Saturday, May 3, 2008

Subprime and the Bush Administration

What did the Bush Administration have to do with the credit crisis? I keep hearing people say that a president does not have very much influence on the economy and they are given too much of the credit or blame when the economy fluctuates. I disagree for two reasons. The first is that fiscal policies can have a rather dramatic and immediate impact on economic activity as the President is making clear today by touting the fiscal stimulus plan. Tax cuts and government spending certainly impact the economy in a direct and timely way. The other reason is the general regulatory oversight that each administration is responsible for. For example, who heads the SEC and what are the priorities given it by the administration? What about the Treasury Department? I believe these policies have a direct impact on economic activity and are responsible for a lot of the fluctuation in the economy as well as income distribution from one administration to another. Here is an example.

As hedge fund investor David Einhorn laid out in his recent remarks, ”Private Profits and Socialized Risk” the SEC, under the Bush Administration, altered the capital requirements for broker-dealers. Einhorn concludes that the result was a lower capital requirement leading to higher leverage. The higher leverage, as we know, leads to higher risk and that higher risk culminated with the failure of Bear Stearns. So, is this why we have the credit crisis? Wait, there’s more.

The SEC regulations applied to the broker-dealer world. What about the commercial banks? What have they got to do with all of this? Well, as I wrote about last October, the rules regarding commercial bank capital requirements were also altered back in 2004 through rules promulgated by the Federal Reserve and Treasury as regulators of the commercial banking system. In effect, these rules said to banks they could move loans and other assets from their balance sheets to off-balance sheet conduits and reduce their capital requirements. Banks love this because it allows them to – guess what – leverage! They set up something called a conduit that purchases assets from the bank and/or a bank customer. The conduit gets the money for the purchase by issuing securities, like commercial paper. The rating agencies rate the commercial paper based, in part, on the fact that the bank typically provides a line of credit to the conduit so that if the commercial paper market dries up the conduit can borrow to repay maturing commercial paper. This is a very general description and these structures can get very complex, but this is the basic idea. So how does this increase leverage? The rules promulgated in 2004 established that under this structure banks could provide these credit lines to back these conduits but hold only 10% of the risk based capital they would hold against the same assets if they were on the bank’s balance sheet. You can find the announcement of the rules here. So, using this structure, banks can leverage their capital in multiples. Eureka – a way to get around the sound banking principals established by the regulatory framework over the past 90 years! The regulators behind these rules included the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (Treasury), The Federal Reserve System, The Office of Thrift Supervision (Treasury), and The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Lets review. According to Mr. Einhorn, in 2004 the SEC relaxed capital rules for broker dealers, placing more of the regulatory requirements in the hands of the banks and allowing them to use more leverage than before. In the very same year the Federal Reserve and Treasury codified the rules that permitted commercial banks to leverage through off-balance sheet entities. (In case you were wondering, Congress had hearings on many of these issues as well.) All of this turned out to be extremely profitable for the banks, brokers, and rating agencies.

Suddenly, there is an incredible credit bubble that begins with loans and ends up as securities in the portfolios of, among others, the investment banks, banks, and off-balance sheet bank sponsored conduits. I wonder if there is a link between these events? Now, to be fair, the credit bubble began a little before these regulatory changes. But these changes must have accommodated a huge demand that was unsustainable. The graph accompanying this post illustrates the credit bubble I am referring to.

What really caps all of this off is the cries from many of these agency heads now about what should be done to fix this mess. For example, Sheila Bair, head of The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has been calling for months for a bailout of subprime borrowers. First, back in October, she called for a freeze on interest rates for those who had adjustable rate subprime mortgages. She is now lobbying for loan modifications to reduce principal for those subprime borrowers whose mortgages exceed their property values. From her recent comments before Congress

Permanently forgiving part of the principal amount can provide a better financial result for investors than foreclosure by creating long-term, sustainable solutions that will allow borrowers to stay in their homes. This approach also has the added benefit of limiting the overall adverse affect of declining property values on communities.
In closing, Ms. Bair states
Congress, the SEC, the Treasury Department, as well as federal bank regulators have expended considerable time and effort to assure that the industry has authority under tax and accounting rules to modify loans proactively. The industry needs to demonstrate greater commitment to using those authorities.
They should be expending all the time they possibly can and they should never mention it because these agencies are collectively, in my opinion, among the most culpable groups in this entire debacle.

To be fair to Ms. Bair, she was appointed to head the FDIC in 2006, after these regulatory changes. She was, however, on the FDIC’s Advisory Committee on Banking Policy. Donald Powell was FDIC Chairman in 2004, John Snow was Secretary of the Treasury, William Donaldson was Chairman of the SEC, and our old friend Alan Greenspan was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Who appointed these people?

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Anonymous said...

I don't know, who did appoint these people?

Palermo's Blog said...

Greenspan - Reagan
Powell - GWB
Snow - GWB
Donaldson - nominated by GWB