increase in home ownership among poor and minority Americans -- but the changes created a time bomb that was set off as soon as property values began to decline. The new rules involved eliminating verification of income or assets, little assurance of the ability to pay the mortgage, and virtually eliminating down payments.

Making it possible for otherwise unqualified people to buy homes increased demand and increased the price of houses. As long as housing prices rose, the problems inherent in not requiring down payments or relaxing other standards were hidden. While prices rose, no one had to default. Instead, if someone was unable to pay the mortgage, the obvious option was to sell the house at a profit. As long as prices continued to rise, people could accurately claim that the new standards did not have an appreciably different default rate than the old standards.

The federal government gives all sorts of subsidies to encourage home ownership. The mortgage deductibility in the income tax is a big subsidy, but that is not the only one. The Federal Housing Administration guarantees mortgages against default. Subsidies given to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac allow them to charge less in repackaging private mortgages that are then sold to financial institutions.

There are also subsidies to certain types of mortgages. The Community Reinvestment Act bans so-called "red lining" -- requiring banks to offer mortgages in the entire geographic area in which they operate, not just to do business in suburbs. Loans in profitable areas were then used to subsidize loans in areas where banks were losing money.

Yet, there was another major change that has gotten little attention. Back in 1992, a Boston Federal Reserve study claimed to find evidence of racial discrimination -- claiming that minorities got denied mortgages at higher rates than whites even after important factors such as creditworthiness were accounted for. The data used in the study were riddled with typos and other serious errors. For example, of the 3,000 mortgages studied, 50 of the loans supposedly had the banks paying interest to the borrowers, 500 of the mortgages were not even in the data set from which the data was supposedly obtained, and some mortgages were supposedly approved for individuals who had negative net worth in the millions of dollars. When those mistakes were corrected, no evidence of discrimination remained.

Professor Liebowitz told FOX News that Lawrence Lindsey, then a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, "was warned about these errors in this study but the Fed ignored them."

The Boston Fed still used the study to produce a manual for mortgage lenders that: “discrimination may be observed when a lender’s underwriting policies contain arbitrary or outdated criteria that effectively disqualify many urban or lower–income minority applicants.”

So what were some of the "outdated" criteria?

Credit History: Lack of credit history should not be seen as a negative factor.... In reviewing past credit problems, lenders should be willing to consider extenuating circumstances. For lower–income applicants in particular, unforeseen expenses can have a disproportionate effect on an otherwise positive credit record. In these instances, paying off past bad debts or establishing a regular repayment schedule with creditors may demonstrate a willingness and ability to resolve debts....

Down Payment and Closing Costs: Accumulating enough savings to cover the various costs associated with a mortgage loan is often a significant barrier to homeownership by lower-income applicants. Lenders may wish to allow gifts, grants, or loans from relatives, nonprofit organizations, or municipal agencies to cover part of these costs. . . .

Sources of Income: In addition to primary employment income, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will accept the following as valid income sources: overtime and part–time work, second jobs (including seasonal work), retirement and Social Security income, alimony, child support, Veterans Administration (VA) benefits, welfare payments, and unemployment benefits.

Accepting these new criteria was hardly voluntary. The Fed warned the banks:

"Did You Know? Failure to comply with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act or Regulation B can subject a financial institution to civil liability for actual and punitive damages in individual or class actions. Liability for punitive damages can be as much as $10,000 in individual actions and the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the creditor’s net worth in class actions."

And mortgage lenders followed these rules. Liebowitz explained to that these changing financial standards "encouraged speculation -- potential homeowners could gamble on the price of homes going up without using any of their own money. Remember, 25 percent of homes being purchased were purchased for speculation."

Others dispute Liebowitz's claim that these changes in rules mattered. For example, James Carr notes that it "may seem on paper that these are a curious thing to count [welfare and unemployment benefits] as income, but they simply didn’t matter."

One lender singled out by Fannie Mae for special praise for following these new criteria was Countrywide:

Countrywide tends to follow the most flexible underwriting criteria permitted under [Government Sponsored Enterprises] and FHA guidelines. Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tend to give their best lenders access to the most flexible underwriting criteria, Countrywide benefits from its status as one of the largest originators of mortgage loans and one of the largest participants in the [Government Sponsored Enterprises] programs. When necessary — in cases where applicants have no established credit history, for example — Countrywide uses nontraditional credit, a practice now accepted by the [Government Sponsored Enterprises].

Or take a 1998 sales pitch from Bear Stearns, which also followed the Boston Fed manual:

Credit scores. While credit scores can be an analytical tool with conforming loans, their effectiveness is limited with [Community Reinvestment Act] loans. Unfortunately, [Community Reinvestment Act] loans do not fit neatly into the standard credit score frameworkÖ Do we automatically exclude or severely discount Ö loans [with poor credit scores]? Absolutely not.

Given these lending practices mandated by the Fed and encouraged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the resulting financial problems for financial institutions such as Countrywide and Bear Stearns are not too surprising.

Liebowitz told FOX News that "such reckless behavior by [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] has lead to their financial meltdown and to the financial problems for the whole country. During Franklin Raines' chairmanship of Fannie Mae, they were a major proponent of relaxing standards."

*Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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