Another View: Government's actions propel financial crises

Scott S. Powell
Des Moines Register
September 30, 2013
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Just a generation after capitalism triumphed with the collapse of the Soviet socialist system, a recent Pew poll reports that 49 percent of Americans 18 to 29 years old have a positive view of socialism, while only 46 percent have positive views of capitalism.

The ambivalence toward capitalism is due in part to the influence of the information and entertainment class — the mainstream media, Hollywood and the universities — whose biases are entrenched and well-known. Their portrayal of the 2008 financial collapse and the shambles of its aftermath — as being caused by greedy Wall Street bankers who got rich by foisting deceptive loan underwriting practices on ordinary people — reinforces this narrative.

Now, five years after the fateful bankruptcies of Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, another side of the story on the financial crisis is crystallizing in the public mind. Jay Richards’ newly released book, “Infiltrated,” presents facts that show that it wasn’t the free market that caused the crisis. Rather, it was Washington’s policies to expand homeownership to lower-income groups, and it was crony capitalist financiers who exploited the new rules and goals set by government that precipitated the collapse and ensuing Great Recession that is still with us today.

Dumbing down mortgage lending standards started in the 1980s with no borrower income documentation, “liar loans” pioneered at Golden West Financial founded by progressives Herb and Marion Sandler. The Sandlers would later donate millions from their lavish mortgage-lending profits to ACORN, presumably to provide political cover while staying on the gravy train of exploiting subprime borrowers.

In 2006, just before the housing market turned, the Sandlers sold Golden West and its toxic subprime portfolio to Wachovia Bank. As it turned out, this compounded Wachovia’s already impaired state and set the stage for rescue and bailout by Wells Fargo two years later.

But it was the federal government that set the grand stage for economic collapse by legitimizing subprime lending. Three years before the meltdown of 2008, Washington intervention and political pressure on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac resulted in their raising their subprime loan holding targets to over 50 percent of their portfolios.

In the aftermath of the 2008 collapse there was a rush “to do something,” but the fact that no one went to jail was revealing. The legislative fixes were instead focused on the “transformation” that Barack Obama had promised days before he was elected in 2008.

With the White House and both chambers of Congress under Democratic control in 2009 and 2010, the stars were lined up. So rather than fixing what went wrong with actual reform bills that would reduce cronyism and harness the benefits of competition, Washington power brokers proceeded to force through passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, also known as Dodd-Frank.

These new laws have moved the nation in a direction quite opposite to its heritage, saddling the private sector with new pervasive and granular regulations — creating heightened uncertainty, diminished lending and capital formation and increased part-time over full-time employment. The public sector, on the other hand, received a windfall from the new laws with legions of new unaccountable bureaucrats, lobbyists, carve-outs and side-deals.

Meanwhile, a new financial bubble has been creeping up, with President Obama recently calling the high cost of college tuition and student loan debt “a crisis.” What most probably don’t see is that Washington’s efforts to socialize education have done to tuition costs what they did to housing prices.

Washington’s ever-expanding government-guaranteed student loan programs have effectively undermined market pricing and enabled colleges to ignore costs and raise tuition prices well above the (also government-induced) inflation rate.

Now the problem is that under the Obama economy, students can’t find jobs that will allow them to repay their loans after graduating. Forbes recently reported that “more than half of student loans are in deferral or delinquent.” Increasing defaults in the $1 trillion of student loans may well trigger the next financial crisis and bailout.

The other side of the story is vital because it explains how government intervention to promote and socialize access to housing and education has created two debt bubbles.

The first ended in disaster — massive bailouts, trillion-dollar deficits, and regulatory overreach that has piled sand into the gears of the private economy. We don’t yet know the magnitude of harm the second will bring.

But coming so soon after the 2008 collapse from which the nation has yet to recover, this crisis may well arouse voters to connect the dots and make the 2014 midterm elections a referendum for smaller government and less cronyism and also repeal and replacement of bad laws with effective common sense reform.