The reappointment of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke means that the opportunity for change has passed and the reform movement is dead. It means that and that derivatives trading, off-balance sheet operations, securitization, dark pools and high frequency trading will go on much as they have before. It means that the public will continue to be gouged so that a handful of Wall Street sharpies can rake in obscene profits using complex “financial innovations” and over-leveraged debt instruments. It means that the entire system will continue to be put at risk to protect the interests of investment banks and hedge funds. It means that the subsidies, the preferential treatment, and the bailouts will continue to fuel populist rage and exacerbate deepening divisions in society. It means that the status quo has been preserved and that it’s “business as usual”.
No reform movement will succeed as long as Bernanke is at the Fed. He’s an agent of the big banks and a Wall Street loyalist. He’s also the author of “Too Big To Fail”, the controversial theory which provides unlimited state support for financial institutions that are deemed too large or interconnected to fail. TBTF means that capitalism’s vital market-clearing function can avoided if one is rich or powerful enough. Bernanke repealed capitalism to save his friends.
The Fed’s role in the housing fiasco, goes way beyond Alan Greenspan’s low interest rates which helped to ignite a frenzy of speculation. It’s clear now, that both Greenspan and Bernanke knew that the multi-trillion dollar credit expansion, was based on mortgages to applicants who had no way of repaying the money they had borrowed. It was a complete scam. Recent testimony by FDIC chairman Sheila Bair before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (Jan 14, 2010) provides many of the details. Naturally, Bair’s testimony has been ignored by the media.
“Federal consumer protections from predatory and abusive mortgage-lending practices are established principally under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), which is part of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). TILA and HOEPA regulations are the responsibility of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB) and apply to both bank and non-bank lenders.
HOEPA, which was enacted in 1994, contains specific statutory protections for a narrow category of high cost loans used for mortgage refinancings. These protections include restrictions on prepayment penalties, balloon payments, and extensions of credit without consideration of a borrower’s ability to repay. HOEPA defines these high cost loans in terms of threshold levels for either interest rates or points and fees. Many of the toxic mortgage products that were originated to fund the housing boom did not fall within the high cost loan definition under HOEPA. However, many of these toxic products could have been regulated and restricted under another provision of HOEPA that requires the Federal Reserve to prohibit acts or practices in connection with any mortgage loan that it finds to be unfair or deceptive, or acts and practices associated with refinancing of mortgage loans that it finds abusive or not otherwise in the interest of the borrower.
PROBLEMS IN THE SUBPRIME MORTGAGE MARKET WERE IDENTIFIED WELL BEFORE MANY OF THE ABUSIVE MORTGAGE LOANS WERE MADE. A joint report issued in 2000 by HUD and the Department of the Treasury entitled Curbing Predatory Home Mortgage Lending noted that a very limited number of borrowers benefit from HOEPA’s protections because of the high thresholds that a loan must exceed in order for the protections to apply. THE REPORT ALSO FOUND THAT CERTAIN TYPES OF SUBPRIME LOANS APPEAR TO BE HARMFUL OR ABUSIVE IN PRACTICALLY ALL CASES. To address these issues, THE REPORT MADE A NUMBER OF RECOMMENDATIONS INCLUDING THAT THE FEDERAL RESERVE USE ITS HOEPA AUTHORITY TO PROHIBIT CERTAIN UNFAIR DECEPTIVE AND ABUSIVE PRACTICES BY LENDERS AND THIRD PARTIES. During hearings held in 2000, consumer groups urged the Federal Reserve to use its HOEPA rulemaking authority to address concerns about predatory lending. Both the House and Senate held hearings on predatory abuses in the subprime market in May 2000 and July 2001, respectively….”
Bernanke–who followed developments in housing in great detail–didn’t lift a finger to stop the predatory lending until 2008 when he finally used his authority to restrict activities in just one small area of the market, closed-end mortgage loans.
Shiela Bair again:
“For this new category of higher priced mortgage loans, these changes address many of the abuses which led to the current housing crisis and help assure that mortgage borrowers have stronger, more consistent consumer protections, regardless of the lender they are using or the state where they reside. The rule imposes an “ability to repay” standard in connection with higher-priced mortgage loans. For these loans, the rule underscores a fundamental rule of underwriting: that all lenders, banks and nonbanks, should only make loans where they have documented a reasonable ability on the part of the borrower to repay. The rule also restricts abusive prepayment penalties.”
So, you see, that even after the media had started exposing the hijinx that were rampant in the mortgage market, Bernanke still refused to act, or rather, only used his regulatory powers on one narrow part of the market. At the very least, Bernanke’s failure to respond makes him criminally negligent in the biggest ripoff in US history.
Sheila Bair again:
“We believe that an ‘ability to repay’ standard should be required for all mortgages, including interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). Interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages must be underwritten to qualify the borrower to pay a fully amortizing payment. Otherwise, the consequences we have seen during this crisis will recur.”
Bernanke even refused to enforce the most basic “common sense” regulation, that loan applicants be able to prove that they have the ability to repay their mortgages. No wonder Bair’s testimony appears nowhere in the mainstream media; it provides concrete evidence of the Fed’s culpability.
But, why? Why would Bernanke refuse to act even though he could see that markets would plummet and millions would lose their homes in foreclosure?
William Seidman, the former head of the FDIC, figured it out back in 1993 when he was cleaning up after the S&L crisis. He said:
“Instruct regulators to look for the newest fad in the industry and examine it with great care. The next mistake will be a new way to make a loan that will not be repaid.”
That’s it in a nutshell. The banks didn’t care if the loans were repaid because they got their money “up front” on volume originations. That’s why they were so eager to issue mortgages to people with no income, no collateral, no job, and a bad credit history. It was all a gigantic skimming operation, where banks and brokers got their cut and then bailed out before the whole thing blew up. Bair’s testimony shows that the Fed knew what was going on; knew that the loans were garbage, knew that people were being victimized, knew that eventually the bubble would burst and the economy would go into a long-term nosedive.
Bernanke’s job was simple; just look the other way while fatcat banksters steal as much as possible.
Don’t believe me? Read Bair’s testimony.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org