Many blame Wall Street for the root causes of the real estate disaster of the last decade. Surely, Wall Street played a key role.
Yet many appear not to realize that good intentions were at least part of the root of the debacle. A desire to extend homeownership to many led to a dismantling of prudent lending practices. And our government - members of both parties - was behind this.
Politics—not shortsightedness or incompetent risk managers—drove Freddie Mac to eliminate its previous limits on no-doc lending. Commenting on what others referred to as the "push to do more affordable [lending] business," Senior Vice President Robert Tsien wrote to Dick Syron on July 14, 2004: "Tipping the scale in favor of no cap [on no-doc lending] at this time was the pragmatic consideration that, under the current circumstances, a cap would be interpreted by external critics as additional proof we are not really committed to affordable lending."
The decision by Fannie and Freddie to embrace no-doc lending in 2004 opened the floodgates of bad credit. In 2003, for example, total subprime and Alt-A mortgage originations were $395 billion. In 2004, they rose to $715 billion. By 2006, they were more than $1 trillion.
In a painstaking forensic analysis of the sources of increased mortgage risk during the 2000s, "The Failure of Models that Predict Failure," Uday Rajan of the University of Michigan, Amit Seru of the University of Chicago and Vikrant Vig of London Business School show that more than half of the mortgage losses that occurred in excess of the rosy forecasts of expected loss at the time of mortgage origination reflected the predictable consequences of low-doc and no-doc lending. In other words, if the mortgage-underwriting standards at Fannie and Freddie circa 2003 had remained in place, nothing like the magnitude of the subprime crisis would have occurred.
Taxpayer losses at Fannie and Freddie alone may exceed $300 billion. The costs of the financial collapse and recession brought on by the mortgage bust are immeasurably higher. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has perpetuated the low underwriting standards that gave us the crisis and encouraged the postponement of foreclosures by lending support to various states' efforts to sue originators for robo-signing violations.