Friday, December 21, 2007

More Subprime From Schumer

I just posted the opinion piece below that relates to how Senator Schumer continues to ignore Wall Street's role in the current mortgage crisis. Apparently, Wall Street and other banks were so hungry to originate mortgages, 23 year old kids were able to defraud them of millions of dollars. The FBI has geared up dramatically to uncover and prosecute those responsible. Here is a quote from this December 21 Wall Street Journal page 1 article:

Fraud goes a long way toward explaining why mortgage defaults and foreclosures are rocking financial institutions, Wall Street and the economy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the share of its white-collar agents and analysts devoted to prosecuting mortgage fraud has risen to 28%, up from 7% in 2003. Suspicious Activity Reports, which many lenders are required to file with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network when they suspect fraud, shot up nearly 700% between 2000 and 2006.

Here is the article I posted last night:
Charles Schumer is at it again. On December 19, 2007 he presented "A Call to Action on the Subprime Mortgage Crises: Putting Common Sense Ahead of Ideology" to The Brookings Institution. I have read those remarks and find that I must discuss them in order to keep the record, as I see it, clear. If you are new to my blog, you may not know that in October I reviewed a report sponsored by Senator Schumer that set up his current proposals. This presentation is the next logical step in the progression of deflecting attention away from the Wall Street participants and moving the burden to mortgage brokers, non-bank lenders, shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and taxpayers. There is so much to be said about this that I will first provide a summary and then review the Senator’s remarks. If you are not familiar with Wall Street’s role in the subprime mortgage market, I suggest you read my October post first.

Senator Schumer’s presentation contains some things I agree with. For example, I can’t argue against a plan that says borrowers should be informed about the loans they are taking, or that borrowers should have an advocate if they are in default (two of Senator Schumer’s proposals). The problem, however, is that Senator Schumer continues to ignore the primary causes of the crisis and tailors remedies that shift the burden to other parties. According to the Senator, the crisis was caused by homeowners who were duped by unscrupulous mortgage brokers into taking out bad mortgages. To fix the problem requires regulation of those bad brokers and refinancing hundreds of thousands of loans even if it means putting taxpayers on the hook and even if these borrowers were not first-time homebuyers. I’m sure there are unscrupulous mortgage brokers and that some borrowers didn’t fully understand the terms of their mortgage. But is it the root of the problem? The Senator completely ignores the role of Wall Street and the subprime mortgage fee-fest that fed many of his campaign contributors over the past five years. He also ignores the role of the Federal Reserve and its failure to do anything to prevent this long developing crisis. Of course, his political motives for this are obvious and I believe he really does understand the origins of this problem. If not, I suggest he read some of the recent reporting to educate himself. This Businessweek article would be a good place to start learning about Wall Street’s role (the link only goes to page two – click back a page to start). He can also read this Fortune article that discusses how the Federal Reserve ignored this problem for too long.

I will give the Senator credit for at last acknowledging the issues relating to credit rating agencies and the conflicts of interest that pervade the securitization of subprime mortgages (as well as everything else). Of course, Congress was warned of these problems in connection with Enron as far back as 2002 and again in 2006 but chose to ignore these warnings. We are now paying the price for Congress’ failure to act.

Finally, Senator Schumer claims that Chairman Bernanke supports his plan to raise the caps for loans made by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) to include jumbo loans. I have two problems with this. First, Senator Schumer believes that the GSEs should use their lending capacity to refinance subprime loans on homes that cost, potentially, seven figures. He believes they should do this even though the GSEs have said refinancing these subprime loans is not profitable for them. Of course, these entities were chartered to help provide affordable housing and are owned by shareholders, but apparently that no longer matters. Let the funds be used for the well off and the shareholders pay the price.

Second, Senator Schumer states that this proposal has the support of FED Chairman Bernanke. I am not sure about that. In fact, I wrote about the exchange between the Senator and the Chairman regarding this issue. What the Senator does not state is that the Chairman did not give his support to this plan of simply raising the caps. Rather he was asked if the government could do something like this and he said yes. He said the GSEs could make loans up to $1 million and have the federal government guarantee them. That could be done. However, it would require a large political price because these would be taxpayer guaranteed loans in order to protect the GSEs. You can read about that exchange here – click on “stupidity”. The Senator does not mention anything about the taxpayer guarantee part of the exchange. If this is the “support” from the Chairman that he is referring to then this is a shameful act of political maneuvering and misinformation, and Senator Schumer should, in my opinion, clarify this point. It was obvious when he set the Chairman up for this. So obvious that I wrote about it.

