One of the major occupations for economists these days is blaming efforts to help poor people for the housing bubble and bust. The main villains in this story are Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). A reader recently sent me another work in this proud tradition.
I just did a quick reading of the paper, but it seems that the smoking gun in this one is that banks subject to the CRA appeared to do more lending in CRA tracts in the periods where their lending behavior was being scrutinized by regulators. Just to remind folks, the CRA requires banks to make loans in the areas from which they were taking deposits, in particular focusing on areas that are disproportionately African American or Hispanic. The authors take this timing result, which is especially pronounced in the peak bubble years of 2004-2006, as evidence that the CRA played a major role in the pushing of bad loans on moderate income people. As they note, the loans issued in these tracts in these periods had a much higher default rate than other loans.
It's not clear that this gun is smoking quite as much the paper implies. First, it is important to remember that the biggest peddlers of subprime loans were mortgage lenders like Ameriquest and Countrywide. These lenders were for the most part not subject to the CRA since they were not banks (they raised money through the capital markets, not by taking deposits). Therefore the CRA was not a gun to the head of these lenders forcing them to make bad loans.
However even for the banks to whom the CRA did apply the evidence in this paper is less compelling than it may seem. Let's assume that banks do care about their CRA ratings for the reasons mentioned in the paper. (The CRA rating would likely be a factor that would come up when a bank was interested in a buyout or merger.) Let's also imagine that banks time their loans to CRA tracts so that they can show more loans in the periods where their compliance is being reviewed. Let's also hypothesize that in total the CRA doesn't get banks to make any more loans to CRA tracts than they would otherwise.
In this case, we would get exactly the sort of pattern of lending found in this study. Banks that are subject to the CRA would refrain from focusing on CRA tracts when they know no one is looking. Then when the light is on, they would make a stronger effort to make loans in the neighborhoods covered by the CRA. If banks engaged in this sort of timing of loans to CRA tracts, we would find that loans during CRA review periods were higher than in other times, even if there was no net increase in loans as a result of the CRA.
As a practical matter, I would be surprised if the CRA had no effect whatsoever on lending to the covered tracts. But it's not clear how this paper can distinguish a timing effect from a situation where banks actually increased lending to CRA tracts beyond what they would have done without the law.
In the process of prosecuting the case against the CRA, the paper produces some exonerating evidence for Fannie and Freddie. It finds that the CRA effect was strongly associated with private securitization because the investment banks had lower standards than Fannie and Freddie. It comments on this finding:
"We conjecture that banks are more likely to originate loans to risky borrowers around CRA examinations when they have an avenue to securitize and pass these loans to private investors
after the exam."
And, just to remind folks, the FHA became almost irrelevant in the peak bubble years, with its share of the market dwindling to almost nothing. At the time it was derided as an outmoded relic since the private sector was so much more efficient in providing loans to low and moderate income families.
Anyhow, I don't think there is any doubt that the efforts to push homeownership went seriously awry in the bubble years. Many of the organizations that encouraged moderate income families to buy homes at badly inflated prices as a wealth building strategy should be wearing bags over their heads for the next three decades. But there is no escaping the fact that the main motivation for issuing the bad mortgages was money: the banks were booking huge profits in these years. And no believer in the free market can think that bankers have to be told by government bureaucrats to go out and make money.