Did Racism Help Cause the Mortgage Crisis? Part One

I am honored to present the work of Ralph Brauer.  For some time I have marveled as I read his research and reflected upon his work.  Today, this author of note shares with readers at BeThink.  I welcome Ralph Brauer.  May I invite you to peruse his prose.  Please ponder; then share your thoughts.

copyright © 2008 Ralph Brauer. The Strange Death of Liberal America

There is an elephant in the room no one wants to mention when you bring up the housing crisis.  It is the same elephant that has occupied the room since the very beginning of this nation.  Yes, it was there that hot Philadelphia summer when they drafted the Constitution.  Maybe that is what Ben Franklin is gazing at as he sits in the center of the famous painting of the signing of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy that hangs today in the House of Representatives east stairway.  Certainly the elephant had haunted Franklin much of his life causing him to call it “a constant butchery of the human species” in an anonymous letter written in 1772.  That elephant that haunted Franklin and continues to haunt us today is racism.

The economic crisis we face today has produced countless essays analyzing its origins and proposing all manner of cures, but almost no one has dared to mention the elephant in the room.  As I researched this topic I found only one person who seemed to be on to it: John Kimble, who wrote an excellent op ed piece in the New Orleans Times Picayune in October that should be required reading for everyone.  One sentence gets to the heart of the matter:

What few today remember is that one of the government’s central goals in undertaking mortgage market reform was to segregate American cities by race.

That such a piece should come from New Orleans does not surprise me; that few have sought to connect what to me seem rather obvious dots is more of a mystery to me.  But that is the power of that elephant in the room.

Perhaps now with an African American President we will finally have more open discussion of the elephant in the room and that discussion should begin by acknowledging that the elephant played a significant role in causing the mortgage crisis which in turn has toppled financial giants as if they were a row of dominoes.  To understand why we need to go back to the years immediately after the Second World War when the housing boom began.

The Creation of the Suburb

The discussion of the role of racism in America should begin by confronting the most important social, cultural and political reality of the past half century: the American suburb is largely a creation of racist loan policies that came from none other than the federal government.  The suburban migration stands as one of the largest freely-undertaken, government-subsidized mass social movements in history.  It accomplished by democratic means what dictators over the ages have tried to accomplish by force: alter the physical, economic, and social environment to create a unique culture.  As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier, his history of the American suburb:

Suburbanization was not an historical inevitability created by geography, technology, and culture, but rather the product of government policies.  (p. 293)

Through a variety of government subsidies, the creation of the suburbs allowed people of modest means to attain what real estate ads have christened the American dream.  The immensity of this achievement is only beginning to dawn on us, for it constituted the kind of land and social reform that governments everywhere still try to accomplish.  Kenneth Jackson notes:

Single family housing starts in this country rose from 114,000 in 1944 to 937,000 in 1946, 1,183,000 in 1948, and 1,692,000 in 1950.  (p. 233)

The federal government financed this growth through the Federal Housing Administration, an agency created during the New Deal to help spur the growth of home construction.  During the postwar housing boom Jackson points out:

The main beneficiary of the $119 billion in FHA mortgage insurance issued in the first four decades of FHA operation was suburbia.

Drawing the Color Line

A half century before the creation of suburban America, W.E.B. DuBois had written in the very first sentence of The Souls of Black Folk the immortal and prescient words:

HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

Little could DuBois have predicted that the color line would become a red line drawn around the American suburb by none other than the FHA.  The name redlining actually dates back to the 1930s when the FHA first began using color codes to designate areas where they should not invest.  Red areas were off-limits.  Jackson states:

FHA also helped to turn the building industry against the minority and inner-city housing market, and its policies supported the income and racial segregation of suburbia.

Even as the suburbs mushroomed across the American landscape, a few were asking questions.  In 1955 Columbia Professor Charles Abrams charged:

From its inception, the FHA set itself up as protector of the all white neighborhood.  It sent its agents into the field to keep Negroes and other minorities from buying houses in white neighborhoods.  (Jackson, pp. 213-214)

In what has become the classic source on FHA discrimination, The Politics of Exclusion, Michael Danielson quotes an FHA underwriting manual:

If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.  A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and reduction in values.(p. 203)

FHA policies also required appraisers to determine the probability of people of color moving into a neighborhood and even forced homeowners to agree not to sell their property to someone of another race.  According to one commentator,

“[T]he most basic sentiment underlying the FHA’s concern was its fear that property values would decline if a rigid black and white segregation was not maintained.

With the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the FHA began to make some attempt to right these wrongs, but with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the so-called “Southern Strategy” soon put a stop these efforts.  Chris Bonastia documented Nixon’s dismantling of FHA’s residential integration efforts in his paper, “Hedging His Bets: Why Nixon Killed HUD’s Desegregation Efforts.” Nixon’s refusal to back HUD’s reform efforts would have an impact on American society that ranks right up there with the decision by President Rutherford B. Hayes to abandon the South to the segregationists, essentially ending Reconstruction.

Yet to see one man and one decision as a historical lynch pin is to take an outmoded view of history, for the truth is that by 1968 the die had already been cast and DuBois’ color line had been drawn like a moat around the suburbs designed to keep people of color from entering. It would have taken considerable political will–and perhaps even federal law enforcement–to desegregate the suburbs by then.  Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s infamous march into the Chicago suburb of Cicero, where he was met with bricks and catcalls, showed the depth of that moat. There is a moment in the video of that march when you hear what sounds like a shot and King turns suddenly as if wondering where the shot came from.

This does not excuse Nixon’s actions, which at best were misguided and at worst cowardly and racist. While historians debate how much Richard Nixon personally bought into the Thurmond catechism, his elevation of Thurmond aide Harry Dent to the White House staff after the election sent a clear signal of his alliance with Thurmond. Dent was the one who sat outside the Senate chamber with a pail in case Thurmond needed a quick bathroom break during his record-setting filibuster. Nixon himself put it bluntly:

I am not going to campaign for the black vote at the risk of alienating the suburban vote.

For the federal government to go further than the law, to force integration in the suburbs, I think is unrealistic. I think it will be counter-productive and not in the interest of better race relations. [quoted in Charles M. Lamb, Housing Segregation in Suburban America Since 1960, p. 4, p. 9]

Still, as Lamb would point out in a footnote, two decades later a University of California study found that 44% of white Americans favored encouraging African Americans to move to the suburbs.

The Creation of the Subprime Market

Yet the FHA did not just discriminate against people of color who sought to live in the suburbs, it also made  it more difficult for them to obtain loans, period, by refusing to insure loans in areas with high concentrations of people of color.  The systemic impact of this is still reverberating through America’s inner cities.  Without FHA insurance, no reputable bank would issue a home loan to someone living on the other side of the “color line.” This in turn had a host of social and cultural impacts, from resource-poor schools to lack of jobs because businesses would not build where the FHA would not write loans.

You don’t need to be a systems modeler to see how each of these came to feed on each other. In the last decade scholars have begun to refer to this as “structural racism,” by which they mean a convergence of forces and policies that conspires to sustain the color line. Just imagine one systemic loop: you cannot get a good job because you live in a neighborhood with substandard housing and were educated in a substandard school and so you cannot qualify for a loan for better housing which in turn further reinforces the substandard housing. Structural racism is also not a bad metaphor, either, for it suggests the immense weight of these multiple factors that presses down on people living inside those red lines drawn by the FHA.

