Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Crisis Long Foretold

A truism of crisis management is that most seemingly out-of-the-blue disasters could have been prevented if someone had paid attention.

An article in The Times on Tuesday by Edmund L. Andrews leaves no doubt that the twin crises of the subprime lending mess — mass foreclosures at one end of the economic scale and a credit squeeze afflicting the financial system — are rooted in the willful failure of federal regulators to heed numerous warnings.

The Federal Reserve is especially blameworthy. Starting as early as 2000, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan brushed aside warnings from another Fed governor, Edward M. Gramlich, about subprime lenders who were luring borrowers into risky loans. Mr. Greenspan’s insistence, to this day, that the Fed did not have the power to rein in such lending is nonsense.

In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring the Fed to regulate all mortgage lending. The language is crystal clear: the Fed “by regulation or order, shall prohibit acts or practices in connection with A) mortgage loans that the board finds to be unfair, deceptive, or designed to evade the provisions of this section; and B) refinancing of mortgage loans that the board finds to be associated with abusive lending practices, or that are otherwise not in the interest of the borrower.”

Yet, the Fed did nothing as junk lending proliferated — including loans that were unsustainable unless house prices rose in perpetuity, riddled with hidden fees and made to borrowers who could not repay. Mr. Greenspan has said that the law was too vague about the meaning of “unfair” and “deceptive” to warrant action.

The Fed has also disappointed since the current chairman, Ben Bernanke, took over in early 2006. It was not until the end of June 2007 — after the damage was done — that the Fed and other federal regulators issued official subprime guidance. On Tuesday, the Fed issued another set of proposals. Among those, subprime lenders would have to verify a borrower’s ability to repay and include mandatory tax and insurance costs in the monthly payment. In at least one key respect — enforcing the ability-to-repay standard — the proposal is weaker than earlier Fed guidance. Congress is considering other protections that are stronger in many ways.

When all the truth is out, the Fed will have company in the hall of shame. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, for example, blocked states from investigating local affiliates of national banks for abusive lending.

If the regulators had done their jobs, there might have been no lending boom and no extraordinary riches for the lenders and investors who profited from unfettered subprime lending. Neither would there be mass foreclosures, a credit crunch and a looming recession.

This crisis didn’t appear unexpectedly. And it won’t go quickly away. Congress and the next administration will have a lot of work ahead to clean up the subprime mess — once and for all.

The New York Times

No comments: