Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Morals, Money and the Bailout

We’ve heard lots of moralism about the economy recently from both ends of the political spectrum.  Wall Street is guilty of greed and homeowners in trouble are guilty of irresponsibility. Instead of offering a cogent systemic analysis of how we got into this financial mess, and the best way to change our economic and financial system in order to fix it, both parties seem to prefer preaching about the wages of sin. 

But while wagging a self-righteous finger while invoking the Seven Deadly Sins (in particular Greed, Envy, Sloth, and Pride, but we could also make a case for Gluttony and Lust) makes for good politics, it is a terrible way to approach the current crisis. 

We should not expect capitalists not to be greedy.  And we should not expect consumers to want fewer or less expensive goods, including fewer and less expensive homes and cars.

The desire for more, for bigger, and for better is not the enemy of capitalism. 

Unregulated capitalism is the enemy of capitalism.

What we should expect, and what we need, is for the economic and financial system to be structured by law and regulation to channel the desires of both capitalists and consumers for more, for bigger, and for better into productive, sustainable economic growth.

Moralism won’t get us there, and will distract us from seeing the problem for what it is: a matter of systemic, not moral or individual, failure.

McCain’s Economic Plan: Blame Minorities

Fox News’ Neil Cavuto made news of his own this week by suggesting that the credit crisis was caused by loans made to minorities

On Fox’s “Your World” on September 18, Cavuto asked Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), “[W]hen you and many of your colleagues were pushing for more minority lending and more expanded lending to folks who heretofore couldn’t get mortgages, when you were pushing homeownership … Are you totally without culpability here? Are you totally blameless? Are you totally irresponsible of anything that happened?” Cavuto also said, “I’m just saying, I don’t remember a clarion call that said, ‘Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.’” 
 
This wasn’t the first time that Cavuto blamed loans to minorities for the credit crisis.  In an exchange with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on September 16, Cavuto said “[Y]ou wanted to encourage minority lending — obviously, a lot of Republicans did as well. There was a lot of — expand lending to those to get a home,” Cavuto then rhetorically asked, “Do you think, intrinsically, it was a mistake, on both parties’ part, to push — to push for homeownership for everybody?”  Unlike Becerra, Hoyer either didn’t understand what Cavuto was saying or simply rolled over. “I think clearly what happened,” Hoyer replied, “ is Fannie and Freddie got caught up in trying to do what the Congress wanted done.”

This is not just a generic attack on minorities.

What is going on here is an attempt by Republicans to deflect public outrage from the credit industry, the investment banks and their Republican deregulators and to place the blame for the crisis credit on the government and the Democrats. 

That’s why John McCain and his Republican apologists have focused their ire on the quasi-governmental institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rather than on the wholly private companies and individuals behind the credit meltdown.

Every time McCain or one of the Republican talking-pointers blasts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the message is: “These are government institutions, run by Democrats. They caused the credit crisis by pushing the Democratic Party agenda, including homeownership for minorities who could not afford to buy homes and should have been content to be renters. Blame them, not us.”

But are they right?  How big a problem are loans to minorities?  And should any future regulation of the credit and mortgage industry eliminate the mortgages that allowed so many minorities to become homeowners?

The answer is No.

The facts show that there has been tremendous racial disparity in lending is growing, and that the subprime mortgage crisis has disproportionately affected minority borrowers. Banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Countrywide issued high-cost subprime loans to minorities more than twice as often as to whites and, at some institutions, the number of high-cost subprime loans issued increased even amid a growing credit liquidity crisis.

Citigroup in 2007 made higher-cost subprime loans 2.33 times more frequently to blacks than to whites. During the same period, JP Morgan Chase made higher-cost subprime loans 2.44 times more frequently to blacks and 1.6 times more frequently to Hispanics than to whites. Bank of America extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.88 times more frequently, and Country Financial extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.95 times more frequently than to whites. A study released in 2006 found that blacks and Hispanics were often two or three times more likely to receive high-cost subprime mortgages than were white borrowers.

So, yes, minorities were very much more likely to receive high-cost subprime loans than whites. Yet as Robert J. Shiller of Yale University and Austan D. Goolsbee of the University of Chicago have pointed out, although minorities have been hit hard by the subprime bust, the overall affect of the subprime mortgage boom for minorities was mostly positive.

Both Shiller and Goolsbee think that minorities benefited tremendously by financial innovations created by the mortgage and banking industries, and they have cautioned against reacting to the subprime crisis by restricting innovative mortgage practices that allowed minorities greater access to the American Dream of home ownership than ever before.

In testimony before Congress in September 2007, Robert J. Shiller, professor of economics at Yale, author of the bestseller Irrational Exuberance and co-developer of the Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, put the issue in context.  As the news of the study findings hits the media, Shiller’s nuanced Congressional testimony is worth recalling:

“The promotion of homeownership in this country among the poor and disadvantaged, as well as our veterans, has been a worthy cause. The Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and Rural Housing Services have helped many people buy homes who otherwise could not afford them. Minorities have particularly benefited.”

“Home ownership promotes a sense of belonging and participation in our country. I strongly believe that these past efforts, which have raised homeownership, have contributed to the feeling of harmony and good will that we treasure in America.”