Where legitimate businesses and institutions are prevented from entering, illegitimate ones will grow. Since regular banks would not lend to people of color in inner city neighborhoods and FHA policies kept them from lending to the few people of color who could afford suburban housing, there obviously was a need for someone to supply these loans and so we have the growth of the so-called subprime market, only back in those days they were known as loan sharks and other unprintable words and had reputation to rival check cashing operations, greedy landlords and take and bake furniture renters. Anyone who has grown up in the inner city can tell stories not only about price-gouging home loans, but high-priced loans for everything from cars to buying furniture or clothes on credit.

What Is Subprime Lending

Subprime lending is a mixture of old-fashioned altruism and blatant thievery with an American twist. Some entered into the business of making loans to people of color because they genuinely believed people deserved an equal opportunity, others saw a chance to make a quick buck. The reality of the situation was that without FHA insurance even the most well-meaning lenders still had to charge more than they would have for a white suburban home-buyer.

A 2003 study for the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law reported:

While red-lining has served to exclude poor and minority residents from the benefits of mainstream mortgage lending, purveyors of predatory lending (or so-called “reverse red-lining”) practices have targeted many of the same poor and minority households that traditional lending institutions have ignored or excluded.

In testimony before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services in 2000 Bill Brennan of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society outlined how subprime lending works for lenders:

Here is what these companies do, the predators. They overcharge on interest and points, they charge egregiously high annual interest and prepaid finance charges, points, which are not justified by the risk involved, because these loans are collateralized by valuable real estate.

Since they usually only lend at 70 to 80 percent loan-to-value ratios, they have a 20 to 30 percent cushion to protect them if they have to foreclose. They usually always buy at the foreclosure sale and pay off the debt and sell the house for a profit.

As for those taking out the loans, Gary Gensler, Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the treasury Department, told the same Committee:

Borrowers in these markets often have limited access to mainstream financial services. This leads to two things, as the Senator said earlier. Some borrowers who really would qualify for prime loans-we estimate anywhere between 15 and 35 percent of the subprime market could qualify for prime and cannot get that prime loan. Second, the rate and term competition is limited. Subprime lenders don’t tend to compete as much on price.

Beyond preying on vulnerable populations, beyond the limited access to mainstream financial services, is that abusive practices tend to be coupled with high-pressure sales tactics, whether by a mortgage broker, a home improvement contractor, sometimes a lender themselves in the local community.

Perhaps the most extensive and longest longitudinal study of predatory lending practices has been the Woodstock Institute’s periodic reports on Chicago.  It’s 1999 report “Two Steps Back” was among the earliest to blow the whistle on predatory lending.  They found:

Documented cases of abuse include fees exceeding 10 percent of the loan amount, payments structured so that they do not even cover interest (resulting in increasing principle balances), and flipping a loan numerous times in a couple of years.

At the same time, lending to lower-income and minority communities is often viewed as an isolated line of business, in which the focus is on the short term transaction and associated fees. Lenders active in such communities tend to be mortgage and finance companies subject to much less regulation than banks and thrifts. The increased scale of the subprime industry itself has resulted in a larger number of abuses. Moreover, there has not been a proportionate increase in regulation or regulatory resources devoted to this new industry.

As usual, graphs and tables tell the story in black and white:





The date on the graph may be a little difficult to see. It is 1998. On the first table, the percentage of subprime loans going to African American communities is 53%. Only 9% went to predominantly white communities. The Woodstock study went on to deal with the obvious question: is it race or income that is the strongest determinant of who receives a subprime loan? They found it was the former:

Thus, whether a neighborhood is predominantly African-American explains the greatest amount of variation in subprime lending,

The Final Results

In 1997 Bill Brennan could tell the New York Times:

We have financial apartheid in our country. We have low-income, often minority borrowers,  who are charged unconscionably high interest rates, either directly or indirectly through the cover of added charges.

Three years later Census data would confirm Brennan’s charge. The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law found:

The typical white person lives in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white, with a few minorities (80.2% white, 6.7% African American, 7.9% Hispanic American, and 3.9% Asian American), the typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is mostly black (51.4% black, 33.0% white, 11.4% Hispanic American, and 3.3% Asian American). By comparison, the typical Hispanic American lives in a neighborhood that is more evenly Hispanic American and white (45.5% Hispanic, 36.5% white, 10.8% black, and 5.9% Asian American); and the typical Asian American lives in a neighborhood that is mostly white (17.9% Asian American, 54% white, 9.2%  black, and 17.4% Hispanic American).

In a study released this year by United for a Fair Economy, the authors note:

According to federal data, people of color are more than three times more likely to have subprime loans: high-cost loans account for 55% of loans to Blacks, but only 17% of loans to Whites.

This is a decade after the Woodstock study identified a similar pattern in Chicago.

Reflections

This history makes you wonder what kind of country we might have become had racism not pervaded the home mortgage market. The United for a Fair Economy study puts it eloquently:

While the housing crisis has affected all sectors of society, it has disproportionately affected communities and individuals of color. For them, the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke of has been foreclosed.

Now the injustices white America heaped on black America for half a century have come home to roost. The sobering thought to ponder is that what you have read so far is merely the very tip of a rather large iceberg, for there are literally dozens and dozens of books and countless articles on racism and housing. If you enter “racism” and “housing” in Google you will find over four million entries. Yet despite over half a century of studies, reports and papers about discriminatory lending, little was done about it.

The most damning piece of evidence in this entire story is not that racism fostered predatory loans, but that like organized crime going from petty bootleggers and drug dealers to big time operators, the practice of predatory loan sharking expanded and went mainstream– moving from being the providence of small-time shady operators to mainstream banks. Essentially, loan-sharking cast off its sleazy past and the bigger it became the more people looked the other way.

That is until it suddenly threatens to take down the entire American economy. Now like the figures in that painting of Constitution Hall, fingers are pointing and people are staring.

If racism played a big role in creating the mortgage crisis, the solution to our current problems will prove tougher to deal with than what the so-called experts have been telling us. We could be witnessing the fourth American revolution. The first was the war for independence, the second the Civil War, the third the Great Depression and now the present crisis which combines the themes of the previous two–race and economics.

The next essay in this series focuses on how we got here and why, for only by understanding that journey can we see a way out of the current morass. What is clear so far is that this crisis is not merely the fault of a few misguided CEOs, but rather the culmination of decades of discrimination in which all of us are culpable.

Now the time has come to stop pretending there is no elephant in the room and deal with it.

Resources

For a good bibliography on the subject click here.

Crossposts: The Strange Death of Liberal America, My Left Wing, Progressive Historians, The Wild, Wild Left

Did Racism Help Cause the Mortgage Crisis? The Rise of Sandy Weill and Citigroup



Photo: United for a Fair Economy The State of the Dream

copyright © 2008 Ralph Brauer. The Strange Death of Liberal America

Sandy Weill’s story tells how racially-biased predatory lending lies at the center of the economic crisis.  A third-generation American, Weill grew up on the streets of Brooklyn where for some the road to success was a place whose name came from a structure built to protect the city from Indians, pirates and other invaders and whose die was cast when a small group of men met in secret under a buttonwood tree: Wall Street.

