The Long Road to Slack Lending Standards

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In the early 1990s I attended a conference designed to teach journalists the tools of an emerging field known as computer-assisted investigative reporting. One of the hottest sessions of the conference explained how journalists could replicate stories that other papers had done locally using computer tools, including one especially popular project to determine if banks in your community were discriminating against minority borrowers in making mortgages. One newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had already won a Pulitzer Prize for its computer-assisted series on the subject, and others, including the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press, had also weighed in with their own analysis based on government loan data. Everyone sounded keen to learn if their local banks were guilty, too.

Although academic researchers leveled substantial criticisms against these newspaper efforts (namely, that they relied on incomplete data and did not take into account lower savings rates, higher debt levels, and higher loan defaults rates for many minority borrowers), bank lending to minority borrowers still became an enormous issue—mostly because newspaper reporters and editors in this pre-talk radio, pre-blogging era were determined to make it so. Editorialists called for the government to force banks to end the alleged discrimination, and they castigated federal banking regulators who said they saw no proof of wrongdoing in the data.

Eventually, the political climate changed, and Washington became a believer in the story. Crucial to this change was a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston study which concluded that although lender discrimination was not as severe as suggested by the newspapers, it nevertheless existed. This, then, became the dominant government position, even though subsequent efforts by other researchers to verify the Fed’s conclusions showed serious deficiencies in the original work. One economist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who looked more deeply into the data, for instance, found that the difference in denial rates on loans for whites and minorities could be accounted for by such factors as higher rates of delinquencies on prior loans for minorities, or the inability of lenders to verify information provided to them by some minority applicants.

Ignoring the import of such data, federal officials went on a campaign to encourage banks to lower their lending standards in order to make more minority loans. One result of this campaign is a remarkable document produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 1998 titled “Closing the Gap: A Guide to Equal Opportunity Lending”.

Quoting from a study which declared that “underwriting guidelines…may be unintentionally racially biased,” the Boston Fed then called for what amounted to undermining many of the lending criteria that banks had used for decades. It told banks they should consider junking the industry’s traditional debt-to-income ratio, which lenders used to determine whether an applicant’s income was sufficient to cover housing costs plus loan payments. It instructed banks that an applicant’s “lack of credit history should not be seen as a negative factor” in obtaining a mortgage, even though a mortgage is the biggest financial obligation most individuals will undertake in life. In cases where applicants had bad credit (as opposed to no credit), the Boston Fed told banks to “consider extenuating circumstances” that might still make the borrower creditworthy. When applicants didn’t have enough savings to make a down payment, the Boston Fed urged banks to allow loans from nonprofits or government assistance agencies to count toward a down payment, even though banks had traditionally disallowed such sources because applicants who have little of their own savings invested in a home are more likely to walk away from a loan when they have trouble paying.

Of course, the new federal standards couldn’t just apply to minorities. If they could pay back loans under these terms, then so could the majority of loan applicants. Quickly, in other words, these became the new standards in the industry. In 1999, the New York Times reported that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were easing credit requirements for mortgages it purchased from lenders, and as the housing market boomed, banks embraced these new standards with a vengeance. Between 2004 and 2007, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac became the biggest purchasers of subprime mortgages from all kinds of applicants, white and minority, and most of these loans were based on the lending standards promoted by the government.

Meanwhile, those who raced to make these mortgages were lionized. Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies even invited Angelo Mozilo, CEO of the lender which made more loans purchased by Fannie and Freddie than anyone else, Countrywide Financial, to give its prestigious 2003 Dunlop Lecture on the subject of "The American Dream of Homeownership: From Cliché to Mission.” A brief, innocuous description of the event still exists online here.

Many defenders of the government’s efforts to prompt banks to lend more to minorities have claimed that this effort had little to do with the present mortgage mess. Specifically they point out that many institutions that made subprime mortgages during the market bubble weren’t even banks subject to the Community Reinvestment Act, the main vehicle that the feds used to cajole banks to loosen their lending.

But this defense misses the point. In order to push banks to lend more to minority borrowers, advocates like the Boston Fed put forward an entire new set of lending standards and explained to the industry just why loans based on these slacker standards were somehow safer than the industry previously thought. These justifications became the basis for a whole new set of values (or lack of values), as no-down payment loans and loans to people with poor credit history or to those who were already loaded up with debt became more common throughout the entire industry.

What happened in the mortgage industry is an example of how, in trying to eliminate discrimination from our society, we turned logic on its head. Instead of nobly trying to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone, many civil rights advocates tried to use the government to ensure equality of outcomes for everyone in the housing market. And so when faced with the idea that minorities weren’t getting approved for enough mortgages because they didn’t measure up as often to lending standards, the advocates told us that the standards must be discriminatory and needed to be junked. When lenders did that, we made heroes out of those who led the way, like Angelo Mozilo, before we made villains of them.

Now we all have to pay.

Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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