Yesterday, a person who ought to know better insisted to me that the government is to blame for the mortgage meltdown because it instituted regulations that forced mortgage lenders to make risky loans, rather than blaming the deregulation of the banking industry for the foreclosure crisis. The regulations to which adherents of this theory refer are contained in the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Robert Gordon debunks this outrageous theory in an excellent article in The American Prospect. Key quote:
… The argument turns on a simple question: In the current mortgage meltdown, did lenders approve bad loans to comply with CRA, or to make money?
The evidence strongly suggests the latter. First, consider timing. CRA was enacted in 1977. The sub-prime lending at the heart of the current crisis exploded a full quarter century later. … In late 2004, the Bush administration announced plans to sharply weaken CRA regulations, pulling small and mid-sized banks out from under the law’s toughest standards. Yet sub-prime lending continued, and even intensified — at the very time when activity under CRA had slowed and the law had weakened.
Second, it is hard to blame CRA for the mortgage meltdown when CRA doesn’t even apply to most of the loans that are behind it. … Perhaps one in four sub-prime loans were made by the institutions fully governed by CRA.
Most important, the lenders subject to CRA have engaged in less, not more, of the most dangerous lending. Janet Yellen, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, offers the killer statistic: Independent mortgage companies, which are not covered by CRA, made high-priced loans at more than twice the rate of the banks and thrifts. …
It’s telling that, amid all the recent recriminations, even lenders have not fingered CRA. That’s because CRA didn’t bring about the reckless lending at the heart of the crisis. Just as sub-prime lending was exploding, CRA was losing force and relevance. And the worst offenders, the independent mortgage companies, were never subject to CRA — or any federal regulator. Law didn’t make them lend. The profit motive did.
And that is not political correctness. It is correctness.