Honest Barry? And Dueling Histories

From what I understand, there are two views about corruption in Illinois: one is that Barack Obama is the only honest politician in the state, and the other is that there are no honest politicians in the state. Today’s news of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for, among other things, trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat has to make you wonder how far U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s crusade against crime will be allowed to go.

The criminal complaint more-than-mentions Barry’s “real estate fairy” Tony Rezko (see complaint starting on page 11).

And a New York Times editorial rewrites the history of the Community Reinvestment Act as a racial quota program used to discriminate against, rather than in favor of, minorities:

The mortgage crisis that has placed millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes has been especially devastating for black and Hispanic borrowers and their families. It seems clear at this point that minorities were more likely than whites to be steered into risky, high-priced loans — even when researchers controlled for such crucial factors as income, loan size and location.

The Congress that takes office in January can start to deal with this problem by strengthening fair-lending laws, especially the Community Reinvestment Act, which encourages fair, sound lending practices while requiring banks to lend, invest and open branches in low- and moderate-income areas…

Harvey Golub, writing in a Wall Street Journal oped piece, provides correction:

…To begin to understand today’s problem, we have to have a sense of how we got there. Between 1994 and second quarter 2008, the U.S, housing stock more than doubled in value from $7.6 trillion to $19.4 trillion. Almost three quarters of that increase was due to a speculative bubble, the root cause of which was government policies designed to increase home ownership, largely among people who would be considered nonprime borrowers — i.e., people without sufficient documented income or employment history and little or no savings or credit history.

The intellectual start of this mess was in a flawed Boston Federal Reserve study published in 1992 that purported to show that minorities were treated less well than whites. That study led to increased political pressure on banks to modify their standards with increased emphasis through the Community Reinvestment Act, and aided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations in the Clinton administration that required parity of outcomes in the lending process.

The effect of all of this meddling was compounded by the lax or incompetent supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All in all, the government got into the business of encouraging and then forcing lending institutions to make mortgage loans to people who could not pay them back. What we ended up with is a failure of government, which we have erroneously termed a failure of capitalism.

The standards applied to these subprime loans began to be applied to what heretofore had been prime borrowers who also increasingly became overextended. But, as housing prices increased, owners cashed out their equity and bought cars, appliances and other items, including using the freed-up equity to pay for everyday living purchases. Over the past decade alone, U.S. households have taken on some $8 trillion in debt, bringing the nation’s current consumer debt load to $14 trillion.

This cynical and unsustainable cycle was abetted by mortgage originators who had little interest in making sure loans were good quality, investment banks that securitized and packaged these loans, rating agencies who forgot fundamental laws of gravity, and purchasers who bought securities they could not possibly understand. This was fueled by borrowers who committed fraud and bought houses, or speculated in them, when there was no realistic chance they could afford them.

All of this led to a huge overleveraging in the consumer market. The increase in debt burden fueled much of the nation’s economic growth over recent decades, aided somewhat by increases in productivity and underpinned by easy money from the Federal Reserve. Since consumers represent about 70% of the nation’s GNP, and since leverage cannot increase forever, we were bound to see the bubble burst and eventually enter a substantial recession… [All emphases mine]

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