Friday, January 28, 2011
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was impaneled to describe to Congress, the president and the American people what caused the financial crisis. What it produced was a story about the financial crisis, but not what caused the financial crisis.
Both the majority report by six Democratic appointees, and the dissent by three of the Republican members, acknowledged that the U.S. and world financial system were badly hurt by the collapse of a huge U.S housing bubble. The bubble’s collapse was destructive, everyone agrees, because banks and other financial institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere held large numbers of U.S mortgages — or securities backed by these mortgages — which lost most of their value when the bubble’s collapse drove down housing prices.
Left out of both the Democratic and Republican accounts was the vital fact that although many other countries also had housing bubbles, the number of mortgage defaults in the U.S. was many times higher than in any other country. This would suggest that the underlying cause of the financial crisis was the particular weakness of the mortgages in the U.S. financial system — the likelihood that they would default when the U.S. bubble deflated.
In my dissent, I point out that before the financial crisis began in 2008, half of all mortgages in the U.S. financial system — 27 million loans — were subprime or otherwise high risk. This was an unprecedented number and a far larger percentage than in any bubble in the past.
Why were so many U.S. mortgages so weak? Both the Democratic and Republican reports ignored this central question. The answer is that it was Housing and Urban Development’s policy, from 1992 to 2007, to reduce mortgage underwriting standards so that more people could buy homes. Home ownership rates rose. But in 2007 it all came apart.
Then the finger-pointing began — and continued in the two commission reports. But the government cannot escape the numbers. Just before the financial crisis, government agencies, or institutions under its control, held or had guaranteed more than two-thirds of the risky loans that brought the financial system down. If we don’t change these government policies, we won’t escape the next crisis.
Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow at AEI and a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.