Like the hero of a Horatio Alger tale, Weill began his climb to success not in the proverbial mail room but as a $35 a week clerk, eventually clawing his way to become second-in-command at American Express. But Weill had an itch for more so he cashed in his chips and set about looking for his own business. In 1986 he settled on a Baltimore loan company named Commercial Credit that specialized in predatory lending.

The tale of how Weill would use Commercial to build the financial empire that became Citigroup is the story of the financial crisis and at the heart of that story is racial discrimination and predatory lending. In short, predatory lending made Citi into one of the nation’s largest financial institutions and now is responsible for its downfall.

The Beginnings of Citi

If Weill did any due diligence at all, he knew quite well he was buying a company whose entire existence was predicated on ripping off people of color. Commercial already had a shady reputation when Weill moved in on it. In 1973 the FTC had issued an order demanding Commercial cease using deceptive and hardball tactics to entrap those in search of a loan. In his article “Banking on Misery Citigroup, Wall Street, and the Fleecing of the South,” Michael Hudson  relates that Weill’s assistant, Alison Falls, was appalled at the idea of buying Commercial:

Hey guys, this is the loan-sharking business. “Consumer finance” is just a nice way to describe it.

After Weill bought the company did he seek to curb these practices? Quite the contrary, Commercial became even more aggressive. After all, Weill’s whole business plan was predicated on using Commercial to launch a larger company and in order to do that he had to get as much as he could out of Commercial, which meant squeezing clients even more.

Some of Weill’s former employees tell stories of being pressured into steering clients into dubious deals. Hudson quotes Sherry Roller vanden Aardweg, who worked for Commercial in Louisiana from 1988 to 1995. She agrees there was “a tremendous amount of pressure” to sell insurance: That insurance was issued by another Weill acquisition American Health & Life.

We kept adding insurance that we could offer. It just kept growing. It was beginning to get a little bit ridiculous.

Frank Smith, who worked for Weill in Mississippi, put a perspective on ripoffs such as “closed folder closings” in which documents adding to the cost of the mortgage were kept from the client:

They need the money or by God they wouldn’t be at the finance company. They’d be at a bank.

Weill used the money milked from Commercial’s clients to acquire insurance and finance company Primerica. In 1990 he acquired Barclay’s Bank. Meanwhile the stories told by African Americans victimized by Weill certainly sound like loan sharking. Two Mississippi clients of Commercial signed on for Annual Percentage Rates (APR) of 40.92 and 44.14. Another client paid $1,439 for insurance on a $4,500 loan.

Ripoffs like this attracted the attention of attorneys and law enforcement officials, especially in the South, where Commercial had a large presence. Hudson reports:

In 1999, the company agreed to pay as much as $2 million to settle a lawsuit accusing Commercial and American Health Life of overcharging tens of thousands of Alabamans on insurance.

Jackson, Miss., attorney Chris Coffer says he obtained confidential settlements for about 800 clients with claims against Commercial Credit or its successor, CitiFinancial.

How much money African Americans probably overpaid Commercial can be glimpsed from one study by the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina. Testifying before a 2006 hearing of the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, CRA-NC Community Organizer Richard Brown cited the findings of the study, Paying More and Getting Less: An Analysis of 2004 Mortgage Lending in North Carolina:

Our key finding is that disproportionately, by a ratio of more than 4 to 1, African Americans pay more interest on home loans than whites do in North Carolina.

Cultural Impacts

Like some modern plantation, subprime lending was built on the enslavement of African Americans, only instead of being field hands or sharecroppers their lives were indentured to loan sharks. Like the infamous overseers who ruled plantation life with the crack of a whip, the loan sharks ruled the lives of African Americans with whips woven together with words the way real whips are woven from strips of leather. While these words might not have inflicted the physical wounds overseers specialized in, the mental scars inflicted by the words woven into loan sharking mortgages were socially and psychologically devastating.

Like slavery, loan sharking helped to turn the African American family into a hot-button issue whose implications are still the subject of volatile debates within and outside the community. Yet while the particular sociological and cultural impacts of loan sharking may be the subject of some debate, there is agreement about the big picture: the impact rippled through families and communities like a rogue wave bringing misery and destruction. In the inner city and some rural communities, especially in the South, African American families faced two equally devastating choices when it came to housing: deal with the loan sharks or deal with the slum lords.

Loan sharking also rippled through American culture. Call it apartheid or something else, whatever label you assign to it the forced separation of whites and people of color is the number one issue of post World War II America. As surely as South Africa carved out “homelands” for its black citizens, so FHA and others carved out the equivalent through redlining.

In the South African Americans and whites lived together but interacted through the elaborate codes and rituals of Jim Crow, but in the North the races were physically separated so a white suburbanite could grow up without having much association with people of color. As a result, while white Southerners saw African Americans as inferior, white Northerners saw them as abstractions.

The 90s Boom in Subprime Loans

Meanwhile Sandy Weill continued building Citi through mergers and acquisitions. In 1993 came the controversial merger with Travelers followed four years later by Citi’s acquisition of Salomon Brothers. At the same Weill was building Citi, the mortgage market was undergoing some dramatic changes. Researchers began identifying a huge spike in the number of subprime loans. Loan sharking had come from back streets and low budget store fronts to the center of America’s financial empire: Wall Street.

A graph from the Woodstock Institute tells the Story:

This graph raises two obvious questions: what was fueling the growth and who was providing those new subprime mortgages? The first is still the subject of some debate among economists and others.  For example, some have tied it to an increase in interest rates. In its explanation accompanying the graph Woodstock states:

Despite increasing rates in 1994, 1995, and 1997, however, subprime lenders continued to increase their refinance volumes. This suggests that subprime refinancings are not driven by homeowners refinancing to save money during times of declining rates and that subprime lenders are aggressively marketing loans regardless of the rate environment.

In part, the growth of predatory activity stems directly from the development of an increasingly specialized and segmented mortgage market, especially for refinance and home equity loans.

What was in it for others is the same thing that was in it for Sandy Weill–profits. Forbes reported that in the boom of the 90s, subprime companies enjoyed returns up to  six times greater than those of the best-run banks.

United for a Fair Economy put it more bluntly:

The subprime lending crisis has occurred because a financial product intended for limited use by a limited number of people has been parlayed into another ill-fated bubble by some mortgage lenders lacking in integrity, foresight, and any vestige of civic concern.

What made this possible was the packaging and trading of loans, which goes under the fancy name of securitization.  A Federal Deposit Insurance Company report describes how this process works:

Thirty years ago, if you got a mortgage from a bank, it was very likely that the bank would keep the loan on its balance sheet until the loan was repaid. That is no longer true. Today, the party that you deal with in order to get the loan (the originator) is highly likely to sell the loan to a third party. The third party can be Ginnie Mae, a government agency; Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which are government sponsored entities (GSEs); or a private sector financial institution. The third party often then packages your mortgage with others and sells the payment rights to investors. This may not be the final stop for your mortgage. Some of the investors may use their payment rights to your mortgage to back other securities they issue. This can continue for additional steps.

As usual a graph tells the story of the growth of these new investment vehicles.

The FDIC goes on to explain how various pooling tactics package subprime loans, taking you into a thicket of acronyms like (MBSs), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and structured investment vehicles (SIVs)–all essentially are ways of spreading the risk of pooled mortgages. Notice that the initial upswing in MBS begins in the late 1980s. That was due to the tax reform act of 1986.

