Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fed Shrugged as Subprime Crisis Spread

Until the boom in subprime mortgages turned into a national nightmare this summer, the few people who tried to warn federal banking officials might as well have been talking to themselves.

Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve governor who died in September, warned nearly seven years ago that a fast-growing new breed of lenders was luring many people into risky mortgages they could not afford. But when Mr. Gramlich privately urged Fed examiners to investigate mortgage lenders affiliated with national banks, he was rebuffed by Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman.

In 2001, a senior Treasury official, Sheila C. Bair, tried to persuade subprime lenders to adopt a code of “best practices” and to let outside monitors verify their compliance. None of the lenders would agree to the monitors, and many rejected the code itself. Even those who did adopt those practices, Ms. Bair recalled recently, soon let them slip.

And leaders of a housing advocacy group in California, meeting with Mr. Greenspan in 2004, warned that deception was increasing and unscrupulous practices were spreading. John C. Gamboa and Robert L. Gnaizda of the Greenlining Institute implored Mr. Greenspan to use his bully pulpit and press for a voluntary code of conduct.

On Tuesday, under a new chairman, the Federal Reserve will try to make up for lost ground by proposing new restrictions on subprime mortgages, invoking its authority under the 13-year-old Home Ownership Equity and Protection Act.

As housing prices soared in what became a speculative bubble, Fed officials took comfort that foreclosure rates on subprime mortgages remained relatively low. But neither the Fed nor any other regulatory agency in Washington examined what might happen if housing prices flattened out or declined. Had officials bothered to look, frightening clues of the coming crisis were available. The Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group based in North Carolina, analyzed records from across the country and found that default rates on subprime loans soared to 20 percent in cities where home prices stopped rising or started to fall.

Subprime loans carry high interest rates, sometimes as high as 12 percent, and were designed for people with weak credit records. Unlike traditional banks and thrifts, which traditionally financed their loans with deposits, most subprime lenders are financed by investors on Wall Street who buy packages of loans called mortgage-backed securities. Starting from a virtual standstill 10 years ago, subprime lenders became by far the fastest-growing segment of mortgage lending before they collapsed. They made $540 billion in mortgages by 2004 and $625 billion at their peak in 2006 — about one-quarter of all new mortgages.

Home ownership, which had hovered around 64 percent for years, climbed to almost 70 percent by 2005. The biggest gains were among blacks and Hispanics, groups that had suffered discrimination for decades. Borrowers were being qualified for loans based on low initial teaser rates, rather than the much higher rates they would have to pay after a year or two. Many of the loans came with big fees that were hidden in the overall interest rate. And many had prepayment penalties that effectively blocked people from getting cheaper loans for two years or longer.

Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” Mr. Gramlich asked in a speech he prepared last August for the Fed’s symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.”

The drop in lending standards became unmistakable in 2004, as lenders approved a flood of shaky new products: “stated-income” loans, which do not require borrowers to document their incomes; “piggyback” loans, which allow people to buy a home without making a down payment; and “option ARMs,” which allowed people to make less than the minimum payment but added the unpaid amount to their total mortgage. But the regulators found themselves hopelessly behind the fast-changing practices of lenders and did not impose new standards on option arms until September 2006 and subprime until June 2007 when 30 subprime lenders had already gone out of business.