Why did the housing meltdown happen in the United States?

Interesting discussion — not too wonky — on "Why did the housing meltdown happen in the United States?" via this BIS working paper.


The crisis enveloping global financial markets since August 2007 was
triggered by actual and prospective credit losses on US mortgages. Was the
United States just unlucky to have been the first to experience a housing
crisis? Or was it inherently more susceptible to one? I examine the limited
international evidence available, to ask how the boom-bust cycle in the US
housing market differed from elsewhere and what the underlying institutional
drivers of these differences were. Compared with other countries, the United
States seems to have: built up a larger overhang of excess housing supply;
experienced a greater easing in mortgage lending standards; and ended up with a
household sector more vulnerable to falling housing prices. Some of these
outcomes seem to have been driven by tax, legal and regulatory systems that
encouraged households to increase their leverage and permitted lenders to enable
that development. Given the institutional background, it may have been that the
US housing boom was always more likely to end badly than the booms

Housing construction and vacant homes


US MBS issuance and subprime lending standards


The housing meltdown: Why did it happen in the United States?
Luci Ellis
BIS Working Papers: No 259
Monetary and Economic Department, September 2008

Category: Real Estate

Warren Buffet on Charlie Rose

Here is last night’s Charlie Rose Show, with WB speaking for an hour.

Category: Credit, M&A, Markets, Video

Casualties of the Financial Crisis

October 1, 2008
The U.S. Financial Crisis Is Spreading to Europe

WASHINGTON — Barely a week after Europeans rebuffed American pleas to join in their bailout of the banking system, Europe now faces a financial crisis almost as grave as that in the United States — demonstrating how swiftly this contagion is spreading around the world.

In the last two days, governments from London to Berlin have seized or bailed out five faltering banks. In Ireland, where rumors of panicked withdrawals from banks spooked the stock market, the government has offered a two-year blanket guarantee on all deposits and bank debt.

Asia has been less buffeted by the turmoil, though a brief run on a bank in Hong Kong last week brought back dark memories of June 1997, when speculation against the Thai currency sparked a financial crisis that fanned rapidly across Asia, and later to Brazil and Russia.

Economists see a parallel between these two crises a decade apart: once creditors panic and begin to pull out their holdings, the underlying health of banks — or entire countries — no longer matters a great deal. In a global financial system, national borders are porous.

“In this day and age, a bank run spreads around the world, not around the block,” said Thomas Mayer, the chief European economist at Deutsche Bank. “Once a bank run is under way, it doesn’t matter anymore if you have good loans or bad loans. People lose confidence in you.”

In a sign of how vulnerable Russia remains to contagion, officials halted trading on the Moscow stock exchange for two hours on Tuesday morning, fearing investor reaction to the House’s rejection of the Bush administration’s bailout plan. Trading resumed, and after President Bush vowed to win approval of the package, shares bounced back.

“People ask, ‘What on earth is happening with Russia?’ ” said Roland Nash, chief analyst at Renaissance Bank in Moscow. “Russia is reacting to the unprecedented size, complexity and danger coming out of the U.S.”

The shock waves could reverberate to the United States, experts said, since Russia has plowed its oil wealth into American debt, including Fannie Mae’s. Russia has additional problems, including unstable oil prices and a newly assertive foreign policy that is unpopular with many investors.

The trigger for the loss of confidence in Europe, Mr. Mayer and other experts said, was the Treasury Department’s decision two weeks ago to let Lehman Brothers fail. That ricocheted through European markets, hurting banks and retail investors with exposure to Lehman.

It took a few days longer for Europeans to digest the implications of the collapse. But now that they have, they are turning a remorseless eye on other institutions they suspect of being vulnerable.

As the White House scrambles to retool its rescue plan for the financial system, the global creep of the crisis has far-reaching implications, administration officials and outside experts said.

It is likely to move Europeans to mount a more coordinated effort to shore up banks, a move that the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., pleaded for last week. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is calling for a minisummit of leaders in Paris on Friday.

“We all agree that the method by which everyone comes up with ad hoc solutions in his corner the moment a crisis starts in a financial company isn’t a systematic enough method,” said Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, chairman of a group of European finance officials.

On Tuesday, France and Belgium threw a $9 billion lifeline to Dexia, a Belgian-French lender — a day after Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg cobbled together $16.2 billion to rescue another bank, Fortis.

Europe’s woes could place additional burdens on an American plan, as more banks fall into distress. If the Treasury wins Congressional approval to buy mortgage-related securities from banks, how it prices those assets will affect the solvency of European institutions.

