Tag: Late-2000s financial crisis

Meet the New Standards, Same as the Old Standards

Well, knock me over with a feather:

The government is establishing new rules for mortgages that will make it harder for some borrowers to qualify but that are designed to prevent the kind of risky lending that nearly caused the housing market to collapse during the financial crisis.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Thursday will roll out the first of several far-reaching changes to the nation’s mortgage market, limiting upfront fees and curtailing practices such as interest-only payments that can leave homeowners stuck with unsustainable loans. The agency also will set standards for how much income a consumer must have to obtain a mortgage.

To obtain a qualified mortgage, a borrower cannot have a debt burden that amounts to more than 43 percent of income. That may make it more difficult for people with lower incomes to qualify. In real estate markets such as Washington, where prices are high, prospective buyers could run up against the cap as they stretch their finances to purchase homes.

In return for complying with the standards, a bank would be immune from most lawsuits. However, I’m sure that, if another collapse happens, the government will bail out the banks who don’t play by these rules as well.

Gee. It’s almost like someone realized that simply handing out sacks of money to anyone who walks in the door isn’t such a hot idea! After years of pushing banks to lend, lend, lend, the government is finally asking them to do what they should be doing anyway.

The pressure on banks to make stupid loans in the last decade were simply enormous. You had the CRA, the implicit guarantee of Fannie Freddie and the enormous pressure from the CDS and CDO markets to produce more tradable mortgages and damn the fundamentals. You then had a bailout which took only the downside risk of bad lending practices.

So having thrown all their weight — through CRA, Fannie/Freddie and bailouts — toward encouraging banks to make riskier and riskier loans, the Feds are now stepping in and saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t make risky loans! Ha-ha! Glad we finally reigned in you capitalist idiots. Why if it weren’t for us, you’d forget to lock your vaults at night.”

Here’s a prediction: these standards will pass. And in a few years, the government will start pressuring banks to make risky loans again. They will do this because securities brokers have lobbyists too. They will do this to promote home ownership, even among those who can’t afford homes. They will do this for “fairness”. But whatever the excuse and whichever party is in power, they will do it.

Because the mantra of the Nanny State always holds: whatever is not forbidden is mandatory. And preferably both.

The Bailouts and the Risk

It’s Bank Bash time again here at RTFLC. Presented for your consideration: the Atlantic’s expose on how tenuous the banks hold on sanity really is:

The financial crisis had many causes—too much borrowing, foolish investments, misguided regulation—but at its core, the panic resulted from a lack of transparency. The reason no one wanted to lend to or trade with the banks during the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, was that no one could understand the banks’ risks. It was impossible to tell, from looking at a particular bank’s disclosures, whether it might suddenly implode.

Note that they are talking specifically about the banking crisis, not the mortgage crisis that precipitated it. That’s another issue entirely.

For the past four years, the nation’s political leaders and bankers have made enormous—in some cases unprecedented—efforts to save the financial industry, clean up the banks, and reform regulation in order to restore trust and confidence in the American financial system. This hasn’t worked. Banks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to behave in many of the same ways they did before the crash.

It’s a very long read, but worth it. The go through the recent LIBOR and JP Morgan scandals and points out just how deceitful and opaque the banks have been on these subjects. The note how hesistant investors and the public are of investing in banks or entrusting their money to banks. They go through the books at Wells Fargo and discover just how opaque their investments are. In most cases, the value of trillions of dollars in assets is a guess. At best.

The solution they point to is not more Dodd-Frank or Sarbanes-Oxley complexity. No, it’s straight-forward disclosure to investors and to the general public who have, through TARP and the Federal Reserve, become the ultimate fiscal backstop:

The starting point for any solution to the recurring problems with banks is to rebuild the twin pillars of regulation that Congress built in 1933 and 1934, in the aftermath of the 1929 crash. First, there must be a straightforward standard of disclosure for Wells Fargo and its banking brethren to follow: describe risks in commonsense terms that an investor can understand. Second, there must be a real risk of punishment for bank executives who mislead investors, or otherwise perpetrate fraud and abuse.

These two pillars don’t require heavy-handed regulation. The straightforward disclosure regime that prevailed for decades starting in the 1930s didn’t require extensive legal rules. Nor did vigorous prosecution of financial crime.

Since [the 1980’s], however, the rules have proliferated, the arguments about compliance have become ever more technical, and the punishments have been minor and rare. Not a single senior banker from a major firm has gone to prison for conduct related to the 2008 financial crisis; few even paid fines. The penalties paid by banks are paltry compared with their profits and bonus pools. The cost-benefit analysis of such a system tilts in favor of recklessness, in large part because of the complex web of regulation: bankers can argue that they comply with the letter of the law, even when they violate its spirit.

The Basel I agreement was 18 pages long. Basel III is 616 pages long. And the current financial disclosure agreements can mean thousands of columns of numbers. Dodd-Frank may be end up being 30,000 pages long. Does that sounds like a transparent banking system to you?

Our government, of course, loves this situation because it means they can employ lots of regulators and gets lots of lobbyists genuflecting to them. But the result is that banks that don’t even know how much money they have.

This isn’t a fix. This is a system that employees zillions of regulators and lobbyists while our banking system becomes more complex, more opaque and more vulnerable. It makes bankers rich and unaccountable while leaving the taxpayers holding a bag that might be trillions of dollars deep.