Ginnie Mae (Government National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) had been involved with MBS before the 1986 bill, but the Reagan Administration’s gift to the home mortgage industry introduced another acronym into the mix: REMIC–Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduit, which is yet another tool for pooling and packaging mortgages. None other than Freddie Mac described the importance of the 1986 bill:

The REMIC law was passed as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and marked the beginning of the growth of the CMO [Collateralized Mortgage Obligation] market.

Once financial institutions began to catch on to this and entered the thicket of securitization in a big way, there was no turning back. The American economy would never be the same.  Put the two graphs above together and you have the story: the initial growth of the subprime market was enabled by the growth in MBS. There remained only one regulatory hurdle in place, one that had been there since the Great Depression.

The Repeal of Glass-Steagall

Had Carter Glass been alive in the 1990s it is doubtful any of this would have happened, but by the time he put his name on the Glass-Steagall Act during the Depression, Carter Glass was an old man. He had actually been a delegate to the 1896 Democratic National Convention when William Jennings Bryan gave his “Cross of Gold” speech and most of his political life he had a Bryan streak in him that included a distaste for banks. When he left Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet at the end of Wilson’s term he was already warning of the dangers of uncontrolled banking, particularly banks getting involved in the stock market and other financial dealings.

Carter Glass would not have liked Citi or Sandy Weill. Weill, in turn, had little use for what Glass had created, seeing it as an obstacle that stood in the way of his fulfilling his vision of the kind of “full-service” banking Carter Glass had feared.

The Glass-Steagall Act was designed to keep banks out of the securities business because Carter Glass and New Deal officials including President Franklin Roosevelt believed that one of the causes of the Depression was that banks had strayed too far from their original functions during the 1920s.  According to a paper by Jill M. Hendrickson:

in 1932, 36 percent of national bank profits came from their investment affiliates (Wall Street Journal 1933, p. 1).

Glass-Steagall built a wall between banking and other financial services and the ink on the paper was barely dry when the bankers and their allies in the Republican Party began howling.  Over the next half century there were numerous attempts to weaken or scuttle Glass-Steagall, but in the midst of the securitization boom the cries to tear down the wall of Glass-Steagall grew louder.  In 1990, the Fed, under former J.P. Morgan director Alan Greenspan, permitted guess who–J.P. Morgan–to become the first bank allowed to underwrite securities.

It would be none other than Sandy Weill who would put in motion the forces that ended Glass-Steagall when he essentially gave the federal government the equivalent of an upraised finger by proposing the most audacious financial merger in American history: he would merge one of the largest insurance companies (Travelers), one of the largest investment banks (Salomon Smith Barney), and the largest commercial banks (Citibank) in America. The problem was the merger was illegal in terms of Glass-Steagall.

Weill convinced Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and President Bill Clinton to sign off on a merger that was illegal at the time, with the expectation that Congress would repeal Glass-Steagall. That would happen with a big push from Sandy Weill. First, he spent over $200 million in lobbying fees to convince Congress to go along with his merger. It still ranks as the largest single amount spent by one firm on one bill over the shortest period of time in American history.

When the conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the repeal bill seemed stalemated, it was Sandy Weill who applied the final push needed to get the bill passed. Here is the now oft-quoted Frontline report of what happened:

On Oct. 21, with the House-Senate conference committee deadlocked after marathon negotiations, the main sticking point is partisan bickering over the bill’s effect on the Community Reinvestment Act, which sets rules for lending to poor communities. Sandy Weill calls President Clinton in the evening to try to break the deadlock after Senator Phil Gramm, chairman of the Banking Committee, warned Citigroup lobbyist Roger Levy that Weill has to get White House moving on the bill or he would shut down the House-Senate conference. Serious negotiations resume, and a deal is announced at 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 22. Whether Weill made any difference in precipitating a deal is unclear.

The Aftermath

With Glass-Steagall out of the way, Sandy Weill had his merger and the American financial industry now had a green light to enlarge on subprime lending. Some followed Weill’s model of consolidating loan and insurance companies as he had done with American Health & Life and Travelers, taking loan sharking to a level those who had engaged in it back when it was done in storefronts with peeling paint could have never imagined.

More money than any organized crime syndicate could have dreamed of flowed into the coffers of the subprime lenders. What had been an activity aimed mainly at people of color now became linked to complex financial instruments such as tranches and derivatives, that to an uninitiated mind resembled nothing so much as the old shell game. Where’s the mortgage? Under this fund? No. guess again. Inner city and suburb which had been separated by redlining became linked by acronyms–MBS, CDOs, CMOs. But as we shall see in the next essay, ripping off people of color would continue.

Postscript: The Revelations of Language

Some reading this essay might object to my linking loan sharking and subprime mortgages, but Sandy Weill from the streets of Brooklyn would get it. Subprime is perhaps one of the most misleading euphemisms ever devised, because it means exactly the opposite of what the term implies. The Investopedia offers a succinct definition:

A type of loan that is offered at a rate above prime to individuals who do not qualify for prime rate loans.

As for loan sharking, a definitive definition is a little more difficult to come by. Investopedia says it is anyone who charges above the legal interest rate (which is set by some states). Several others add that it also involves an implied or real threat to injure the person who doesn’t pay off.  As if to throw a ringer into that definition there are dozens of references to “legal loan sharking.” Perhaps the broadest definition is at Wiktionary:

Someone who lends money at exorbitant rates of interest.

These definitional niceties represent not merely semantic nit-picking, but in fact provide a vital piece to understanding the cultural shifts that have accompanied the economic crisis. One of the unspoken theses in this series of essays is that by clothing loan sharking in the more respectable term of subprime, it suddenly made it not seem so bad to lend money to people–especially people of color–at higher rates. It is reminiscent of the semantic games segregationists used to play with strategies like the “literacy law.” CNN even named “subprime” the word of the year. Can you see them doing that for loan sharking?

In a fascinating article, Ben Zimmer explains how subprime came to have its present meaning, noting that the earliest use of the term was in industry to describe something below grade while in the 1970s banks used it to refer to loans below the market rate.

Something happened to the word in the 1990s, however. Now it was the borrowers themselves who were being classified as “less than prime” based on their shaky credit histories. [My underline]

Zimmer is on to something when he says the term was applied to people, because as we have seen, a high percentage of subprime loans were aimed at people of color.  So the phrase about borrowers being “less than prime” has more meaning than Zimmer perhaps realized when he wrote that sentence.

At the same time that subprime underwent a shift in meaning it is quite clear that so, too, did loan sharking. The earlier references clearly have a criminal tinge to them. In old crime movies “loan sharking” was always thrown in with other nasty activities gangsters perpetrated on the innocent and not so innocent. Yet the recent references seem to take the gangster and the “enforcer” out of the term, so loan sharks just charge higher rates without threatening to break your legs or worse.

This linguistic convergence of loan sharking and subprime reflects an economic and social convergence, for it seems to date from about the time Sandy Weill first bought Commercial. So as Weill took what his own assistant termed a loan sharking operation to the pinnacle of corporate success, the financial industry adopted the euphemism of subprime just as it was getting into this type of lending.

In truth it is the financial industry itself which has helped to blur the distinction between conventional lending at a higher rate and the hardball, card-sharp techniques of the loan shark. That in turn has given rise to a new term “predatory lending” which has largely replaced loan sharking in our vocabulary, creating a living for economists and others who write papers dissecting the differences between the two as if they mattered to those who have to pay exorbitant rates.

