Weekly Audit: Save Affordable Housing, Help Revive America’s Middle Class

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Over the past decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac transformed themselves into some of the worst-run companies in recent history. But contrary to current talking points, the firms’ failings had almost nothing to do with their programs for low-income borrowers. As policymakers debate what should be done with the mortgage giants, a battle is now beginning in which the very availability of affordable housing for the middle class may be at stake.

A history of affordable housing

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, before the U.S. government created Fannie Mae in 1938, mortgages were very pricey 5-year loans, so expensive that only very wealthy Americans could ever hope to own a home. Fannie Mae changed all that by rolling out the 30-year mortgage, which lowered monthly payments for borrowers by providing a government guarantee against losses for banks. It worked.

But as Fernholz notes, without some kind of government involvement in the housing market, home ownership will revert to its pre-Depression status a privilege reserved for elites. Policymakers will have to implement significant changes in the mortgage finance system to ensure stability in the U.S. housing market, but whatever changes may come, a robust role for the government in housing will be essential.

Fannie and Freddie have been justifiably but inaccurately maligned in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. In recent years, their executives ran the firms like out-of-control hedge funds, lobbied Congress like arrogant Wall Street banks and did nothing beyond the bare minimum required by law to help low-income borrowers. But Fannie and Freddie did not go headlong into subprime mortgages—the primary source of their losses came from loans to relatively high-quality borrowers.

The terrible mortgages that crashed the economy were issued by banking conglomerates and Wall Street megabanks—Fannie and Freddie were almost entirely divorced from that line of business. The problem with Fannie and Freddie was largely structural– investors and managers saw the potential for big profits from taking on loads of risk, but believed (accurately) that the government would eat losses if those risks backfired. So Fannie and Freddie ramped up risk, taking on as many mortgages as they could while keeping as little money as possible on hand to cushion against losses. Eventually the strategy destroyed them.

Fixing the mortgage system

Exactly how the government stays involved in the mortgage market is still open to debate, as Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent. Nearly every member of the private sector who testified at a recent housing forum sponsored by the Treasury Department endorsed some kind of government backing for the housing market. This was a meeting of private-sector bigwigs—no community groups or affordable housing advocates were invited to speak at the meeting. Proposals ranged from scaling back government support for some types of mortgages, to the full nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Fannie was a nationalized entity for the first 30 years of its existence).

In other words, the government is going to have to keep subsidizing housing, but it will have to find new ways to do it. The old Fannie and Freddie model didn’t work, but the private sector will be unable to get the job done by itself. Private-sector banks and mortgage brokers, after all, were the source of all the predatory loans issued during the subprime crisis, and the source of all of the most offensive loans that drove the economy off a cliff.

Inefficient and often predatory players on Wall Street are still causing problems today. As Ellen Brown highlights for Yes! Magazine, the mortgage system is so bizarre that banks are finding themselves unable to document their right to foreclose on properties—and courts are (fortunately) refusing to let them do it.

It’s a rare situation in which borrowers may actually hold the higher legal ground against powerful corporations. About 62 mortgages are registered through an electronic documentation system called the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which helps banks with the foreclosure process. But MERS has repeatedly been unable to show proper documentation assigning a mortgage to a specific bank, and courts are now challenging its right to foreclose on behalf of big banks.

That’s good news, Brown notes, because MERS’ shoddy documentation has made it very difficult for borrowers to figure out who actually owns their loan. If you don’t know who owns your mortgage, it’s impossible to modify it if you find yourself unable to pay it off.

As Shamus Cooke argues for Truthout, even successful innovations like the 30-year mortgage are beginning to look a little outdated in an era of heavy, chronic unemployment. Many people can no longer expect to be gainfully employed for three decades on end. If the government refuses to repair our damaged jobs infrastructure, even simply maintaining the status quo in housing could become impossible.

Deficit reduction is not a cure-all

That brings us to another favorite conservative bogeyman, the federal budget deficit. The deficit and jobs generally stand in direct opposition. Creating jobs costs money, and spending that money expands the deficit. Cutting the deficit, by contrast, means cutting support for jobs.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, conservative lawmakers are still harping on deficit reduction as a cure for everything that ills the nation, when the real solution to our problems is a serious jobs bill.

Even if the deficit were a huge problem, trying to cut important social services in the middle of a deep recession is not a good way to go about solving it. Drastic cuts to government spending in a recession result in lower tax returns for the government, which can often be self-defeating, especially in the face of expanding joblessness. The resulting push for deficit reduction—known in economic circles as an “austerity policy,” is better understood as the active pursuit of economic decline. As economist Robert Johnson notes in a New Deal 2.0 piece carried by AlterNet:

Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral.