And we really shouldn’t be surprised that this situation has only gotten worse under supposed communist Barack Obama. Matt Taibbi also has an article out detailing some of the chicanery behind TARP, particularly the way the Obama administration retasked it, lied about the use of TARP, lied about the health of the banks and allowed them to find ways to pay out gigantic bonuses despite the provisions that supposedly prevented it. He eventually reaches an identical conclusion: TARP has created a banking system that is more centralized, more complex and more at risk than ever before.

It’s not just the politicians, of course. What jumps out at you from the Taibbi article is the overweening sense of entitlement that emanates from the big banks: a sense of entitlement so profound, AIG (not a bank but it pretends to be one) is considering suing the government that loaned it $180 billion because its stock crashed.

(The Rolling Stone Article is a tough read because of Matt Taibbi’s famous bullshitedness. According to him, the only people who opposed TARP and stood in the way of this crony capitalist juggernaut were progressives. The battle over the bailouts is seen entirely in those terms. He completely ignores the deep conservative opposition to it. He says that TARP initially died because “95 democrats lined up against it” ignoring that 133 Republicans lined up against it too and that a majority of Republicans opposed in the eventual passage of the bill. Here’s the fucking roll call.)

We are not safer than we were five years ago. Our banking system is not more secure or more regulated. And, at some point, this is going to blow up on us.

John Huntsman was one of few in Election 2012 who tried to alert us to the danger we face. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson have also warned us about the danger of handing out large sacks of Federal Reserve funny money. But no one in power has picked it up. They’re too busy fighting each other over self-created crises like the fiscal cliff. And while they’re fighting over that cliff, we’re in danger of the whole fucking mountain falling out from under us.

This is being spun as an issue for “progressives” but it’s just as critical to conservatives and libertarians who value a sound banking system and straight-forward laws (also, you know, a functioning economy). We have to realize that this mess is bipartisan. Republicans may have opposed Dodd-Frank, but they haven’t exactly been proposing a new regime of better law. And Democrats may bash the big banks, but they take their campaign contributions and make sure no one knows what’s going on behind the doors.

No, it’s going to have to come from outside Washington, from the hundreds of millions of Americans who loaned the banks trillions and are still holding the bag four years later. I just fear that we won’t do anything about it until the next financial collapse plunges us into a dark age.

Banking On AIG

Hmmmm:

The U.S. Treasury’s sale of its remaining stake in American International Group Inc (AIG.N) will leave taxpayers with a profit of nearly $23 billion – more than the next three most successful bailouts combined.

The government’s profit on the deal is a turnabout from what was one of the most reviled bailouts of the financial crisis.

The 2008 rescue later spurred a senator to suggest top executives at the insurer consider suicide. The Government Accountability Office at one point suggested there was a real chance taxpayers would never be repaid in full.

Yet they were, with $22.7 billion in total returns, including the proceeds of the sale Treasury launched Monday night, AIG said. The government provided AIG with some $182 billion of support.

Before we start dancing in the streets, let’s clarify a few things. We’re still about $38 billion in the hole on TARP, most of the outstanding sums being those lent to the automakers. A lot of the AIG money was actually money paid to European banks that had CDS’s with AIG. Moreover, some losses are not being counted here. How much tax revenue did the government lose because of a stinky economy created by the bailout culture? How much money did we all lose because of that? If the bailouts hurt our economy, on net, to the tune of one tenth of one percent, that would easily wipe out any “profit” from TARP. You might still argue it was necessary as the lesser of two depressions, but let’s not pretend TARP made us all rich.

Most importantly, the money was never the big problem. The big problem was and remains the moral hazard. A big signal has been sent to the big banks that the United State government will bail them out of trouble. Do you think that’s going to cause them to invest more conservatively? And the big banks used that money to consolidate the banking industry, with the Big Five gaining more market share by using the loaned money to buy banks rather than fix the mortgage market. I don’t think it’s all that remarkable that banks managed to turn a profit with monopoly money loaned to them without restriction by the government.

The big risk? This time we are only (so far) out $38 billion. Next time it may be far far worse. And every time someone celebrates TARP “turning a profit”, they should be reminded of the precipice we have put our economy on. If we do end up turning a profit on TARP, it will be because of luck, not because it was good policy.

Our Shrinking Debt

This is good news:

U.S. debt has shrunk to a six-year low relative to the size of the economy as homeowners, cities and companies cut borrowing, undermining rating companies’ downgrading of the nation’s credit rating.

Total indebtedness including that of federal and state governments and consumers has fallen to 3.29 times gross domestic product, the least since 2006, from a peak of 3.59 four years ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Private- sector borrowing is down by $4 trillion to $40.2 trillion.

So how can this be with trillion dollar deficits? Well, the private sector and non-federal public sectors are unravelling a tremendous debt bubble that built up in the last decade. Consumer debt is down by $1.3 trillion. Short term corporate debt is down by 55% as well. This isn’t as good as corporations need to borrow to grow. But for that much debt to be unravelled without a complete economic catastrofuck or massive inflation is remarkable.

It’s also helping with the national debt. Because consumer debt is so far down, the treasury has the loan market pretty much to itself. So all our borrowing is coming at low prices, despite the S&P downgrade.

I expect things to change soon. With debt down to much more manageable levels, people will start borrowing again. And if we can get control of federal finances, that will make borrowing even cheaper for private interests. Four years ago, I said that our economy would not move until we’d unravelled the tremendous debt we’d built up. We’re on our way to doing that, thankfully.