As we plunge deeper into the financial crisis, two things are clear: it takes a pretty good lawyer to decipher the standard mortgage agreement and an even better wordsmith to explain if an agreement charging more than the standard interest rate is an innocent subprime mortgage or predatory lending. For me I will continue to use loan sharking with its connotations of shady activity until the financial industry cleans up its act.

Zimmer ends his article by observing:

Here’s hoping that in the not-too-distant future we can look back on the current usage of subprime as a quaint artifact of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Twenty years ago the mainstream financial industry would have nothing to do with subprime lending.  Now they are using language much like the defenses of the original loan sharks to defend it, talking about how they are performing a service for people who cannot get loans any other way.

In the next essay we will look at the consequences of the Glass-Steagall repeal, the fall of Sandy Weill and Citigroup, and the growth of so-called subprime lending. Then you can make up your own mind about whether to call it loan sharking or continue to use that other euphemism.

Crossposts:  The Strange Death of Liberal America, My Left Wing, Progressive Historians, The Wild, Wild Left

Did Racism Help Cause the Mortgage Crisis? Part One

I am honored to present the work of Ralph Brauer.  For some time I have marveled as I read his research and reflected upon his work.  Today, this author of note shares with readers at BeThink.  I welcome Ralph Brauer.  May I invite you to peruse his prose.  Please ponder; then share your thoughts.

copyright © 2008 Ralph Brauer. The Strange Death of Liberal America

There is an elephant in the room no one wants to mention when you bring up the housing crisis.  It is the same elephant that has occupied the room since the very beginning of this nation.  Yes, it was there that hot Philadelphia summer when they drafted the Constitution.  Maybe that is what Ben Franklin is gazing at as he sits in the center of the famous painting of the signing of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy that hangs today in the House of Representatives east stairway.  Certainly the elephant had haunted Franklin much of his life causing him to call it “a constant butchery of the human species” in an anonymous letter written in 1772.  That elephant that haunted Franklin and continues to haunt us today is racism.

The economic crisis we face today has produced countless essays analyzing its origins and proposing all manner of cures, but almost no one has dared to mention the elephant in the room.  As I researched this topic I found only one person who seemed to be on to it: John Kimble, who wrote an excellent op ed piece in the New Orleans Times Picayune in October that should be required reading for everyone.  One sentence gets to the heart of the matter:

What few today remember is that one of the government’s central goals in undertaking mortgage market reform was to segregate American cities by race.

That such a piece should come from New Orleans does not surprise me; that few have sought to connect what to me seem rather obvious dots is more of a mystery to me.  But that is the power of that elephant in the room.

Perhaps now with an African American President we will finally have more open discussion of the elephant in the room and that discussion should begin by acknowledging that the elephant played a significant role in causing the mortgage crisis which in turn has toppled financial giants as if they were a row of dominoes.  To understand why we need to go back to the years immediately after the Second World War when the housing boom began.

The Creation of the Suburb

The discussion of the role of racism in America should begin by confronting the most important social, cultural and political reality of the past half century: the American suburb is largely a creation of racist loan policies that came from none other than the federal government.  The suburban migration stands as one of the largest freely-undertaken, government-subsidized mass social movements in history.  It accomplished by democratic means what dictators over the ages have tried to accomplish by force: alter the physical, economic, and social environment to create a unique culture.  As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier, his history of the American suburb:

Suburbanization was not an historical inevitability created by geography, technology, and culture, but rather the product of government policies.  (p. 293)

Through a variety of government subsidies, the creation of the suburbs allowed people of modest means to attain what real estate ads have christened the American dream.  The immensity of this achievement is only beginning to dawn on us, for it constituted the kind of land and social reform that governments everywhere still try to accomplish.  Kenneth Jackson notes:

Single family housing starts in this country rose from 114,000 in 1944 to 937,000 in 1946, 1,183,000 in 1948, and 1,692,000 in 1950.  (p. 233)

The federal government financed this growth through the Federal Housing Administration, an agency created during the New Deal to help spur the growth of home construction.  During the postwar housing boom Jackson points out:

The main beneficiary of the $119 billion in FHA mortgage insurance issued in the first four decades of FHA operation was suburbia.

Drawing the Color Line

A half century before the creation of suburban America, W.E.B. DuBois had written in the very first sentence of The Souls of Black Folk the immortal and prescient words:

HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

Little could DuBois have predicted that the color line would become a red line drawn around the American suburb by none other than the FHA.  The name redlining actually dates back to the 1930s when the FHA first began using color codes to designate areas where they should not invest.  Red areas were off-limits.  Jackson states:

FHA also helped to turn the building industry against the minority and inner-city housing market, and its policies supported the income and racial segregation of suburbia.

Even as the suburbs mushroomed across the American landscape, a few were asking questions.  In 1955 Columbia Professor Charles Abrams charged:

From its inception, the FHA set itself up as protector of the all white neighborhood.  It sent its agents into the field to keep Negroes and other minorities from buying houses in white neighborhoods.  (Jackson, pp. 213-214)

In what has become the classic source on FHA discrimination, The Politics of Exclusion, Michael Danielson quotes an FHA underwriting manual:

If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.  A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and reduction in values.(p. 203)

FHA policies also required appraisers to determine the probability of people of color moving into a neighborhood and even forced homeowners to agree not to sell their property to someone of another race.  According to one commentator,

“[T]he most basic sentiment underlying the FHA’s concern was its fear that property values would decline if a rigid black and white segregation was not maintained.

With the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the FHA began to make some attempt to right these wrongs, but with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the so-called “Southern Strategy” soon put a stop these efforts.  Chris Bonastia documented Nixon’s dismantling of FHA’s residential integration efforts in his paper, “Hedging His Bets: Why Nixon Killed HUD’s Desegregation Efforts.” Nixon’s refusal to back HUD’s reform efforts would have an impact on American society that ranks right up there with the decision by President Rutherford B. Hayes to abandon the South to the segregationists, essentially ending Reconstruction.

Yet to see one man and one decision as a historical lynch pin is to take an outmoded view of history, for the truth is that by 1968 the die had already been cast and DuBois’ color line had been drawn like a moat around the suburbs designed to keep people of color from entering. It would have taken considerable political will–and perhaps even federal law enforcement–to desegregate the suburbs by then.  Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s infamous march into the Chicago suburb of Cicero, where he was met with bricks and catcalls, showed the depth of that moat. There is a moment in the video of that march when you hear what sounds like a shot and King turns suddenly as if wondering where the shot came from.

This does not excuse Nixon’s actions, which at best were misguided and at worst cowardly and racist. While historians debate how much Richard Nixon personally bought into the Thurmond catechism, his elevation of Thurmond aide Harry Dent to the White House staff after the election sent a clear signal of his alliance with Thurmond. Dent was the one who sat outside the Senate chamber with a pail in case Thurmond needed a quick bathroom break during his record-setting filibuster. Nixon himself put it bluntly:

I am not going to campaign for the black vote at the risk of alienating the suburban vote.

For the federal government to go further than the law, to force integration in the suburbs, I think is unrealistic. I think it will be counter-productive and not in the interest of better race relations. [quoted in Charles M. Lamb, Housing Segregation in Suburban America Since 1960, p. 4, p. 9]

Still, as Lamb would point out in a footnote, two decades later a University of California study found that 44% of white Americans favored encouraging African Americans to move to the suburbs.

