All Commentary
Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is Wall Street Really the Heart of Capitalism?

Blaming the wrong people for 2008

The other night I tuned into The Flaw, a 2011 documentary about the 2008 financial crash. 

While telling the crash story, the movie flashes in and out of a street tour offered by an ex-mortgage bond trader. The young man has the required effervescence to keep a dozen tourists entertained while they look at nothing more interesting than office buildings. He cleverly lets members of his tour touch a toxic asset. Well, a page of the legal document of a collateralized debt obligation (CDO), anyway. 

The camera pans to tourists taking pictures next to “Charging Bull,” the 7,100 lb. bronze sculpture closely associated with Wall Street. The guide starts his tour saying what has become a worn out cliché. “Welcome to Wall Street; this is the heart of American capitalism.”    

But is Wall Street really the heart of capitalism? 

If we understand capitalism as a social system of individual rights, a political system of laissez-faire, and a legal system of objective laws, all applied to the economy with the result being a free market, is Wall Street really capitalist?  

The laws that govern the securities industry start with the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, the Investment Company Act of 1940, The Investment Advisors Act of 1940, the Securities Investor Protection Act of 1970, the Insider Trading Sanctions Act of 1984, the Insider Trading and Securities Fraud Enforcement Act of 1988, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Of course all of these acts weren’t enough to prevent the crash of 2008, so we now have the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012. That seems like a whole lot of regulating for something that’s supposedly a capitalist marketplace.

Back when lawmakers were pithier in writing legislation, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 ran 371 pages. Dodd-Frank totals 848 pages. This mountain of paper and regulation is anything but laissez-faire. Thousands of government employees are charged with enforcing these byzantine rules. Does this sound like the deregulated, Wild West Wall Street we’re told brought the nation to its knees?

When investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were in danger of failing in September 2008, they applied to become commercial banks; their applications were quickly approved. Even in the boom times, bank charters normally took a couple of years to be approved. Now, it’s impossible. The last de novo charter was approved in the fourth quarter of 2010. While The New York Times made a big deal of the additional regulations the banks would have to endure, these banks were rescued as the FDIC insured their deposits, stemming a possible run. The change also allowed the banking behemoths to borrow from the Fed against a wide array of collateral. No one can call this “survival of the fittest” capitalism.  

Much of the business on Wall Street is bond business. As of a couple years ago, the bond market totaled $32.3 trillion. Just over half this market is corporate, mortgage, and asset-backed bonds. Government, municipal, and agency bonds make up 44 percent of the market. 

The trading of government and mortgage bonds can be considered capitalism, but the instruments traded certainly aren’t the spawn of free markets. 

The 30-year mortgage would not exist without government. Before the Depression, home loans were short-term. Residential mortgage debt tripled during the roaring ‘20s, however, and “much of this financing consisted of a crazy quilt of land contracts, second and third mortgages, high interest rates and loan fees, short terms, balloon payments, and other high risk practices,” explains Marc Weiss in his book The Rise of the Community Builders

Mortgage lenders would often lend only 50 percent of a home’s cost and often for only three years. But from the National Housing Act of 1934 emerged the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), with the intent being to regulate the rate of interest and the terms of mortgages that it insured, or in the words from the FHA’s first annual report, “to bring the home financing system of the country out of a chaotic situation.” 

The FHA standardized housing and financing through its Underwriting Manual, which required homes to be built and financed by the book. The FHA initially insured mortgages for 20 years at 80 percent of cost. This was eventually increased to 30-year, fully amortizing terms and 97 percent loan-to-cost. 

The FHA believed its appraisal process would expose inflated values and risky properties. Of course, the agency would claim not to dictate development practices. “The Administration does not propose to regulate subdividing throughout the country,” the FHA’s 1935 handbook Subdivision Development claimed, “nor to set up stereotype patterns of land development.” However, the handbook’s very next sentence states, “It does, however, insist upon the observance of rational principles of development in those areas in which insured mortgages are desired.” 

James Moffett, who headed the FHA in 1935, said his agency, by guaranteeing mortgages, “could also control the population trend, the neighborhood standard, and material and everything else through the President.”

After World War II another mortgage guarantee program was born so war veterans could more easily obtain credit. The U.S. Department of Veterans Administration (VA) loan program started modestly, guaranteeing only 50 percent of a loan up to $2,000 for 20 years. Today veterans can borrow up to 102.15 percent of a home’s sales price.

Fannie Mae was created by the government in 1938 to provide a secondary market for mortgages. After the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the government established Ginnie Mae to buy FHA loans originated as a result of the Fair Housing Act. In 1970 Congress authorized Fannie Mae to purchase conventional mortgages and chartered Freddie Mac to also purchase mortgages under control of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.

Fannie and Freddie were taken over by the government during the financial crisis, and the FHA is in financial trouble. 

Every modern president has been four-square behind home ownership. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros rolled out the National Homeownership Strategy that championed looser loan standards. 

Ten years later, George W. Bush said, “If you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country. The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country.” 

Ironically, at the height of the housing bubble, government backed fewer than 40 percent of mortgages. Since the crash, as Jesse Eisinger wrote for ProPublica last December, “With little planning and paltry public discussion, the government has almost completely taken over the American home mortgage market.”

“It is creeping nationalization,” says Jim Millstein, an investment banker who worked in the Obama administration's Treasury Department as the chief restructuring officer.

Speaking just weeks ago in Phoenix, the current president laid out five steps to heal the housing market and promote homeownership. The President urged Congress to pass a bill allowing every homeowner to refinance at today’s low interest rates. Second, he said, “Let’s make it easier for qualified buyers to buy homes they can.” Reforming immigration, putting construction workers back to work, and creating adequate rental housing were also part of the President’s pitch.

Defending the 30-year mortgage in The Washington Post, Mike Konczal writes, “It would be nice to imagine that the ‘free market’ will just take care of this issue. But remember that the housing market is created through a huge web of government policy.”      

And if there wasn’t enough government involvement in the housing and mortgage markets already, the Federal Reserve’s third round of quantitative easing (QE3) policy consists of the central bank purchasing $85 billion per month of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. 

Since its founding 100 years ago, the central bank’s manipulation of interest rates has distorted asset values and misdirected capital, working contra where free markets would funnel resources.

Near the end of The Flaw, tour guide Andrew Luan is asked if he feels any responsibility for the financial crisis. He looks away from the camera nervously and contemplates. While he doesn’t answer verbally, the cheerful tour guide’s face becomes etched with guilt.

However, Luan has nothing to be sorry for. People want to direct their anger at Wall Street and blame the crash on investors and traders. But Wall Street is not synonymous with capitalism and markets. It was government intrusion and regulation over many decades that caused the crisis. We know this. And yet the counternarrative persists in the public mind. 

Sadly, rather than get out of the way, increased government interference keeps capitalism from doing its regenerative work. This keeps the crisis fresh in people’s minds, the search for scapegoats heated, while the punk economy lingers.