Fox News’ Neil Cavuto made news of his own this week by suggesting that the credit crisis was caused by loans made to minorities.
On Fox’s “Your World” on September 18, Cavuto asked Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), “[W]hen you and many of your colleagues were pushing for more minority lending and more expanded lending to folks who heretofore couldn’t get mortgages, when you were pushing homeownership … Are you totally without culpability here? Are you totally blameless? Are you totally irresponsible of anything that happened?” Cavuto also said, “I’m just saying, I don’t remember a clarion call that said, ‘Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.'”
This wasn’t the first time that Cavuto blamed loans to minorities for the credit crisis. In an exchange with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on September 16, Cavuto said “[Y]ou wanted to encourage minority lending — obviously, a lot of Republicans did as well. There was a lot of — expand lending to those to get a home,” Cavuto then rhetorically asked, “Do you think, intrinsically, it was a mistake, on both parties’ part, to push — to push for homeownership for everybody?” Unlike Becerra, Hoyer either didn’t understand what Cavuto was saying or simply rolled over. “I think clearly what happened,” Hoyer replied, “ is Fannie and Freddie got caught up in trying to do what the Congress wanted done.”
This is not just a generic attack on minorities.
What is going on here is an attempt by Republicans to deflect public outrage from the credit industry, the investment banks and their Republican deregulators and to place the blame for the crisis credit on the government and the Democrats.
That’s why John McCain and his Republican apologists have focused their ire on the quasi-governmental institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rather than on the wholly private companies and individuals behind the credit meltdown.
Every time McCain or one of the Republican talking-pointers blasts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the message is: “These are government institutions, run by Democrats. They caused the credit crisis by pushing the Democratic Party agenda, including homeownership for minorities who could not afford to buy homes and should have been content to be renters. Blame them, not us.”
But are they right? How big a problem are loans to minorities? And should any future regulation of the credit and mortgage industry eliminate the mortgages that allowed so many minorities to become homeowners?
The answer is No.
The facts show that there has been tremendous racial disparity in lending is growing, and that the subprime mortgage crisis has disproportionately affected minority borrowers. Banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Countrywide issued high-cost subprime loans to minorities more than twice as often as to whites and, at some institutions, the number of high-cost subprime loans issued increased even amid a growing credit liquidity crisis.
Citigroup in 2007 made higher-cost subprime loans 2.33 times more frequently to blacks than to whites. During the same period, JP Morgan Chase made higher-cost subprime loans 2.44 times more frequently to blacks and 1.6 times more frequently to Hispanics than to whites. Bank of America extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.88 times more frequently, and Country Financial extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.95 times more frequently than to whites. A study released in 2006 found that blacks and Hispanics were often two or three times more likely to receive high-cost subprime mortgages than were white borrowers.
So, yes, minorities were very much more likely to receive high-cost subprime loans than whites. Yet as Robert J. Shiller of Yale University and Austan D. Goolsbee of the University of Chicago have pointed out, although minorities have been hit hard by the subprime bust, the overall affect of the subprime mortgage boom for minorities was mostly positive.
Both Shiller and Goolsbee think that minorities benefited tremendously by financial innovations created by the mortgage and banking industries, and they have cautioned against reacting to the subprime crisis by restricting innovative mortgage practices that allowed minorities greater access to the American Dream of home ownership than ever before.
In testimony before Congress in September 2007, Robert J. Shiller, professor of economics at Yale, author of the bestseller Irrational Exuberance and co-developer of the Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, put the issue in context. As the news of the study findings hits the media, Shiller’s nuanced Congressional testimony is worth recalling:
“The promotion of homeownership in this country among the poor and disadvantaged, as well as our veterans, has been a worthy cause. The Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and Rural Housing Services have helped many people buy homes who otherwise could not afford them. Minorities have particularly benefited.”
“Home ownership promotes a sense of belonging and participation in our country. I strongly believe that these past efforts, which have raised homeownership, have contributed to the feeling of harmony and good will that we treasure in America.”
“But most of the gains in homeownership that we have seen in the last decade are not attributable primarily due to these government institutions. On the plus side, they have been due to financial innovations driven by the private sector. These innovations delivered benefits, including lower mortgage interest rates for U.S. homebuyers, and new institutions to distribute the related credit and collateral risks around the globe.”
The same point was made by University of Chicago economics professor and Barack Obama economic advisor Austan D. Goolsbee in his essay in the New York Times entitled “‘Irresponsible Mortgages’ Have Opened Doors to Many of the Excluded.”
Barack Obama and Austan Goolsbee
Goolsbee cautioned against the “very old vein of suspicion against innovations in the mortgage market.” He cited a study conducted by Kristopher Gerardi and Paul S. Willen from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton, “Do Households Benefit from Financial Deregulation and Innovation? The Case of the Mortgage Market,” showing that the three decades from 1970 to 2000 witnessed an incredible flowering of new types of home loans.” “These innovations,” Goolsbee observed, “mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital.”
Goolsbee wrote that these economists “followed thousands of people over their lives and examined the evidence for whether mortgage markets have become more efficient over time. Lost in the current discussion about borrowers’ income levels in the subprime market is the fact that someone with a low income now but who stands to earn much more in the future would, in a perfect market, be able to borrow from a bank to buy a house. That is how economists view the efficiency of a capital market: people’s decisions unrestricted by the amount of money they have right now.”
In regard to racism in mortgage lending, Goolsbee noted that “Since 1995, for example, the number of African-American households has risen by about 20 percent, but the number of African-American homeowners has risen almost twice that rate, by about 35 percent. For Hispanics, the number of households is up about 45 percent and the number of homeowning households is up by almost 70 percent.”
He concluded that “When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.”
In the search for villains in the credit crisis, Congress should be careful not to eliminate the mortgages that have opened doors for many who have historically been excluded from homeownership and the American Dream.
It is also important to recognize that it was the Bush adminstration that pushed for greater access to homeownership for minorities, and specifically tasked Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with expanding home loans to minorities.
As CNN reported on June 17, 2002:
“President Bush touted his goal Monday of boosting minority home ownership by 5.5 million before the end of the decade through grants to low-income families and credits to developers. ‘Too many American families, too many minorities, do not own a home. There is a home ownership gap in America. The difference between African-American and Hispanic home ownership is too big,” Bush told a crowd at St. Paul AME Church in Atlanta. Citing data he used Saturday in his weekly radio address, Bush said that while nearly three-quarters of white Americans own their homes, less than half of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are homeowners. He urged Congress to expand the American Dream Down-Payment Fund, which would provide $200 million in grants over five years to low-income families who are first-time home buyers. The money would be used for down payments, one of the major obstacles to home ownership, Bush said. … Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the federal Home Loan Banks — the government-sponsored corporations that handle home mortgages — will increase their commitment to minority markets by more than $440 billion, Bush said. Under one of the initiatives launched by Freddie Mac, consumers with poor credit will be able to obtain mortgages with interest rates that automatically decline after a period of consistent payments, he added.”
In the political battle over blame for the credit crisis, Democrats need to be careful both to counter claims that the crisis was caused by loans to minorities and also not to allow conservatives and Republicans to use the crisis as a pretext to scuttle these programs.