Getting Out of the Credit Mess

The last thing we need is policy that encourages or incurs more debt.


The federal government has announced a series of actions in the past few weeks ostensibly designed to make consumer credit more available and invigorate the economy. Obviously, the country is in recession and the recession is likely to get deeper. But will these actions reduce the depth and duration of the recession? Or, in the long run, will they make matters even worse?

[Commentary] Chad Crowe

Last month the Federal Reserve and the Treasury announced that the government would buy $500 billion in mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They also announced they would lend $200 billion against securities backed by car loans, student loans, credit-card debt, and small business loans. The purpose of both moves is to create lending capacity across key elements of the consumer sector.

Most recently, the government announced that it would subsidize new home mortgages by one percentage point, effectively lowering monthly payments on a 30-year loan by about 10%. The stated reason was to help the housing market, which is crucial to an economic recovery.

With each announcement, the Fed and Treasury were careful to point out they might take additional action in support of these sectors and others as well. And it is a virtual certainty the government will cobble together some program to reduce foreclosures to keep people in their homes. I'm sure that, as other industries or sectors come under pressure, there will be new programs to help. The automobile industry will not be the last to come to Washington.

To begin to understand today's problem, we have to have a sense of how we got there. Between 1994 and second quarter 2008, the U.S, housing stock more than doubled in value from $7.6 trillion to $19.4 trillion. Almost three quarters of that increase was due to a speculative bubble, the root cause of which was government policies designed to increase home ownership, largely among people who would be considered nonprime borrowers -- i.e., people without sufficient documented income or employment history and little or no savings or credit history.

The intellectual start of this mess was in a flawed Boston Federal Reserve study published in 1992 that purported to show that minorities were treated less well than whites. That study led to increased political pressure on banks to modify their standards with increased emphasis through the Community Reinvestment Act, and aided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations in the Clinton administration that required parity of outcomes in the lending process.

The effect of all of this meddling was compounded by the lax or incompetent supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All in all, the government got into the business of encouraging and then forcing lending institutions to make mortgage loans to people who could not pay them back. What we ended up with is a failure of government, which we have erroneously termed a failure of capitalism.

The standards applied to these subprime loans began to be applied to what heretofore had been prime borrowers who also increasingly became overextended. But, as housing prices increased, owners cashed out their equity and bought cars, appliances and other items, including using the freed-up equity to pay for everyday living purchases. Over the past decade alone, U.S. households have taken on some $8 trillion in debt, bringing the nation's current consumer debt load to $14 trillion.

This cynical and unsustainable cycle was abetted by mortgage originators who had little interest in making sure loans were good quality, investment banks that securitized and packaged these loans, rating agencies who forgot fundamental laws of gravity, and purchasers who bought securities they could not possibly understand. This was fueled by borrowers who committed fraud and bought houses, or speculated in them, when there was no realistic chance they could afford them.

All of this led to a huge overleveraging in the consumer market. The increase in debt burden fueled much of the nation's economic growth over recent decades, aided somewhat by increases in productivity and underpinned by easy money from the Federal Reserve. Since consumers represent about 70% of the nation's GNP, and since leverage cannot increase forever, we were bound to see the bubble burst and eventually enter a substantial recession.

So, are the current credit easing actions likely to be helpful or not? In my judgment, measures to create liquidity are likely to be helpful. Financial institutions that lend money to credit-worthy people for reasonable purposes have experienced a substantial reduction in available funding from which they can make loans. Hence the programs to support the securitization markets are sensible because money used for this purpose will be lent and used for purchases. Programs that deliver a short-term reduction in mortgage rates will, at the margin, help absorb some of the available housing stock, reducing the time it will take for housing to reach market-clearing levels.

However, measures intended to reduce foreclosures, per se, are likely to be ineffective at best and morally flawed at worst. When analysts say that people are being foreclosed because house values have declined they are missing the point. A large number of foreclosures are taking place because people can no longer refinance and take value out. They could not afford the houses to begin with and greed or stupidity -- not a falling real-estate market -- have caused their problems. On the other hand, measures to subsidize homeowners facing foreclosures because they have lost their jobs can be helpful.

In the longer term, our nation must delever -- either by reducing the amounts of borrowing or by increasing consumer earning power through economic growth. Relying on growth alone implies a growth rate higher than we have ever experienced in our nation's history. Nonetheless, our public policy must encourage economic growth by lowering tax rates for corporations and individuals while at the same time avoiding what would be growth killers, including "card check" legislation and trade restrictions. Public policy should support higher savings rates, and avoid encouraging increased consumer spending funded by further debt, which may be helpful in the short term but catastrophic in the longer term.

It is not only consumers that must delever. Governments must as well. State and local governments across the nation have incurred direct and indirect debt or obligations in the tens of trillions of dollars -- obligations that cannot be met under any set of reasonable circumstances without an explosion in growth and tax revenues. In fact, we continue to incur debt for politically palatable ideas, like rebate checks, which have very little stimulative power but increase the depth of the hole we're in.

To solve this problem for ourselves and future generations, we must get back to our historic reliance on personal responsibility and market forces, and get government out of economic management. It doesn't do a good job, as the current economic mess amply proves.

Mr. Golub is a former chairman and CEO of American Express.