In a paper presented just before his death, Mr. Gramlich wrote that “the subprime market was the Wild West. Over half the mortgage loans were made by independent lenders without any federal supervision.” What he didn’t mention was that this was the way the laissez-faire ideologues ruling Washington — a group that very much included Mr. Greenspan — wanted it. They were and are men who believe that government is always the problem, never the solution, that regulation is always a bad thing.We are just beginning to realize the impact of the subprime lending crisis will be. Today Paul Krugman explains how the crisis was predicted and how it could have been prevented but wasn't.
Unfortunately, assertions that unregulated financial markets would take care of themselves have proved as wrong as claims that deregulation would reduce electricity prices.
A Catastrophe Foretold
“Increased subprime lending has been associated with higher levels of delinquency, foreclosure and, in some cases, abusive lending practices.” So declared Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve official.That question is of course answered above. Nothing was done because the officials in charge believe in unfettered laissez-faire capitalism and that any form of government regulation is bad. That was Herbert Hoovers belief in the 20's and so when he did nothing the result was the great depression. That was the first experiment. Some 80 years latter a new crop of laissez-faire ideologues were in charge and we have the sub prime lending crisis.
These days a lot of people are saying things like that about subprime loans — mortgages issued to buyers who don’t meet the normal financial criteria for a home loan. But here’s the thing: Mr. Gramlich said those words in May 2004.
And it wasn’t his first warning. In his last book, Mr. Gramlich, who recently died of cancer, revealed that he tried to get Alan Greenspan to increase oversight of subprime lending as early as 2000, but got nowhere.
So why was nothing done to avert the subprime fiasco?
Both borrowers and investors got scammed
I’ve written before about the way investors in securities backed by subprime loans were assured that they were buying AAA assets, only to suddenly find that what they really owned were junk bonds. This shock has produced a crisis of confidence in financial markets, which poses a serious threat to the economy.How many more failed experiments do we need.
But the greater tragedy is the one facing borrowers who were offered what they were told were good deals, only to find themselves in a debt trap.
In his final paper, Mr. Gramlich stressed the extent to which unregulated lending is prone to the “abusive lending practices” he mentioned in his 2004 warning. The fact is that many borrowers are ill-equipped to make judgments about “exotic” loans, like subprime loans that offer a low initial “teaser” rate that suddenly jumps after two years, and that include prepayment penalties preventing the borrowers from undoing their mistakes.
Yet such loans were primarily offered to those least able to evaluate them. “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” Mr. Gramlich asked. “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.” And “the predictable result was carnage.”