Tag Archives: Subprime mortgage crisis

European views on financial regulation (and other American evils)

By William K. Black
(Cross posted at Benzinga.com)

I was invited back to the give the welcoming keynote address last week to the 33rd SFOA International Bürgenstock Meeting.  SFOA is an acronym for the Swiss Futures and Option Association and their meeting (long held at Bürgenstock, Switzerland but now at Interlaken) is the preeminent meeting in Europe on financial derivatives.  The meeting attracts industry participants, regulators, and academics from all over the world.  I’m writing from the Munich airport, where I get to wait overnight for a flight back to the U.S.

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Who is Steven Krystofiak

By William K. Black

“My name is Steven Krystofiak, President of the Mortgage Brokers Association for Responsible Lending.”  That is how Krystofiak began his written statement to the Federal Reserve concerning mortgage fraud.  It is a follow-up to his oral testimony at a Federal Reserve hearing on June 16, 2006 at the FRB San Francisco entitled: “Responsible Lending and Informed Consumer Choice, Public Hearing on the Home Equity Lending Market.”  Continue reading

The Great Haircut

Lenders Put the Lies in Liar’s Loans and Bear the Principal Moral Culpability

By William K. Black

A reader has asked several important questions about liar’s loans that are critical to understanding the causes of the ongoing U.S. crisis. By 2006, half of all loans called “subprime” were also liar’s loans. Roughly one-third of all home loans made in 2006 were liar’s loans. The crisis was originally called a “subprime” crisis, but it was always a liar’s loan crisis. The reader is correct to inquire about causation and moral culpability.

“Dr. Black, are liar’s loans the same as stated income loans? In either case, how do we know whether buyers or loaners put the income for the loan? If most of these reported incomes were entered by borrowers, I would think most of the blame falls on them.”

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Mitch Daniels Uses Benefit-Cost Analysis to Teach his Daughter Ethics

By William K. Black

(Cross-posted with Benzinga.com)

This is the fourth and final article in a series of pieces discussing the claim by a Cato scholar at CIFA’s recent meeting in Monaco that formal benefit-cost tests by economists were essential to prevent regulatory excess. The second column focused on a speech in 2001 by Mitch Daniels, then President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., Competitive Enterprise Institute Speech, 05/22/2002

Daniels is the nation’s leading proponent of benefit-cost tests, and the purpose of his speech was to advance arguments in favor of OMB economists’ use of benefit-cost tests to block the adoption of regulations. The column discussed Daniel’s use of a “mistress metaphor” to explain why economists’ formal benefit-cost tests are vital.

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NEP Blogger William Black Interviewed in NPR Report on Mortgage Fraud

NEP’s own William Black was recently interviewed by Chris Arnold for a report on mortgage fraud. The full story can be found here.

While Labor Unions celebrate Anti-Austerity Day in Europe, European Neoliberals raise the ante: Governments must Lower Wages or Suffer Financial Blackmail

By Michael Hudson

Most of the press has described Europe’s labor demonstrations and strikes on Wednesday in terms of the familiar exercise by transport employees irritating travelers with work slowdowns, and large throngs letting off steam by setting fires. But the story goes much deeper than merely a reaction against unemployment and economic recession. At issue are proposals to drastically change the laws and structure of how European society will function for the next generation. If the anti-labor forces succeed, they will break up Europe, destroy the internal market, and render that continent a backwater. This is how serious the financial coup d’etat has become. And it is going to get much worse – quickly. As John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, put it: “This is the start of the fight, not the end.”
Spain has received most of the attention, thanks to its ten-million strong turnout – reportedly half the entire labor force. Holding its first general strike since 2002, Spanish labor protested against its socialist government using the bank crisis (stemming from bad real estate loans and negative mortgage equity, not high labor costs) as an opportunity to change the laws to enable companies and government bodies to fire workers at will, and to scale back their pensions and public social spending in order to pay the banks more. Portugal is doing the same, and it looks like Ireland will follow suit – all this in the countries whose banks have been the most irresponsible lenders. The bankers are demanding that they rebuild their loan reserves at labor’s expense, just as in President Obama’s program here in the United States but without the sanctimonious pretenses.
The problem is Europe-wide and indeed centered in the European Union capital in Brussels, where fifty to a hundred thousand workers gathered to protest the proposed transformation of social rules. Yet on the same day, the European Commission (EC) outlined a full-fledged war against labor. It is the most anti-labor campaign since the 1930s – even more extreme than the Third World austerity plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank in times past.