Some of these banks suffer a form of guilt by association by being in the home lending business. Others, like Fortis, lack a strong base of deposits, which acts as a buffer against credit-related jitters.

Countries that suffered housing bubbles — like Ireland, Britain and Spain — are especially vulnerable, as are several Eastern European countries and other emerging markets, which are running steep current account deficits and low foreign currency reserves.

Ireland’s finance minister, Brian Lenihan, traced his country’s predicament back to Lehman Brothers, saying that the American authorities “were mistaken in permitting that bank to go to the wall because it has had very serious consequences for the world financial system.”

The Irish plan guarantees bank deposits and debt for customers and creditors of six banks. That makes the government responsible for $400 billion, twice the country’s economic output.

Experts predict a rash of bank failures in Europe, though some say the process may prove less politically fraught than in the United States, given the tradition of nationalization there.

So far, the hurdle to a broader plan has been the European Union’s legal and political restrictions that require burden-sharing and consensus. “The Europeans are more rigid and rule-based than the Americans,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. “But when things get bad enough, they’ll find the flexibility.”

One red flag, he said, is UBS, the giant Swiss bank that is heavily exposed to mortgage-related securities and is headquartered in a small country that is not a member of the union. “Opinion is divided as to whether Switzerland could bail out UBS,” Mr. Johnson said.

Beyond individual banks, the United States has to worry about the health of major holders of American government debt, from Russia and China to oil-producing states in the Middle East.

Russia is a particular concern, experts said. With oil prices swooning and its own banks in crisis, it is coming under financial strain. If the Russians were to sell off their American debt holdings, it could depress the dollar and multiply the cost of a bailout.

Russia has already begun whittling its vast foreign reserves to finance an aid program for its banks. American officials said shifts in foreign holdings of American debt were not great.

Other big creditors, like China, are in better shape financially, according to experts. But even there, growth is slowing, as trans-Pacific trade dries up. Should that contraction be traumatic and cause a banking crisis, it could lead the Chinese to sell their American holdings, these experts say.

The dollar has also remained remarkably stable, given the turmoil on Wall Street and in Washington — another sign, economists said, that foreign investors have not yet lost faith in the United States. Partly, though, that reflects a paucity of other safe places to invest money.

“We would run into a huge problem if foreigners lost confidence,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, an economist at Harvard. “The rest of the world will give us several swings at the ball before they give up on us.”

Carter Dougherty contributed reporting from Frankfurt and Andrew Kramer from Moscow.

Category: Bailouts, Credit, Taxes and Policy

Category: Credit, Economy

Misunderstanding Credit and Housing Crises: Blaming the CRA, GSEs

“It’s telling that, amid all the recent recriminations, even lenders have not fingered CRA. That’s because CRA didn’t bring about the reckless lending at the heart of the crisis. Just as sub-prime lending was exploding, CRA was losing force and relevance. And the worst offenders, the independent mortgage companies, were never subject to CRA — or any federal regulator. Law didn’t make them lend. The profit motive did.”

-Robert Gordon, American Prospect



I have been meaning to get back to this issue, but events in the market have kept me a tad busy.

Making the rounds amongst a certain subset of wingnuts on CNBC, at IBD and other selfconfoozled folks has been the meme that the entire housing and credit crisis traces to the the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. An alternative zombie myth is the credit crisis is due to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A 1999 article from the New York Times about the GSE’s role in subprime mortgages has been circulating as if its the rosetta stone of the credit crisis.

These memes have become a rallying cry — cognitive dissonance writ large — of those folks who have been pushing for greater and greater
deregulation, and are now attempting to disown the results of their

I feel
compelled to set the record straight about this pseudo-intellectual
detritus. As we have painstakingly discussed over the past few years, there were many direct and indirect causes of the current financial mess.

Let’s clarify the causes of current circumstances. Ask yourself the following questions about the impact of the Community Reinvestment Act and/or the role of Fannie & Freddie:

• Did the 1977 legislation, or any other legislation since, require banks to not verify income or payment history of mortgage applicants?

• 50% of subprime loans were made by mortgage service companies not subject comprehensive federal supervision; another 30% were made by banks or thrifts which are not subject to routine supervision or examinations. How was this caused by either CRA or GSEs ?

• What about “No Money Down” Mortgages (0% down payments) ? Were they required by the CRA? Fannie? Freddie?