The Creation of the Subprime Market

Yet the FHA did not just discriminate against people of color who sought to live in the suburbs, it also made  it more difficult for them to obtain loans, period, by refusing to insure loans in areas with high concentrations of people of color.  The systemic impact of this is still reverberating through America’s inner cities.  Without FHA insurance, no reputable bank would issue a home loan to someone living on the other side of the “color line.” This in turn had a host of social and cultural impacts, from resource-poor schools to lack of jobs because businesses would not build where the FHA would not write loans.

You don’t need to be a systems modeler to see how each of these came to feed on each other. In the last decade scholars have begun to refer to this as “structural racism,” by which they mean a convergence of forces and policies that conspires to sustain the color line. Just imagine one systemic loop: you cannot get a good job because you live in a neighborhood with substandard housing and were educated in a substandard school and so you cannot qualify for a loan for better housing which in turn further reinforces the substandard housing. Structural racism is also not a bad metaphor, either, for it suggests the immense weight of these multiple factors that presses down on people living inside those red lines drawn by the FHA.

Where legitimate businesses and institutions are prevented from entering, illegitimate ones will grow. Since regular banks would not lend to people of color in inner city neighborhoods and FHA policies kept them from lending to the few people of color who could afford suburban housing, there obviously was a need for someone to supply these loans and so we have the growth of the so-called subprime market, only back in those days they were known as loan sharks and other unprintable words and had reputation to rival check cashing operations, greedy landlords and take and bake furniture renters. Anyone who has grown up in the inner city can tell stories not only about price-gouging home loans, but high-priced loans for everything from cars to buying furniture or clothes on credit.

What Is Subprime Lending

Subprime lending is a mixture of old-fashioned altruism and blatant thievery with an American twist. Some entered into the business of making loans to people of color because they genuinely believed people deserved an equal opportunity, others saw a chance to make a quick buck. The reality of the situation was that without FHA insurance even the most well-meaning lenders still had to charge more than they would have for a white suburban home-buyer.

A 2003 study for the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law reported:

While red-lining has served to exclude poor and minority residents from the benefits of mainstream mortgage lending, purveyors of predatory lending (or so-called “reverse red-lining”) practices have targeted many of the same poor and minority households that traditional lending institutions have ignored or excluded.

In testimony before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services in 2000 Bill Brennan of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society outlined how subprime lending works for lenders:

Here is what these companies do, the predators. They overcharge on interest and points, they charge egregiously high annual interest and prepaid finance charges, points, which are not justified by the risk involved, because these loans are collateralized by valuable real estate.

Since they usually only lend at 70 to 80 percent loan-to-value ratios, they have a 20 to 30 percent cushion to protect them if they have to foreclose. They usually always buy at the foreclosure sale and pay off the debt and sell the house for a profit.

As for those taking out the loans, Gary Gensler, Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the treasury Department, told the same Committee:

Borrowers in these markets often have limited access to mainstream financial services. This leads to two things, as the Senator said earlier. Some borrowers who really would qualify for prime loans-we estimate anywhere between 15 and 35 percent of the subprime market could qualify for prime and cannot get that prime loan. Second, the rate and term competition is limited. Subprime lenders don’t tend to compete as much on price.

Beyond preying on vulnerable populations, beyond the limited access to mainstream financial services, is that abusive practices tend to be coupled with high-pressure sales tactics, whether by a mortgage broker, a home improvement contractor, sometimes a lender themselves in the local community.

Perhaps the most extensive and longest longitudinal study of predatory lending practices has been the Woodstock Institute’s periodic reports on Chicago.  It’s 1999 report “Two Steps Back” was among the earliest to blow the whistle on predatory lending.  They found:

Documented cases of abuse include fees exceeding 10 percent of the loan amount, payments structured so that they do not even cover interest (resulting in increasing principle balances), and flipping a loan numerous times in a couple of years.

At the same time, lending to lower-income and minority communities is often viewed as an isolated line of business, in which the focus is on the short term transaction and associated fees. Lenders active in such communities tend to be mortgage and finance companies subject to much less regulation than banks and thrifts. The increased scale of the subprime industry itself has resulted in a larger number of abuses. Moreover, there has not been a proportionate increase in regulation or regulatory resources devoted to this new industry.

As usual, graphs and tables tell the story in black and white:





The date on the graph may be a little difficult to see. It is 1998. On the first table, the percentage of subprime loans going to African American communities is 53%. Only 9% went to predominantly white communities. The Woodstock study went on to deal with the obvious question: is it race or income that is the strongest determinant of who receives a subprime loan? They found it was the former:

Thus, whether a neighborhood is predominantly African-American explains the greatest amount of variation in subprime lending,

The Final Results

In 1997 Bill Brennan could tell the New York Times:

We have financial apartheid in our country. We have low-income, often minority borrowers,  who are charged unconscionably high interest rates, either directly or indirectly through the cover of added charges.

Three years later Census data would confirm Brennan’s charge. The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law found:

The typical white person lives in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white, with a few minorities (80.2% white, 6.7% African American, 7.9% Hispanic American, and 3.9% Asian American), the typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is mostly black (51.4% black, 33.0% white, 11.4% Hispanic American, and 3.3% Asian American). By comparison, the typical Hispanic American lives in a neighborhood that is more evenly Hispanic American and white (45.5% Hispanic, 36.5% white, 10.8% black, and 5.9% Asian American); and the typical Asian American lives in a neighborhood that is mostly white (17.9% Asian American, 54% white, 9.2%  black, and 17.4% Hispanic American).

In a study released this year by United for a Fair Economy, the authors note:

According to federal data, people of color are more than three times more likely to have subprime loans: high-cost loans account for 55% of loans to Blacks, but only 17% of loans to Whites.

This is a decade after the Woodstock study identified a similar pattern in Chicago.

Reflections

This history makes you wonder what kind of country we might have become had racism not pervaded the home mortgage market. The United for a Fair Economy study puts it eloquently:

While the housing crisis has affected all sectors of society, it has disproportionately affected communities and individuals of color. For them, the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke of has been foreclosed.

Now the injustices white America heaped on black America for half a century have come home to roost. The sobering thought to ponder is that what you have read so far is merely the very tip of a rather large iceberg, for there are literally dozens and dozens of books and countless articles on racism and housing. If you enter “racism” and “housing” in Google you will find over four million entries. Yet despite over half a century of studies, reports and papers about discriminatory lending, little was done about it.

The most damning piece of evidence in this entire story is not that racism fostered predatory loans, but that like organized crime going from petty bootleggers and drug dealers to big time operators, the practice of predatory loan sharking expanded and went mainstream– moving from being the providence of small-time shady operators to mainstream banks. Essentially, loan-sharking cast off its sleazy past and the bigger it became the more people looked the other way.

That is until it suddenly threatens to take down the entire American economy. Now like the figures in that painting of Constitution Hall, fingers are pointing and people are staring.

If racism played a big role in creating the mortgage crisis, the solution to our current problems will prove tougher to deal with than what the so-called experts have been telling us. We could be witnessing the fourth American revolution. The first was the war for independence, the second the Civil War, the third the Great Depression and now the present crisis which combines the themes of the previous two–race and economics.

The next essay in this series focuses on how we got here and why, for only by understanding that journey can we see a way out of the current morass. What is clear so far is that this crisis is not merely the fault of a few misguided CEOs, but rather the culmination of decades of discrimination in which all of us are culpable.