The EC is using the mortgage banking crisis – and the needless prohibition against central banks monetizing public budget deficits – as an opportunity to fine governments and even drive them bankrupt if they do not agree roll back salaries. Governments are told to borrow at interest from the banks, rather than raising revenue by taxing them as they did for half a century following the end of World War II. Governments unable to raise the money to pay the interest must close down their social programs. And if this shrinks the economy – and hence, government tax revenues – even more, the government must reduce social spending yet further.
From Brussels to Latvia, neoliberal planners have expressed the hope that lower public-sector salaries will spread to the private sector. The aim is to roll back wage levels by 30 percent or more, to depression levels, on the pretense that this will “leave more surplus” available to pay in debt service. It will do no such thing, of course. It is a purely vicious attempt to reverse Europe’s Progressive Era social democratic reforms achieved over the past century. Europe is to be turned into a banana republic by taxing labor – not finance, insurance or real estate (FIRE). Governments are to impose heavier employment and sales taxes while cutting back pensions and other public spending.
“Join the fight against labor, or we will destroy you,” the EC is telling governments. This requires dictatorship, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has taken over this power from elected government. Its “independence” from political control is celebrated as the “hallmark of democracy” by today’s new financial oligarchy. This deceptive newspeak evokes Plato’s view that oligarchy is simply the political stage following democracy. The new power elite’s next step in this eternal political triangle is to make itself hereditary – by abolishing estate taxes, for starters – so as to turn itself into an aristocracy.
It is a very old game indeed. So it is time to put aside the economics of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the Progressive Era, to forget Marx and even Keynes. Europe is ushering in an era of totalitarian neoliberal rule. This is what Wednesday’s strikes and demonstrations were about. Europe’s class war is back in business – with a vengeance!
This is economic suicide, but the EU is demanding that Euro-zone governments keep their budget deficits below 3% of GDP, and their total debt below 60%. On Wednesday the EU passed a law to fine governments up to 0.2% of GDP for not “fixing” their budget deficits by imposing such fiscal austerity. Nations that borrow to engage in countercyclical “Keynesian-style” spending that raises their public debt beyond 60% of GDP will have to reduce the excess by 5% each year, or suffer harsh punishment.[1] The European Commission (EC) will fine euro-area states that do not obey its neoliberal recommendations – ostensibly to “correct” budget imbalances.
The reality is that every neoliberal “cure” only makes matters worse. But rather than seeing rising wage levels and living standards as being a precondition for higher labor productivity, the EU commission will “monitor” labor costs on the assumption that rising wages impair competitiveness rather than raise it. If euro members cannot depreciate their currencies, then they must fight labor – but not tax real estate, finance or other rentier sectors, not regulate monopolies, and not provide public services that can be privatized at much higher costs. Privatization is not deemed to impair competitiveness – only rising wages, regardless of productivity considerations.
The financial privatization and credit-creation monopoly that governments have relinquished to banks is now to really pay off – at the price of breaking up Europe. Unlike central banks elsewhere in the world, the charter of the European Central Bank (ECB, independent from democratic politics, not from control by its commercial bank members) forbids it to monetize government debt. Governments must borrow from banks, which are create interest-bearing debt on their own keyboards rather than having their national bank do it without cost.
The unelected members of the European Central Bank have taken over planning power from elected governments. Beholden to its financial constituency, the ECB has convinced the EU commission to back the new oligarchic power grab. This destructive policy has been tested above all in the Baltics, using them as guinea pigs to see how far labor can be depressed before it fights back. Latvia gave free reign to neoliberal policies by imposing flat taxes of 51% and higher on labor, while real estate is virtually untaxed. Public-sector wages have been reduced by 30%, prompting labor of working age (20 to 35 year-olds) to emigrate in droves. This of course is contributing to the plunge in real estate prices and tax revenue. Lifespans for men are shortening, disease rates are rising, and the internal market is shrinking, and so is Europe’s population – as it did in the 1930s, when the “population problem” was a plunge in fertility and birth rates (above all in France). That is what happens in a depression.
