‘Let us be clear: this is a crisis caused on Wall Street,’ insisted Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her consensus-strangling speech on Monday, shortly before her fellow members of the House of Representatives voted to reject the President’s $700 billion bail-out plan. Out on the campaign trail, Barack Obama ventured that the root cause of the trouble in the markets was that ‘too many people in Washington and Wall Street weren’t minding the store’.
Pinning the blame for the crisis on greedy bankers and incompetent regulators may have seemed plausible enough during the turmoil of the past few days. Writing in The Spectator last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted how ‘we find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims’. Not this week, we didn’t. We talked about the markets as if they were thoroughly unreasonable, out of control, perhaps even raving mad. Following Monday’s rejection of the bail-out plan, stock markets, impatient with Congress’s delay in tying up a deal, threw a massive hissy fit, which wiped billions off the value of shares. The next day, they made a partial bounce back, based presumably upon a belated recognition that talks to thrash out another bail-out plan were already in progress. Meanwhile, the sullen banks remained obdurate in their reluctance to lend to one another, let alone anyone else, despite a massive injection of liquidity from central bankers around the world. Not much there to inspire confidence in the system.
Consequently, this hardly seems the most appropriate moment to mount a defence of capitalism in general, and American bankers in particular, against the threats posed by meddlesome politicians and excessive regulation. But, what the heck. Unless we take advantage of this hiatus between the crashing of financial institutions to take an honest look at the origins of our current predicament, then today’s spin and myth-making will quickly harden into tomorrow’s firm conviction. Let us be clear: this crisis was not caused on Wall Street — it was caused in the White House. The root problem was not financial — it was political, and those truly responsible for this fiasco were not bankers, nor even Bush Republicans; they were Clinton Democrats.
For generations, America’s bankers have been firmly refusing credit to those they judged unworthy of it. Yet the mountain of toxic subprime debt that has threatened to overwhelm the entire financial system, and the astonishing number of mortgage foreclosures across the United States, is proof that, at some point in the relatively recent past, bankers radically altered their behaviour and began to shower mortgages on borrowers who had no realistic prospect of keeping up their repayments. What could possibly have induced them to act so recklessly, and so out of character? The facile answer to that question is greed, the lure of a fast and easy buck. The correct answer is that banks were bullied, cajoled and coerced into lowering their lending standards by politicians in pursuit of an ideological agenda.
Let’s wind back to 1993 and Roberta Achtenberg’s arrival on the Washington political scene. Achtenberg had made her name in San Francisco as a civil rights lawyer and activist, campaigning to keep open the city’s gay bathhouses, and (I promise I’m not making this up) pressing for an increase in the number of gay Scoutmasters. Bill Clinton offered her a job in his new administration, and Roberta Achtenberg became the first openly lesbian nominee ever to receive a Senate confirmation. She duly took up her post as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The main thrust of the Clinton housing strategy was to increase home ownership among the poor, and particularly among blacks and Hispanics. White House aides, in familiar West Wing style, could parrot the many social advantages that would accrue: high levels of home ownership correlated with less violent crime, better school performance, a heightened sense of commun-ity. But standing in the way of the realisation of this dream were the conservative lending policies of the banks, which required such inconvenient and old-fashioned things as cash deposits and regular repayments — things the poor and minorities often could not provide. Clinton told the banks to be more creative.
Meanwhile, Ms Achtenberg, a member of the kickass school of public administration, was busy setting up a network of enforcement offices across the country, manned by attorneys and investigators, and primed to spearhead an assault on the mortgage banks, bringing suits against any suspected of practising unlawful discrimination, whether on the basis of race, gender or disability. Achtenberg believed racism was a big factor in keeping minorities from enjoying the same level of home ownership as whites. She doubted if much could be done to change people’s attitudes on racial matters, but she was confident she, in cahoots with Attorney General Janet Reno, could use the law to change the behaviour of banks.