Now the time has come to stop pretending there is no elephant in the room and deal with it.

Resources

For a good bibliography on the subject click here.

Crossposts: The Strange Death of Liberal America, My Left Wing, Progressive Historians, The Wild, Wild Left

More on money




To view the original art, please travel to More on money

copyright © 2008.  Andrew Wahl.  Off The Wahl Perspective.

The economic meltdown continues. This week’s take, “Money Talks” (Archive 0834), is the latest in my dollar-bill series.

Back in seven . . .

Andrew

toon@offthewahl.com

Bailouts Blaze; Exuberance Explodes



Bailout failure ‘will cause US crash’

copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert.  BeThink.org

Never spend your money before you have it.

~ Thomas Jefferson

I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.

~ Thomas Jefferson

Tis Sunday, September 28, 2008.  The weather is warm and word on the streets is warmer.  Fire from Hades, fervor, and fury heat the debate heard on the streets and in the halls of Congress.  Businesses fail.  Banks do too.  Bailouts are planned and these too falter.  Those in the White House are red hot with concern.  People in Treasury Department and within Secretary Henry Paulson’s office sense the burn.  Many fear they too will be scorched.  The flames are intense on the Hill.  Yet, on American avenues many feel, while inflamed by the rhetoric, chilled at the prospect that this immediate need for a bailout is but a hoax or perchance, just hype.

Citizens in this country have been lied to too often; particularly, the public believes, the current Administration has been irresponsible with facts and finances.  Candidates and Congress have delivered a fair share of untruths.  Tycoons, most accept, fudge the numbers.  Countless conclude, there is no one, in government, or in corporate offices, they can trust.  Hence, when confronted with the claim, American taxpayers must bailout Wall Street, most say, and what of Main Street?  What of me?

The electorate fumes.  Even the apathetic are steamed.  Big-businesses will receive bailouts while the poor wallow in economic waste.  What is a person to do?

History might tell us we can do nothing.  Rome burned and Nero fiddled.  That is often the case when people are provided with fruits of folly in hopes they might forget financial woes.  “The fundamentals of the economy are (still) strong,” is uttered to appease Americans and perchance, those throughout the globe.

Today, and throughout this week we might recall the recession, the correction that preceded the perceived bump.  The year was 1929, near four score ago.  The month was October, and the date was the 27th.  While America had realized many fiscal depressions in years prior, none was as the crash heard on that solemn Thursday afternoon.  Few expected what amounted to a sonic boom.  The smoke rose from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  The fire on that day singed portfolios and people.  The rumbles and rubble reminded many of the ruins of Pompeii.  Some could not bear the high temperature of an explosive economy.

At first, economists and leaders thought this was a mild bump, perhaps merely a correction of the market, or in any case, no worse than the recession the nation suffered after World War I.

Numbers soon proved the optimists incorrect.  The depression steadily worsened.  By spring of 1933, when FDR took the oath of office, unemployment had risen from 8 to 15 million (roughly 1/3 of the non-farmer workforce) and the gross national product had decreased from $103.8 billion to $55.7 billion.  Forty percent of the farms in Mississippi were on the auction block on FDR’s inauguration day.  Although the depression was world wide, no other country except Germany reached so high a percentage of unemployed.

The poor were hit the hardest.  By 1932, Harlem had an unemployment rate of 50 percent and property owned or managed by blacks fell from 30 percent to 5 percent in 1935.  Farmers in the Midwest were doubly hit by economic downturns and the Dust Bowl.  Schools, with budgets shrinking, shortened both the school day and the school year.

The breadth and depth of the crisis made it the Great Depression.

No one knew how best to respond to the crisis.

Nor does anyone today.  On boulevards and in banks, citizen question why do we need a bailout for big-businesses.  What of the common folk?  Who will or has ever assisted the little guys and gals.  All these questions and more are apt.  Where were the regulators, and what ever became of regulations?  

No one wondered, not even those in the well-educated Middle Class when they could cash in on high home prices.  Few fretted when it was easy to secure a loan.  Brokers and borrowers could live in the lap of luxury when no one was watching the safe or our fiscal security.

It was fun, to burn billions, while it lasted.  Now, as Americans sit on piles of ash, once called McMansions or glorious abodes, too many millions weep for what they were happy to have wrought.  Credit card companies call and demand; they must collect on the debt.  Americans whimper.  “I cannot pay.”  My foundation, my funds were burned when all was set ablaze.

When life was good Americans bought the oratory from the Oval Office.  People purchased businesses, stocks, bonds, clothing, and any capital that could boost a sense of wellness.  Americans spent . . . it all, and on what.  Inflated images.  Irrational exuberance was contagious.  It spread as a wild fire in a forest full of tinder dry trees.  Yet, now the Bush’s are bare.  Everyone has his or her hand out.  “Alms for the poor” is not the cry.  “Alms for the rich is what citizens are told will help.  People read.

Bailout failure ‘will cause US crash’

The US stock market could suffer a devastating crash with shares losing a third of their value this week if Hank Paulson’s financial bailout plan fails, US Treasury officials have warned.  

By Tim Shipman in Washington and Edmund Conway ?

Telegraph

28 September 2008, 10:14AM BST

The financial system could face a meltdown of 1929 proportions unless US politicians succeed in their efforts for a $700bn rescue scheme, experts added.

The warning came as Republicans and Democrats met in Washington for a rare weekend debating session to attempt to seal agreement on the contentious plan, aimed at preventing a long-lasting recession in the US.

Officials close to Paulson are privately painting a far bleaker portrait of the fragility of the global economy than that advanced by President George W Bush in his televised address last week.

One Republican said that the message from government officials is that “the economy is dropping into the john.”  He added: “We could see falls of 3,000 or 4,000 points on the Dow [the New York market that currently trades at around 11,000].  That could happen in just a couple of days.

“What’s being put around behind the scenes is that we’re looking at 1930s stuff.  We’re looking at catastrophe, huge, amazing catastrophe.  Everybody is extraordinarily scared.  It’s going to be really, really nasty.” . . .

Peter Spencer, economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item Club, said: “This is the time you have to bail people out and ask questions later.  It is very difficult to see how the US banking system would survive without that.

This has the potential to make 1929 look like a walk in the park.”

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said: “We hope sometime [Sunday] evening we can announce some kind of agreement in principle.  We may not have another day.”

Rebel Republicans – who see Paulson’s proposals as socialism by the back door – were warned they will be responsible for causing an “amazing catastrophe” if they continue to oppose the plans, which would see taxpayers buy up the bad debts of failing banks.  Instead they want an insurance scheme for banks, which would spread the cost to private enterprise.

Would it be that insurers could ensure, people will not do as they have done and ignore all cautions.  In the past, professors preached, “Remember the Alamo,”  Today, teachers beckon, “Recall the demise of American International Group (AIG),” an insurance company who fell only a week ago.

A person considered a prominent and extremely prosperous investor attempted to teach the world of what no one wished to see.  Early in May 2008, Entrepreneur, Berkshire Hathaway Chairman, Warren Buffett warned us the winds from the warm blaze would scorch all life on the planet today.  He said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, we are in for a “long, deep recession,” “Perhaps not in the sense that economists would define it.  But the people are already feeling the effects.  It will be deeper and last longer than many think.”  

