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Burning down the house

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“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Emerson

The louder they talked about the disadvantaged, the more money they made. And the more the financial system tottered.

Who were they? Most explanations of the financial calamity have been indecipherable to people not fluent in the language of “credit default swaps” and “collateralized debt obligations.” The calamity has lacked human faces. No more.

Put on asbestos mittens and pick up “Reckless Endangerment,” the scalding new book by Gretchen Morgenson, a New York Times columnist, and Joshua Rosner, a housing finance expert. They will introduce you to James A. Johnson, an emblem of the administrative state that liberals admire.

The book’s subtitle could be: “Cry ‘Compassion’ and Let Slip the Dogs of Cupidity.” Or: “How James Johnson and Others (Mostly Democrats) Made the Great Recession.” The book is another cautionary tale about government’s terrifying self-confidence. It is, the authors say, “a story of what happens when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living, breathing citizen should own a home.”

The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act pressured banks to relax lending standards to dispense mortgages more broadly across communities. In 1992, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston purported to identify racial discrimination in the application of traditional lending standards to those, Morgenson and Rosner write, “whose incomes, assets, or abilities to pay fell far below the traditional homeowner spectrum.”

In 1994, Bill Clinton proposed increasing homeownership through a “partnership” between government and the private sector, principally orchestrated by Fannie Mae, a “government-sponsored enterprise” (GSE). It became a perfect specimen of what such “partnerships” (e.g., General Motors) usually involve: Profits are private, losses are socialized.

There was a torrent of compassion-speak: “Special care should be taken to ensure that standards are appropriate to the economic culture of urban, lower-
income, and nontraditional consumers.” “Lack of credit history should not be seen as a negative factor.” Government having decided to dictate behavior that markets discouraged, the traditional relationship between borrowers and lenders was revised. Lenders promoted reckless borrowing, knowing they could off­load risk to purchasers of bundled loans, and especially to Fannie Mae. In 1994, subprime lending was $40 billion. In 1995, almost one in five mortgages was subprime. Four years later such lending totaled $160 billion.

As housing prices soared, many giddy owners stopped thinking of homes as retirement wealth and started using them as sources of equity loans — up to $800 billion a year. This fueled incontinent consumption.

Under Johnson, an important Democratic operative, Fannie Mae became, Morgenson and Rosner say, “the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world.” Its power derived from the unstated certainty that the government would be ultimately liable for Fannie’s obligations. This assumption and other perquisites were subsidies to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac worth an estimated $7 billion a year. They retained about a third of this.

Morgenson and Rosner report that in 1998, when Fannie Mae’s lending hit $1 trillion, its top officials began manipulating the company’s results to generate bonuses for themselves. That year Johnson’s $1.9 million bonus brought his compensation to $21 million. In nine years, Johnson received $100 million.

Fannie Mae’s political machine dispensed campaign contributions, gave jobs to friends and relatives of legislators, hired armies of lobbyists (even paying lobbyists not to lobby against it), paid academics who wrote papers validating the homeownership mania, and spread “charitable” contributions to housing advocates across the congressional map.

By 2003, the government was involved in financing almost half — $3.4 trillion — of the home-loan market. Not coincidentally, by the summer of 2005, almost 40 percent of new subprime loans were for amounts larger than the value of the properties.

Morgenson and Rosner find few heroes, but two are Marvin Phaup and June O’Neill. These “digit-heads” and “pencil brains” (a Fannie Mae spokesman’s idea of argument) with the Congressional Budget Office resisted Fannie Mae pressure to kill a report critical of the institution.

“Reckless Endangerment” is a study of contemporary Washington, where showing “compassion” with other people’s money pays off in the currency of political power, and currency. Although Johnson left Fannie Mae years before his handiwork helped produce the 2008 bonfire of wealth, he may be more responsible for the debacle and its still-mounting devastations — of families, endowments, etc. — than any other individual. If so, he may be more culpable for the peacetime destruction of more wealth than any individual in history.

Morgenson and Rosner report. You decide.

georgewill@washpost.com

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