What a week. It was hard to make sense of the rush of events: Lehman Bros., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, etc. Is the sky falling? Are we heading into a new Great Depression? Who's responsible? Who's going to fix this mess?
Answering the last question first does not take much imagination. The government is already promising: 1. to make things right, and 2. to make sure it does not happen again.
What does that mean? More taxes. More government regulation. Gee, thanks.
As for some of the other questions. I saw no better explanation than this op-ed in Investor's Business Daily. Despite what politicians -- both Democrat and Republican -- will tell you, the answer is as follows:
Congress Tries To Fix What It Broke
By INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY | Posted Wednesday, September 17, 2008 4:20 PM PT
Regulation: As the financial crisis spreads, denials on Capitol Hill grow more shrill. Blame an aloof President Bush, greedy Wall Street, risky capitalism — anybody but those in Congress who wrote the banking rules.
Such denials won't hold against the angry facts banging on their doors. The only question is whether the guilty party can keep up the barricade until Election Day.
A visibly annoyed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected suggestions that Democrats share blame for the meltdown. "No," she snapped at reporters who dared ask.
Stick to our narrative, she scolded: The bursting of the housing bubble was another story of market failure and deregulation.
"The American people are not protected from the risk-taking and the greed of these financial institutions," she said, while calling for investigations of the industry.
Only, the risk-taking was her idea — and the idea of all the other Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, who over the past 30 years have demonized lenders as racist and passed regulation after regulation pressuring them to make more loans to unqualified borrowers in the name of diversity.
They were the ones who screamed — "REDLINING!" — and sent banks scurrying for cover in low-income neighborhoods, where they have been forced to lower long-held industry standards for judging creditworthiness to make the subprime loans.
If they don't comply, they are threatened with stiff penalties under the Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, a law that forces banks to make home loans to people with poor credit risks.
No fewer than four federal banking regulatory agencies are responsible for enforcing the law. They subject lenders to racial litmus tests and issue regular report cards, the industry's dreaded "CRA rating."
The more branches that lenders put in poor neighborhoods, and the more loans they make there, the better their rating. Those lenders with low ratings can not only be fined, but also blocked from mergers and other business transactions needed to expand.
The regulation grew to monstrous proportions during the Clinton administration, obsessed as it was with multiculturalism. Amendments to the CRA in the mid-1990s dramatically raised the amount of home loans to otherwise unqualified low-income borrowers.
The revisions also allowed for the first time the securitization of CRA-regulated loans containing subprime mortgages. The changes came as radical "housing rights" groups led by ACORN lobbied for such loans. ACORN at the time was represented by a young public-interest lawyer in Chicago by the name of Barack Obama.
HUD, in turn, pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase more subprime mortgages, and Fannie and Freddie, in turn, donated to the campaigns of leading Democrats like Barney Frank and Pelosi who throttled investigations into fraud at the agencies.
Soon, investment banks such as Bear Stearns were aggressively hawking the securities as "guaranteed." Wall Street's pitch was that MBSs were as safe as Treasuries, but with a higher yield.
But they weren't safe. Everyone in the subprime business — from brokers to lenders to banks to investment houses — absolved themselves of responsibility for ensuring the high-risk loans were good.
The mortgage lenders didn't care, because they were going to sell the loans to other banks. The banks didn't care, because they were going to repackage the loans as MBSs. The investors and traders didn't care, because the MBSs were backed by Fannie and Freddie and their implicit government guarantees.
In other words, nobody up and down the line — from the branch office on main street to the high-rise on Wall Street — analyzed the risk of such ill-advised loans. But why should they? Everybody was just doing what the regulators in Washington wanted them to do.
So everybody won until everybody lost, including the minorities the government originally mandated the banks to serve.
The original culprits in all this were the social engineers who compelled banks to make the bad loans. The private sector has no business conducting social experiments on behalf of government. Its business is making profit. Period. So it did what it naturally does and turned the subprime social mandate into a lucrative industry.
Of course, it was a Ponzi scheme, because they weren't allowed to play by their rules. The government changed the rules for risk.
In order to put low-income minorities into home loans, they were ordered to suspend lending standards that had served the banking industry well for centuries. No one wants to talk about it, so they just scapegoat Wall Street. Even John McCain has joined the Democrat chorus on this.
The FBI is now investigating 24 large mortgage lenders for alleged abuses. But who will investigate the pols and the lobbyists and the community agitators who made the bad decisions that ultimately forced businesses to make their bad decisions?