Monday, October 13, 2008

The Crisis and The Narrative:
Who is to Blame for the Financial Collapse?

Recently, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I sat outside a tobacconist's in Saint Paul, smoking a really great cigar with my brother-in-law. (Okay, he's not my brother-in-law yet, but we all like him, so we're keeping our fingers crossed.)

We began discussing the state of the world, as one will do over a cigar, and, of course, the current financial crisis quickly became the focus of conversation. As I listened, I realized that my friend was making an argument that sounded familiar.

The current financial crisis, the argument goes, stems from pressure by the Government to extend loans to the disadvantaged through Freddie Mac and Franny Mae- even though these poor people were bad credit risks.

The argument was politely made and plausible. But it sounded familiar, and so I asked my friend to email the the article he was referencing. He sent me a well written piece from a columnist for the Boston Globe.

The more I read, the more I realized that I WAS listening to a line of thought I'd heard before- not so nicely expressed...from some of my right-wingnut email buddies. By the time the right-wing email machine gets done with it, however, it sounds a lot less pretty.

The way THEY put it, the argument goes like this: (My Friends,)Those Damn Democrats FORCED the financial industry to abandon their usual caution, prudence and good sense by TWISTING THEIR ARMS and making them loan money to MINORITIES who didn't have a pot to piss in and couldn't pay back a loan if their lives depended on it. (My Friends)- this started under BILL CLINTON (gasp!) And, (My Friends), although the Bush White House protested that it was time to reign this in, those DAMN DEMOCRATS kept ARM twisting and forcing the money into the hands of these bad risks. And the leader, of course, of all of this was...(gasp) BARNEY FRANK! (My Friends, did you know that Frank is....GAY?!...and that he's from (gasp) MASSACHUSETTS?)

Fortunately, if we just elect John McCain and his "Mavericky" side-kick Sarah Palin (just a couple of Mavericky ole Mavricks Mavrickin' along, doncha know?)- they will get this Government Interference off our backs so we can go back to some semblance of honesty and integrity.

Okay, without even marshaling further evidence- this argument just DOESN'T wash with me. Here's why:

Congress (bad Ole Congress) was controlled by man-eating Republicans from 1995 until 2007. During most of his Presidency, George W. Bush (a Republican) worked alongside a Congress of Republicans with a Federal Reserve Board chaired by Allan Greenspan- a life-long Republican who was first appointed by Ronald Reagan...a, you guessed it, Republican. I'm sorry, but you twist it as hard as you want...you just can't blame the Liberal Democrats and our coddled Minorities for this one...WE WERE NOT THERE- we'd been voted out of office and were sitting on the sidelines- we are cleared by circumstantial evidence.

The other thing that causes me to doubt this line of argument is that we've seen this before. Following 8 years of Reagan, the American people watched in horror as the Savings and Loan industry collapsed...taking the stock market and some $160 billion tax dollars in bailouts with it. It took the economy about five years to recover. The Savings and Loan Collapse happened under a Chief Executive (Ronald Reagan) who believed that "government was the problem"- and that to regulate the market was to strangle the market...left without police, the system collapsed into a free-for-all of greed that wreaked financial harm on many innocent Americans. The difference between then and now, is that this time the price tag is going to be several BILLIONS of Dollars higher.

And so, while Democrats are cleared by circumstantial evidence (we were either outnumbered or we weren't in power at all during the time in question)- we can call the Republicans to account based on past history...the current crisis fits their previously known M.O.

So, in replying to my Right-Wingnut friends, I found a great article written by a columnist in Business Week. It's titled, pretty plainly: Frannie Mae and Freddie Mac were Victims, Not Culprits. And I recommend it to my "brother in law" and anyone else who has questions about the Republican Spin.

Here's a quote:
Start with the most basic fact of all: virtually none of the $1.5 trillion of cratering subprime mortgages were backed by Fannie or Freddie. That’s right — most subprime mortgages did not meet Fannie or Freddie’s strict lending standards. All those no money down, no interest for a year, low teaser rate loans? All the loans made without checking a borrower’s income or employment history? All made in the private sector, without any support from Fannie and Freddie.

The author goes on to summerize the findings of a study (released back in March, before the hoopla started)by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He writes:

The study identifies five causes of the subprime meltdown:
-Convoluted loan products that consumers didn’t understand.
-Credit ratings that didn’t do a good job highlighting the risks contained in subprime-backed securities.
-Lack of incentives for institutional investors to do their own research (they just relied on the credit ratings).
-Predatory lending and borrowing (which I think means fraud perpetrated by borrowers).
-Significant errors in the models used by credit rating agencies to assess subprime-backed securities.

You’ll note in the Fed’s five causes that there’s some culpability for lenders, borrowers, investors and credit raters. There’s no blame for Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae which had little or nothing to do with the entire situation.

In the end, my feeling is this: Whenever you hear a Republican start complaining about Barney Frank, Bill Clinon, or Massachusetts- you'd better pull out your boots and put 'em on...because whatever line they start spewing next isn't going to be the truth, is going to be deep, and won't smell very pretty at all.

1 comment:

Kate said...

great post! predatory lending by the way, is not a finger pointed at the borrower, but at the lender. the practice of my credit card company to happily send me checks two or three times a month with the maximum amount of my available credit filled in for me, calling it "my money", i consider predatory lending. but i suppose there's a whole gamut of fine print, interest rate games, etc. that this term applies to.

the other point i get from your post is that the parties concern themselves with finger pointing, when what matters is whether anyone in leadership is actually learning from mistakes. we've clearly got some repeats here...