However, when little or no overt or deliberate racial discrimination was discovered among the mortgage lenders, HUD’s investigators turned to trying to prove ‘disparate treatment’ of minority groups, a notion similar to that of unintentional ‘institutional racism’. If a bank refused loans to proportionally more black applicants than white ones, for instance, the onus would fall on it to prove it had good grounds for doing so or face settlement penalties running into millions of dollars. A series of highly publicised cases were brought on this basis, starting in 1994. Eventually the investigators would turn somewhat desperately to ‘disparate impact’, a form of discrimination so abstract and rarefied as to be imperceptible to its supposed victims, and indeed often only discernible at all through the application of multivariate regression analysis to information stored on regulators’ databases. In fact, by 1995 Achtenberg was actually having to rein in her zealots, issuing a clarification that the use of the phrase ‘master bedroom’ in a property advertisement was, despite its clear patriarchal and slave-owning resonances, not actually an actionable offence under the anti-discrimination laws.
These mortgage banks, which have been responsible for issuing about three quarters of the dodgy subprime loans that are proving troublesome today, quickly took the hint. From the mid-1990s they began to abandon their formerly rigorous lending criteria. Mortgages were offered with only 3 per cent deposit requirements, and eventually with no deposit requirement at all. The mortgage banks fell over one another to provide loans to low-income households and especially to minority customers. In the five years from 1994 to 1999, the number of African-American and Latino homeowners increased by two million.
The national banks, responsible for the remaining quarter of the current subprime loans, were put under a different kind of pressure by the Clinton team to boost their low-income and minority lending too. Changes were made to the Community Reinvestment Act to establish a system by which banks were rated according to how much lending they did in low-income neighbourhoods. A good CRA rating was necessary if a bank wanted to get regulators to sign off on mergers, expansions, even new branch openings. A poor rating could be disastrous for a bank’s business plan. It was a different kind of coercion, but just as effective. At the same time, the government pressed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the
two giants of the secondary mortgage market, to help expand mortgage loans among low and moderate earners, and introduced new rules allowing the organisations to get involved in the securitisation of subprime loans. The first package was launched in 1997 in collaboration with Bear Stearns.
So, by the end of the 20th century most of the ingredients that would combine to cause today’s subprime crisis were already in place. Nevertheless, the 1990s can seem a long time ago, and to grasp the connection between the situation then and what is happening now, it’s important to realise that only a small proportion of the subprime loans made since George W. Bush became President have gone to new, first-time buyers. A huge number of them have been refinancing loans, replacing mortgages originally taken out perhaps eight, ten or 12 years ago.
Imagine yourself in the place of one of those low-income householders who acquired a property in the late 1990s as a result of the Clinton home-ownership drive. What happened next? Chances are you managed OK for a while, but after a few years found that like most poor Americans, your income wasn’t going up, it was declining. Around 2003, with your credit cards maxed out, you desperately needed to release some equity from your home. Luckily there was equity there to release, so you refinanced for the first time and enjoyed having some real money for a change. A couple of years later a pushy mortgage broker called to suggest you do it all again, squeezing out the last drops of equity and opting for a low-start mortgage. So you did — and that was fine while it lasted, but the interest rate just sky-rocketed. You will never pay off that loan, it is pure poison to you, just like it’s pure poison to the investment bank that ended up with it on its books. You will just walk away. It’s not your fault. It’s not the bank’s fault. And it certainly isn’t George W. Bush’s fault — every attempt he has made to reform the mortgage market has been blocked by Congressional Democrats.
So that’s how we get from there to here, from crude attempts at social engineering during the early, heady days of the first Clinton administration to the turmoil on Wall Street today. There may be many technical lessons to be learned about selling and buying mortgages, about the best ways to price and manage risk, and about the regulation of financial markets, but I believe the most important lesson of all is an ethical one: it’s about not behaving ruthlessly when trying to change the world for the better.
Bill Clinton’s team, like so many progressives here in Britain, were not content to wait and see what fruits equal opportunities might bring. They felt compelled to secure their equal outcomes by any means necessary, even if that meant debauching institutions, corrupting professions and trying to skew the operation of markets. That only ever leads to chaos.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008