Friday, February 20, 2009

How to Boil a Frog

Phil Gramm, on the mortgage crisis, in today's WSJ:

Countrywide Financial Corp. cloaked itself in righteousness and silenced any troubled regulator by being the first mortgage lender to sign a HUD "Declaration of Fair Lending Principles and Practices." Given privileged status by Fannie Mae as a reward for "the most flexible underwriting criteria," it became the world's largest mortgage lender -- until it became the first major casualty of the financial crisis.

The 1992 Housing Bill set quotas or "targets" that Fannie and Freddie were to achieve in meeting the housing needs of low- and moderate-income Americans. In 1995 HUD raised the primary quota for low- and moderate-income housing loans from the 30% set by Congress in 1992 to 40% in 1996 and to 42% in 1997.

By the time the housing market collapsed, Fannie and Freddie faced three quotas. The first was for mortgages to individuals with below-average income, set at 56% of their overall mortgage holdings. The second targeted families with incomes at or below 60% of area median income, set at 27% of their holdings. The third targeted geographic areas deemed to be underserved, set at 35%.

The results? In 1994, 4.5% of the mortgage market was subprime and 31% of those subprime loans were securitized. By 2006, 20.1% of the entire mortgage market was subprime and 81% of those loans were securitized. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that GSE losses will cost $240 billion in fiscal year 2009. If this crisis proves nothing else, it proves you cannot help people by lending them more money than they can pay back.

Blinded by the experience of the postwar period, where aggregate housing prices had never declined on an annual basis, and using the last 20 years as a measure of the norm, rating agencies and regulators viewed securitized mortgages, even subprime and undocumented Alt-A mortgages, as embodying little risk. It was not that regulators were not empowered; it was that they were not alarmed.

The boiling frog story states that a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough — it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out. Alas, this observation is based on some tests done around 1898, and modern attempts to replicate it find the frog actually jumps out of the water before it dies. But the point still stands. Anyway, the decline in underwriting standards was a combination of greed and do-goodism, and without the overarching pretext of helping the disadvantaged, these standards would never have passed the common sense test.

Many say, but these had been going on for a while. True enough, it took 17 years, but I think any speculative bubble has non-monotonic dynamics, as in the classic Minsky cycle where standard investment, changes to finance predicated on asset price increases as opposed to cashflow, to a greater fool objective and then the bust. Similarly, initially the rising collateral inured people to the effects of these changes, and the effects of increasing demand led to the bubble, and eventually the crash. See Stan Liebowitz's video here.

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