Iceland’s looting by its bankers came first, but the big news was Greece. When that nation entered its current fiscal crisis as a result of not collecting taxes on the wealthy, European Union officials recommended that it emulate Latvia, which remains the poster child for neoliberal devastation. The basic theory is that inasmuch as members of the euro cannot devalue their currency, they must resort to “internal devaluation”: slashing wages, pensions and social spending. So as Europe enters recession it is following precisely the opposite of Keynesian policy. It is reducing wages, ostensibly to “free” more income available to pay the enormous debts that Europeans have taken on to buy their homes and pay for schooling (hitherto provided freely in many countries such as Latvia’s Stockholm School of Economics), transportation and other public services. Manly such services have been privatized and subsequently raised their rates drastically. The privatizers justify this by pointing to the enormously bloated financial fees they had to pay their bankers and underwriters in order to get the credit to buy the infrastructure that was being sold off by governments.
So Europe is committing economic, demographic and fiscal suicide. Trying to “solve” the problem neoliberal style only makes things worse. Latvia’s public-sector workers, for example, have seen their wages cut by 30 percent over the past year, and its central bankers have told me that they are seeking further cuts, in the hope that this will lower wages in the private sector as well, just as neoliberals in other European countries hope, as noted above.
About 10,000 Latvians attended protest meetings in the small town of Daugavilpils alone as part of the “Journey into the Crisis.” In Latvia’s capital city, Riga, yesterday’s Action Day saw the usual stoppage of transportation and an accompanying honk concert for 10 minutes at 1 PM to let the public know that something was happening. Six independent trade unions and the Harmony Center organized a protest meeting in Riga’s Esplanade Park that drew 700 to 800 demonstrators, relatively large for so small a city. Another union protest saw about half that number gather at the Cabinet of Ministers where Latvia’s austerity program has been planned and carried out.
What is happening most importantly is the national parliamentary elections this Saturday (October 2). The leading coalition, Harmony Center, is pledged to enact an alternative tax and economic policy to the neoliberal policies that have reduced labor’s wages and workplace standards so sharply over the past decade. A few days earlier a bus tour drove journalists to the most visible victims – schools and hospitals that had been closed down, government buildings whose employees had seen their salaries slashed and the workforce downsized.
These demonstrations seem to have gained voter sympathy for the more militant unions, headed by the hundred individual unions belonging to the Independent Trade Union Association. The other union group – the Free Trade Unions (LBAS) lost face by acquiescing in June 2009 to the government’s proposed 10% pension cuts (and indeed, 70% for working pensioners). Latvia’s constitutional court was sufficiently independent to overrule these drastic cuts last December. And if the government does indeed change this Saturday, the conflict between the Neoliberal Revolution and the past few centuries of classical progressive reform will be made clear.
In sum, the Neoliberal Revolution seeks to achieve in Europe what the United States has achieved since real wages stopped rising in 1979: doubling the share of wealth enjoyed by the richest 1%. This involves reducing the middle class to poverty, breaking union power, and destroying the internal market as a precondition.
All this is being blamed on “Mr. Market” – presumably inexorable forces beyond politics, purely “objective,” a political power grab. But is not really “the market” that is promoting this destructive economic austerity. Latvia’s Harmony Center program shows that there is a much easier way to cut the cost of labor in half than by reducing its wages: Simply shift the tax burden off labor onto real estate and monopolies (especially privatized infrastructure). This will leave less of the economic surplus to be capitalized into bank loans, lowering the price of housing accordingly (the major factor in labor’s cost of living), as well as the price of public services. (Owners of monopoly utility services would be prevented from factoring interest charges into their cost of doing business. The idea is to encourage them to take returns on equity. Whether or not they borrow is a business decision of theirs, not one that governments should subsidize.) The tax deductibility of interest will be repealed – there is nothing intrinsically “market dictated” by this fiscal subsidy for debt leveraging. This program may be reviewed at rtfl.lv, the Renew Task Force Latvia website.
No doubt many post-Soviet economies will find themselves obliged to withdraw from the euro area rather than see a flight of labor and capital. They remain the most extreme example of the Neoliberal Experiment to see how far a population can have its living standards slashed before it rebels.
But so far the neoliberals are fully in control of the bureaucracy, and they are reviving Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, TINA: There Is No Alternative. But there is an alternative, of course. In the small Baltic economies, pro-labor parties are pressing for the government to shift the tax burden off employees and consumers back onto property and financial wealth. Bad debts beyond the reasonable ability to pay must be scaled back. It may be necessary to let the banks go under (they are mainly Swedish), even if this means withdrawing from the Euro. The choice is between who will be destroyed: the banks, or labor?
European politicians now view this as being truly a fight to the death. This is the ideology that has replaced social democracy.

