"Renaissance Thinking About the Issues of Our Day"
Thom Hartmann: Okay so who killed the economy? I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question, but as a genuine question. The main Republican storyline, the one that is pitched by conservatives and people who don’t want banks deregulated, is that back either during the Carter or the Clinton administration, pick your story, I’ve heard both, that there was legislature passed that encouraged banks, the Community Reinvestment Act, they encouraged banks to give loans to people who couldn’t afford to get actually loans. And that that then led to a wild bulge of speculation which crashed the economy. That’s the kind of official conservative story.
Well let’s ask somebody who has actually researched this. Staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity, former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of a new book called, "The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--and Spawned a Global Crisis", Michael Hudson. Michael, welcome to the program.
Michael Hudson: Thanks Thom.
Thom Hartmann: So who killed the American economy? Is the conservative storyline right? That it was Chris Dodd and Barney Frank and Bill Clinton?
Michael Hudson: Well, there’s a lot of suspects, and there’s a lot of blame to go around, and I think even Bill Clinton has admitted that he did some things in the late ‘90s in terms of deregulating, deregulating the banks…
Michael Hudson: Exactly. Absolutely but he played a role in it.
Thom Hartmann: Yes he did, he signed them enthusiastically.
Michael Hudson: And he’s acknowledged that he regrets it now.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
Michael Hudson: But this idea that the government more or less forced banks to go out and make sub prime loans just isn’t true, the facts just don’t support that. The truth is that most of the lenders that were making sub prime loans were not covered by the Community Reinvestment Act. And the reason that big banks and other lenders were making these kind of risky abusive loans, was because they could make lots and lots of money from them and because Wall Street was bank-rolling the whole thing. As long as the pipeline of money was flowing from the big Wall Street firms, everybody wanted to get in on the game.
Thom Hartmann: Tell us about Ameriquest Mortgage.
Michael Hudson: Ameriquest Mortgage was really the biggest and most aggressive of the sub prime lenders. It in some ways created the market, or at least it was the leader. Everybody else, Ameriquest and a few other of these Orange County based sub prime lenders, really got the ball rolling and then it was later that folks like Wells Fargo, Countrywide, and to some degree even Fannie and Freddie got involved. But they weren’t, Fannie and Freddie weren’t the ones who were in the driver’s seat, they were actually responding to what was going on in the market. And most, you know government certainly deserves a lot of blame for what happened, but again it’s not so much a thing of action, of forcing people to do something, but it was actually more a matter of inaction.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah to use a football metaphor, it’s like the referees were ignoring fouls or bad plays or whatever.
Michael Hudson: And it was even worse than that. Because not only did the federal regulators especially during the Bush era, not do anything to crack down on bad practices, but they went after the states when state regulators and state attorneys general tried to go after big banks that were doing, doing bars wrong, the federal government would intervene with law suits and edix and say sorry these are federally regulated institutions, hands off, we’ll take care of it. Of course the problem was…
Thom Hartmann: If my memory serves me right, Michael Hudson, author of “The Monster,” the and it’s published by McMillan, US.McMillan.com/themonster. If my memory serves me right, when Elliott Spitzer tried to go after mortgage companies in New York state that were doing ninja loans and say this is wrong what you’re doing, it’s a violation of state law, and it was, that the Bush administration came in and invoked an, my recollection is an 1864 law, literally from the Civil War era that had never been used for this purpose to say sorry Mr. Spitzer you cannot intervene with the banks, we have priority. Do I, can you correct my memory on this because it’s been a few years.
Michael Hudson: No I think you’re right. I mean it was, they were invoking the power of federal preemption. And basically saying you know we control everything. You know and it didn’t happen just in New York state but in Washington state, all over, whenever a state agency tried to investigate a lender, it was either a federally chartered bank or had some connection to a federally chartered bank, the bank would go to the federal regulators and get a letter saying sorry, you know, hands off, and they would come back in awesome force, the state to back off.
Thom Hartmann: Now a lot of this was, I was going to say funded by the Fed but that would be the wrong way to put it. The Fed was encouraging these easy money practices. Alan Greenspan you know famously before Congress said “I made a mistake, I was wrong.” But there was…
Michael Hudson: A flaw in his logic, yeah.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. But there, a flaw in his logic, right. But there was, I mean there was a large peanut gallery cheering on these bubbles, this being the most recent, this housing bubble, and calling it, this is, saying this is the free market, Ayn Rand was right, see, now you know we can have things the way that they’re supposed to be, the market knows best, etc. What happened to that line of thinking? Where did it come from and where has it gone now?
Michael Hudson: Well you know I think it’s still there, all this sort of bubblicious behavior was predicated on the idea that if you just completely free up the market then we’ll have this sort of unlimited growth and things will just get bigger and bigger. And you know, that was, there was sort of a Ponzi-like element of the mortgage boom in that as long as housing values kept going up, you could reduce your lending standards and make more loans. And as you kept reducing the lending standards, housing values would go up because the more loans you were making the more people were buying houses, and the more they were willing to pay for more and more money.
Thom Hartmann: It increased demand.
Michael Hudson: Right. And lenders would sort of hide the fact that they were making bad loans. Think about it. If you’re a borrower, you make a loan. And what would happen is a borrower would take out a sub prime loan, six months or a year in when the adjustable rates started zooming upwards they would realize they couldn’t afford it, so their only option in most cases was to do a refinancing. So they would do another refinancing. Pay off the old loan, go into a new one, the same pattern would happen. They may know at this point that they’ve been kind of taken in but they can’t get out of it. They’re in this cycle. And so you often had people who would have say five loans in a period of five years and eventually at the end of this, say on the 5th loan, each one sort of staving off the inevitable and on the 5th loan they would collapse under the weight of all the fees and interest rates. But what would be interesting…
Thom Hartmann: And they’d have no more equity left.
Michael Hudson: Right. And but what would be interesting is these will go down on the books, right, as four “successful” loans. Because they didn’t’ go into default, they were paid off, so they were successful, and then one failed loan. But the truth was that all 5 were failed loans, they were all loans that had been made that were doomed to fail and the idea was just to keep people trapped in this cycle.
Thom Hartmann: We’re talking with Michael Hudson, his new book is titled, “The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America—and Spawned a Global Crisis.” Michael, we have a little less than a minute left. Weren’t many of these loans actually designed to force people to refi within a year or two, wasn’t that the whole theory behind this?
Michael Hudson: Absolutely, Ameriquest was a big example of this. They had these loans, the 227 and 327 loans, they would be a fixed rate for two years or three years and then for the rest of the loan. And once they adjusted, you know sometimes people would understand they were getting an adjustable rate, but they would be told oh well the rates could go down. But the truth was that these loans were designed so they were unidirectional. Once the teaser rate was over, they would always go up.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah, just like the discount rates the cable company offers you. Hey only 35 dollars a month. Yeah right. Michael Hudson, staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity, former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and author of a new book, “The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America—and Spawned a Global Crisis.” Michael, thank you for your great work and for dropping by our program.
Michael Hudson: Thanks Thom I appreciate it.
Thom Hartmann: Good talking with you.
Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.