The government has taken several dramatic steps to repair the nation’s financial system, but it has done almost nothing to help troubled borrowers and not nearly enough to create jobs. Some of this is due to misguided policies enacted by President Barack Obama, and much of it is due to cynical obstructionism. But we cannot repair the economy without fixing jobs and housing. Both are still in a full-blown crisis, and policymakers should feel an urgent need to deal with them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Want Economic Justice? Then it's Time to Act

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a financial reform package that includes a handful of important reforms, but it won’t fundamentally change the relationship between banks and society. Wall Street still has a vice grip on our economy, and lawmakers still find it very difficult to stand up to bigwig financiers.

The real fight for our economy will involve future legislative battles with bankers. Winning those battles will require sweeping action by engaged citizens. The good news is, critical progressive mobilization is already happening. Public outcry helped fuel the fire for Senate reform. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), has said that the Wall Street reform bill he pushed through the House last year would have been much stronger in today’s atmosphere of outspoken economic unrest.

Focus on the Fed

So what’s good about the bill the Senate just passed? As Annie Lowrey explains for The Washington Independent, the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs will finally be subjected to public scrutiny.

The Fed served as the U.S. government’s chief bailout engine during the crisis. It injected trillions of dollars into the banking system without any oversight. We still don’t know who got the vast majority of that money, or what collateral the Fed accepted in return. There are all sorts of potential scandals, ranging from sweetheart deals the Fed cut with hedge funds to the trillions of dollars in loans to megabanks with no strings attached.

Of particular interest are the “Maiden Lane vehicles”—programs the Fed devised to purchase or guarantee assets from Bear Stearns and AIG. These were explicit bailouts for individual firms. We know almost nothing about the Bear Stearns bailout, and what little we do know about the AIG bailout is unsavory to say the least— big bonuses for AIG’s employees, with little or no effort to limit the impact on taxpayers.

Reconciliation

There are still a handful of important fights as the House and Senate iron out the differences between their respective versions of the bill. As I emphasize for AlterNet, a host of major issues are still on the table, including consumer protection rules and fixing the derivatives casino. These changes could be gutted entirely or dramatically strengthened during negotiations between the House and Senate.

The final bill will not dramatically alter Wall Street. As Roger Bybee explains for In These Times, the Democratic leadership has been trying to both establish meaningful reforms and simultaneously maintain its campaign finance relationship with megabanks. Republicans have almost universally attempted to block any reform altogether.

Regulators will get a handful of important new tools, including the authority to shut down complex banks on the verge of collapse, the ability to monitor derivatives and a have new set of powers to protect consumers. That’s all good, but we’ll still be living with too-big-to-fail behemoth banks that engage in reckless trading and exploit consumers.

Engaging activists

That means that the real business of fixing the financial system is still to come. And, as Christopher Hayes emphasizes for The Nation, that business is not going to be accomplished without serious, organized progressive activists putting pressure on political leaders to act in the public interest, rather than the interests of the corporate class.

When the country suffered a trauma that massively discredited the establishment rulers, the Democratic Party became the establishment. And progressive groups in DC, under stern White House orders not to cause trouble (don’t show up at his door! he’s a donor! we might nominate him for something!), descended into what one organizer calls “grotesque transactionalism” . . . . If we’re going to get reform on the scale we need, bank lobbyists and members of Congress alike have to be confronted with the terrifying thought that the system from which they profit might just be run over—that 700 angry protesters might show up on their lawn.

As Hayes details, Bank of America lobbyist Gregory Baer woke up last Sunday with exactly that– 700 protesters in his front yard. That kind of pressure gets results. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal financial reforms. Earlier in the 20th Century, it took more than a decade for public opinion to align itself with the corporate crackdowns pushed by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s reasonable to expect the fight for fair finance to take more than two years, and important to fight hard for it.

The minimum reforms are already clear. Essentially, we need to bring banking back to the model that persisted from the 1930s into the 1980s—an era with no serious financial crises or bailouts. Our current financial woes stem from the systematic dismantling and deregulation of this system over the past 30 years.

State-run banks?

But we also need to learn from more recent economic experiments. As Ellen Brown notes for Yes! Magazine, the state of North Dakota has been largely insulated from much of the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008. Part of the reason for the state’s relative stability lies in the fact that it operates its own bank.

North Dakota’s direct supervision of one institution among the hundreds of banks that operate in the state has helped insulate it from the credit storm on Wall Street. The state has its own engine of credit, and can keep funds flowing to businesses that need it, even in the middle of a crisis.

The prospect of state-run banking may seem radical, but it isn’t. It’s a practical proposal based on the established, real-life success of the Bank of North Dakota. As Brown notes, five other states have legislation pending that would create their very own banks—Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Illinois and Michigan, while Hawaii recently approved a study to determine the usefulness of a bank run by that state.

The financial reform bill the Senate just passed was a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not going to get there without a committed community of progressive activists who demand that the economy serve society, not only entrenched corporate interests.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Diaries

Advertise Blogads