Thursday, November 13, 2008

What’s the root cause of the sub-prime and credit debacle?

In the present housing and credit market problem sets, there has been limited commentary about the root causes and in my view over half of it has been completely distorted. The problem’s root cause is a market distortion caused by the government encouraging the residential real estate industry to get a higher percentage of Americans into home ownership. I recall reading about President Carter’s CRA and later about the ramp-up of this initiative in the 1990s. By 1996 this had resulted in President Clinton’s “National Partners in Homeownership” initiative, and a dramatic strengthening of the CRA.

How would this have worked if viewed from a market perspective? If the residential real estate market was generally at equilibrium before the government started this initiative, then who was there to find to increase the percentage of home ownership? Less credit-worthy borrowers was the only place to look. There was almost certainly not a meaningful percentage of Americans who could easily qualify to buy a house who had chosen instead to rent out of ignorance. The “secret” of the advantages of homeownership was pretty well out by the 1990’s. While financial education and increasing prosperity resulting in more homeownership are laudable goals, I lay root responsibility for the housing debacle on the government. And this is before any discussions of mortgage lending regulations and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and cross-incentives at work between those GSEs and members of Congress.

Others have pointed to Wall Street executives’ and firms’ greed as the root cause. They created the loan instruments and derivatives and sold them. Also blamed are the bankers and brokers who originated the loans. Certainly there was some greed and some money made. But before you can conclude that these parties were the root cause, you must first ask yourself: Are bankers idiots? They most certainly are not. They may not be into charity, but they're not idiots. In undistorted markets they act with meticulously calculated self-interest. They make their profits in a world enumerated in Basis Points, which are 1/100th (one-one-hundredth) of a percent. So you must ask, what made them start making loans that were idiotic by banker's historical credit standards? And the answer is the incentives and controls in the CRA ratings. And, as has been explored elsewhere, no less than four regulating agencies provided the teeth and force that backed up the CRA and its bank rating system.

As the finger-pointing continues over our present problems there are plenty of parties to take the blame. The mortgage industry got creative and sold loans to people who shouldn’t have taken them. Home builders make money by building and selling homes, and were happy to fuel the boom. Realtors and real estate commentators fed the frenzy. Buyers can be excused for financial ignorance only so far. The housing market expansion took on a life of its own. We couldn’t have expected a mortgage lender or broker to be happy reporting lower sales numbers in the middle of a boom, even when the supply of reasonable marginal borrowers was getting thin. But I return to the idea that the original instigation was a market distortion started by the government. The initiative to raise the percentage of American homeowners was good as a starting concept, but very harmful when it devolved into putting unqualified buyers into homes who couldn’t afford them in the long term. And we all can see that now.

Lastly, one thing that surprised, amused, and saddened me was the Democratic campaign’s success in painting Republicans and free-market advocates as the root cause of the debacle. If I had run the Democratic campaign, I’d have pursued the same strategy. But if I had run the Republican campaign, I’d have not let that one go. I’d have made a tremendous amount of noise about the history and issues as they are laid out here. I was surprised to hear John McCain attack Wall Street over the issue instead.

Please read my first post below. That's where I lay out the basic free-market vs. Socialism logic.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why the "Old Fashioned" Title

This blog's title is as it is half as a joke, and half with serious intent. I recall the famous old Smith Barney ad, in which John Houseman says "“We make money the old-fashioned way. We EARN it.” I thought that was so cool the title just wrote itself. That ad was broadcast so long ago it will probably be very obscure to almost anyone under 40. But hey, I remember it like yesterday.

The point of the ad was that Smith Barney was rooted in the basics, and wasn't going in for all the swingin' financial engineering that was taking customers' money and getting people into trouble. And that was before anyone had heard of the fancy financial instruments that are causing so much trouble now.

The serious side is trying to make the point that the fundamentals of economics and Capitalism may seem old fashioned, but in fact they apply just as well today as ever. It occurred to me after I published that "Old Fashioned" must seem doubly quaint when the winning campaign was dressed in the cloak of newness and change.

I do not believe that anything really new has been proposed. This term will likely be a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same". If I'm correct those who remember Johnson's Great Society and Carter's malaise will be drawing comparisons. Those who can remember the Great Depression as adults are getting fewer. But we can all hope that as Chairman Bernanke compares the statistics the coming period won't too closely resemble it.

I must be in a bit of a dour mood today. Here's some positive spin. Today I remembered again that a few short weeks ago we were looking squarely into the eyes of a meltdown of the world financial system and possible return to the financial stone age - as least from the perspective of the global economy. Today we're only discussing the length and depth of the recession. How's that for positive?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Congratulations on Election Victory

It's Thursday and I'm pretty much done crying in my beer about Barack Obama and his team winning the election. I congratulate Mr. Obama and his campaign people. It's clear they ran an effective and organized campaign. If they are as smart in running the executive branch and dealing with the Congress everything will be OK. And that's even from a markets and Capitalism point of view.

It seems to me the election winners would have been the same even if none of the rumored irregularities around the edges with with ACORN and anonymous illegal campaign contributions turn out to be true. But we will only know about this in time, after the research is done, any court cases are settled, and the books come out chronicling the campaigns.

We will also see how deep runs the international affection for President-Elect Obama. He gets his first Presidential level security briefing today. I said to someone before the election that getting that first briefing would probably be an opinion-changing experience for most people. I'll be watching for any changes in what President-Elect Obama has to say about the international scene.