Friday, September 19

Two Takes on the Economy

The economy has certainly dominated the news and political landscape this week. With the demise of AIG, Fannie May, Freddie Mac and a host of other financial institutions in dire straits, all attention has been turned toward Washington for a soluntion. Or at least an explanation.

I have to admit that economics isn't my strong suit. Didn't do that well with it in college and now I'm even more confused as I try to sort fact from fiction from spin. But I stumbled across an article written by Neil Bortz, a former real estate lawyer and current talk show host, who did a good job of explaining the mess we're in today.

Twenty years ago the buzz-word in the media was “redlining.” Newspapers across the country were filled with hard-hitting investigative reports about evil and racist mortgage lenders refusing to make real estate loans to various minorities and to applicants who lived in lower-income neighborhoods. There I was closing these loans in the afternoons, and in the mornings offering a counter-argument on the radio to these absurd “redlining” claims. Frankly, the claims that evil mortgage lenders were systematically denying loans to blacks and other minorities were a lot sexier on the radio than my claims that when credit histories, job stability, loan-to-value ratios and income levels were considered there was no evident racial discrimination.

Political correctness won the day. Washington made it clear to banks and other lending institutions that if they did not do something .. and fast .. to bring more minorities and low-income Americans into the world of home ownership there would be a heavy price to pay. Congress set up processes (Research the Community Redevelopment Act) whereby community activist groups and organizers could effectively stop a bank’s efforts to grow if that bank didn’t make loans to unqualified borrowers. Enter, stage left, the “subprime” mortgage. These lenders knew that a very high percentage of these loans would turn to garbage – but it was a price that had to be paid if the bank was to expand and grow. We should note that among the community groups browbeating banks into making these bad loans was an outfit called ACORN. There is one certain presidential candidate that did a lot of community organizing for ACORN. I won’t mention his name so as to avoid politicizing this column.

These garbage loans to unqualified borrowers were then bundled up and sold. The expectation was that the loans would be eventually paid off when rising home values led some borrowers to access their equity through re-financing and others to sell and move on up the ladder. Oops.

As you can imagine, Democrats have a different take. PunditMom, who is a former SEC attorney, gives us a different view of the financial picture from her vantage point.

No matter who is running the show in the White House or on Capitol Hill, lobbyists and corporate interests have a huge voice in influencing how the rules and regulations of the SEC are crafted, as well as others like the NASD and banking regulators. Maybe not officially, but believe me, there's puh-LENTY of pressure to water down proposed rules that would give more government oversight and investor protection.

Sometimes they win.

Regardless of whether something would protect investors or make financial institutions more accountable for what they do, how they do it and how they account for it, lobbyists and special interests are always right there to whine -- It would be too much work to implement those regulations and safeguards! You can trust us, the market is a good regulator! We know what happened in the 1980s -- it will never happen again! We promise!

And on top of that, no matter how much regulators tried to get the budgets they really needed to have the staff necessary to do their jobs right, someone was always there to convince Congress that underfunded, understaffed agencies just didn't need any more help.What's happening today with our economy is a direct result of corporate money and interests trumping the meager resources of government regulators. When agency heads trudge up to Capitol Hill every year to make the case for increased funding so they can do their jobs as effectively as possible, I'm sure you can guess who is right on their heels to make sure that doesn't happen.

That's why we keep having scandal after scandal after scandal. It's not because investigators at the SEC aren't doing their jobs. They are. I know. They just don't have the time or resources to do it all in a world where the guys who want to keep making the big money have more power and influence than the ones trying to make sure small investors can keep their little money.

Obviously, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox bears a good amount of the responsibility -- he could have stood up to the Bush administration and pushed harder to have more SEC "cops" on the street. But he's not the main culprit, he's just the one who will be expected to fall on the sword for George Bush. They ones who are really at fault are the ones who have the enormous golden parachutes, no matter whether their financial firms fail or succeed.

The bottom line is there is no easy explanation or solution, but it's a subject that's worth pursuing for the truth.



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