“But most of the gains in homeownership that we have seen in the last decade are not attributable primarily due to these government institutions. On the plus side, they have been due to financial innovations driven by the private sector. These innovations delivered benefits, including lower mortgage interest rates for U.S. homebuyers, and new institutions to distribute the related credit and collateral risks around the globe.”

The same point was made by University of Chicago economics professor and Barack Obama economic advisor Austan D. Goolsbee in his essay in the New York Times entitled “‘Irresponsible Mortgages’ Have Opened Doors to Many of the Excluded.”

Goolsbee cautioned against the “very old vein of suspicion against innovations in the mortgage market.”  He cited a study conducted by Kristopher Gerardi and Paul S. Willen from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton, “Do Households Benefit from Financial Deregulation and Innovation? The Case of the Mortgage Market,” showing that the three decades from 1970 to 2000 witnessed an incredible flowering of new types of home loans.” “These innovations,” Goolsbee observed, “mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital.”

Goolsbee wrote that these economists “followed thousands of people over their lives and examined the evidence for whether mortgage markets have become more efficient over time. Lost in the current discussion about borrowers’ income levels in the subprime market is the fact that someone with a low income now but who stands to earn much more in the future would, in a perfect market, be able to borrow from a bank to buy a house. That is how economists view the efficiency of a capital market: people’s decisions unrestricted by the amount of money they have right now.”

In regard to racism in mortgage lending, Goolsbee noted that “Since 1995, for example, the number of African-American households has risen by about 20 percent, but the number of African-American homeowners has risen almost twice that rate, by about 35 percent. For Hispanics, the number of households is up about 45 percent and the number of homeowning households is up by almost 70 percent.”

He concluded that “When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.”

In the search for villains in the credit crisis, Congress should be careful not to  eliminate the mortgages that have opened doors for many who have historically been excluded from homeownership and the American Dream.

It is also important to recognize that it was the Bush adminstration that pushed for greater access to homeownership for minorities, and specifically tasked Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with expanding home loans to minorities.

As CNN reported on June 17, 2002:

“President Bush touted his goal Monday of boosting minority home ownership by 5.5 million before the end of the decade through grants to low-income families and credits to developers. ‘Too many American families, too many minorities, do not own a home. There is a home ownership gap in America. The difference between African-American and Hispanic home ownership is too big,” Bush told a crowd at St. Paul AME Church in Atlanta. Citing data he used Saturday in his weekly radio address, Bush said that while nearly three-quarters of white Americans own their homes, less than half of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are homeowners. He urged Congress to expand the American Dream Down-Payment Fund, which would provide $200 million in grants over five years to low-income families who are first-time home buyers. The money would be used for down payments, one of the major obstacles to home ownership, Bush said. … Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the federal Home Loan Banks — the government-sponsored corporations that handle home mortgages — will increase their commitment to minority markets by more than $440 billion, Bush said. Under one of the initiatives launched by Freddie Mac, consumers with poor credit will be able to obtain mortgages with interest rates that automatically decline after a period of consistent payments, he added.”

In the political battle over blame for the credit crisis, Democrats need to be careful both to counter claims that the crisis was caused by loans to minorities and also not to allow conservatives and Republicans to use the crisis as a pretext to scuttle these programs.

Are Our Economic Problems Just in Our Minds? John McCain’s Chief Economic Advisor Thinks So

Are the nation’s economic problems — the financial crisis, the mortgage meltdown, the tidal wave of foreclosures, soaring gas prices, increasing job losses, and a tumbling dollar — only in our minds?

It appears that Phil Gramm, John McCain’s chief economic advisor and co-chair of his presidential campaign, thinks so.

He also thinks that those of us who are seriously troubled by the state of the economy are “whiners.”

In an interview in yesterday’s Washington Times, Gramm said that “this is a mental recession. We may have a recession; we haven’t had one yet.”

Gramm says that Americans have “become a nation of whiners.” 

Americans, according to Gramm, are constantly “complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.”

“You just hear this constant whining,” he said.  “Misery sells newspapers,” Gramm said.  “Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day.”

What also sells newspapers are bone-head comments from key advisors to presidential campaigns.

We said last month that Gramm was on thin ice in the McCain campaign because of his ties to the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis

As a U.S. Senator from Texas, Gramm spearheaded sweeping changes in federal banking law, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which repealed previous rules separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, and which some analysts blame for creating the legal framework for the current mortgage meltdown and credit crisis.  For that effort, Gramm has been called “the father of the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis.”

In addition, Gramm is currently vice chairman of UBS, the giant Swiss bank that has been a major player in the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.  While advising the McCain campaign, Gramm was paid by UBS to lobby Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.

Gramm’s leadership role in UBS — whose stock has fallen 70 percent from last year — also raises questions about his economic, and not just his political, judgment. 