At the end of the day, Senator Schumer apparently believes that taxpayers and shareholders of the GSEs should pick up the tab for this Wall Street mess, mortgage brokers and non-bank lenders should be regulated, but the Wall Street banks need not even be mentioned. It makes me wonder who is actually running Congress. It’s as good as money can buy.

With that introduction and summary, here is my review of Senator Schumer’s remarks.

Senator Schumer’s remarks begin by bashing the Bush Administration’s economic policies as too ideological and irresponsible. I agree with him, especially when it comes to tax policy and saving for baby boomer health care. His next focus is on what he calls the “Four Myths Surrounding The Subprime Crises.”

His first myth is that subprime lending led to millions of brand-new, first-time homeowners. He states that according to the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, only 11 percent of subprime loans went to first-time buyers last year, so the majority of subprime loans were for refinance or buyers who had already owned a home. He then goes on to conclude: “Too many of these borrowers were talked into refinancing their homes to gain additional cash for things like medical bills.” He provides no support for this claim and implicates mortgage brokers as evildoers out to rip off poor desperate homeowners. He then goes on to say that “too large a percentage [whatever that means] went to investors and speculators.” This point is also without support, but is worth remembering because when Senator Schumer speaks about why we need to help out these poor subprime borrowers he is clearly not speaking to this “too large a percent” of subprime borrowers. What is really amazing is that Mr. Schumer goes on to spend an entire page of his presentation talking about how the Paulson rate freeze plan will not help enough borrowers. Which ones? He also ignores steps that have been taken already to help some 300,000 borrowers through FHA programs such as FHASecure and the pending FHA Modernization Act. The spin is so bad it hurts.

His second myth he calls “The Myth of the Unqualified Borrower”. I love this one. He claims that a study of credit scores clearly indicates that many subprime borrowers could have qualified for prime loans. He fails to consider, however, any debt-to-income or loan-to-value criteria (or any other criteria for that matter). So in fact we really don’t know whether these people could have qualified for a prime loan or not. All we know is that their credit scores were in a range that could possibly have qualified them for some mortgage amount. The other thing about this “myth” is how it is in direct contrast to all of the hype we have been hearing from HUD and the FHA. The FHA Modernization Act, supported by the Senate, lowers the underwriting criteria for FHA guaranteed loans. If all of these borrowers could qualify for prime loans, then why do we need to lower the underwriting standards to refinance all of them into FHA loans? Sounds like BS to me. You can get more details on the FHA Modernization Act from my post on it, but it is enough to understand that the thrust is to reduce the amount down from 3% to 1.5% and raise the size of the loan that can be financed. (The FHA role in refinancing hundreds of thousands of subprime loans is also a potential problem that could lead to a taxpayer bailout.) The Senator concludes this “myth” by stating “it’s clear that many subprime borrowers have the financial foundation for sustainable homeownership, but may have been tricked into unaffordable loans by unscrupulous brokers.” There we go again – it’s all the fault of those brokers. Did the Senator ever consider that maybe these borrowers wanted more home with less down and pressured the brokers to come up with a financing arrangement to satisfy their demands?

Myth three is “The Myth that Borrowers Can Easily Obtain Perfect Knowledge of The Terms of Their Mortgage Loans.” Well, if he is referring to the fact that the rate varies and the payments are likely to go up, borrowers can easily obtain and understand that information. The other thing borrowers generally understand is that if they cannot make their payment they will lose the home. According to Senator Schumer, however, most people are too stupid to understand this and so we must step in to protect them. Now, I wonder which people these are. Are these the ones who had to refinance to pay medical bills or the “too large a percentage” of investors and speculators? No, these must be the ones who were duped by the unscrupulous brokers. Yah, that’s it. How many of those are there again?

