Obama Voted 'Present' on Mortgage Reform - WSJ.com
OCTOBER 15, 2008
Obama Voted 'Present' on Mortgage Reform
The only banking 'deregulation' in recent years was that of Fan and Fred.
By PETER J. WALLISON
In each of the first two presidential debates, Barack Obama claimed that "Republican deregulation" is responsible for the financial crisis. Most viewers probably accepted this idea, especially because Republicans generally do favor deregulation.
But one essential fact was missing from the senator's narrative: While there has been significant deregulation in the U.S. economy during the last 30 years, none of it has occurred in the financial sector. Indeed, the only significant legislation with any effect on financial risk-taking was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991, adopted during the first Bush administration in the wake of the collapse of the savings and loans (S&Ls). FDICIA, however, substantially tightened commercial bank and S&L regulations, including prompt corrective action when a bank's capital declines below adequate levels and severe personal fines if management violates laws or regulations.
If Sen. Obama had been asked for an example of "Republican deregulation," he would probably have cited the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (GLBA), which has become a popular target for Democrats searching for something to pin on the GOP. This is puzzling. The bill's key sponsors were indeed Republicans, but the bill was supported by the Clinton administration and signed by President Clinton. The GLBA's "repeal" of a portion of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 is said to have somehow contributed to the current financial meltdown. Nonsense.
Adopted early in the New Deal, the Glass-Steagall Act separated investment and commercial banking. It prohibited commercial banks from underwriting or dealing in securities, and from affiliating with firms that engaged principally in that business. The GLBA repealed only the second of these provisions, allowing banks and securities firms to be affiliated under the same holding company. Thus J.P. Morgan Chase was able to acquire Bear Stearns, and Bank of America could acquire Merrill Lynch. Nevertheless, banks themselves were and still are prohibited from underwriting or dealing in securities.
Allowing banks and securities firms to affiliate under the same holding company has had no effect on the current financial crisis. None of the investment banks that have gotten into trouble -- Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Goldman or Morgan Stanley -- were affiliated with commercial banks. And none of the banks that have major securities affiliates -- Citibank, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan Chase, to name a few -- are among the banks that have thus far encountered serious financial problems. Indeed, the ability of these banks to diversify into nonbanking activities has been a source of their strength.
Most important, the banks that have succumbed to financial problems -- Wachovia, Washington Mutual and IndyMac, among others -- got into trouble by investing in bad mortgages or mortgage-backed securities, not because of the securities activities of an affiliated securities firm. Federal Reserve regulations significantly restrict transactions between banks and their affiliates.
If Sen. Obama were truly looking for a kind of deregulation that might be responsible for the current financial crisis, he need only look back to 1998, when the Clinton administration ruled that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could satisfy their affordable housing obligations by purchasing subprime mortgages. This ultimately made it possible for Fannie and Freddie to add a trillion dollars in junk loans to their balance sheets. This led to their own collapse, and to the development of a market in these mortgages that is the source of the financial crisis we are wrestling with today.
Finally, on the matter of deregulation and the financial crisis, Sen. Obama should consider his own complicity in the failure of Congress to adopt legislation that might have prevented the subprime meltdown.
In the summer of 2005, a bill emerged from the Senate Banking Committee that considerably tightened regulations on Fannie and Freddie, including controls over their capital and their ability to hold portfolios of mortgages or mortgage-backed securities. All the Republicans voted for the bill in committee; all the Democrats voted against it. To get the bill to a vote in the Senate, a few Democratic votes were necessary to limit debate. This was a time for the leadership Sen. Obama says he can offer, but neither he nor any other Democrat stepped forward.
Instead, by his own account, Mr. Obama wrote a letter to the Treasury Secretary, allegedly putting himself on record that subprime loans were dangerous and had to be dealt with. This is revealing; if true, it indicates Sen. Obama knew there was a problem with subprime lending -- but was unwilling to confront his own party by pressing for legislation to control it. As a demonstration of character and leadership capacity, it bears a strong resemblance to something else in Sen. Obama's past: voting present.
Mr. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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