As a recent article in Slate.com observes, “UBS’s investment banking unit made disastrous forays into subprime lending. Last December, having already announced a third-quarter loss, UBS raised about $13 billion to replenish its balance sheets, mostly from the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.  In the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008, it racked up Mont Blanc-sized losses on subprime debt of nearly $32 billion. In May, it sold about $15 billion worth of mortgage-related assets to the investment firm BlackRock — but only after it agreed to finance most of the purchase price. In June, UBS raised another $15.5 billion in a rights offering. The credit losses — some $38 billion so far, according to UBS — caused the bank to replace its chairman and install new leadership at its investment bank.”

In addition, Massachusetts has charged UBS with defrauding customers who had purchased auction-rate securities. UBS is accused of “selling retail brokerage customers products that turned out to be profitable for the bank’s investment banking unit but caused the customers to suffer significant losses.”

UBS is also the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, in which Bradley Birkenfeld, an American UBS private banker who was busted on tax evasion charges, has plead guilty and is cooperating. 

UBS has also recently paid millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit with the victims of a 1031 exchange scam.  UBS was one of several defendants who were alleged to have participated with Donald Kay McGahn and and others in a scheme to steal the money that had been entrusted to them to facilitate tax deferred 1031 exchanges.

And most recently, the Financial Times, which called UBS “Europe’s biggest casualty of the US subprime crisis,” reported that UBS’s write-downs could total another $7.5 billion.  UBS’s stock fell 7 percent in trading on Monday.

With that resume, we think it would be best for everyone, not least John McCain, if Phil Gramm was no longer introduced to voters as “John McCain’s chief economic advisor.”

UPDATE:

As of July 18, Gramm has resigned as co-chair of McCain;s presidential campaign.

Obama and McCain Discover that Ties to Countrywide and Banking Industry are Political Kryptonite

Given its central role in the subprime mortgage debacle, it is no surprise that Countrywide Financial has become politically radioactive.

The most recent evidence for the politically deadly consequences of an association with Countrywide or its corporate officers is the sudden and ungraceful exit of businessman James A. Johnson, a long time Washington insider and lobbyist, from Barack Obama’s vice-presidential selection team.

Johnson was chosen by Obama to lead the group, which also includes Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Eric Holder, that would help him select a running mate. The appointment seemed obvious, if uninspired, since Johnson is an old Democratic Party insider who played a similar role in selecting the vice presidential choices for both Walter Mondale and John Kerry.

But last week, Johnson came under withering fire for his association and possible sweetheart deals with former Countrywide chairman Angelo Mozilo. Specifically, Johnson was charged with having profited from special sweetheart deals on three home loans, with usually preferential mortgage terms, approved by Mozilo as the head of the Countrywide only for his close friends.

Bloomberg.com reports that “Angelo Mozilo, the chief executive officer of Countrywide, the biggest U.S. home lender, may have given Johnson and other friends good deals on mortgages, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 7, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. The newspaper didn’t provide any specifics on whether favors were granted. Since then, Johnson’s position on the search committee has drawn criticism from Republicans who noted that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, repeatedly denounced Countrywide for its role in the subprime-mortgage crisis.”

It was soon discovered that Johnson had other political liabilities, including criticism for his role as chairman and chief executive officer of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) from 1991 to 1999, and also faced questions about his role on corporate compensation committees that awarded large payouts to corporate executives.

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out, “Johnson is the former head of Fannie Mae, which under his direction, according to regulators, engaged in accounting practices that were, at best, sloppy. At the same time, he sat on the boards of five different corporations, where he appeared to serve as cheerleader for the theory that corporate executives deserve to be paid obscene amounts of money. How does someone go up to Barack Obama, who once sponsored a bill to curb excessive executive compensation, and say — ‘You know the vice-presidential search committee? For chairman, how about Jim Johnson? Remember, the guy who tried to give the head of United Health Group $1.4 billion in stock options?'”

Although Republicans are pleased with Johnson’s departure — or at least with the embarrassment to Barack Obama caused by the Johnson episode — John McCain has his own toxic subprime-association worries.

Former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), now serving as John McCain’s chief economic advisor, has been called “the father of the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis.”

Gramm spearheaded sweeping changes in federal banking law, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which repealed previous rules separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, and which some analysts blame for creating the legal framework for the current mortgage meltdown and credit crisis.

In addition, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed that “According to federal lobbying disclosure records, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department about banking and mortgage issues in 2005 and 2006. During those years, the mortgage industry pressed Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.”

Gramm is also under fire for his connection with Swiss investment banking giant UBS, which is the subject of a federal investigation into whether it helped wealthy clients to use offshore accounts to hide as much as $20 billion in assets from the Internal Revenue Service and dodging at least $300 million in federal taxes. Gramm is vice-chair of UBS Securities, UBS’s investment arm.

The New York Times reports that “The case could turn into an embarrassment for Marcel Rohner, the chief executive of UBS and the former head of its private bank, as well as for Phil Gramm, the former Republican senator from Texas who is now the vice chairman of UBS Securities, the Swiss bank’s investment banking arm.”

So far, McCain has rejected calls to remove Gramm from his inner circle. But our guess is that, fairly soon, Gramm will join Jim Johnson in the growing Class of 2008 Ex-Presidential Candidate Advisors Club.

UPDATE:

For more on Phil Gramm, John McCain, and UBS, click here.