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Posts Tagged ‘Housing’

Joe Nocera has a must-read story in the New York Times about how the legal fallout from the financial crisis. His basic theme is that the government let all the bigwigs get away with their crimes, but then has a fascinating discussion about how the government targeted an inconsequential mortgage borrower.

I’m not sure I accept the first part of his premise. There were lots of sleazy people taking advantage of the perverse system created by bad government policy, but I would like to see some clear evidence of actual crimes before hopping on that bandwagon. Selling mortgage-backed securities filled with crummy home loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may have been immoral, for instance (at least from a libertarian perspective), but I’m not aware that it is against the law to make choices that hurt the economy – particularly when government policy is designed to reward such stupidity.

That being said, I do wonder why there haven’t been any bribery prosecutions of the politicians who got sweetheart loans as part of the “Friends of Angelo” scheme. Actually, I don’t wonder why politicians such as Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad got a free ride. Politicians operate by the principle that law are only for the little people. Nonetheless, these are examples of real laws being violated.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this post is to show how the government decided to go through great effort and expense to nail someone who, at most, was willing to go along with the government-subsidized and government-created housing scam.

Here are the sordid details.

A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecuteAngelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis.

…There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble.

…Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?

No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.

…It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome about his prosecution. It is also the way the government went about building its case.

…Even the jurors seemed confused about how to think about Mr. Engle’s supposed crime. When it came time to pronounce a verdict, the jury found him not guilty of providing false information to the bank, which would seem to be the only fraud he could possibly have committed. Yet it still found him guilty of mortgage fraud. “I think the prosecution convinced the jury that I was guilty of something but they weren’t sure what,” Mr. Engle wrote in an e-mail.

…Even when he emerges from prison, though, his ordeal will not be over. As part of his sentence, Mr. Engle was ordered to pay $262,500 in restitution to the owner of his mortgages. And what institution might that be? You guessed it: Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America. Angelo Mozilo ought to get a good chuckle out of that one.

Later today, by the way, I’ll post about the IRS’s disgusting role in this story.

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Very few things that happen in Washington are legitimate functions of the federal government. I’ve already posted about the need to dismantle the Department of Transportation and send it back to the states, but some things  shouldn’t even be handled by state and local governments. Housing is a perfect example. There should be no role for government in building or subsidizing housing, period.

But I’ll be happy if we can simply get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. This $53 billion turkey should be the top target for GOP reformers.

Fealty to the Constitution should be the only reason lawmakers need to abolish HUD, but if they’re looking for some tangible examples of how the Department squanders money, J.P. Freire of the Washington Examiner opines on the issue, citing some devastating findings in a report from the Center for Public Integrity.

In the more than 3,000 public housing agencies nationwide funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and particularly inside the 172 that HUD considers the most troubled, ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity found a struggle to combat theft, corruption, and mismanagement. According to the report, one official embezzled $900,000 and bought a mansion. Other funds went to support sex workers. In other words, this is a perfect illustration of why recommending cuts to such assistance programs is not heartless but actually wise — waste is rampant:

The problems are widespread, from an executive in New Orleans convicted of embezzling more than $900,000 in housing money around the time he bought a lavish Florida mansion to federal funds wrongly being spent to provide housing for sex offenders or to pay vouchers to residents long since dead. Despite red flags from its own internal watchdog, HUD has continued to plow fresh federal dollars into these troubled agencies, including $218 million in stimulus funds since 2009, the joint investigation found.

These are horrific examples of government waste, and they are tailor-made for soundbites and blog posts, but waste, fraud, and corruption are not the real issues. HUD should be abolished even if every penny of the budget could be accounted for. If Republicans can’t get rid of HUD, voters should get rid of Republicans.

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Considering they could have sat on their hands and relied on unhappy voters to give them big gains in November, I’m not too unhappy about the House GOP’s “Pledge to America.” Yes, it’s mostly filled with inoffensive motherhood-and-apple-pie language, but at least there’s some rhetoric about reining in excessive government. After eight years of fiscal profligacy under Bush, maybe this is a small sign that Republicans won’t screw up again if they wind up back in power.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed that the GOP couldn’t even muster the courage to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two corrupt government-created entities that bear so much responsibility for the housing mess and subsequent financial crisis. The best the GOP could do was to say “Since taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that triggered the financial meltdown by giving too many high risk loans to people who couldn’t afford them, taxpayers were billed more than $145 billion to save the two companies. We will reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by ending their government takeover, shrinking their portfolios, and establishing minimum capital standards.” Is it really asking too much for Republicans to simply say “The federal government has no role in housing and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated.” Heck, the GOP’s Pledge doesn’t even mention a penny’s worth of budget cuts for HUD.

Here’s an excerpt from Peter Wallison’s Bloomberg column, which explains why Fannie and Freddie should be decapitated.

In a year when angry voters are demanding a reduced government role in the economy, it is remarkable that most of the ideas for supplanting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just imaginative ways of keeping government in the business of housing finance.