Sadly, Few heard him.  People were off shopping.  Most paid for purchases with fire.  Sales, while robust, were often transactions that led to greater debt.  For decades now, people have preferred to buy now and pay later.  Only now do Americans experience an economic pinch.

Awestruck by the economic wreckage, people ask why.  Why me?  Why now; and a few astute monetary masters say, “Why not?”  Economists wonder why is it that humans do not learn from history.  People look back after they are burned.  The question might not be what caused the fire or the frenzy.  That answer is easily found.  Humans, flawed and filled with the foible of avarice wish to accumulate what they cannot afford.  Perchance, the query could be, who or how often will people pursue a bailout?  When will debt not be an option and when will humans guard against avariciousness?

References for Fiscal Resources . . .

It’s the war economy, stupids




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copyright © 2008.  Andrew Wahl.  Off The Wahl Perspective.

I understand that deregulation, greed, and mismanagement are major factors in the current economic crisis.  But why are so few of the “experts” talking about a war, fought on credit, that’s already cost hundreds of billions – and that some believe will have a total economic impact of more than $3 TRILLION?  It’s insane.  This week’s toon, “Dollar Wise,” (Archive 0833) pokes at that question.

Till next week,

Andrew

toon@offthewahl.com

References . . .

The Reckoning; The Iraq War Will Cost Us $3 Trillion, and Much More,  By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz.  The Washington Post. Sunday, March 9, 2008; Page B01

Chaos in perspective




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copyright © 2008.  Andrew Wahl.  Off The Wahl Perspective.

It’s not the actual destruction that makes us fear terrorists, it’s the chaos they introduce into the system. So imagine what the rest of the world thinks of the “First-World Terrorist,” (Archive 0832) who, driven by a radical faith in greed, lays waste to financial markets and threatens prosperity everywhere. Too bad Bush and his cronies didn’t launch a preemptive strike against those bastards.

Till next week,

Andrew

toon@offthewahl.com

The Reality of Recession, Depression, Dollars, and No Sense

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copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert

He is ninety years young.  Born in 1918, Alexander recalls the Great Depression.  He understands why some thought the Bush Forty-One years were worse than the days after the crash in 1929, although no one ever admitted to that.  Now, near two decades later, denial of economic despair remains intact.  Alex wonders if only history paints a truer picture.  Possibly, when he was but a boy, people did not accept that the crash was the big one.  In retrospect do we realize . . . Alex wonders aloud; for in recent months, each evening he dreams of realities that were during what was defined as the most dramatic, worldwide economic downturn.

As an adult, perchance, life looks different.  Alex remembers back in the day of George Herbert Walker Bush the economy crawled.  Records showed an annual growth rate of a mere one percent (1%).  Unemployment steadily rose.  Homelessness was prevalent.  While Americans experienced an economic crisis, former President Bush remained resolute.  He promised to be fiscally prudent   Miser Bush’s commitment  to caution served colossal corporations and affluent stockholders well  Alexander, was among the latter.  He appreciated the cautious demeanor of a President dedicated to business.  For Alex and others invested in the market economy under Bush 41, life was good.  

Today, however, with Bush 43 in the White House, Alex worries.  He reads the newspaper, and realizes how unsettled he feels.  The current President declares the State of the Union is strong,  The stimulus package  has helped to fuel fiscal stability.  Americans need not fret.  Yet, Alexander does.  Words printed on a page in a noted periodical do not reassure this long time investor.  As a citizen, Alexander is not confident that all is well.  He believes a crisis is imminent.  In truth, Alex thinks America, is already immersed in a financial free fall.

This life-long investor sees the price of stocks plummet,  The Dow Jones Industrial Average slips daily.  Alex muses of how the current President tells him the economy is strong.  Alexander is no longer elated by a bump in returns.  Nor is he reassured when the President or his people tell the nation there is no inflation.  A quick glance at the front page of any day’s newspapers tells Alex we are already in a recession, or worse.

Woes Afflicting Mortgage Giants Raise Loan Rates, Losses Mount, and Airlines Plan Steeper Spending Cuts.  Mortgage Crisis Reverses Tide of Urban Renewal.  Yet, none disturbed  Alex, or perhaps made more sense to him than the article that appeared on July 23, 2008, Bank Investors Redefine Bad News.

Can the bad news for banks get any worse?

After the last week brought another round of woeful quarterly results from the industry, capped by news on Tuesday of multibillion-dollar losses at the Wachovia Corporation and Washington Mutual, that question is nagging banking executives and their investors.

Kenneth D. Lewis, the chief executive of Bank of America, insisted this week that the industry was turning the corner, after his company reported a mere 41 percent drop in profit.  Many investors seem to see signs of hope in red ink that once would have shocked them.

Alexander sighed.  He thought of how, terms are given new meaning,  Money lost can be considered a gain.  Alex marveled.  As a shareholder, the frequent depositor is well aware of how psychology moves a market.  He also comprehends the role of reverse psychology.  Nonetheless, when a deficit, huge, and unprecedented becomes a expansion, the way financial institutions use words seems ridiculous.

But it has now been a year since the credit crisis erupted, and, so far, the optimists have been proven wrong time and again.  Skeptics say it could take years for banks to recover from the worst financial crisis since the Depression.  And even when things do improve, the pessimists maintain, banks’ profits will be a fraction of what they were before.

There are many reasons for caution.  Home prices continue to decline, and defaults are accelerating on a wide range of loans.  As lenders struggle, loans are becoming even more scarce for hard-pressed consumers and companies.  That, in turn, could slow any recovery in the broader economy.

For now, at least, some investors seem to have become so inured to the bad news that results that would have once been viewed as disastrous are now seen as good, or even great.  The sober phrase often used on Wall Street to describe solid corporate results – “better than expected” – has been replaced by “not as bad as feared.”

Not as bad or indeed worse.  As Alex pondered the news in the paper, as he assessed his own portfolio, the reveries flowed as a quickly as water in a river might.  Thoughts of his youth flash through his mind.  Alexander could not forget the bank crashes, the limited amounts of cash on hand, the confusion, and all the troubles a lack of currency caused.  One phrase from today’s paper rolled around in his head.

“We are resetting expectations for bank profitability, and we are re-exploring what our expectations should be going forward,” said Christopher Whalen, managing partner of Institutional Risk Analytics.  “We are redefining bad.”

Still and reflective, Alexander contemplated what he thought awful as a child.  Once prominent professionals, are now beggars on the street.  Factory doors bolted shut.  Suicides, or talk of hopelessness, and helplessness, in a society once gleeful have become normal.  Alex reflected on the realization he had in his youth.  He understood the more things change the more they stay the same.  

When Alex was a young man, people believed, in America, the avenues were paved in gold.  They were not.  Filth filled each boulevard.  Today, in the land of milk, honey, and opportunity, the same is true.  Roads are riddled with words that paint a picture of prosperity.  Yet, on Wall Street and Main Street, in 2008, people suffer.  The public is economically and perhaps emotionally down in the dumps and dejected.  Financially people are low on funds; feelings are lower.  Citizens in this “affluent” country have few real resources.  Indeed, recent reports state, Most Americans will outlive savings. Alexander knows this to be true.  He has watched as many of his friends turned from prosperous to paupers.  This ninety-year young man, with his pulse on the market muses.  The people are as the economy and still no one is willing to say we are beyond a Recession; we are in a Depression.

Sources for Documentation on Dollars and No Sense . . .