Peter Wallison on the Role of Government in Causing the Mortgage Crisis

In a recent post, I discussed how the Federal Housing Administration’s subsidization of dubious mortgage loans is repeating one of the key errors that helped cause the financial crisis of 2008. In this Wall Street Journal op ed, Peter Wallison (who presciently warned of the danger posed by these policies back in 2005) summarizes the evidence showing that the federal government played a decisive role in promoting the vast majority of the dubious mortgages involved in the mortgage crisis, which in turn helped cause the broader financial collapse:

When Fannie and Freddie were finally taken over by the government in 2008, more than 10 million subprime and other weak loans were either on their books or were in mortgage-backed securities they had guaranteed. An additional 4.5 million were guaranteed by the FHA and sold through Ginnie Mae before 2008, and a further 2.5 million loans were made under the rubric of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which required insured banks to provide mortgage credit to home buyers who were at or below 80% of median income. Thus, almost two-thirds of all the bad mortgages in our financial system, many of which are now defaulting at unprecedented rates, were bought by government agencies or required by government regulations.

Even some of the bad mortgages that were initiated by the private sector acting independently may have been influenced by Fannie and Freddie’s apparent willingness to purchase them at a later time should things go bad. Obviously, some private lenders and borrowers made mistakes of their own, and there were plenty of errors that cannot be blamed on the feds. However, absent the federal policy of promoting dubious mortgages and offering implicit government guarantees for them, the number of such mortgages would have been far smaller, and it is highly unlikely that a major crisis would have occurred.

I should note that the title of Wallison’s op ed “Barney Frank, Predatory Lender” is somewhat misleading. Frank did indeed play a key role in promoting policies under which government-backed firms issued and guaranteed dubious mortgages. But he was far from the only one. Members of Congress from both parties supported the same policy, as did the Bush Administration. It would be convenient if these policy errors could be blamed on a few individual villains, such as Frank or nefarious Wall Street executives. In reality, however, they arose from perverse systemic incentives of the kind I discussed in my last post on this subject.

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