FCIC releases Financial Crisis Inquiry Report

by Ryan Sloan on Jan 27, 2011

The Commission’s final report provides an in-depth account and analysis of the causes of the current financial and economic crisis.  The FCIC, an independent, 10-member panel, “composed of private citizens with ex- perience in areas such as housing, economics, finance, market regulation, banking, and consumer protection” was established in May of 2009 as part of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act .

The report concludes that the financial crisis was avoidable,” the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire.” The action in question is attributed to the major financial institution, federal regulatory bodies, and high-ranking government officials. Of particular interest to the affordable housing community is the report’s findings on the GSE’s and the roll affordable housing policy in causing the crisis.  Below is a summary of those findings:

The kings of leverage were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two behemoth government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). For example, by the end of 2007, Fannie’s and Freddie’s combined leverage ratio, including loans they owned and guaranteed, stood at 75 to 1. (pg. xx)

Second, we examined the role of the GSEs, with Fannie Mae serving as the Com-mission’s case study in this area. These government-sponsored enterprises had a deeply flawed business model as publicly traded corporations with the implicit back ing of and subsidies from the federal government and with a public mission. Their $5 trillion mortgage exposure and market position were significant. In 2005 and 2006, they decided to ramp up their purchase and guarantee of risky mortgages, just as the housing market was peaking. They used their political power for decades to ward off effective regulation and oversight—spending $164 million on lobbying from 1999 to 2008. They suffered from many of the same failures of corporate governance and risk management as the Commission discovered in other financial firms. Through the third quarter of 2010, the Treasury Department had provided $151 billion in financial support to keep them afloat.

We conclude that these two entities contributed to the crisis, but were not a primary cause. Importantly, GSE mortgage securities essentially maintained their value throughout the crisis and did not contribute to the significant financial firm losses that were central to the financial crisis.

The GSEs participated in the expansion of subprime and other risky mortgages, but they followed rather than led Wall Street and other lenders in the rush for fool’s gold. They purchased the highest rated non-GSE mortgage-backed securities and their participation in this market added helium to the housing balloon, but their pur- chases never represented a majority of the market. Those purchases represented 10.5% of non-GSE subprime mortgage-backed securities in 2001, with the share rising to 40% in 2004, and falling back to 28% by 2008. They relaxed their underwriting standards to purchase or guarantee riskier loans and related securities in order to meet stock market analysts’ and investors’ expectations for growth, to regain market share, and to ensure generous compensation for their executives and employees—justifying their activities on the broad and sustained public policy support for homeownership.

The Commission also probed the performance of the loans purchased or guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. While they generated substantial losses, delinquency rates for GSE loans were substantially lower than loans securitized by other financial firms. For example, data compiled by the Commission for a subset of borrowers with similar credit scores—scores below 660—show that by the end of 2008, GSE mortgages were far less likely to be seriously delinquent than were non-GSE securitized mortgages: 6.2% versus 28.3%.

We also studied at length how the Department of Housing and Urban Develop- ment’s (HUD’s) affordable housing goals for the GSEs affected their investment in risky mortgages. Based on the evidence and interviews with dozens of individuals involved in this subject area, we determined these goals only contributed marginally to Fannie’s and Freddie’s participation in those mortgages.

Finally, as to the matter of whether government housing policies were a primary cause of the crisis: for decades, government policy has encouraged homeownership through a set of incentives, assistance programs, and mandates. These policies were put in place and promoted by several administrations and Congresses—indeed, both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush set aggressive goals to increase home- ownership.

In conducting our inquiry, we took a careful look at HUD’s affordable housing goals, as noted above, and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The CRA was enacted in 1977 to combat “redlining” by banks—the practice of denying credit to individuals and businesses in certain neighborhoods without regard to their creditworthiness. The CRA requires banks and savings and loans to lend, invest, and provide services to the communities from which they take deposits, consistent with bank safety and soundness.

The Commission concludes the CRA was not a significant factor in subprime lending or the crisis. Many subprime lenders were not subject to the CRA. Research indicates only 6% of high-cost loans—a proxy for subprime loans—had any connection to the law. Loans made by CRA-regulated lenders in the neighborhoods in which they were required to lend were half as likely to default as similar loans made in the same neighborhoods by independent mortgage originators not subject to the law.

Nonetheless, we make the following observation about government housing policies—they failed in this respect: As a nation, we set aggressive homeownership goals with the desire to extend credit to families previously denied access to the financial markets. Yet the government failed to ensure that the philosophy of opportunity was being matched by the practical realities on the ground. Witness again the failure of the Federal Reserve and other regulators to rein in irresponsible lending. Homeownership peaked in the spring of 2004 and then began to decline. From that point on, the talk of opportunity was tragically at odds with the reality of a financial disaster in the making. (pg. xxvi-xxvii)

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