A subprime lender is one who makes loans to borrowers who do not qualify for loans from mainstream lenders. It's a market that has evolved to permit borrowers with poor credit history and an unstable financial situation the opportunity to get home mortgages. The catch is they pay a higher and typically an adjustable rate mortgage. Encouraged by the housing bubble, easy credit, along with the expectation that housing prices would continue to appreciate, many subprime borrowers took out mortgages they could not afford in the long run, particularly if interest rates rose and housing prices depreciated.
As with most economic problems, we find the hand of government. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, whose provisions were strengthened during the Clinton administration, is a federal law that mandates lenders to offer credit throughout their entire market and discourages them from restricting their credit services to high-income markets, a practice known as redlining. In other words, the Community Reinvestment Act encourages banks and thrifts to make loans to riskier customers.
According to an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Nov. 4, 2007) titled "Black Atlantans often snared by subprime loans," by Carrie Teegardin, a national study of credit scores, not just mortgage loan applicants, found that 52 percent of blacks have credit scores that would classify them as subprime borrowers compared with 16 percent of whites.
Many lenders did make loans to people who had no realistic ability to pay them back. But that doesn't qualify as fraud, although there might have been a bit of exuberance in the repackaging of the mortgages into securities and selling them to investors. Some argue that many borrowers defrauded the banks by misrepresenting their income, the so-called "no doc" loans or "liar's loans."
President Bush's plan to deal with the subprime crisis is to freeze interest rates on adjustable rate mortgages. Freezing interest rates would stop people's mortgage payments from increasing. That is a gross violation of basic contract rights and would appear to be a Fifth Amendment violation. If a contractual agreement is willingly entered into and agreed upon by a borrower and lender, it is binding and if broken by one party or the other, harsh penalties should ensue.
Now here comes government, under the Bush plan, to declare millions of contracts null and void. The long-run effect of the Bush plan is to make lending institutions even more selective in choosing borrowers. Then there's the question: If government can invalidate the terms of one kind of contractual agreement where the borrowers can't pay, what's to say that it won't invalidate other contractual agreements where the borrowers encounter hardship and what will that do to financial markets?
The Bush bailout, as well as Federal Reserve Bank cuts in interest rates, is a wealth transfer from creditworthy people and taxpayers to those who made ill-advised credit decisions, and that includes banks as well as borrowers. According to Temple University professor of economics William Dunkelberg, 96 percent of all mortgages are being paid on time. Thirty percent of American homeowners have no mortgage. Delinquency rates were higher in the 1980s than they are today. Only 2 to 3 percent of all mortgages are in foreclosure. The government bailout helps a few people at a huge cost to the rest of the economy.Government policy got us into the subprime mess, and government's measure to fix the mess is going to create more mess. As such I'm reminded of Marcus Cook Connelly's spiritual play, "Green Pastures," where God laments to the Angel Gabriel, "Every time Ah passes a miracle, Ah has to pass fo' or five mo' to ketch up wid it," adding, "Even bein' God ain't no bed of roses." That's something the president and congressmen should think about and leave the miracle business up to God.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.