• Explain the shift in Loan to value from 80% to 120%: What was it in the Act that changed this traditional lending requirement?

• Did any Federal legislation require real estate agents and mortgage writers to use the same corrupt appraisers again and again? How did they manage to always come in at exactly the purchase price, no matter what?

• Did the CRA require banks to develop automated underwriting (AU) systems that emphasized speed rather than accuracy in order to process the greatest number of mortgage apps as quickly as possible?

• How exactly did legislation force Moody’s, S&Ps and Fitch to rate junk paper as Triple AAA?

• What about piggy back loans? Were banks
required by Congress to lend the first mortgage and do a HELOC for the
down payment — at the same time?

• Internal bank memos showed employees how to cheat the system to get poor mortgages prospects approved that shouldn’t have been: Titled How to Get an “Iffy” loan approved at JPM Chase. (Was circulating that memo also a FNM/FRE/CRA requirement?)


• The four biggest problem areas for housing (by price decreases) are: Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami, Florida, and San Diego, California. Explain exactly how these affluent, non-minority regions were impacted by the Community Reinvesment Act ?

• Did the GSEs require banks to not check credit scores? Assets? Income?

• What was it about the CRA or GSEs that mandated fund
managers load up on an investment product that was hard to value,
thinly traded, and poorly understood

• What was it in the Act that forced banks to
make “interest only” loans? Were “Neg Am loans” also part of the
legislative requirements also?

• Consider this February 2003 speech by
Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozlilo at the American Bankers National Real
Estate Conference. He advocated zero down payment mortgages — was that a CRA requirement too, or just a grab for more market share, and bad banking?

The answer to all of the above questions is no, none, and nothing at all.

The CRA is not remotely one of the proximate causes of the current credit crunch, Housing collapse,and mortgage debacle. As I detailed in Barron’s, there is plenty of things to be angry at D.C. about — but this ain’t one of them.

If you were to ask me to reveal the prime causative factor for the Housing
boom, I would point you to Fed Chairman Greenspan taking rates to 1%, and
then leaving them there for a year. The prime factor in the bust was
nonfeasance on the Fed’s part in supervising bank lending, allowing banks to give
money to people who couldn’t possibly pay it back.

The root legislative cause of the credit crisis was excessive deregulation. From exempting derivatives from regulation (2000 Commodities Futures Modernization Act) to failing to adequately oversee ratings agencies that slapped a triple AAA on junk paper, the pendulum swung too far away from reasonable oversight. By taking the refs
off of the field and erroneously expecting market participants could
self-regulate, the powers that be in DC gave the players on Wall
Street enough rope to hang themselves with — which they promptly did.

There are too many people who are trying to duck responsibility for the current mess, and seeking to place blame elsewhere. I find this to be terribly important, as we seek to repair the damage amidst an economic crisis. Rather than objectively evaluate the present crisis in an attempt to craft an appropriate response, the partisan hacks are trying to obscure the causes of the current situation. Like burglars trying to destroy the surveillance tape, they are all too aware of their role in the present debacle.

Shame on them for their foolishness or cowardice.

Whenever I see a CRA proponent blathering, I have a “Star Trek
moment.” That’s when Captain Kirk proves to some random alien computer
that its basic programming is logically inconsistent. It’s the AI
(artificial intelligence) version of cognitive dissonance. The computer, recognizing the fraud its entire existence was based upon, seeing the futility of its belief system, at least has the dignity to blow itself up. No such luck with the wingnuts, who merely move on to their next piece of spin . . .

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Category: Credit, Derivatives, Fixed Income/Interest Rates, Psychology, Real Estate, Taxes and Policy

Byron Dorgan on the 1999 Financial Modernization Act

In 1999 Congress passed the Financial Modernization Act, which allowed banks, insurance companies and investment houses to merge. Many experts point to it as one of the causes of our current financial crisis. At the time, Byron Dorgan was one of the few senators to speak out strongly against the legislation. Looking back, his predictions in 1999 seem prophetic and, looking forward, his views raise more questions about the $700 billion bailout plan.

Video after the jump


Byron Dorgan’s Crystal Ball
Lagan Sebert
American News Project, Oct 01, 2008

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Category: Bailouts, Video

Bailout Plan Open Thread

Category: Bailouts, Weblogs

We need to act quickly on the Bailout!

Category: Bailouts, Taxes and Policy

Quote of the Day: Fair Value Accounting

Category: Legal, Valuation

Auto Sales Tank

Category: Economy