Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Does Tim Geitner Read My Blog? Are Regulators to Blame for the Housing Crisis?

From a Washington Post interview over the weekend, via Calculated Risk:

Geithner: "For something this big and damaging to happen it takes a lot of mistakes over time. And it is that combination of things. Interest rate here and around the world were kept too low for too long. Investors made - took a bunch of risks without understanding the risks. They were betting on the expectation that house prices would continue to go up - to go up forever. Rating agencies failed to rate these products adequately. Supervisors failed to underwrite loans with sufficiently conservative standards. So those basic checks and balances failed. And people borrowed too much. It took all those things for it to happen."

From my March 21, 2009 post, “Whose Error Was the Housing Crisis?”:

Here are some errors which had to align to get to where we are today:

1) Borrowers took out loans they couldn’t afford

2) Lenders made loans to borrowers which the borrowers couldn’t afford

3) Ratings agencies rated securities comprised of these loans as safe

4) Security purchasers relied on the erroneous ratings and bought the securities

Any of these parties could have averted the crisis had they avoided their respective error.

Calculated Risk takes Geitner to task for not mentioning two other factors:

Although there were many factors in the housing and credit bubble, the two keys were: 1) rapid innovation in the mortgage industry (securitization, automated underwriting, rapidly expanded wholesale lending, etc), and 2) a complete lack of oversight by regulators. As the late William Seidman wrote in his memoir (published in 1993): "Instruct regulators to look for the newest fad in the industry and examine it with great care. The next mistake will be a new way to make a loan that will not be repaid."
Geithner failed to mention the rapid changes in lending and the failure of government oversight as the two critical causes of the bubble. Either Geithner misspoke or he still doesn't understand what happened - and that is deeply troubling.

Although “innovation” and the regulators were factors, they were by no means the key factors. I think the innovations CR refers to should be viewed more as tools than culprits (an NRA bumper sticker for bankers - “Automated Underwriting doesn’t Kill Lenders, Lenders Kill Lenders”). More on this topic at “Why Did WAMU Abandon Underwriting Standards?”

The role of regulators is more complex. Certainly if disclosures were improved or some practices were prohibited, some bad loans might not have been made or bought. However, the errors listed above are so basic and so self-destructive I question the ability of outside intervention to control the behavior.