…This is pretty astonishing. One would think that something might have been learned from the recent past, when two New Deal ideas for government housing support–the savings and loan industry and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–failed spectacularly. It cost taxpayers $150 billion to clean up the first and may cost more than $400 billion to resolve the second.

…[G]overnment policy that deliberately degrades loan quality or creates moral hazard will eventually cause devastation in the housing market.

…Government involvement in housing finance is an invitation to disaster. As illustrated by the S&Ls and GSEs, no matter how such a system is structured, government support will hide the real risks.

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George Melloan’s column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There’s something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington.

The federal government’s “affordable housing” endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock.

The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren’t. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries.

Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers.

…The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn’t generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn’t prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn’t prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.

P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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I appeared on CNBC earlier today to explain why a stake should be driven through the heart of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. My debate opponents seems to be somewhat on the right side and admits that Fannie and Freddie are bad news, but inexplicably wants to keep them alive.

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John Stossel appropriately scolds the former Federal Reserve Chairman for blaming the financial crisis on the free market. I’ll go one step farther and say that Greenspan’s behavior is a reprehensible example of someone lacking the cojones to take responsibility for his mistakes. Greenspan is surely not responsible for the corrupt system of subsidies from the government-created nightmares known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the Fed’s easy-money policy of artificially-low interest rates. Greenspan presumably knows he screwed up, which makes his attack on free markets especially despicable. The icing on the cake is that he’s also sucking up to the political establishment by endorsing higher taxes. Hasn’t he already done enough damage?

I’m getting tired of Alan Greenspan. First, the former Federal Reserve chairman blamed an allegedly unregulated free market for the housing and financial debacle. Now he favors repealing the Bush-era tax cuts.

…During a congressional hearing two years ago, Greenspan shocked me by blaming the free market — not Fed and housing policies — for the financial collapse. As The New York Times gleefully reported, “(A) humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets.”

He said he favored regulation of big banks, as if the banking industry weren’t already a heavily regulated cartel run for the benefit of bankers. Bush-era deregulation is a myth perpetrated by those who would have government control the economy.

We libertarians were distressed by Greenspan’s apparent abandonment of his free-market philosophy and his neglect of the government’s decisive role in the crisis.

…now Greenspan, going beyond what even President Obama favors, calls on Congress to let the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire — not just for upper-income people but for everyone.

…the stupidest thing said about tax cuts is the often-repeated claim that “they ought to be paid for.” How absurd! Tax cuts merely let people keep money they rightfully own. It’s government programs, not tax cuts, that must be paid for. The tax-hungry politicians’ demand that cuts be “paid for” implies the federal budget isn’t $3 trillion, but $15 trillion — the whole GDP — with anything mercifully left in our pockets being some form of government spending. How monstrous!

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Whether we’re looking at TARP bailouts, Obamacare, or tax loopholes, a common theme is that politicians implement a policy by arguing they want to help the less fortunate. When the dust settles, however, it is often the case that politically well-connected rich people are the big beneficiaries. The overall economy tends to be weaker, meanwhile, and the specific sector suffers because of resource misallocation, so poor people actually fall farther behind. A good example is rent control. The Wall Street Journal has an editorial citing the case of Bianca Jagger to illustrate how the law has become a giant rip-off that deprives landlords of their property rights while lining the pockets of the elite. Those lower on the income scale, by contrast, suffer because of a housing market crippled by government intervention.

Jetsetter and social activist Bianca Jagger has lost her legal bid to keep her knock-down-price rental at 530 Park Avenue.

A New York state judge last week ordered Mick’s ex to pay $708,600 in back rent and other fines to her landlords. Ms. Jagger spent nearly 20 years in the two bedroom apartment—rent-stabilized at $4,600 a month. But then she complained about poor upkeep. The landlords in turn noted that Ms. Jagger, in the U.S. on a tourist visa, shouldn’t pay the lower rent since New York isn’t her “primary residence,” one of the criteria under rent control laws.

A state appeals court sided with them in 2008 and last week another court upheld the decision and said she could be evicted. As part of the fine, the judge ruled that Ms. Jagger owes $246,468 for the “fair market use and occupancy” over the years she was in dispute with the landlords. They said the apartment would have gone on the open market for $8,800 a month.

The case sums up the insanity of regulating prices in one of the world’s most competitive and dynamic real estate markets. Rent control, a “temporary” World War II-era measure that survives into this century, creates housing shortages, drives up prices for non-rent control real estate and contributes to middle class flight. As Ms. Jagger perhaps found out with her moldy apartment, artificially keeping down rents gives landlords the rational financial incentive to skimp on upkeep.

Worse than that, rent control disproportionately subsidizes the affluent. A Harvard University study in the late 1980s found that rent-controlled apartments were in some of the cities best neighborhoods, that 94% of its tenants were white and roughly three-quarters were families without children.

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