Way back in the last decade we had a huge housing bubble which was propelled in large part by junk loans that were packaged into mortgage backed securities (MBS) by Wall Street investment banks and sold all around the world. Unfortunately few people in policy positions are old enough to remember back to the this era, which is why they are now in the process of altering rules so that investment banks will be able to put almost any loan into a MBS without retaining a stake.

As Floyd Norris explains in his column this morning, the Dodd-Frank financial reform has a provision requiring investment banks to retain a 5 percent stake in less secure mortgages placed in the MBS they issue. This gives them an incentive to ensure that the mortgages they put into an MBS are good mortgages. However the definition of a secure mortgage has been gradually weakened over time. Originally many considered the cutoff to be a 20 percent down payment, which is the traditional standard for a prime mortgage. This was lowered to 10 percent and then 5 percent, even though mortgages with just 5 percent down default at four times the rate of mortgages with 20 percent down. 

Norris tells us that the latest proposed rules would allow mortgages with zero down payment to be placed into pools with no requirement that banks maintain a stake. This change would mean that banks would have the same incentive as in the housing bubble years to put junk mortgages in MBS. If this rule is coupled with the Corker-Warner proposal for having a government guarantee for MBS, it will mean that banks will likely find it far easier to pass on junk and fraudulent mortgages going forward than they did in the years of the housing bubble.

Further facilitating this process is the gutting of the Franken amendment. This amendment (which passed the Senate with 65 votes) would have required investment banks to call the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to pick a bond rating agency for a new MBS. This removed the conflict of interest where bond rating agencies would have an incentive to give a positive rating in order to get more business. In the conference committee, the amendment was replaced by a requirement that the SEC study the issue. After two and a half years the SEC issued its study and essentially concluded that picking bond rating agencies exceeded its competence. This left the conflict of interest in place.

If Congress wants to set up the conditions for another housing bubble fueled by fraudulent mortgages it is doing a very good job.