Saturday, December 20, 2008

NY Times: Ideologues Aided Mortgage Crisis

by Bill McBride on 12/20/2008 06:23:00 PM

From the NY Times: White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire

The global financial system was teetering on the edge of collapse when President Bush and his economics team huddled in the Roosevelt Room of the White House for a briefing that, in the words of one participant, “scared the hell out of everybody.”
...
Mr. Bush, according to several people in the room, paused for a single, stunned moment to take it all in.

“How,” he wondered aloud, “did we get here?”
This article makes some interesting points, but misses some of the key causes of the crisis. As an example then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan isn't even mentioned in the article, and he was counseling Mr. Bush on reducing regulations.

The article incorrectly focuses on minority ownership and Fannie and Freddie (a small role in the crisis) and barely touches on Wall Street - and completely ignores the securitization process (a major enabler to the crisis). But there are some interesting quotes:
"There is no question we did not recognize the severity of the problems,” said Al Hubbard, Mr. Bush’s former chief economics adviser, who left the White House in December 2007. “Had we, we would have attacked them.”

Looking back, Keith B. Hennessey, Mr. Bush’s current chief economics adviser, says he and his colleagues did the best they could “with the information we had at the time.” But Mr. Hennessey did say he regretted that the administration did not pay more heed to the dangers of easy lending practices. And both Mr. Paulson and his predecessor, John W. Snow, say the housing push went too far.

“The Bush administration took a lot of pride that homeownership had reached historic highs,” Mr. Snow said in an interview. “But what we forgot in the process was that it has to be done in the context of people being able to afford their house. We now realize there was a high cost.”
I'd like to see a mea culpa from Greg Mankiw and few others too.

Even this story is from early 2007 when the crisis should have been obvious to everyone:
Jason Thomas had a nagging feeling.

The New Century Financial Corporation, a huge subprime lender whose mortgages were bundled into securities sold around the world, was headed for bankruptcy in March 2007. Mr. Thomas, an economic analyst for President Bush, was responsible for determining whether it was a hint of things to come.

At 29, Mr. Thomas had followed a fast-track career path that took him from a Buffalo meatpacking plant, where he worked as a statistician, to the White House. He was seen as a whiz kid, “a brilliant guy,” his former boss, Mr. Hubbard, says.

As Mr. Thomas began digging into New Century’s failure that spring, he became fixated on a particular statistic, the rent-to-own ratio.

Typically, as home prices increase, rental costs rise proportionally. But Mr. Thomas sent charts to top White House and Treasury officials showing that the monthly cost of owning far outpaced the cost to rent. To Mr. Thomas, it was a sign that housing prices were wildly inflated and bound to plunge, a condition that could set off a foreclosure crisis as conventional and subprime borrowers with little equity found they owed more than their houses were worth.

It was not the Bush team’s first warning. The previous year, Mr. Lindsay, the former chief economics adviser, returned to the White House to tell his old colleagues that housing prices were headed for a crash. But housing values are hard to evaluate, and Mr. Lindsay had a reputation as a market pessimist, said Mr. Hubbard, adding, “I thought, ‘He’s always a bear.’ ”

In retrospect, Mr. Hubbard said, Mr. Lindsay was “absolutely right,” and Mr. Thomas’s charts “should have been a signal.”
Geesh - early 2007 - and one guy had a "nagging feeling"? Oh my ...

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