Stephen K. Bannon, the spiritual author of Donald Trump’s toxic populism, said of the financial crisis, “the fuse that was lit then . . . eventually brought the Trump revolution.” For marginalized voters right and left, the bailouts epitomized what was rotten with Washington. Once you believed that the Federal Reserve had sold out the country to rescue bankers, there was not much you could not believe.
I recall the precise moment. Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson asked for legislation to save the banking system — what became TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). This was September 2008, days after the failure of Lehman Brothers. No one knew who was next. Virtually no one — not GE, not Goldman, no financial firm — was assured of its survival.
The country was deep in recession. Jobs had been vanishing all year. Millions of homes were in foreclosure. Banks were not making loans.
The popular reaction to TARP was outrage. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) noted prophetically that his mail was split — 50 percent “No” and 50 percent “Hell, no!” The House voted it down; the market fell 700 points. The House reconsidered.
A decade on, the painful recession and the bailouts have been fused in popular memory into a single cause for smoldering resentment. They tainted the image of capitalism, perhaps fatally for a generation that does not recall the exhaustion of statist models from pre-Thatcherite England to the Soviet Union.
Taking its cue from public anger, post-crash legislation went to great pains to preclude the possibility of another bailout. That effort, and that focus, was misplaced. Our focus should be on minimizing the likelihood of another crash.
The term “minimize” is used advisedly. Now and then, market capitalism lays an egg. The old saw is that if we didn’t have speculation, we wouldn’t have railroads, nor would we have the Internet or a thousand successful start-ups that began as an unlikely gamble. The downside is that speculation occasionally goes awry. The economist Hyman Minsky said markets are programmed to go awry. Each time someone takes a risk and comes out whole, the next person takes a little more risk. This was no less true for lending to Argentina than it was for subprime in San Bernardino, Calif.
Not even regulatory scrutiny can keep speculation healthy forever. Consider the housing industry — which, since it melted down in 2008, has been the object of intense scrutiny by overlapping regulators. In obvious ways, the industry has improved. Credit scores are higher, suggesting that lenders have tightened credit. Americans have more equity in their homes, and they are not withdrawing equity ATM-style, as they did previously, to pay for groceries and sailboats. Largely gone are “Alt-A” loans, which contained some of the worst abuses and eventually the highest default rates.
There also has been some improvement in the financial superstructure. True, Wall Street is unreformed — short-term oriented and speculative as ever — but banks are better capitalized. And households, for now, also are less leveraged. On balance, housing is safer than it was in 2008. That does not mean it is safe.
Home prices have been on a tear for most of the past decade. Lately, they have risen at 5 to 6 percent a year — double the rate of personal income growth. The gap between housing and income cannot widen indefinitely. The Minsky bubble psychology has infected government agencies who insure about 80 percent of home-purchase mortgages. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the biggest of these, have loosened standards. With encouragement of their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, half of first-time home buyers getting mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie are making down payments of 5 percent or less. Such easy credit is aimed at broadening access for young people, who often lack capital. However, a lesson from 2008 is that if a person cannot afford a home under prudent lending standards, imprudent lending will not help them.
The riskiest loans are insured by the Federal Housing Administration, an agency whose mission is to broaden homeownership. (These loans are securitized with a guarantee from a different government sponsor, Ginnie Mae). Somewhat akin to subprime in the 2000s, the FHA sector, by definition the most marginal, has widened. It is now approximately 20 percent of the mortgage market. According to Edward Pinto, co-director of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Housing Markets and Finance, the average market price of FHA-enabled purchases has risen 25 percent in the past five years, yet the dollar amount of the average down payment has fallen.
“That is not tight credit,” Pinto says. A study by the New York Fed, in essential agreement, argues that the housing sector “remains vulnerable to very severe declines in house prices.”
The biggest losers are likely to be marginal buyers and the government sponsors who hold their loans. The private sector would seem less exposed. But there could still be trouble. And so, after a decade of trying to avert another crash, we could have one.
If we do, it should be recalled that the previous bailouts — loans and partial socializations of banks, whose shares were eventually resold by the Treasury at a profit — stanched the bleeding. Countries whose governments did not intervene as aggressively fared worse.
And yet, we must admit that political fallout from the bailouts has been serious. If you think of populism, as I do, as a largely incoherent fury, you are unhappy because we have more of it. If you are a populist, you are probably unhappy, as well.
The political problem with the bailouts wasn’t that they happened but that they were tailored too narrowly. They failed to help many of the 9.3 million people who were foreclosed on. That gave rise to the deep disdain of Washington, to a pervasive suspicion that Trump, who with his curled lip and snarling meanness trades in suspicions, rode to the White House. Arguably, had more home buyers been helped, fewer would have concluded, “Hell, no.” Banks would have suffered a haircut — a fair price for government support. Sure, some of the people who defaulted were culpable; well, culpable banks got help, too.
This isn’t to say bailouts are desirable. But the time to reduce the likelihood of their being needed is before the trouble occurs (i.e., now). This is especially relevant for select industries where the broad public would be exposed. When the dot-com industry flamed out, the damage was contained and the government, appropriately, did nothing. Banking is different, both because the country cannot afford for people to lose their savings and because the potential for bank runs means that one or two failing banks endanger others. Deposit insurance minimizes the risk — but it also dulls the normal market rationale for prudence. Thus, regulators must lean on banks not to take outsize risks.
The lesson of 2008 is that housing is too widely owned — too democratic — to fail. Given that taxpayers will be liable for subsequent failure, government entities should be tightening now. Promoting homeownership may be a worthy goal but, in my opinion, solvency takes precedence.
The doctrine of moral hazard urges us to discourage risky behavior ex ante. But no philosophy of behavior is worth prolonging a depression once it starts. The Federal Reserve was created to be a fireman to the banking system in times of crisis. No more than a fire department is blamed for quenching fires, if we have another crisis, we should not forswear its aid nor that of the larger federal safety net.