[1] Matthew Dalton, “EU Proposes Fines for Budget Breaches,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2010.

A Plea to the President: Tear Up That Speech

By Stephanie Kelton

My colleague and fellow blogger, Randy Wray, has just argued that President Obama should scrap the speech he’s planning to deliver tonight and surprise the American people with something entirely different. I couldn’t agree more. And while I agree that job creation must be JOB ONE in the months (and years) ahead, I would encourage the President to make massive tax relief the cornerstone of tonight’s speech.
Specifically, the President should call on Congress to support a full and immediate payroll tax holiday. Right now, the government takes away about 15% of our incomes in the form of payroll taxes. With a full payroll tax holiday, a married couple earning $60,000 a year would see their take-home pay increase by about $750 each month. In the aggregate, this will help millions of Americans pay their mortgages, student loans, credit card bills, and so on, while at the same time reducing business expenses (remember that employers contribute to the payroll tax too). All told, a full payroll tax holiday would allow Americans to keep about $1 trillion this year.
So stand before us, Mr. President, and tell us that you want to stop taking this income away from us until we, as a nation, have clawed back every job that has been lost since the start of the recession. Tell us that you intend to take bold steps to protect jobs, keep families intact and provide relief for millions of American businesses. Tell us that you have done all you intend to do to help the banks and the automakers and that you will not accept a jobless recovery — that an increase in economic activity is meaningless without rising employment in good jobs.
And, most importantly, tell us that you refuse to adopt a timeline for cutting the deficit. Tell us that you will not take one dime of payroll taxes away from us until your Administration can declare “Mission Accomplished” on the job front.
Finally, tell the American people that anyone who opposes a payroll tax holiday wants to keep taking hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars from them every month. Then watch what happens in 2012.

Time to Foreclose the Mortgage Companies

One thing that puzzles many people is how on earth could a relatively small problem with subprime mortgage loans in America have generated a global financial and economic calamity that is already (arguably) rivaling the Great Depression of the 1930s. After all, the total residential mortgage backed securities universe was only $7.1 trillion at its peak, of which just $1.3 trillion were subprimes. Other asset-backed securities were $2.5 trillion, with home equity loans amounting to $600 billion of that. Yes these are big numbers, but US home values were worth $20 trillion. If real estate prices fell by 30%, values would still be worth twice as much as the securities based on homes. And even if defaults reached 50% on subprime loans, it would appear that losses on the securities that used them as collateral could not amount to much more than a hill of beans ($650 billion of defaults, of which 70% is recovered through sale of the home generates losses of less than half a trillion). Even if we add losses on Alt A’s and prime mortgages, plus home equity loans, how could banks have already lost many trillions of dollars, requiring a federal government commitment of $23 trillion to try to resolve the crisis?

Here are three answers offered in partial explanation:

1. In the right conditions, a relatively small perturbation can generate huge fluctuations—like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in India that creates a tornado in Kansas. Many point to the 1929 stock market crash as the trigger that began the Great Depression because speculators had to meet margin calls, thus, began to sell assets and default on liabilities. Yet, as John Kenneth Galbraith argues in his “The Great Crash”, the total number of players in that stock market boom could not have been a million people. It was the fragile condition of the entire financial system (and of the economy itself, in part due to a grossly unequal distribution of income) that allowed the crash to trigger a depression. As Hyman Minsky argued, over the entire postwar period, the US and even the Global financial system were evolving toward fragility, making “it” (another great debt deflation) possible. The trigger happened to be subprimes, but there were any number of other possibilities waiting to happen. Add onto that a distribution of income that is as bad as it was in 1929 and you have a recipe for disaster.