Myth four is that the free market will fix everything. I agree with his supposition that free markets do not fix everything, but stupid policy doesn’t fix everything either. If the Senate had listened to all of the warning signals it got about the housing bubble and leaned on the FED a little more, or about rating agencies and acted on that, then much of this mess probably could have been avoided. Instead, the politicians (pretty much all of them) stuck their heads in the sand because they didn’t want to throw cold water on a very popular housing boom (especially when their contributors were making a fortune from it). Glass houses and all of that.

The four myths are followed by warnings of impending doom. In fact, according to Senator Schumer “we are facing an economic downturn that we haven’t seen in this country since the Great Depression.” Yikes! If this is true I’m really glad I took most of my money out of long positions in equities! He goes on to point out that “a 10 percent decline in housing prices could lead to an overall $2.3 trillion economic loss…” That would be bad, but less than half of the approximately $5 trillion in losses from the dotcom bubble bursting. I agree this is not good for the economy, but the Great Depression? I hope not.

The presentation ends with seven policy options proposed by Senator Schumer to address the subprime mortgage crisis. Here they are, in a nutshell:

1) Provide more mortgage counselors to serve as borrowers’ advocates. OK, not bad.
2) Raise the portfolio limits for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so they can refinance subprime loans, even though these entities have said this would not be profitable for them. Also raise the cap on the loans they can make to include jumbo mortgages (no mention of the government guarantee part). I don’t like these, especially when the GSEs are saying they want no part of it.
3) Allow states to issue tax-exempt bonds to refinance subprime loans. As long as it’s not my state tax dollars guarantying the loans, fine.
4) Modify the bankruptcy code to change the protection mortgage lenders currently enjoy – mortgage loans are exempt from restructuring in bankruptcy without the consent of the lender. OK, but this could make mortgage loans more expensive in the future. Senator Schumer understands this, and acknowledges that this could be limited to only existing loans. This one gets a maybe and a ho-hum from me. If the lenders will be better off cutting a new deal they will.
5) Enact new regulations covering practices by mortgage brokers and non-bank lenders, including limitations on the types of loans they can make. Remember these brokers and non-bank lenders? They are the bad guys in all of this, according to Senator Schumer. Notice how these are mortgage brokers and non-bank lenders, and not banks or investment banks. If you didn’t click on that link to Senator Schumer’s top contributors you may not get this point as clearly. Here it is again. The Senator simply ignores the role of Wall Street and the investment banks in this crisis and makes no mention of any remedy targeted to them.
6) Create an easy to read summary of mortgage terms for borrowers so the big bad mortgage brokers can no longer dupe them into bad loans. OK.
7) Finally, Senator Schumer proposes to closely examine the role of rating agencies in all of this. Hooray! He is finally getting warm.

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dd said...

"the crisis was caused by homeowners who were duped by unscrupulous mortgage brokers into taking out bad mortgages. To fix the problem requires regulation of those bad brokers and refinancing hundreds of thousands of loans"
*chuckle* The crisis was caused by our easy money system in combination with irrational exuberance in the real estate market. With interest rates as low as they went, banks were all too happy to lend out money created by Fed policies. The ensuing bubble, is categoric of the boom/bust cycle of federal reserve systems. Thats why we need a return to the free markets - when money cannot be created out of thin air lenders will be much more careful.!

Palermo's Blog said...

DD - there was a tulip bubble in the 1630s. Was a central bank responsible for that too? The FED is not responsible for every act of human nature, although I agree that it is not perfect and has made mistakes. Remember that in your "free market" solution, politicians determine how much "money" is in the system. If you trust politicians more than officials who don't need to worry about re-election I think you are putting too much faith in a proven looser.

dd said...

please explain how politicians determine monetary supply in a free market solution? the point is that the market controls money supply and no interference by gov't.

Palermo's Blog said...

DD –Money supply is built from reserves in the banking system. The amount of reserves is multiplied as lenders make loans keeping the required amount of reserves on deposit for liquidity. Ultimately monetary growth is limited by the amount of reserves and those reserves must be adjusted to accommodate economic expansion. In your free market solution, who controls the amount of reserves in the banking system?