2. That leads to the second point: the problem was not just with subprimes. All kinds of debts—including those associated with other kinds of mortgages, with commercial real estate, with credit cards, with auto finance, with small business loans, and so on—were structured in a similar manner. To put it bluntly, much of the finance was “Ponzi”—pyramid schemes that make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. As soon as asset prices stopped rising, the pyramid collapsed—so the losses are across all asset classes, and all over the globe.

3. The same financial institutions that created this mess are preventing resolution because it is far more profitable for them to ride out the collapse. They made money hand over fist on the way up, and plan to continue to do so as they drive the economy to hell. Much of the profits are illusory or are provided by government handouts. But there is real money to be made squeezing debtors, as reported in today’s NYT.

Let me give just one example, based on that NYT article and some research done by UBS (UBS Investment Research. 2007. “Investment Strategist” Digital newsletter, November 27). Keep in mind that when we destroyed the thrifts in the 1980s, we transitioned to a new “market-based” home finance model that involves independent mortgage brokers, property appraisers, risk raters, title companies, mortgage insurers, credit default swap sellers, mortgage servicers, securitizers, accounting firms, commercial banks, investment banks, and pension funds and other managed money that hold the securities. In this “originate to distribute” model, almost all concerned live on fee income rather than on the interest and principal payments of homeowners (which service the securities). Of course, this is part of the reason that no one ever bothered to check whether the homeowner would actually be able to make the mortgage payments.

It is also the reason that almost no one in the home finance food chain cares about resolving the home mortgage crisis—it is far more profitable to most concerned parties if the homeowner cannot and does not make any payment. When the homeowner stops making payments, the mortgage company that services the loan makes the payments that are then distributed to the securities holders. In return, the mortgage company collects its normal servicing fee, plus late fees of 6% of the monthly payment. As the NYT reports, these late fees alone can amount to 12% of the total revenue received by loan servicers. (Of course, it is no different in the video rental business or in the credit card business—better late than on time!) It is in the interest of the mortgage companies to maximize the number of delinquencies as well as the amount of time each household is delinquent.

When a house is finally foreclosed, the mortgage servicer has first dibs on the revenue from sale of the house. According to the UBS study, foreclosure can take up to two years (depending on the state and on complications) and total costs—including paying off the servicer—can eat up 90% of the revenue from the home sale. This is why the total losses on home mortgages (absorbed mostly by the securities holders) are so huge even if home values fall by “only” 30%.

As the NYT reports, these mortgage companies actively interfere to ensure that homeowners are not able to renegotiate terms of mortgages instead of going into foreclosure. They prefer a “purgatory—neither taking control of houses and selling them, nor modifying loans to give homeowners a break.” When the foreclosure proceeds, the mortgage companies not only accumulates late fees, but also pay for many other services– often to their own subsidiaries–such as title searches, insurance policies, appraisals, and legal findings. That is all recouped with the property sale. This explains why none of the government policies to date have been able to keep people in their homes by negotiating better mortgages. Indeed, even though the government is trying to bribe mortgage companies with $4000 to modify a loan, they make more money if they drive the owner out of the home. Ideally, they will accumulate claims on the house up to the total market value!

It is time to foreclose on the mortgage companies. As I have explained before, we ought to adopt the plan proposed by Warren Mosler and Dean Baker: allow people to stay in their homes, paying fair market rent. Put the homes through a simple and quick foreclosure with the government standing ready to buy the houses at either current market value or at the value of the outstanding mortgage (whichever is less). The former owners would then have first right of refusal to repurchase the home in two years, at market value and with good mortgage terms. We also need to get back to a more sensible home finance system, based on simple mortgages that are held to maturity by lenders, and with far fewer fees. That means shutting most players out of the home finance business.

A similar story can be told for other sectors, where parasitic financial market participants are making out like bandits (yesterday I discussed Black Rock’s new scheme to bilk investors by selling them the toxic waste Wall Street doesn’t want). Washington is facilitating this by contracting with the same firms that caused the crisis to deal with the fall-out. The longer and deeper the crisis, the more money there is to be made. As long as Wall Street runs government, do not expect resolution.

Fixing the Financial Crisis

James K. Galbraith, University of Texas economics professor, offers his insight.